Education Debate Defines State House Contest

Candidates in brand new state legislative district disagree about education cuts, effort to control federal lands, host of issues

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The wide-open contest to fill two seats in the totally redrawn State House Legislative District Six offers starkly contrasting prescriptions for reviving the state’s economy.

Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) and Republican Flagstaff Tea Party head Bob Thorpe say that the deep cuts in state spending together with big cuts in business tax rates have balanced the state budget and revived the once-sickly state economy. They want more of the same – coupled with an all-out effort to wrest control of some 45 million acres of land away from the federal government to encourage logging and cattle grazing.

Teacher and Sedona businesswoman Angela LeFevre and retired Chandler Economic Development Direct Doug Ballard, Democrats, say the Legislature’s deep cuts in education have crippled the state’s schools and the seeming declaration of war on the federal government will only hamper the state’s $16-billion tourist industry, on which rural areas now depend.

Those differences came into sharp focus during a recent debate in Flagstaff, the only face-to-face confrontation involving all four of the House candidates in the campaign.

The two sides offered contrasting visions as to how to restore the state’s economy, which dropped more than almost any other state in the face of the recession. Sales tax-dependent state revenues dropped by about a third as Arizona racked up more foreclosures and bigger drops in home values than virtually any other state.

The Legislature cut some $2 billion from public education – the deepest proportionate cuts in the nation. At the same time it also cut business taxes by about $600 million.

However, this year the state has recorded a growth rate of about 5 percent – among the top 10 states. The state has a projected $450 million surplus and another $450 million in a rainy day fund. The Legislature has not restored any significant share of school funding, with the exception of about $50 million to help schools ensure third-graders can score well on standardized reading tests. A new state law requires districts to hold back poor readers.

Education remains a fundamental divide for the two slates of candidates running in District 6, which includes all of Northern Gila County, the Verde Valley, Sedona, Flagstaff and Heber. The district leans Republican, but Democrats have at least a fighting chance – especially if they’re from Flagstaff, which has about 40 percent of the voters.

Ballard, who during his 31 years with Chandler negotiated deals that brought Intel and other manufacturing firms to town, said that major corporations pay more attention to the quality of life and the quality of schools than to corporate tax breaks in locating major new facilities.

“I know that it takes a good environment to have a healthy economy. If you think of any vibrant economy anywhere else in the world, what you’ll find is a strong educational system. Unfortunately, that’s not what we have in Arizona. Funding for education has been spiraling downward. We spend more money than almost any other state on prisons and less money than almost any other state on schools. We need to change that.”

LeFevre, an economist and former top executive for Qwest and now a teacher and advocate for children, said, “This great state of ours is headed in the wrong direction. We need to work together to get back on track. I will focus on jobs and education. It’s not about taking over federal lands, but working with the federal government to create jobs – jobs that pay well… Education goes hand in hand with jobs. We need an educated workforce, which is critical for bringing in new industry. We’ve lost 7,000 teacher jobs – we need to train our teachers, not get rid of them. We need to train our students in core subjects. We need to invest in our schools.”

Barton, whose ancestors founded Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River and who got into politics as part of the Sagebrush Rebellion that challenged federal control of western lands, said that when she took office two years ago “we faced a $3.2 billion deficit and a structurally unsound budget. Today we have a $450 rainy day fund and a $427-million surplus. Today our economy has risen to among the top 10 in the nation. That’s a monumental achievement. I have focused on building a strong, vibrant economy. My jobs record speaks for itself.”

Thorpe, who has worked in software sales and development and accounting as well as teaching software and robotics and trained as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic, used his opening remarks to point out that his dedication to the community can be seen in an incident in which he came upon an accident scene as he left a campaign event and “was able to help save an injured person’s life. Giving back to the community is really important.”

He defended the deep cuts in education in the past several years. “Education is extremely important, but understand that the Legislature was handed a monumental task. But one premise that I don’t understand is that dollars and educational spending aren’t side by side. In the past 20 years, we’ve doubled our spending – but our test scores have remained essentially flat. We can’t just be throwing dollars at the problem.”

Barton concurred – and highlighted money added back to education budgets this year, although it amounted to only a fraction of the money cut in the previous three years. “You have to recall the economic conditions that we were living through. Many of our friends lost half of their retirement and investment accounts. But we did put $89 million into education – $49 million was for a K-2 reading program and $15 million for school capital and $21 million for university parity (between Arizona State University and the University of Arizona) and we included funds for the University of Arizona medical school. We understand education is important. But you can only spend what you have. Within the budget that we had to work with, we were able to maintain our educational system.”

But both Ballard and LeFevre replied that while cutting education spending the Legislature also boosted spending on privately run prisons by $50 million and cut business taxes by $600 million.

“I think you judge a civilization by its education, that’s why I’m running,” said LeFevre. “We’re starving our public schools and I’m worried. We need to stop this extremism and focus on what the schools need. We need a better tax system. We say we don’t have enough money for schools, but we give business all these exceptions. Our children are 40 to a classroom. What are they cutting? They’re cutting music and art. What are we doing to our children? This is not the way we’re going to compete.”

Ballard said, “We need to look at our priorities. We need to look at a comprehensive overhaul of our taxing structure. Independent study after independent study has shown that Arizona’s tax system is badly outdated. We have loopholes that date back to 1912. We have to get serious and prioritize education.”

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Bob Thorpe

Bob Thorpe

Republican, Flagstaff

• Constitutional author.

• Previously a small business owner,

accountant, software sales and

design, volunteer firefighter,

construction and medical industries.

• Education: California State

University system, degree in

ergonomics.

• Family: Married 29 years, with two

children, two black labs from animal

shelter, two desert tortoises.

• Arizona resident for 10 years.

• Political involvement: Head of

Flagstaff Tea Party.

• Top Issues: Asserting state control of federal land.

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Brenda Barton

Brenda Barton

Republican, Payson

• Arizona House member

• Previously a political activist, real

estate agent in City of Safford.

• Family: Two grown children and six

grandchildren. Fifth generation

Arizonan from pioneering family that

established Lee’s Ferry.

• Political involvement: Veteran of the

Sagebrush Rebellion, People for the

West.

• Top issues: Balancing the state

budget, cutting taxes to stimulate

business, gaining state control of

federal lands.

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Angela LeFevre

Angela LeFevre

Democrat, Sedona

• Retired, child advocate

• Previously an executive for Qwest,

teacher, child advocate in court,

supervisor Yavapai County Junior

Probation Program

• Education: London School of

Economics, degree in economics.

• Family: Two grown children.

• Political involvement: Worked

against Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard

David Duke’s bid for Louisiana

governor; first run for office; Catholic

Charities; Keep Sedona Beautiful.

• Born in England, moved to Arizona

within last 10 years.

• Top Issues: Increasing school funding, overhauling state tax

code, promoting job growth.

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Doug Ballard

Doug Ballard

Democrat, Flagstaff

• Retired from 31 years with City of

Chandler.

• Previously director of Planning and

Development for Chandler;

negotiated deals for relocation with

Intel and Motorola. Planner for Fort

Pierce, Fla., Portsmouth, Ohio.

• Education: Masters in Planning Ohio

State University, BA The Ohio

Wesleyan University, Delaware

(urban studies and government).

• Political involvement: Rotary,

St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church

Building Committee.

• Family: Married 33 years, two sons.

• Arizona resident for 33 years.

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