Former Secretary of State Ken Bennett is challenging Gov. Doug Ducey in the Republican primary for governor, setting off a surprising intraparty fight over control of the state government.
Bennett announced Saturday that he wants to make another bid for the job that he failed to get four years ago, when he came in a distant fourth in a six-way GOP contest for the state’s top elected post. But while Ducey won that race, he wasn’t the overwhelming choice of Republicans, gathering just 37 percent of the vote.
Bennett thinks Ducey is vulnerable this year, noting that 63 percent of Republicans wanted someone else in 2014.
Ducey did not return a message seeking comment on his new primary foe, but J.P. Twist, the governor’s political adviser, downplayed Bennett’s entry into the race.
“It wouldn’t be an election year without Ken running for something,” he said, a reference to the fact that Bennett, after losing the 2014 gubernatorial primary, made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2016. He lost that primary race to Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu who, in turn, was defeated by Democrat Tom O’Halleran.
Bennett is basing much of his campaign on his contention that Ducey has mishandled the issue of state aid to education and teacher pay.
The state is spending less now on a per-student basis than it did in 2009, even before inflation is factored in.
Ducey, after initially proposing a 1 percent raise for teacher salaries in January, offered to boost that to 9 percent this coming year with an additional 5 percent the next year and 5 percent more the year after that.
Bennett, whose political history includes having been president of the state Board of Education, said he believes teachers deserve the kind of money the governor is proposing.
He doubts, however, Ducey’s claim that the approximately $650 million needed by the 2020-2021 school year can be found simply by counting on strong economic growth. The more realistic alternative, said Bennett, is to generate the money by broadening the state sales tax, imposing the levy on goods and services that are now exempt.
The way Bennett sees it, Arizona is far too dependent on income taxes. More to the point, he said those levies are paid entirely by state residents.
But sales taxes, he said, are paid by anyone who buys something in Arizona. And he believes that a third or more of sales taxes are paid by winter visitors and other tourists.
There is a basis for Bennett’s contention that more dollars can be collected with a broader sales tax base.
The most recent report from the Arizona Department of Revenue said transactions that are now exempt from the state sales tax would generate more than $12 billion – or more than twice as much as the state now collects.
Bennett conceded that taxing some of those would likely prove to be politically unpalatable.
For example, the state reports it would collect more than $810 million if it were to tax care offered at hospitals, with another $454 million if patients paid a tax when they visit a doctor. The report also says more than $641 million is lost because taxes are not paid on prescription drugs and medical oxygen.
The state also foregoes nearly $360 million by not taxing groceries for home consumption.
But Bennett said there are services that could be taxed with only minimal financial impact.
Consider the cost of having a windshield replaced – a business his family is in – which he said runs about $200. But the state tax is levied only on the half that is the cost of the glass; the services are tax exempt.
Making that service taxable, Bennett said, would mean a minimal impact on a customer but could generate needed revenues.
More significant, he said, is his belief that a broader tax base would prove less volatile to hiccups in the economy.
“We had about a 10 percent recession,” he said of what happened beginning in 2007, when the state experienced a similar drop in personal income and gross domestic product. “But the revenue coming into the state went from $9.5 billion to $6.2 billion over about a three-year period.”
And then there’s that question of making visitors pay their fair share.
He pointed out that Ducey last year signed legislation which says tourists who buy fine art in Arizona and pay to have it shipped home don’t pay the 5.6 percent sales tax on their purchases.
“So, if you’re an Arizona resident and you go to a gallery in Sedona or Scottsdale or Tucson or wherever, and you buy a piece of art, you pay full sales tax,” he said. But an Ohio resident does not.
But Bennett also parts ways with the governor on the issue of pay hike for educators – he opposes an across-the-board pay increase, saying that simply freezes in inequities, in which some districts already can afford to pay teachers more than others. And Bennett said a big chunk of the dollars should go toward improving the salaries of starting teachers whose paychecks can be in the $30,000 range.
Just like in 2014, Bennett intends to run with public financing, something he said will provide him with about $1 million if he gets the required number of $5 contributions to prove a base of public support. That is likely to leave him with far less than what Ducey can raise as an incumbent, not counting whatever outside groups spend on the governor’s behalf.
But he said the dollars should go further this time, at least in part because he has only one primary foe and because, with just a few months until the primary, he does not need to spread it out.
Former Gov. Jan Brewer, who named Bennett the secretary of state in 2009 when she was elevated to governor, told Capitol Media Services she will not get into the political fray.
But Brewer also has made no secret that she questions some of the decisions that Ducey has made since taking office, including his claim of being able to finance teacher pay hikes based on projections of strong revenue growth.
“It’s going to be very, very difficult without new revenues,” she said.
Bennett actually began his political career in 1985 on the Prescott city council. He later was named to the state Board of Education until elected to the Arizona Senate in 1998, eventually serving as president of that chamber.
In 2009, incumbent Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano quit to take a job in the Obama administration. That elevated Brewer, then secretary of state, to the top spot; she, in turn, selected Bennett as her successor.
He won a full four-year term of his own in 2010.
Two years later, using his position as the state’s chief elections officer, Bennett interjected himself into the presidential race, demanding proof that President Obama was born in this country as a precondition of putting his name on the ballot in Arizona. Bennett said he was simply following up on constituent demands, but he later backed off after getting what he said was sufficient documentation from Hawaii.