By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Candidates running for state House and Senate in Legislative District 12 touted their respective party’s platforms last week when it came to issues such as education, the economy and renewable energy.
The Citizens Clean Elections Commission hosted the debate at the Hyatt Place in Gilbert, where five of the six candidates attended — Republicans Eddie Farnsworth and Travis Grantham and Democrats Lynsey Robinson, Joe Bisaccia and Elizabeth Brown. Republican Warren Petersen was absent.
Farnsworth, termed out of the House, is challenged by Brown in the Nov. 6 general election for the state Senate seat representing Gilbert and Queen Creek. Petersen, currently a state senator, and incumbent Grantham are facing off against Robinson and Bisaccia for the two open House seats.
Around 40 people attended the roughly 90-minute debate that at times bordered on testy.
When it comes to the question of poverty in Arizona, the Democrats said the long-term solution is to invest in a strong education system.
Both Republicans pointed to lowering taxes for a free market and capitalism to create the jobs for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Arizona is tied with Georgia as a state with the 10th highest number of individuals living below the poverty level in 2017, according to the U.S. Census.
While Farnsworth and Granthan referenced recent increases in school funding, including teacher raises in the governor’s budget, Bisaccia said funding is still below pre-recession levels.
“Free market doesn’t mean anything if you can’t put your child through college,” Robinson said. “We need to subsidize higher education and make it affordable.”
Robinson said that as a former Dreamer from Haiti, receiving a quality education enabled her to become a teacher and an attorney.
Brown, a retired teacher, said the state needs to provide more shelters, more affordable housing, make health care affordable and have more trade schools to help address poverty.
Farnsworth said government and taxpayers need to stop handouts if people are to be helped in the long run.
The candidates also differed on private, for-profit prisons.
The Democrats opposed private prisons with Brown saying too many people are being incarcerated for minor offenses, which is a burden to taxpayers. She also said when there is no oversight of prisons and that Arizona was spending more money on inmates than on its students.
Arizona Department of Corrections established a Contract Beds Bureau to monitor, evaluate and support the five private prisons under contract with the department. There are about six other private prisons operating in the state not under contract with Arizona but rather with the federal government or other states.
Robinson and Bisaccia called for prison reform, saying the state needs to focus on reducing recidivism and stopping the criminalization of non-violent offenses.
“It’s a really, really sick industry,” Bisaccia said. “I don’t know why the state is investing in it.”
Grantham said private prisons can work and help government operate more efficiently.
Farnsworth lashed out at the Democrats for demonizing privatization.
Toll roads are private roads and they work, Farnsworth said. He added he sponsored four bills to reduce recidivism with military courts and homeless courts that target those populations with programs.
He said private prisons have their place but that violent offenders should still be kept in state-run prisons.
The candidates also were asked for their stance on school choice, which includes home school, private school and charter schools. The candidates focused on the latter.
Bisaccia, a STEM teacher, said it’s a misnomer Democrats oppose school choice.
“We actually support school choice,” he said, asserting that Arizona had the most corrupt charter school system in the nation.
A policy report released in 2017 by Grand Canyon Institute found up to 77 percent of Arizona’s charter school holders use their state-taxpayer funds for potentially questionable financial transactions.
Specifically, many charter schools conducted business with a for-profit business owned by the charter holder, a member of the school’s corporate board or a relative of either, according to the nonpartisan think institute.
Grantham, a business owner, said it costs millions to build a new school building, which is borne by the charter school owner, saving taxpayers money.
Charter schools receive state money based on student head count – just like district schools – but get a larger share because they can’t go to voters to seek bonding for construction or budget overrides.
The latest figures from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee put basic state aid at $6,748 for each student in a charter school compared with $5,389 for those in traditional public schools.
Gov. Doug Ducey, a strong supporter of charter schools, also pushed through legislation that provides state guarantees for loans taken out by charter owners for building schools.
Charter school operators also own those buildings and can pocket the profit if they sell them.
Grantham said people flock to public charter schools because they do a good job for less money than district schools – although some district schools do a good job, he acknowledged.
“A little bit of competition is good,” he said.
Robinson said as a parent of three, she supported school choice and that her 5-year-old attended a charter school.
That said, she went on the attack mode, saying she was against charter schools making millions off the back of taxpayers and called for more accountability and transparency.
It’s an uneven playing field with charter schools not being monitored in how they spend taxpayer dollars and not held to the same standards as public district schools, she said.
She said Farnsworth will be making millions by taking his Benjamin Franklin Charter school company from a private to a nonprofit status.
Farnsworth later explained that because 95 percent of charter schools in the state are nonprofit, his privately owned company needed to compete as such for the longevity of his four campuses and students.
Nonprofit charter schools can get federal funding but under the Obama administration, for-profit charter schools are banned from that money, according to Farnsworth, who said his charter schools have never taken federal funding.
Brown said she didn’t know of any other sector in government that gets taxpayer monies and don’t have to disclose how they spend it.
Farnsworth said the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools has oversight of the schools and that an annual audit is done.
“Almost everything stated here is wrong,” he said, arguing that private companies take the risks and nothing they do is illegal.
He also seemed perturbed by Robinson’s comments the state law that allows him to sell his charter school business is “immoral” and needs to be changed and that it hurt children.
He said he has never hurt children and called her out on her allegation. He went on to say he’s always followed the law in regards to how his business operates and he expected something different from an officer of the court.
And, if the Democrats are so against charter schools making a profit, what about the school bus companies and curriculum developers that profit from districts, Farnsworth said.
“If I had two hours, I can name all the companies that make money by providing services to public education,” Farnsworth said. “It’s ridiculous what is being said here.”
Ducey last week said he was open to the idea of reforms in how charter schools are operated, including how they handle their finances.
For the moment, though, he had no specific suggestions. And he remained convinced that the private schools, which in Arizona can be operated as for-profit entities remain an “innovation.’’
Democrats also supported the state using more renewable energy, namely solar and backed Proposition 127 on the November ballot. The clean energy initiative would require public utility companies to get half of their energy supply from renewable sources by 2030.
“We live in the Valley of the Sun, we should start investing in solar energy,” Brown said. “There are 296 days of sun in Maricopa County, we should be the solar capital of the U.S.”
The issue ought to be the best mix of energy to be used, Farnsworth said.
He said it would cost more to force renewable energy when the technology is not there yet to support its use and there is clean burning fuel like natural gas that can be used instead.
He said the ballot measure is premature and would drive up costs.
Bisaccia said New Jersey, where he is from, leads the country in solar use and residents there have lower energy bills. Earlier this year, the New Jersey governor signed an executive order directing the development of an updated plan for the state to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
And, Bisaccia said as a technology teacher, he can attest that solar panel technology has advanced to where it is cost-effective.
Grantham said he agreed with the commercials campaigning against Proposition 127.
“It is not good for the state of Arizona,” he said. “It will drive utility bills through the roof.”
He said the free market should drive where energy comes from and he believed Arizona will move toward renewable energy.
According to Robinson, lawmakers have already undermined voters in the energy initiative.
She was referring to the governor who earlier this year signed a pre-emptive bill that subject utilities to a nominal fine if they fall short of the clean energy goal for 2030.
“The Legislature tries to bypass legally what voters want to happen in the district and in the state,” she said. “It doesn’t matter to them because they are being funded by dark money.”
Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this story.