Secretary of State Ken Bennett brought his freshly minted campaign for governor to Payson on Saturday, calling for fresh spending cuts in the precariously balanced state budget and the eventual elimination of the income tax.
The former state senate president faces fierce competition in a crowded Republican field, with polls showing the vast majority of voters still undecided.
He hit staunchly conservative themes before the Gila County Republican Party gathering, drawing applause when he vowed to find a way to take control of federal lands, fight federal immigration reforms and repeal the income tax.
He spent most of the speech detailing the combination of spending cuts, federal grants, and delays in payments to schools the Legislature embraced to get through the recession. But he mostly blamed it all on Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who resigned to take a job with the federal government on the brink of the recession that cut the state’s sales-tax-dependent revenue from about $9.5 billion in 2007 to about $6.5 billion in 2010.
“Most of that goes back to the last Democratic administration,” said Bennett.
Napolitano resigned in 2009, which made Secretary of State Jan Brewer the governor. Republicans had big majorities in the House and the Senate during Napolitano’s term and had supermajorities during the recession.
Bennett appealed to his listeners to sign a petition and make a $5 donation, since he wants to run as a publicly funded candidate.
A graduate of Prescott High School and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bennett attended Yavapai Community College and Arizona State University. Bennett spent years running Bennett Oil, a family fuel distribution business. He served on the Prescott Town Council, including a stint as mayor. He also served on the Arizona State Board of Education. He was elected to the Arizona Senate in 1998 and served two, four-year terms. He served as senate president from 2003 to 2007.
He’s facing a dogfight in the Republican Primary.
State Treasurer Doug Ducey, former chief executive of Cold Stone Creamery, is the financial frontrunner — having already raised $1 million. Other Republican candidates include Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, former GoDaddy executive and political novice Christine Jones, controversial former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and state Sen. Al Melvin.
A recent Rocky Mountain Poll found that a daunting 69 percent of Republican voters say they’re still undecided. That poll showed Jones and Thomas with 8 percent, Smith and Bennett with 6 percent, Ducey with 2 percent and Melvin with 1 percent.
On the Democratic side, former Board of Regents member and political consultant Fred DuVal has a big fund-raising advantage over union negotiator Ron Cavanaugh, but so far they each polled 14 percent — with 70 percent of voters in the Democratic primary undecided.
The Rocky Mountain Poll suggested Bennett might be the strongest candidate against DuVal — at least at this early point. That poll showed in a matchup Bennett polled 26 percent and DuVal 22 percent — with 52 percent undecided. DuVal came out just slightly ahead of both Ducey and Smith.
Bennett’s speech to a supportive crowd, that included Rep. Brenda Barton and several Payson council members, focused mostly on the desperate efforts to balance the state budget in the midst of the recession, which cut state revenues by a third.
He pointed out the Legislature managed to stay afloat with an infusion of some $3 billion from the federal government, $2 billion swept from various state funds (like state parks), $2 billion in borrowing, $1 billion in delayed payments for schools, $1 billion from reserves and other cuts.
He said that unless the Legislature makes additional spending cuts now, the deficit will return in about two years.
“This is what happens when you let a Democrat slip into the governor’s office and spend more money while the revenue is going down,” said Bennett.
In addition, he said the state needs to attract businesses by continuing to cut taxes — including elimination of the income tax.
He didn’t directly address any issues relating to education, the biggest state expenditure. The Legislature cut education spending more deeply than any other state during the recession.
On his campaign website, Bennett says he supports education, but makes no proposals. “By growing our economy, we will be able to put more resources into education without looking simply to tax increases. With 70 to 80 percent of school districts relying on bonds and overrides to make ends meet, we must reform our funding system to ensure more dollars make it to the classrooms where they can do the most good. While the amount we spend on each student is important, even more important is how we spend it.”