Two veteran lawmakers are seeking the State Senate seat representing northern Gila County, offering voters a stark choice – with education and a proposed takeover of state land at the heart of the debate.
Flagstaff Democrat state Rep. Tom Chabin has focused his campaign on a plea for boosting per-student spending on schools from dead last to at least middle of the pack, saying the state’s future economic growth depends on adequate schools.
Heber Republican state Rep. Chester Crandell insists that the deep cuts in schools the Legislature approved to balance the state budget in the past three years haven’t done any damage as measured by test scores. He says the state’s future depends on claiming control of 45 million acres of federal lands to revive the logging and ranching industries and raise more money to support schools.
The two candidates clashed recently in an Arizona Clean Elections Debate in Flagstaff – they have both accepted public funding and agreed to limit spending to about $21,000 each.
They both want to move up from House seats into the Senate for the newly redrawn Legislative District 6. The district includes Flagstaff, Sedona, the Verde Valley, Northern Gila County and Heber. Republicans have an edge among registered voters, but the spread is close enough that Democrats have a chance.
The two candidates disagreed on almost every issue that came up during the debate, including whether the state should volunteer for a nuclear waste reprocessing facility, whether to approve Proposition 120’s mandate to seize control of federal lands and Proposition 204’s one-cent sales tax to support schools, universities and road building.
Chabin, a former Tuba City School Board member and Coconino County Supervisor first appointed to the Legislature five years ago, said, “When I arrived at the Legislature five years ago, it was truly a different place. Things have changed. I know my place. I am a lesser representative. The moderates of the Republican Party are gone. We are not open at the Legislature to bipartisanship. You’ve read the headlines. The issue before us is the legislature itself and whether or not through you and your vote the Legislature will quit making headlines that embarrass us and reach for moderation.”
Crandall, who grew up in Heber and raised his nine children there as he worked in vocational education and other fields before his election two years ago, said “In the past two years we have balanced the budget, put money into K-12 education, and lessened regulatory burdens facing business. I am proud to be on the side that has taken on the tough task of balancing our budget and getting into a surplus to build our economy.”
Arizona faced one of the biggest proportionate deficits in the nation, due to the state’s heavy reliance on the volatile sales tax and the collapse of the state’s superheated housing sector. Lawmakers cut more than $2 billion from K-12 schools, whittling per-student state spending back to 2006 levels, the deepest cuts in the nation according to independent estimates. Lawmakers also approved some $600 million in tax cuts for business. However, in the past year the Legislature amassed a nearly $500 million surplus in addition to stashing $450 million in a “rainy day” fund. Arizona had among the biggest job losses in the country at the start of recession, but has ranked once more among the top 10 states for growth in the past year.
Chabin lamented a state that ranks first in both increases in prison spending and cuts to education. He said despite his qualms about relying on sales taxes, he favors Proposition 204 because the Legislature has abandoned K-12 schools.
“As much as I don’t like 204, you are compelled to vote for it because this Legislature passed $600 million in cuts for corporations right in the middle of our crisis and invested $50 million in a brand new private prison that costs more to operate than our state prisons. We’re so ideologically driven that we’re willing to waste money.”
However, Crandell argued that the Legislature had no choice but to cut education, which accounts for a huge chunk of state spending. He said the cuts had to be deep because Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano had inflated state spending with programs like all-day kindergarten.
“It’s a matter of priority. Your school district has the ability to prioritize where they put the money and what they want to do. The Democratic executive branch and other groups got together to fund an inflated budget. Look at the test scores and the amount of money being spent in the classroom today – they’re exactly the same. They haven’t changed. What is the local board doing? We do need to invest in education. But if I’m investing my money, I should be getting a return. You use test scores and we’re not getting a return.”
The Payson School District has laid off teachers each year for the past three years, reduced teacher pay and benefits and closed Frontier Elementary School to save money, resulting in big increases in elementary school class sizes in the two remaining schools. The district now relies on private donations to provide most of the funding for extra-curricular programs like sports, music and drama. Overall, test scores in reading, language and math have fallen – sometimes steeply. Some schools have either held their own or improved slightly in math and science.
The two contending candidates also clashed on a measure Crandell co-authored in the Legislature, which placed Proposition 120 on the ballot. The proposition would revoke Arizona’s agreement to accept federal ownership of most of the land in the state, a total of some 45 million acres including reservation land held in trust. The federal government acquired the land through treaty and purchase after the Mexican American War. When Arizona entered the union in 1912, the state agreed to renounce all claim to federal land. Advocates say the state agreed to those terms on the understanding the federal government would sell off much of the land it retained to pay down the then tiny national debt. However, the federal government retained ownership of almost all of that that land, including about 97 percent of the land in Gila County.
Crandell made sometimes-contradictory claims concerning the possible impact of Proposition 120. Generally, he said the measure doesn’t require the state to sell the land once it gained control. He said the state could revive logging and ranching and make money running tourist attractions like the Grand Canyon. At other points, he said the measure would simply give the state a “seat at the table” to influence federal policies.
“The proposition doesn’t say anything about transferring anything back, it says we have to manage what’s there.” He said that recent massive wildfires have revealed the inadequacies of federal policies. “We have to thin the forests to get them back to where they used to be, but we always hit roadblocks with the federal government. We should have sovereign control to manage and receive the benefit. The Grand Canyon generates $27 million annually to bolster the economy of Arizona.”
Chabin took issue, saying that even if the proposition survives the scrutiny of the federal courts, it would upend the state’s $16 billion tourist economy while costing the state huge sums to manage the lands it acquires and fight forest fires. “Proposition 120 undoes our Constitution and the conditions of statehood. It’s like trying to unstitch the Arizona star from the American flag,” said Chabin.
The pair clashed on just about every topic raised at the debate, including a legislative resolution telling the federal department of energy the state would be interested in becoming the location for an operation to recycle nuclear waste.
Chabin said that when the bill came before the House, he proposed an amendment that would have given individual counties a chance to opt out.
“If there’s a community in the state that wants a nuclear waste dump (reprocessing) site and is prepared for it, let them step forward. But unfortunately, that’s not what Rep. Crandell told the United States government. They told them, we want it here. What I was hoping was that we’d have a little bipartisanship, give me the deference so I could talk to Coconino and Yavapai and Gila counties – so they could say, ‘if you want it in Arizona, don’t do it here.’ I said, this is premature. When there is a community that wants it, then we can support it.”
Crandell retorted that the passage of Proposition 120 would actually ensure that the federal government couldn’t force a nuclear facility on the state. “Proposition 120 doesn’t say we’re going to take back any land, it doesn’t say we’re going to sell any land – the bill says we’re going to explore and take a look at it. If the people want to increase spending on education, if we don’t find some way to generate revenue then it’s going to come out of each of your pockets. This is simply exploratory. We have the responsibility to look at every avenue for generating revenue so we don’t have to dip into your pocket for every program that seems to want to be funded by the opposition sitting here at this table.”