Central Arizona College boosters are going to the ballot in November with a nearly $100 million bond package that would help build new campuses in the quickly growing town of Maricopa and the heart of the Santan area.
The bond package is a drastically trimmed down version of a $435 million bond package that the county's voters resoundingly rejected in 2005 by 59 percent to 41 percent.
However, the political landscape appears to be much different this go-round.
The committee backing the bond proposal counts former detractors and Pinal County political operators Sharron Gill and Doug DeHaan as members.
Both were instrumental in organizing an opposition group that helped defeat the larger bond package.
The current proposal also is showing signs of bipartisan support.
Joe Robison, head of the county's Democratic Party, and Tommy Tucker, head of the Republican Party, are joining forces to support the package - even as the pair do battle over contested races for county offices.
Jim Sharpe, spokesman for Rose and Allyn Public Relations, said that the exploding population in Pinal County makes an expansion of the community college system essential. Voters haven't approved bonds for the college since 1972.
"This is the proper package for the economy," he said. "They desperately need to open new campuses. Maricopa has exploded and so has the Santan-Johnson Ranch area."
About $37 million from the bond package would be used for the first phase of campuses in Maricopa and the Santan area. Some of the bond proceeds would finance more educational space at the Superstition Mountain campus in Apache Junction and the Signal Peak campus, between Coolidge and Casa Grande. Renovations are planned at those two campuses and the Aravaipa campus.
About $20 million of the bond would be set aside to purchase property for future campuses in Maricopa and the Santan area. Both areas are now served by a smattering of office space that doubles as classrooms.
In 2005, when the last bond was defeated, the college system reported enrollment figures of 14,000 students with a capacity for 16,000.
Tom DiCamillo, spokesman for the college, said that the institution has not had to cut programs since that time, but that certain facilities are close to maximum capacity. The Superstition Mountain campus is one example, he said.
The college system offers a variety of two-year degree programs in accounting, agriculture, construction, business, computer programming, mechanics, education, firefighting, paramedic and medical services, law enforcement, nutrition and sports and fitness.
Bill Bridwell, a co-chair of the committee in support of the bond, said that strengthening the college system in rapidly growing Pinal County is key to attracting businesses that require an educated work force.
The county is largely composed of commuters, who were drawn to the area because of a boom in construction of affordable homes but must work in Maricopa and Pima counties. Now that fuel costs have risen and home values have dropped, some are stuck in Pinal County until the economy improves, Bridwell said, and attracting local jobs would help change the dynamic.
"Economic development doesn't occur anywhere where there is not a strong commitment to higher education," he said.
The bond election in 2005 was defeated largely because of low voter turnout coupled with strong opposition in well-organized political pockets of Pinal County like the Saddlebrooke and Gold Canyon areas.
New key supporters in both of those areas could reverse that trend. And the bond package is not "overreaching" as it was perceived to be by some in 2005, Bridwell said. No organization opposition has emerged yet.
Proponents of the bond are advertising that the primary property tax rate of the college has decreased in the last several years.
The bond would not add as much to taxes as has been taken away, officials said.
Still, much of the county's political power rests with retirees who have relocated there, and new taxes can be a tough sell especially in a county that has one of the highest overall tax rates in the state.
"When you are dealing with a large bloc of people who are on a fixed income ... that takes a bit of their income," Bridwell said.