Foundation for the future - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Foundation for the future

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Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006 7:44 am | Updated: 4:22 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Gov. Janet Napolitano begins her second term this week, and the 2007 Legislature opens Jan. 8 to another two years of divided government between a Republican majority and a Democratic head of state.

Unfortunately, struggles over the state’s role in stopping illegal immigration and the shape of the state budget have left little time to address several long-term concerns that just can’t be neglected any longer.

A new Legislature and a fresh four years for Napolitano offers an opportunity for these politicians to look beyond the politics of the moment and become the true leaders that we need for Arizona to continue to be a vibrant, dynamic state without sacrificing our quality of life or our children’s future.

What does that mean? The Tribune Editorial Board has spent the past year speaking with politicians, business leaders, community activists and many of our readers about where Arizona should be going. We’ve invited some big thinkers to explain what they believe the governor and Legislature should accomplish in the next two years (see the accompanying columns).

With all of this information, the Tribune Editorial Board has identified several critical topics beyond immigration and the ongoing operations of state government that we are convinced lawmakers and the governor must address soon.

We will keep track of their progress, or lack thereof, on the Tribune editorial pages throughout the next two years.

WATER POLICY

There’s a growing consensus among Arizona politicians that it’s time for a comprehensive statewide management plan for water. We have done little in this area since the Legislature adopted groundwater management policies in 1980 for the three most populous counties — Maricopa, Pima and Yavapai. That took place during what could have been an usually wet period for Arizona’s arid climate. It appears we have now returned to a more “normal” dry climate, and water supplies are slowly shrinking.

Our population growth has had a fortunate side effect in that water-intensive farming has been largely replaced in Maricopa and Pima counties with less demanding residential and commercial development.

But many experts believe we could soon reach a tipping point, if we haven’t already passed it. Smaller communities are looking farther away for new water resources, and each year we are on the edge of a showdown with other states over our share of the Colorado River. Groundwater pumping in Yavapai County could reduce the flow of the Verde River, critical to water supplies for the East Valley. The situation is so serious that a proposed development in eastern Nevada is seeking to get its water from western Arizona.

We have heard from lawmakers across the political spectrum that Arizona can’t simply rely on private competition and enlightened self-interest to restrain demand for water. Outside of the three most populous counties, communities have limited ability to tie growth to available water supplies and many communities don’t want to, focusing on short-term economic and tax revenue benefits instead of long-term stability and livability. Here are specific goals that should be included in any statewide water plan:

1. Require every new development to demonstrate access to a 100-year supply of potable water, a law already in place for the Valley.

2. Authorize local officials, with state oversight, to restrict groundwater pumping.

3. Assist local communities in signing more long-term agreements for use of tribal water rights. This will require delicate negotiations and cash, but inspired leadership could deliver important benefits to tribal communities that rely too much on gaming revenues and to cities and counties that need new sources of water.

4. Reassess and reach statewide consensus on our strategic relationships with the federal government and other states over the Colorado River. Be aggressive but realistic in asserting our rights.

5. Establish a crisis management plan that relies on regional priorities and cooperation rather than centralized state mandates.

TRANSPORTATION

Despite providing an extra $307 million in funding in 2006, Arizona has a multibillion-dollar gap between identified transportation needs and available tax revenues. This problem is most critical in key areas of Pinal County, which doesn’t have the funding sources available to Maricopa County but already faces similar demands for freeway and surface street access. The challenge is developing effective alternative avenues of transportation while not neglecting the fact that automobiles will remain our primary method of getting around. The State Transportation Board and local associations of government are the lead agencies in determining priorities. But the Legislature has control over the dollars — in terms of what state resources are available as well as what taxes local governments can levy to meet their needs. We will gauge the Legislature and the governor on what they accomplish in these areas:

1. As a core function of government and economic development, reaffirm funding for the most efficient transportation projects as a top priority. Require local governments to clearly separate transportation funds from other uses so voters can better track what elected officials are doing.

2. Address an increasing shortfall in federal funds for transportation projects. Identify existing taxes or new revenue sources to make up the difference.

3. Be creative in finding new ways to fund transportation needs. Ideas that should be considered include toll roads, local and regional loans, redirection of impact fees and cooperative agreements with major new developments.

4. Fund a $150 million plan to expand streets and build new freeways in the Queen Creek area, or offer an effective alternative that wouldn’t require the town and Pinal County to come up with more than the $100 million they have already committed.

5. Move swiftly on widening Interstate 17 north past Anthem. This bottleneck is disrupting economic development and travel for the entire Valley and central Arizona.

EDUCATION

We talk endlessly in Arizona about how much money we spend on primary and secondary education, and not nearly enough about what results we are getting for our money. Forget about how our funding compares with other states. What we should be concerned about is that we rank from the middle to the bottom in terms of comparable test scores and dropout rates from high school and college. Our state leaders need to do a better job of deciding what our educational system should accomplish, and then figure out how much to spend to make that happen:

1. Set benchmarks for reducing drop-out rates and raising test scores, perhaps at 10 percent per year, until Arizona is in the top 25 percent of all states. Provide incentives for schools to reach the benchmarks, and appropriate penalties for those that consistently fail to do so. Emphasize overall school success instead of putting the pressure on individual students with tactics such as using the AIMS test as a requirement for high school graduation.

2. Review programs around the world to determine the most successful methods of improving public education, and then direct any additional funding specifically into these areas. Examples could include smaller class sizes, better-trained teachers, year-round calendars or even “graduation” at the 10th grade, as recently suggested by a national study group. But the Legislature should base funding priorities on approaches that have delivered measurable progress instead of academic projections or guesswork.

3. Help parents participate in improving education by making it easier to send their children to the public or private school that best matches individual learning patterns and family lifestyles. More charter schools and more freedom to use tax money to send children to private schools are a must.

4. Upgrade the state school construction funding formula to reflect building costs that have risen here faster than general inflation rates. State officials claimed the StudentsFirst program would essentially eliminate local construction debt over time. But the state’s failure to provide enough money in this area has forced local school districts to routinely pursue construction bonds, which inflate local property taxes.

5. Find ways to ease the impact of college tuition increases on students who graduate from Arizona high schools. More scholarship money and tuition rate guarantees have been successful in other states.

AIR QUALITY

The “brown cloud” still looms over us, putting Maricopa County at risk of serious federal sanctions and regulations that could cripple our economy. The county is preparing to introduce regulations that will seek to reduce air pollution, but the state has a significant role to play through enforcement and an ability to challenge inappropriate federal action:

1. Educate the public about the primary causes of air pollution and the potential alternatives for reducing the pollution. Most people fail to understand what does, and what doesn’t, contribute significantly to air pollution here in the Valley. And almost no one has a clear picture of what we are trying to do now versus what the federal government could force us to do instead. For example, auto inspection requirements and fees would be more palatable if the public were better informed about other options that would be more intrusive into our daily lives.

2. Accept that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has to be more aggressive with heavy polluters. Key industries have the ear of business-friendly Republican leaders who have tried to get ADEQ to back off. But thwarting state regulators will backfire in the long run, as the EPA will force control of even more businesses or take away federal funding for freeways and other critical needs.

3. Put real pressure on the EPA and Congress to be more realistic about one major source of the “brown cloud” — desert dust. We have climate conditions here that can’t be found in much of the rest of the country that are made more difficult by an ongoing drought. The only possible way to significantly reduce the amount of dust in the air would be to simply stop all construction, an unfair and legally impossible expectation. If state officials put half as much heat on our lawmakers and the White House on this issue as they have about illegal immigration, Washington would be more accommodating about conditions created by Mother Nature.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Beyond Google’s recent arrival, the governor’s office can and should do more to make economic development a priority. Municipal economic development agencies, regional alliances and even Arizona State University President Michael Crow come more to mind when one thinks about who’s behind the biggest push for quality economic development in the Valley. Napolitano should use her considerable sales skills to attract top-flight employers and reshape Arizona into the Southwest’s economic powerhouse.

One place to start is Williams Gateway Airport, which could be far more than a reliever to Phoenix Sky Harbor International. Local development officials understand the potential exists to turn the East Valley’s regional airport into a complex that moves international freight to market faster than LAX. The potential is so strong that it’s time for the governor to show the kind of leadership on behalf of Williams that would come from states with lesser opportunities to tout.

The governor also should put attracting foreign investment high on her to-do list. Research aimed at uniting Arizona’s economic development groups notes that the state ranks 17th in trade but only 31st in foreign direct investment. If Arizona could move its ranking to 17th in both categories, foreign investment in the state would increase by $12.5 billion and create as many as 84,000 jobs.

WHEN THAT’S DONE …

The Tribune Editorial Board also has a few topics on its “wish list” that lawmakers should tackle if they finish addressing the previous issues:

1. Permanently eliminate $215 million in property taxes assessed by the state for education. Republicans pushed hard for this tax cut in 2006, but Napolitano and Democrat lawmakers insist the taxes only be suspended for three years. Arizona can fund education appropriately without these taxes, but the state will spend the money anyway if they return in 2009.

2. Make important reforms to the state’s system of funding election campaigns, or ask voters to simply scrap the Citizens Clean Elections Act. We have kept track of a growing number of problems, from a structure that forces most candidates to participate but doesn’t provide enough cash to seriously challenge incumbents, to improper infringements of free speech, to unavoidably arbitrary and heavy-handed regulations and rulings from the governing commission. Voters should be given a choice of a major overhaul of the process, or simply repealing the law and letting the free market rule again.

3. Reform the initiative process to reduce efforts to bypass the Legislature and impose special interest legislation. The growing number of ballot measures raises concerns that voters are being asked to handle too much at once. There’s also a concern that the 1998 Voter Protection Act effectively prevents the Legislature from correcting even drafting errors in ballot measures that have unintended negative consequences.

Options for reform include increasing the required number of voter signatures for initiative petitions, requiring a certain percentage of signatures come from each county, or giving the Legislature an opportunity to review proposed legislation and make corrections before it goes to the ballot.

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