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Legislators talk positions, priorities at forum

Posted 7/5/17

From left, Western Maricopa Association of Realtors Governmental Affairs Director Liz Recchia moderates a panel discussion including District 22 Rep. Ben Toma (R-Peoria) at the Visit with West Valley …

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Legislators talk positions, priorities at forum

From left, Western Maricopa Association of Realtors Governmental Affairs Director Liz Recchia moderates a panel discussion including District 22 Rep. Ben Toma (R-Peoria) at the Visit with West Valley Legislators event June 27 at WeMar’s headquarters, 9001 W. Union Hills Drive, Peoria.
By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia

West Valley legislators addressed a crowd of real estate professionals and others at a public event last week.

The Western Maricopa Association of Realtors hosted its Visit with West Valley Legislators event June 27 at the group’s headquarters, 9001 W. Union Hills Drive, Peoria. Liz Recchia, WeMar’s government affairs director, moderated the panel discussion, which included District 21 Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria), District 20 Sen. Kimberly Yee (R-Glendale), District 22 Rep. Ben Toma (R-Peoria), District 21 Rep. Tony Rivero (R-Peoria) and District 19 Rep. Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix), among others.

The legislators discussed a range of topics important to West Valley voters, including the ongoing fight over EPCOR’s recently approved wastewater rate consolidation, school funding and the state budget.

EPCOR consolidation

West Valley legislators shared their feelings about the EPCOR wastewater consolidation, which was approved in June by the Arizona Corporation Commission. Sun Cities residents and others have vowed to appeal that decision.

Mr. Rivero seemed to side with residents on the issue.

“I don’t support water rate increases in general,” Mr. Rivero said. “As a former city council member in Peoria, I opposed every water rate increase for a variety of reasons. Any kind of rate increase or tax increase hurts poor people, seniors and people who are under or unemployed, so I’m against any type of utility increase.”

Ms. Lesko’s expressed her opposition to the increase in an email statement following the event.

“I am very disappointed that the Arizona Corporation Commission voted to consolidate EPCOR’s wastewater districts,” Ms. Lesko stated. “Their decision will dramatically raise sewer rates in Sun City, Youngtown and Sun City West. I support Sun City HOA’s proposal to appeal the decision and I hope Sun City wins!”

Mr. Toma, whose Sun City West constituents face a doubling of wastewater fees while their more affluent, newcomer neighbors in Corta Bella see theirs halved, said he could not take sides on the issue.

“I am kind of in an interesting position here, because I have constituents in Sun City West that are obviously affected in a very negative way, but I also have constituents in Corta Bella and Cross River and parts of Surprise, where they’re affected the other way,” Mr. Toma said. “As a representative, I don’t believe it would be fair for me to take a position strongly on one side or the other, regardless of what my personal feelings might be on it, because it’s my job to represent both.”

He said he attended the final hearing to advocate for seniors in the community.

“The reason I went to the hearing was to push EPCOR to really start doing some of the promised infrastructure upgrades they talked about for a number of years now, but they have not really done,” Mr. Toma said. “in addition to that, the assistance program that the Tobin amendment in particular pushed through, I believe was very important and a majority of that is going to Sun Cities residents.”

Mr. Toma referred to an amendment to the rate case introduced by ACC Commissioner Andy Tobin, reducing the rate hike and increasing eligibility for EPCOR’s low-income program, which helps seniors on fixed incomes, as well as veterans whose income falls below the federal poverty level.

School choice, funding

Ms. Lesko, whose district encompasses Sun City and parts of Peoria and Glendale, is president pro tem of the Arizona Senate, as well as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. She was primary sponsor of Senate Bill 1431, the controversial bill passed this session, which expands the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, also known as school vouchers.

An estimated 1.1 million students may now opt out of public school districts, using the ESA to offset the cost of enrollment to attend the private or charter school of their choice. Ms. Lesko claimed victory for passing the bill, which was approved along party lines and signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

“With school vouchers, which we call ESAs, 90 percent of the money that we have given to the state goes to the parents. The district schools are adamantly opposed to my legislation. I want to give parents the choice of where to send their child,” Ms. Lesko said.

She was an early supporter of vouchers going back to 2011 and, since then, has sponsored legislation to expand the program in every legislative session.

“Every year, I’ve offered legislation to expand it. We need to improve education everywhere,” she added, crediting the governor for helping get the measure passed.

“The governor worked to help get the votes, meeting with senators and representatives personally to lobby for support,” Ms. Lesko said.

Supporters of the voucher program expect the opposition to push for a referendum to try to block the program next year, she said.

Ms. Yee, whose district is comprised of voters in Peoria, Glendale and Phoenix, is Senate majority whip. She voiced support for ESAs, too.

“As the daughter of a public school teacher and having a background in education policy, I have always been a strong supporter of our public schools as well as the many other choices that families have for schooling their children in Arizona,” Ms. Yee said.

Mr. Cardenas, who represents residents in the Southwest Valley, including Phoenix, Laveen, Tolleson and Goodyear, argued the state needs to do more for Arizona’s public education system, which ranks among the poorest in the nation by most measures.

“A budget is an expression of a legislature’s priorities,” Mr. Cardenas said. “I would argue that the legislature has gotten off that track and that in terms of public education, they do not represent those priorities. For example, the School Facilities Board is charged with repairing schools and building new schools. They have not been funded to their budgetary request since 2003.”

He said one problem with neglecting state funding for schools is that it shifts the burden onto those least able to afford it.

“When your school districts need to build a new school or renovate a school, they’re hitting the taxpayers for that, they’re going to ask for a bond or an override,” Mr. Cardenas said. “Such funding mechanisms raise property taxes. Schools have been forced to do funding of basic needs and infrastructure repairs on the backs of their residents, when it’s the state that should be paying that.”

Though representing the same District 21 voters as Ms. Lesko, Mr. Rivero also suggested the state needs to do more to fund public schools.

“One of the areas I think we need improve on is teacher pay,” he said.

He added Arizona schools should make it easier for professionals from other fields, especially those holding technical and advanced degrees, to get into teaching. Though he said the Legislature has not done enough, local school boards also must do a better job.

“The priority has to be the teachers and the students and that isn’t always the case,” Mr. Rivero said. “We have to look at teacher pay and school funding, but we also have to look at education reform completely. But I do agree, we do desperately have to improve public education.”

Mr. Toma, who represents voters in Sun City West, Surprise and surrounding county areas, only joined the Legislature in April, when he was appointed to fill the house seat vacated by Rep. Phil Lovas (R-Peoria), when he took a job with the Trump Administration. Mr. Toma said he supports increased school funding, but cautioned against raising taxes to pay for it.

“About half of our budget goes to public education with 80 percent of that going to K-12,” Mr. Toma said. “When you talk about increasing the public education budget by double or triple the amount per child, where is that money going to come from? You’re talking about massive tax increases, so we have to be realistic when we call for something like that.”

Budgetary priorities, concerns

Mr. Toma said it was a challenge to take over in mid-session, but with 31 bills passed during his first day on the job alone, he remains focused on the state budget.

“The budget was my biggest concern, because the budget is a big deal,” he said. “It’s almost $10 billion that is basically our money. I took it very seriously, looking at this budget. Where is it going? How does it compare to previous years? I asked a lot of questions. We were able to pass a tax cut. It’s all about economic development, but it has to make sense and be fiscally conservative.”

Mr. Rivero also wants tax cuts, but suggested more of those should be aimed at middle class and low-income taxpayers, not just at big business. He said he and another colleague on the Appropriations Committee made the decision to work to withhold support for the budget proposal until concessions were made to accommodate their concerns.

“We did not support the budget without some kind of tax cut for Arizona voters, for citizens. It took some pushing around, some elbow twisting, and we took pressure from our leadership, from our governor, but we made the case,” Mr. Rivero said.

Mr. Cardenas, one of only two opposition-party representatives at the forum, said he will introduce a bill next year to bolster funding of the Elderly Assistance Fund, a program of the Maricopa County Treasurer’s Office. He said he has worked “across the aisle” with former Republican Sen. Russell Pearce, who is now chief deputy treasurer for the county, to support the program.

“This is really relevant to the Sun Cities and Youngtown,” Mr. Cardenas said. “The Elderly Assistance Fund, something that helps low-income seniors pay their property taxes; that fund is running out of money next year.”

He said a bill two years ago established a funding source for the program and he is working to continue that funding and expand the program statewide, though his efforts have been blocked so far.