Five of the six Republican candidates for governor debated a multitude of topics at a forum hosted by the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance on July 28.
The event, hosted at Chandler-Gilbert Community College had five primary candidates — former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, Secretary of State Ken Bennett, former GoDaddy.com executive Christine Jones, ex-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and former California legislator Frank Riggs — voice their views on several issues pertinent to the state.
After kicking off with a summary of why they’re running for office, the candidates listed their two top priorities for the state. The economy and economic development made the list for Jones, Thomas, Smith, Bennett, while Smith, Bennett and Riggs emphasized education as well. Jones, who listed other concerns like energy management, had border control as her No. 2 priority, while Riggs had public health and safety as his No. 2.
The main aspect of Thomas’ priority list and a topic he repeated frequently during the event was immigration reform, which he said is a fiscal liability for the state.
“We cannot feed and clothe the world. It may sound harsh, but it is a fact,” Thomas said.
Also addressed by the candidates were changes they would make to the state’s education system. Bennett’s main plan was to lessen the monetary effect the state’s tax system has on education funding, as he said the tax system is volatile. He also concurred with Jones’ concern that not enough funding goes to the classroom — Jones said the average dollar amount directed to the classroom in Arizona is much lower than the national average.
Her general concern was the state’s spending formula, which she said is far too complex and needs simplification so Arizona can spend its education money more efficiently and effectively.
Smith, who said he wants to expand the use of the state’s land trust fund for education use, said the education funding system the state employs is antiquated and does not fit Arizona’s needs.
Thomas said he wanted to wait for a final resolution to a court ruling that would force the state to reimburse schools up to $2.9 billion after a judge found the state underfunded the education system during the recession.
Thomas also mentioned a disdain for Common Core standards, which Riggs said he would revoke the moment he stepped into office.
“Common Core standards should be strictly voluntary,” Riggs said.
He added the standards were a federal mandate, although the standards were adopted voluntarily by Arizona and other states. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 prohibits the federal government from mandating curriculum.
Another topic of discussion was a few of the challenges Arizona faces or will face in the near future. Riggs said a few ways to handle the state’s budget challenges include scrubbing the tax code to eliminate special-interest loopholes and create a flat tax for up to 100 percent of the poverty level.
Thomas referenced back to immigration and public safety. Jones said the state needs to update its technology — she said doing so could save the state money in the long run — and can do more to incubate and recruit businesses.
Bennett said something the state can do to battle budget issues is use priority based budgeting, especially for education purposes.
“You can prioritize and still give services for less money,” Bennett said.
For Smith, the answer is to find opportunities in moments of crisis, and he referenced his experience in Mesa when the city had to compensate to a 20-percent cut of its budget. A positive he said came out of it was the Mesa Police Department’s ability to absorb a budget reduction and assist in a 40-year low in the crime rate.
The candidates also discussed Arizona’s tax system and potential changes they’d make to it. Jones said the state should simplify the tax code for small businesses to spur their growth, and added the state has a pretty low corporate tax rate in place. Riggs said the state should roll back Medicaid funding for able-bodied college students, while Thomas advocated against tax increases and said the state should look at child tax credits.
Bennett emphasized his desire to eliminate the income tax, although Smith said there isn’t an alternative that benefits Arizonans. Smith also recommended tax credits to encourage capital investment and simplifying the tax code, but said the state’s current tax level hasn’t dissuaded businesses from coming to Arizona.
“Our overall tax burden isn’t significantly higher than competitive states,” Smith said.
The forum covered the state’s infrastructure system as well. Bennett and Riggs said the state needs to stop diverting funding from cities and counties that would go to infrastructure repair, while Thomas said the state should focus attention on rural highways. He also expressed a desire to try to change federal laws to use prison labor for infrastructure projects.
Smith said the infrastructure problem is a “ticking time bomb” for Arizonans, although Jones said the state needs to find ways to pay for improvements, possibly by using private-public partnerships.
“If you can’t maintain the ones you have, and we’re in real danger of this my friends, you can’t build new ones,” Jones said.
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