The six candidates vying for three seats in the Legislature representing Rim Country clashed on a range of issues centered on whether government can help create jobs and bolster schools — or should just get out of the way.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans hosted the event, after cajoling the three Republican and three Democratic candidates in Legislative District 6 to make their first local joint appearance of the campaign, now in its final two weeks with perhaps a quarter of the votes already cast by mail.
The Senate contest pits Flagstaff House Rep. Tom Chabin and Heber Rep. Chester Crandell.
Crandell stressed the gains to the state economy from the Legislature’s budget cuts that eliminated a huge projected deficit and replaced it with nearly $1 billion in surpluses this year. He has put much of his focus in the campaign on crusading for the bill he authored that put Proposition 120 on the ballot, in hopes of revoking the terms of statehood so the Legislature could seize control of federal lands.
Chabin stressed education, saying the state should close loopholes and sales tax exemptions to boost state per-student spending from dead last to somewhere near the middle of the pack nationally. He also said the state should invest directly in Payson’s so-far lonely effort to put together financing and land to build a university campus here, together with spinoff businesses.
The Senate contest has become one of half a dozen state races in which Democrats hope to gain a seat and so control half the seats in the state Senate. The prospect has drawn a $300,000 flood of out-of-district money on both sides, none of it directly controlled by the candidates. Chabin and Crandell each accepted public funding, which means they can’t spend more than $21,000 each.
Four candidates are also contending for the two state House seats up for grabs in the completely redrawn Legislative District 6. The district stretches from Heber, through Northern Gila County, into the Verde Valley, on up to Flagstaff and on to the Grand Canyon. Republicans have a modest registration advantage, but Independents will decide the race, especially in Flagstaff with 40 percent of the district’s population.
On the Democratic side, former Qwest manager, teacher and child advocate Angela LeFevre and former Chandler planning director Doug Ballard both stressed restoration of education funding as the key to reviving the state’s economy.
LeFevre said, “I’ve been a teacher, I know how hard it is. I’ve been a job creator, I know we have to balance our budget. But you know how we’re balancing the budget? On your shoulders — on your grandchildren’s shoulders. We have to invest in education. We’ve lost 7,000 teachers. We have 35 kids per class.”
Ballard stressed his experience in Chandler negotiating with Intel to build a $12 billion computer chip manufacturing plant there, which brought 10,000 jobs to the state. He said Payson’s effort to create a public-private partnership here with perhaps three different universities and other spinoff businesses offers a crucial opportunity to use government to attract new businesses and stimulate the economy.
“Clearly, it’s a partnership and there’s a balance that needs to be struck. We need to concentrate on what we can do to make this state a better place and get away from all of these ideological goose chases,” said Ballard.
On the Republican side, both candidates said the the difficult decisions to cut spending and business taxes have combined to revive the state’s economy.
Rep. Brenda Barton currently represents the region in the Legislature and rented a house in Payson to run for the seat in the redrawn district.
Flagstaff businessman, computer software engineer and Tea Party activist Bob Thorpe struck the most combative stance of the evening. “During this evening you’ll see some differences between us and our opponents. We’re going to tell you the truth — they’re going to use scare tactics. They’ll call us radical. They’ll call us extremists. Why? Because we respect the Constitution. Name-calling is childish. I don’t think it’s appropriate for this kind of debate.”
Previously, Thorpe has advocated nullification of federal regulations, asserting state ownership of federal lands and repeal of the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct election of U.S. Senators instead of state appointment.
Barton has also stressed the effort to take control of federal lands and sharply limit federal authority over the state. However, at the Saturday debate, she stuck mostly to budget themes, saying the state has resumed growth in the past year thanks to the hard choices made by the Legislature.
“We came to office with a $2.5 billion deficit before we could get to a balanced budget. Now we have a $470 million cash reserve and its still growing and a $450- million rainy day fund. I think that the ‘do nothing’ Legislature has really done something. And we have made a difference. We still have some hills to climb. But we won’t go into debt again. The credit cards are full.”
Chabin took issue with that same set of budget decisions.
“Let’s take a look at the budget I voted against,” said Chabin of this year’s budget, which set aside $40 million to support new reading programs in third grade, but didn’t restore any significant percentage of the $2 billion cut from education, the deepest proportional cuts in the nation.
“It wasn’t a restoration of funding,” said Chabin. “It was shifting chairs on the deck of a sinking ship. I wish I had an education budget to vote on. But it was one budget — one budget that put $450 million more into private prisons — that’s $375 per capita — in that, we’re No. 1. The average is $150. I voted against the priorities of that budget — which swept gate fees from the state parks and swept gas taxes so when it snows, ADOT can’t clear the snow and closes the roads.”
Crandell retorted that there’s little relationship between school spending and student achievement. He advocates overhauling the system of school financing to pay schools based on things like graduation rates and student test scores, rather than the number of days a student attends.
“Money is not the answer” to improving schools, said Crandell. “Part of the answer is the convoluted system in the K-12 system and the higher education system. It’s antiquated. It needs to be fixed. It’s not all about the funding. There are a lot of things we can do rather than throw money at a problem that should have been fixed years ago.”
Chabin sharply disagreed. “We can shift money around all we want to, but we have to accept that we’re 50th in the nation in classroom spending.”
Chabin also had a sharp exchange with Thorpe on the issue of university spending. The state’s three public universities have lost hundreds of millions in state support in the past three years and responded by raising tuition sharply — to more than $9,000 per year. A few years ago, tuition stood at about $4,000 annually.
Thorpe blamed federal Pell Grants and other forms of student aid and loans for the rapid rise in tuition at universities nationwide, many of which lost state funding in the recession. “Government needs to be limited. We keep seeing tuition go up. Why does tuition go up? Because the federal government keeps providing money to the students. If the student has more money in their hands, do you think that the college is going to reduce the rates? Big government is driving the problem.”
Chabin retorted, “If you take $300 million (in state funds) out of the university’s budget — the tuition is going to go up. And when you take $2 billion out of public schools, then Payson closes a school and class sizes go up. You can’t blame it on Obama. This is something that the Legislature owns. It is our decision. It isn’t anybody else’s.”