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What about the biggest problem?

What about the biggest problem?

Illegal immigration is an inescapable subject in Arizona’s heated elections, but several policymakers are actively trying to steer the conversation back to the elephant in the room – the economy.

And some are encountering some limited success in moving the discussion beyond the highly emotional and complex subject of immigration.

Senate Majority Whip Steve Pierce said he started seeing the shift about a month ago.

Earlier, he said, when he spoke in forums people always wanted to bring the topic back to immigration and weren’t really interested in fiscal issues.

“Nationally, I think things are so bad… people are changing. They are starting to be more aware and they are more interested in the economy,” he said.

Immigration has dominated the headlines ever since the Legislature passed SB1070, Arizona’s strict new immigration law.

The law has also shaped the tone of the campaigns. Many credit the law in giving Gov. Jan Brewer a clear path to the Republican nomination, which she easily cinched on Aug. 24.

In the meantime, discussion about Arizona’s economy receded in the background.

But many policymakers want it back on the front seat.

“The 14th Amendment stuff (and) all that – that can wait,” said Sen. Frank Antenori, a conservative Republican from Tucson and a strong advocate for states rights.

Antenori is referring to potential legislation to end birthright citizenship.

Like most Republicans, Antenori backed and defended SB1070.

But he worries about what would happen when the recently approved one-cent sales tax hike goes away in three years.

“If we don’t have this economy going to make up that revenue shortfall by then, we are in big, big trouble,” he said.

Antenori wants lawmakers to hammer out an economic plan before the session starts next year, arguing that any fiscal policy takes time to make an impact.

“The day we hit the ground in the Legislature, our No. 1 mission had better be figuring out how to make Arizona the most business-friendly economic juggernaut of the Southwest, even of the United States, if we can,” he said.

Many others, like Pierce, share the sentiment.

“Illegal immigration is important,” Pierce said. “But while everybody has been watching that the state is on fire, the barn is on fire, (and) we’re going down in flames.”

Arizona, whose economy relies on growth, is one of the states hardest hit by the housing bust. There have been signs of recovery since the economy tanked, but economists forecast a painfully slow rebound.

In the meantime, state policymakers have been grappling with a multi-year, multi-billion dollar deficit.

- Luige del Puerto

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