Gov. Jan Brewer took on her two main challengers Tuesday night, accusing Buz Mills of failing to produce a balanced budget plan and Dean Martin of helping create the state's current financial crisis.
In an often-testy exchange at their first real debate, the four Republicans lobbed charges at each other, saying their foes do not have a realistic view of the problems of the state or realistic solutions. And three of the four each touted records as fiscal conservatives.
That left only Matthew Jette to argue that it's not realistic to continue to cut spending at the expense of education and health care.
During the one-hour debate sponsored by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission, Jette lined up with Brewer in support of the temporary one-cent hike in state sales taxes that voters approved last month. Both said the state's fiscal situation -- one Brewer kept saying she inherited from predecessor Janet Napolitano -- left no other choice than to raise $1 billion a year for the next three years.
Mills, however, said it's a lie to say the tax hike was approved overwhelmingly. He said that two-thirds margin of support is undermined by the fact that just a third of Arizonans actually voted, which he said means fewer than 25 percent of registered voters wanted higher taxes.
And he said the tax hike would not have been necessary had Brewer cut spending.
"The economic policies of your administration are going to keep us in this recession, longer, wider and deeper,'' Mills said to Brewer. "We have got to stop this train now before we run off the cliff.''
The governor shot back that Mills never has told voters exactly how he would balance the budget.
"Where would you make those cuts?'' she asked, saying there are "certain mandates, not only from the federal government but from the voters.''
Mills conceded he has no such plan.
"That's your job,'' he told Brewer.
Martin said voters were essentially terrorized into approving the tax hike.
"You actually had school districts making up lists of teachers that were going to be fired'' if Proposition 100 went down to defeat. He said that was designed to "scare (voters) to death.''
"They loaded a very real gun and pointed it at our education system,'' Martin said. "That's the last thing you should have been reducing, not the first thing.''
"I heard the governor in Prescott tell people we're going to turn off the life support, we're going to open the jail doors, we're going to fill up the classrooms, everybody's going to suffer if you don't vote for this,'' he said.
Brewer, however, took her own shots at proposals for deeper spending cuts on education, saying funding has been "pretty much cut to the bone.''
"When we talk about 'waste' and 'mismanagement' and 'fraud,' those are easy words to throw out,'' the governor said. "That's not a solution.''
She also singled out Martin for special attack, saying his record as a legislator shows he's not the fiscal conservative he claims.
"You were part of the problem,'' she said.
"You voted for getting money out of the 'rainy day fund,' '' Brewer told Martin. "You voted for three out of four of Gov. Napolitano's spending budget.''
Martin, like Mills, also has not produced a specific plan to balance the budget. Instead, he said the state should cut its spending back to 2005 levels, matching the amount of money coming in, and deal with growth in school and health care enrollment by refinancing the state's existing debt.
Pressed for specifics, Martin said the state could save money by cutting administrative expenses for education.
"Less than 30 percent of the money actually spent in education actually goes into the classroom,'' he said.
But the Auditor General's Office, which studies the situation annually, reported in February that 56.9 percent of every dollar spent on education actually goes to instruction. And that figure does not include what is spent on librarians, nurses and guidance counselors.
Martin said the solution is less state regulation, saying there are more Arizona laws on how to teach than there are on nuclear power.
"That just shows you probably yourself need more education,'' Jette shot back. He said nuclear power plants are regulated not by the state but by the federal government.
"You cannot compare the two,'' he said.
All but Jette were in support of SB 1070 which requires police to check the immigration status of those they stop if there is reason to suspect they are in this country illegally. It also makes being an illegal immigrant a state crime.
Jette said the legislation is based on a misconception.
"You act as if the state of Arizona is being terrorized by illegal immigrants,''
"It is,'' Mills interjected.
"Crime is on the way down,'' Jette continued.
"Go to the border,'' Mills responded.
Brewer sided with Mills on this issue -- and not only because people break the law by coming into this country illegally in the first place.
"The majority of them in my opinion, and I think in the opinion of law enforcement, is that they're not coming here to work,'' she continued. "They're coming here and they're bringing drugs and they're doing drop houses and they're extorting people and they're terrorizing the families.''