Rim Country voters at a legislative debate on Saturday finally got a chance to grill lawmakers on why Payson has gotten so little help with its effort to build a university campus through a public/private partnership that could spawn an urgently needed state college system.
Payson has struggled mostly on its own to line up funding, bring in spinoff businesses like a research park and a convention motel and strike a deal with Arizona State University to build at 6,000-student campus. The proposal would offer ASU campus facilities at such a low cost that it could slash soaring tuition rates.
The plan offers the model for the development of a low-cost college system the state urgently needs to prepare for a projected doubling of undergraduate degrees in the next 20 years.
However, state lawmakers have largely ignored the plan. When Payson did manage to get through a bill to allow ASU to join with Payson to form a separate legal entity to build the campus and related facilities, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto dealt an almost-fatal blow to the project.
During Saturday’s lone Payson debate involving the six candidates for one Senate and two House seats in Legislative District 6, all the candidates supported the Payson effort — but few offered any specifics.
Asked for his position on an ASU campus in Payson, Heber Rep. Chester Crandell, a Republican now running for the LD6 Senate seat, mostly veered off into a puzzling discussion of community college funding.
“I think it’s a great partnership,” he said. “I think it needs to continue to go forth. You have a community college that’s looked at as the ugly stepsister. Proposition 204 (which would make permanent a one-cent sales tax earmarked mostly for education) doesn’t even mention community colleges until the second year. It’s not a perception of the state Legislature. We’re talking about funding. I went to a meeting in Flagstaff just the other day and community colleges reported that 50 percent of their enrollment is a transfer degree. If that’s two-plus-two partnership — how much are they getting from the community college to get those students ready to go to the next enrollment? You look at the high school’s dual enrollment (where high school students take community college classes for credit) — why doesn’t it go all the way up instead of the community colleges being treated as the ugly stepsister.”
Addressing the same question, Flagstaff Rep. Tom Chabin running against Crandell for the District 6 Senate seat said, “When we have a debate at the Legislature and if the issue were a partnership between the Legislature and the cities of Payson and Star Valley and its private nonprofit entity (the Rim Country Educational Foundation SLE) — we just heard on the other side the debate you’d hear. It had nothing to do with building a campus here. What are the tools you need? You need a Legislature that is a partner. If ASU is going to put its name on the campus here — there should be skin in the game. There should be a (state) appropriation and an authority to the Board of Regents to negotiate in good faith. They can’t be swinging at pitches they can’t hit. But arguing about shuffling the funding that exists is the mantra, instead of focusing on what you need to build a campus.”
Rep. Brenda Barton, running for one of the two House seats in District 6, said, “Part of what we’re looking at is this is a public/private partnership. That has different criteria and different types of negotiations that have to be maneuvered through. The SLE that was vetoed by the governor — we were very much involved in that. We supported it very wholeheartedly. But we have no control over the governor — whether she says yes or no.”
Later, the ASU campus came up again when the candidates tackled the question: “Why do you think the government creates jobs?”
Businessman, software engineer and Tea Party activist Bob Thorpe disagreed. “Government does not create jobs or create wealth. They eat up wealth that our citizens create. I had a conversation with the head of the Arizona Cattleman’s Association. He said the best thing that government can do is to leave us alone. For most business owners, they want freedom from government. What can government do? They can ensure that regulations they pass do not kill jobs. They can free up the private sector to do the things that the private sector needs to do. If we have an environment of job creators, with low taxes, then other companies are going to move here from other states.”
Chabin pounced on that answer. “You want an ASU campus here? That will create jobs. That’s a public/private partnership. That requires government action. And one of the five people most responsible for bringing Intel to Chandler with a $12 billion investment and 10,000 jobs is sitting right here. Doug Ballard did that.”
After the debate, Crandell and Barton took issue with a Roundup editorial that criticized their alleged lack of involvement in the effort to enact a change in the law that would have allowed ASU to join with Payson in forming the Rim Country Educational Alliance Separate Legal Entity (SLE).
The bill made it through the overwhelmingly Republican House and Senate with bipartisan support, but Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed it unexpectedly. Reportedly, lobbyists for Arizona Public Service urged the veto on the grounds that universities could use the SLE structure to set up power generation programs, according to sources close to the campus project. Those same sources had indicated that neither Crandell nor Barton were deeply involved in the effort to pass the legislation or ensure the governor’s signature.
However, Crandell and Barton after the debate said they had worked hard on the legislation to change the SLE rules.
However, they said Gov. Brewer rarely consults with rank-and-file lawmakers. Crandell noted that he’d only met with the governor once, during a brief meet-and-greet with freshman House members. Throughout the session, Brewer often clashed with the Republican legislative leadership on budget priorities and other issues.
“We don’t have any control over what the governor does,” said Crandell. He noted that the governor vetoed the SLE legislation without ever consulting with the lawmakers who had backed it.