Legislature hopefuls debate education at Chamber forum

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By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor

The Gilbert Chamber of Commerce held its forum for state legislative candidates in Districts 12 and 17, hosting a diverse group of incumbents and political newcomers.

Nine of the 16 candidates running in the districts’ primary elections attended the Chamber event.

The race for the two LD 12 house seats is particularly stacked, with Republican incumbent Travis Grantham and Warren Petersen – who currently serves in the Senate and is seeking to flip positions with Rep. Eddie Farnsworth – facing five challengers.

Two of those challengers participated in the forum: Democrat Joseph Bisaccia, a STEM educator at Cooley Middle School in the Higley Unified School District, and Republican Blake Sacha, a former longtime Intel employee who now teaches chemistry at Grand Canyon University.

District 12 Republican senate candidates Farnsworth and Jimmy Lindblom, a Gilbert businessman, participated as well – as did current House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who is seeking to replace termed-out Sen. Steve Yarbrough in District 17.

Mesnard’s mother, Chandler City Councilwoman Nora Ellen, also was at the event as she campaigns for her son’s House seat in District 17. She was joined by fellow Republican state Rep. Jeff Weninger, who is seeking re-election.

Topics addressed at the forum ranged from the need to better manage Arizona’s water resources and transportation system to cutting out member asks and pet projects at the state Legislature.

Predictably, though, the candidates spent much of the forum – which took place weeks after the RedforEd teacher walkouts – discussing public education funding and how to manage the state budget.

The incumbent panelists touted the most recent investment made in public education by the state. Arizona’s new $10.4 billion budget – which was approved on a Republican party line vote in the House with limited Democrat support in the Senate.

It included a 9 percent pay increase on average for teachers.

“What we did this last budget was an unprecedented investment in K-12 education,” Mesnard said. “It’s $1 billion towards teacher salaries over the next three years.”

Added Grantham: “We just put record amounts of additional revenue into our K-12 system, and every Republican except one voted to put additional revenue into our K-12 system.”

The Republican panelists also stressed that the funding increases did not come with an associated tax increase.

“I think that is a responsible and significant investment in education and it has been done without a tax increase,”  Petersen said.

Lindblom and Sacha expressed support for the recent budget but also said the Legislature will need to continue to invest in public education in the future.

“K-12 education and higher education – those are still huge issues that we need to improve on,” Lindblom said. “We’ve made huge strides and will continue to do that.”

Sacha added, “I support finding sustainable long-term funding for education that will allow us to rise above last in the nation in per-student funding.”

Still, not everyone speaking at the forum thought the Legislature went far enough. Bisaccia, who is part of a wave of teachers running for state office this year, expressed dissatisfaction with the level of funding.

He argued, “Unfortunately, we have not recouped the $1.2 billion that has been cut from our general fund for K-12 education since the recession. We have to find a way to at least get back there, if not build on that.”

Petersen pushed back at critics by stating that per-pupil funding has risen steadily since his 2014 election. Total spending per pupil in Arizona increased from $9,184 in 2014 to $9,653 in 2017, according to the Arizona Auditor General’s report.

However, the same report noted that in 2017, Arizona schools spent $3,300 less per pupil than the 2015 national average, which is the last year for which the data was available.

The 9 percent teacher raise included in this year’s budget was the first step in Governor Doug Ducey’s plan to increase teacher pay 19 percent by 2020.

The governor committed to including subsequent 5 percent teacher pay increases in the next two budgets — a promise the forum participants stated they plan to keep.

“I would also say (a priority is) making sure we keep the promises to our K-12 (teachers),” Weninger said. “We will.”

Grantham said, “I do believe we need to keep the promises we just made over the next few years, specifically to K-12 education.” He added that school boards ultimately are responsible for divvying up those funds.

Petersen said keeping promises regarding public education funding is one of the few areas in which he would support spending increases.

“The increased spending equation, in my mind, should only happen in the areas of debt service and obviously the (education) promises we’ve made in this budget moving forward,” he said.

While all members of the forum agreed that the Legislature should keep its promises to teachers, several Republicans cautioned against investing too much money now based on optimistic revenue projections –  a cornerstone of Ducey’s plan.

Mesnard said he believes Arizona’s economy will grow over the next several years.

But he added, “I just think that it is very important looking forward that we budget responsibly and as that additional revenue comes in, we don’t succumb to that temptation to overspend and over-commit, only to set ourselves up for whenever the next recession occurs, and we have to then make cuts because no one wants to go through that nightmare again.”

Farnsworth echoed that sentiment, stating “My solution is to do what we’ve been doing, which is to have revenue projections that are reasonable and to spend where we need to spend but not spending more than we have to just because we have the money.

“That is an important piece for me…we need to identify the things that government should be legitimately doing and then prioritizing them, including K-12 education, which we have done and we continue to do so.”

Grantham expressed a similar desire, stating that “the government only has as much money as it brings in through taxation” so the state can either “efficiently run government and trim back in places government doesn’t belong to begin with” or raise taxes.

“I like the first one as an option the most,” he said.

Once again, Bisaccia offered a different perspective and argued that Arizona does not raise enough revenue to adequately fund education and services for a state of its size.

Arizona’s per capita tax revenue of $2,117 ranked 40th nationwide in 2016, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators.

The state also had the second lowest state and local general expenditures per capita at $6,600 in 2015, the last year for which the data is available, according to the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center.

Bisaccia pointed to closing corporate tax loopholes as a way to bring in more revenue.

“We have too many teachers that are barely making enough to make ends meet,” he said. “We have too many students who are slipping through the cracks (and) too many kids that are suffering. That to me is unacceptable.”

Still, many Republicans at the forum expressed a desire to stay away from what they characterized as excessive spending by the state in the early 2000s.

“Digging out of a hole is so costly versus making sure we have a budget where our projections are realistic,” Ellen said. “This way we can do things like build a world-class education system and other things we need for our state to succeed.”