Some sparks flew last Friday in the Clean Elections Commission debate involving five of the six candidates for the State Legislature in the district that includes Ahwatukee.
Education funding, taxes and the proposition to expand school vouchers dominated the debate that included Republic House candidates Rep. Jill Norgaard and Greg Patterson, Democratic House candidates Rep. Mitzi Epstein and Jennifer Jermaine and incumbent Democratic Sen. Sean Bowie. Republican Senate candidate Frank Schmuck did not attend.
While occasionally praising Bowie for his bipartisanship, Patterson and Norgaard either individually or together sparred with their Democratic opponents before an audience of about 100 people over education funding and the referendum expanding the school voucher program.
Following some discussion on how the original voucher program was designed to help parents of special needs children as well as students in foster care and those from military families, Epstein criticized the absence of accountability in the program and cited an instance where a charter used tax dollars to send students on a trip to Africa.
Norgaard then asked both Democrats, “So, I just want to be clear because a year ago both of you came out against any (voucher) program because you said that it took money from the general and steered it towards private schools. So, could you clarify your position?”
Jermaine replied, “I have always been supportive of the original program but not the expansion of the program.”
Epstein said that while “I recognized the value to special needs families,” the voucher program had no “accountability metrics” and that Republicans want to expand the program beyond the categories of students it originally was intended to help.
But Patterson said the statements by Epstein and Jermaine represented “huge progress on an issue that I think was very controversial.”
“I think we have a lot of agreement here,” he said. “It sounds like we all support the original program and we also have to be accountable.”
Bowie took the opportunity to criticize his absent opponent, noting that Schmuck favors extending school vouchers to all students in Arizona at the expense of public education.
Another dust-up between the Republican and Democratic candidates for the House seats came during a discussion about creating a new permanent revenue stream for K-12 public school funding now that the state Supreme Court has knock the so-called Invest for Ed “tax the rich” referendum question off the Nov. 6 ballot.
Jermaine said she was “deeply disappointed” by the ruling, and Epstein said the “core principle” was the restoration of funding that has been eroded by the Legislature over the past decade.
“What my plan is is to bring together my fellow legislators, interview the stakeholders who know education at the tax payers to determine how much money do we need,” Epstein said, pointing to a need to look at “data not dogma.”
Patterson countered that the scuttled proposal to tax people earning more than $250,000 annually “was written badly” and that wealthy taxpayers would be able to find experts to get around the tax – or they would simply leave the state
Repeating a proposal that he had made the night before at a forum sponsored by the Valley Interfaith Project, Patterson said, “If you want to actually address the revenue issue, it’s going to be have to be sales tax” that would be put on the ballot.
“I would be willing to do that,” he said, turning to Epstein and adding, “Now I would ask the representative to see if she’s willing to do that.”
Epstein countered, “A sales tax is the most regressive tax I can possibly think of. It hurts more than it hurts everybody else because really living paycheck to paycheck.”
Norgaard revisited an assertion she had made at an earlier Clean Elections debate, saying she favored a hard look at consolidating some of the smaller school districts in the state. She said that her preliminary work shows total annual school district administrative costs in Arizona are close to $800 million and that consolidation could save about a third of that.
Bowie expressed concern that so much of the talk about education funding was focused on the short term.
“This is the most important issue facing the state,” Bowie said. “It’s much broader than a single initiative.”
He noted that Schmuck has talked of wanting to eliminate the state income tax, stating, “That would have a devastating impact on our public schools.”
Norgaard also called attention to Epstein’s vote against the state budget, which contained a 10 percent salary increase for teachers. Almost all House Democrats voted against the budget as a protest over what they called insufficient funding for education.
“There’s no there,” Epstein asserted, saying the budget “took money away from healthcare” and the environment” and offered “change in the couch cushions.”
But Bowie, who voted for the budget along with most Senate Democrats, said that while the budget “was not perfect, it was a good first step.”
Jermaine took note of what several candidates mentioned over the course of the 80-minute debate: “Realistically, if we were to see some kind of dedicated revenue come through, it would need to be done by voter initiative because current law takes two-thirds of each chamber and the governor to raise any new revenue. Realistically, it would need to be a voter initiative.”
Patterson jabbed again at Epstein during a discussion of ways to raise revenue outside of a tax increase.
“The question is,” he asked Epstein, “if you want to raise the revenue, you should have a rough idea where we’re going to get it. So, I would ask where are we going to get it?”
Epstein replied the answer should come from a bipartisan discussion that’s not behind closed doors, adding, “I don’t have all the data because I’m not in the majority party.”
As the discussion proceeded about ways to raise additional revenue, Jermaine said Arizona is spending too much money on incarcerating too many people, particularly people of color.
Norgaard and Patterson said the best way to raise more revenue was to encourage both business and resident growth.
But Epstein countered that while the state’s population has risen over the last 20 years, the budget overall has not changed because Republicans have cut taxes.
And Jermaine argued, “One thing that we need to do to be able to expand our economy is invest in education because we don’t have the workforce that these companies need, they’re not going to come to Arizona. They’re not going to stay in Arizona.”
Patterson countered that “people forget about the tax increases that have gone through” under Republican governors in the past.”
“I recognize that when Republicans have put tax issues on the ballot for education before, they have passed almost every single time. And if education funding is going to be a priority for the populace as much as it is for us and if we have got as much efficiency as we can out of the system and if we really are going to come up with revenue into the system, we need an honest answer that says, ‘Okay, put a sales tax increase on the ballot and see if people really support it.”
The debate was the second gathering of some LD18 candidates last week.
Patterson and all three Democrats also attended the Valley Interfaith Project forum in Tempe, which Norgaard said she could not attend because she was attending a forum in Mesa’s Dobson Ranch. LD18 covers parts of Mesa, Chandler and Tempe. It was not clear why Schmuck was absent.
The Interfaith Project session was controlled, with candidates forced to answer only nine questions in a minute.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, the candidates for the LD 18 seats as well as those for the Kyrene and Tempe Union governing boards are to be at a session that the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce is holding at the Ahwatukee Events Center, 4700 E. Warner Road. That will not be a debate but will give the public an opportunity to meet the candidates.