State Senate Poses Sharp Contrast

Chester Crandell and Tom Chabin

Chester Crandell and Tom Chabin

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The primaries for the state senate seat representing Rim Country qualified as boring – with one candidate from each party in the running.

But the general election campaign will produce one of the most striking contrasts in the state – in a redrawn district where either candidate could win.

The race in the redrawn state legislative District 6 pits Republican State House Rep. Chester Crandell (R-Heber) against State Sen. Tom Chabin (D-Flagstaff).

Chabin has proposed an ambitious plan to close enough loopholes in the state income tax and sales tax to generate the billions of dollars needed to boost state spending on education from among the lowest in the nation to the middle of the pack.

Meanwhile, Crandell has proposed a radical change in state school financing to pay districts based on student outcomes rather than attendance. For instance, under his proposal districts wouldn’t get paid for students who failed to graduate or couldn’t pass tests of basic skills.

However, Crandell has gotten the most attention for sponsoring a bill that will put on the ballot a proposal to essentially revoke the terms under which Arizona entered the union in 1912, so that the state legislature could essentially assume control of federal lands.

Both lawmakers face the challenge of running in a district that was dramatically changed this year by the Independent Redistricting Commission, established by the voters to take the politically explosive task of drawing new district lines to reflect population changes documented by the once-a-decade census.

The redrawn district splits Gila County in two. The heavily Republican northern end of the county ended up in District 6, which includes Sedona, the Verde Valley, Flagstaff and Heber. The population of the redrawn district is 16 percent Hispanic, 74 percent white and 6 percent Native American. The voter registration breaks down to 38 percent Republican, 29 percent Democratic and 33 percent Independent.

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Chester Crandell Republican candidate for State Senate District 6

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Tom Chabin

Despite the Republican edge, the district remains much more of a tossup than Rim Country’s old district, dominated by a vast sprawl of rural counties to the east. Now, Flagstaff has become the demographic epicenter of the district, which should help Chabin balance out Crandell’s edge in registration.

Chabin’s long record of public service includes a stint on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors and the Tuba City School Board.

Crandell has just completed his first term in the Legislature and previously worked in a regional school district that funneled funding to local districts for vocational programs.

Chabin has stressed providing more money for education in several appearances in Payson and has decried some $2 billion in education cuts made by the Legislature in the past several years.

Chabin said he would push for the systematic overhaul of the state tax code to remove the various exemptions enacted by the legislature over the years. He cited an independent study that estimated that repealing all existing sales tax exemptions would effectively double state revenues.

Chabin said he would use that money to lower tax rates overall, creating a broader tax code not riddled with exceptions.

Chabin said he would devote $2-$3 billion of that added revenue to boosting per-student spending in the state from 48th to 24th. That would increase total per-student spending from state, federal and local sources in Arizona by about a third.

In addition, he would cap university tuition at about $1,500 per semester – compared to about $5,000 at present.

Finally, he would cap community college tuition at about $500 annually, between one half and one third of current levels at most colleges.

“Republicans are good and decent people,” said the longtime Democrat. “They’re not crazy. But they’re trapped in ideology. Their ideology is that if you cut taxes, you’re gonna generate more taxes. Ask students whose tuition has doubled if that theory works. Ask teachers who have so many kids in their classroom they can’t teach if that theory works. Ask the Town of Payson that has lost a million dollars in state-shared revenue if that system works. Ask your school board that had to close a school and increase class sizes if that system works.”

Crandell, on the other hand, favors a dramatic change in the way the state funds school districts.

Currently, he says, the state pays school districts based on “seat time.” The state provides about $3,400 for each student that attends school a certain number of days, with deductions from the state payment if the attendance rate dips.

As a result, he said, schools get the same amount of money whether students learn anything or not – so they don’t have a strong financial incentive to improve. In fact, the system discourages schools from advancing students as rapidly as possible. So instead of moving the best students along quickly, so that they could finish high school and start college a year or two sooner – schools get more money if they keep students plodding along.

“We’re not allowing students to progress at their own rates. We can turn that around if we pay on outcomes,” said Crandell in one appearance in Payson.

Critics have objected that such an out-comes based financing system could well punish students with many low-income, minority or non-English-speaking student.

Crandell has also gained attention for his push for the state to renounce the terms of its 1912 statehood in order to effectively assume control of federal lands in the state. He sponsored a law that gained enough votes in the Legislature to make it onto the November ballot.

He argues that the state must take over federal lands in order to better manage the fire-prone forests, citing the dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfires in the past decade as the result of a more than 10-fold increase in tree densities on millions of acres of forested land in the past century. He also maintains that the state could then sell off federal land to provide development and economic opportunity for rural communities like Payson.

Crandell’s push for a modern version of nullification of federal laws through the assertion of state’s rights harks back to the Civil War and more recently to the Sage Brush Rebellion, a movement by a group in western states to challenge federal control of vast tracks to land. The federal government, for instance, controls about 95 percent of the land in Gila County.

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