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Sparks fly at Republican gubernatorial debate

2014 Arizona governor debate Horizon

The six Republican gubernatorial candidates debated July 21 on “Arizona Horizon.” From left to right: Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Christine Jones, Scott Smith, Treasurer Doug Ducey, Frank Riggs, Andrew Thomas. (Photos by Evan Wyloge)

The six Republican gubernatorial candidates argued about illegal immigration, the K-12 education standards known as Common Core and economic development in a televised debate Monday.

Border security and illegal immigration were dominant and contentious issues, sparking several arguments between the candidates during the debate, which was sponsored by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission and broadcast on the public affairs show “Arizona Horizon.”

Some candidates, such as state Treasurer Doug Ducey, former GoDaddy executive Christine Jones and former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said the state must take the initiative to secure the border with Mexico itself.

Jones said immigration policy is a strictly federal issue that can only be tackled by the federal government. But Jones, who has advocated using National Guard troops and building more fencing along the border, said border security is well within Arizona’s purview, noting that Texas governor Rick Perry earlier in the day announced the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the state’s border with Mexico.

“As governor, you can and you should fix that,” Jones said. “This is decidedly within the rights of the governor.”

Ducey said he would use an “all-of-the-above” approach to securing the border, and said he would “reprioritize” state spending to pay for Arizona’s efforts, as well as find other funding sources, such as the possible privatization of the Arizona Lottery.

“A governor has to do everything that they can do,” he said.

Others focused on what they said were holes in their rival candidates’ plans. Thomas, the disbarred former county attorney who made his name as a staunch foe of illegal immigration, criticized Jones for saying the state needs only to build partial fencing. Secretary of State Ken Bennett questioned the costs, as well as Jones’ pledge to invoice the federal government for the costs Arizona would incur under her border security plan.

“You’re not going to pay for it with a magic wand and you’re not going to pay for it by sending a bill to Congress,” Bennett said.

Meanwhile, former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, known as a moderate on illegal immigration issues, also questioned how the state would pay for border security measures.

“Nobody here is talking reality,” Smith said.

Former California Congressman Frank Riggs said the state should focus more on internal enforcement, and noted that Smith opposed SB1070, the 2010 illegal immigration bill that became a shibboleth for Republicans during that year’s election in Arizona. Smith said he opposed it because it would have shifted enforcement costs to cities and counties, and said he implemented illegal immigration enforcement policies in the Mesa Police Department while he was mayor.

Meanwhile, Thomas touted strict illegal immigration enforcement, even during discussions of other issues. When asked by moderator Ted Simons about how to improve Arizona’s economy, Thomas emphasized the need to secure the border and fight illegal immigration, which he described as a massive drain on the economy and the state.

“We need to have border policies, frankly, that focus on securing the border, once and for all,” Thomas said. “It dwarfs other issues.”

Thomas’ assertion that jobs are being taken from American citizens by both legal and illegal immigrants prompted a rebuke from Riggs, who said Thomas’ comments were an “absurd distortion” that clouded the debate.

“To constantly blame illegal immigrants for every challenge we have a state is absolutely irresponsible,” Riggs said.

Several issues sparked arguments between the candidates. Ducey and Jones argued over Ducey’s criticism of her border security plan in a new television ad he launched earlier in the day. Smith accused Ducey of taking credit for the state’s relatively strong fiscal condition while opposing the policies that got it there, including federal stimulus funding and a temporary sales tax enacted by voters in 2010.

Riggs and Smith sparred over economic development, with the former congressman vowing to oppose targeted tax credits and other economic incentives, such as the now-defunct motion picture tax credit for moviemakers and the Angel Investment tax credit that incentivizes capital investment.

Smith argued that the Angel Investment program is broad-based because it focuses on a specific type of activity.

“I am not opposed to that, because I think we need to spur capital investment,” Smith in response to Riggs. “We have to look at a combination of things.”

Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, said he would push to simplify Arizona’s tax code, continue Gov. Jan Brewer’s moratorium on new regulations and promote the state to businesses, especially those fleeing high taxes and regulations in California.

“Let’s look at other states that do things better than Arizona,” he said. “In addition, I’ll be the best salesperson for the state of Arizona.”

Ducey also said he would push for “Texas-style tort reform,” a favorite issue of former candidate Al Melvin, who endorsed Ducey after dropping out of the race.

The discussion over education largely revolved around Common Core, which is a lightning rod for conservatives due to the federal government’s advocacy of the nationwide standards and the federal funding that is tied to it. Most of the candidates vocally opposed Common Core, though Riggs, who has made his opposition to the standards a cornerstone of his campaign, touted himself as the only candidate at most GOP gubernatorial forums who has pledged to eliminate them by executive order on the first day of his administration.

Ducey said the federal government is “purchasing obedience” from states through funding tied to Common Core, while Bennett said he would reconsider his opposition to Common Core if it was proven to work, but that even in that case he would refashion the standards to make them local and “get rid of all the crap in there.” Jones said high standards are a good thing, but they must be decided at the local level.

Smith, who has been supportive of Common Core, now known within the state as the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards, said the political debate over the standards is a distraction from other education issues. He did, however, say he would consider a moratorium on the standards so the state can sort out issues related to their implementation.

“We’re so (focused on) the politics of education that we’re not discussing what’s happening in the classroom,” Smith said.

Another education issue was a Maricopa County Superior Court judge’s recent ruling that the state owes $317 million in K-12 funding that was unlawfully withheld from schools during the economic downturn and resulting fiscal crisis.

Jones said Brewer and the Legislature did what they had to do, considering the dire fiscal situation Arizona faced at the time. But she said the state may have to figure out a way to pay for that funding if the courts ultimately force it to do so.

“If, at the end, we have to pay back that money, we’re going to have to tighten our belts,” Jones said.

Bennett said he’s the best qualified candidate to deal with such issues. The former Senate president said he’s the only candidate who has balanced a state budget, and that the last time Arizona balanced a budget without gimmicks or tricks was while he presided over the Senate.


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