Grand Canyon Institute

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Board members of the new think tank explain how it’s nonpartisan, centrist approach to research and education will help guide Arizona’s economic future.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons.
Ted Simons: There's a new think tank in town, it's the Grand Canyon institute A. private nonprofit focused on public policy research and voter education. The institute's stated goal is to be an independent voice reflecting mainstream American values. Here to talk about that mission are three founding members of the institute's board of directors. Susan Gerard, a Republican who chaired health committees in both the Arizona house and senate. She also served as director of the state health department. Chairman of the board George Cunningham, a democrat who served in the state legislature, and was a policy advisor for two governors. And independent Paul Johnson, a valley businessman and former mayor of Phoenix. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. Susan, let's start with what this particular institute is designed to do.

Susan Gerard: It's to put together good solid research, economically based, to help policymakers make good decisions about what's best for Arizona.

Ted Simons: Give me a similar sentence as to the design of this institute.

George Cunningham: Well, it's designed to elevate the economic implications of public policy decisions above all other considerations, including ideology. Decisions on public policy should be made on a number of jobs lost, number of jobs to be gained, economic expansion.

Ted Simons: Is that how you see it, with an emphasis on the economy, economic situations?

Paul Johnson: I think so. The key is what we're finding in our political system today is that it tends to be paralyzed bipartisan politics. People moving to each corner and unwilling to cross the aisle into work with one another. I think our goal at the institute is to try to ensure that we provide for solutions that hopefully can draw from the best of both sides.

Ted Simons: Were you in the legislature, what you see from a dispensary tans now, is this the legislation you remember when you were there up close and personal?

Susan Gerard: No. No, it's definitely more polarized that -- both sides. And I think even the makeup of the legislature left and right, is more extreme. And I don't think the public is there. So that's kind of why I'm involved with this group, because I think the majority of Arizonans really are centrist and want good solid solutions to problems, not ideologist based solutions.
Ted Simons: If you agree and I think you do that the legislature may be more fractured or certainly more polarized than it was in the past, what happened? How did it get that way?
George Cunningham: I think it had a great deal to do with the number of safe legislative districts. Where 26 of the 30 legislative districts effectively the election is decided in the primary rather than in the general election. And I think also over the past 15 years or so the emergence of ideological notions about how to address public policy have taken precedence over other types of considerations, including economics.

Ted Simons: Is that the kind of thing you're seeing, again, from a distance, happening even at city hall and city councils?

Paul Johnson: City councils and -- city councils have some of those issues, but certainly nothing like the lush. And for that matter Congress. I think what we're seeing is that we have these two parties that now only make up about a third of the voters, without any type of registration drive whatsoever, a third of the public now has reregistered as independents. The good news to that is that they're telling us with how they register they're looking for more centrist and individualistic or individual type policies. But the bad news is, they're leaving those two primaries with a voter that is a much more concentrated sort of ideological points of view and that makes it much more difficult for people who get out of those partisan primaries to then work with one another after they're elected through the primary processes.

Ted Simons: I asked -- started off with the -- what the Grand Canyon institute is designed to do. What is this think tank designed not to do? What -- people expect certain things out of think tanks, some here in town approach issues in certain ways. What is the institute designed not to do?

Susan Gerard: We really don't want to do -- base our decisions on ideology, but have anything, use as our higher calling, or what we always judge everything by is what the economic implications are for the state of Arizona. And I see that as being a more pragmatic viewpoint, what's good for us, not what someone's personal ideology might be about an issue. And that's why we try to have balance on the board between left and right and center so that we make sure that we're concentrating on not only those positions that are economically based, but also even how we pick issues to address.

Ted Simons: Can you be -- to a conservative, it's very pragmatic to never have a tax increase, and to a liberal, it's quite pragmatic to try to increase revenue and support government programs. These folks think of themselves as pragmatic.

George Cunningham: Well, I think that -- but the basis upon which they believe their practice -- they're pragmatic is not economically based. Simply saying that what we need is smaller government is not necessarily an economic decision, nor pragmatic one. That is a belief that smaller government is just the best thing to do. There are large number of economic analyses and studies that indicate that there are very legitimate roles for larger government. For government to be a contributor to the economy. Public private partnerships are very important in terms of the development of this country. The railroads that were constructed across this country in the mid 18th century, mid 19th century, excuse me, they were a public-private partnership. The government said, OK, we'll give you the land, you build it and develop the entire west. So those kinds of things I think are very important as part of pragmatism. It's not pragmatic to say the government should be involved in that at all, and she shouldn't be involved in any partnership.

Susan Gerard: I don't think you can call ideologues pragmatic.

Paul Johnson: I think that's true.

Susan Gerard: Being a pragmatist is identifying solutions to problems that you're going to be able to get some consensus on, and that will actually work and bring the votes together that you need. People who are ideologues, they're happy to stay in their ideology even if it means they lose.

Paul Johnson: And the result of that, look at it as the health care bill on the national level. I will disclose I'm not a supporter. I think putting $1.9 trillion into health care and -- it has bad long-term implication, but whatever bill you're going to pass, if you make a decision to pass it with old democrats, don't be surprised when the Republicans get control, all the Republicans do all they dock to repeal it. When they repeal it, don't be surprised when democrats come back and try to do the same thing.

George Cunningham: We don't share the same view on that, because the alternative to not doing what the health care bill is, is to keep the existing system, which is a total disaster. And is even worse than the economy I think --

Susan Gerard: the point is that when it's only passed by one party, it's very difficult then for them to maintain it. Because you're not going to get the buy-in.

Paul Johnson: And the same thing happened on the illegal immigration debate in Arizona. By only one party passing, it, have you another party who's bought into being opposed to it. The goal ought to be to take those problems that are common to all of us, whether it's health care or illegal immigration, and try to help find ways for the two sides to bridge the gap. And there are answers. There are ways to try to do that. It's just simply that the debate has become so polarized and partisan it's difficult for these people to be able to engage in pragmatic solutions.

Ted Simons: And indeed it has become difficult because so many of these people need votes to get into office. And if they're going to talk about pragmatism with all apologies to William James, it sounds like we're talking more about consensus, and compromise and consensus; those are dirty words in a lot of politics right now. Is that a goal of the institute, to get people to think that a compromise and consensus and the public good aren't necessarily bad things?

Susan Gerard: They're not dirty words in any dictionary that I'm aware of. I guess if we want to put those things in economic terms, we could see how the world would benefit from it. Again, everybody's got a different position. And we're trying to stake out the middle ground that we think is what's best for Arizona and is also where the majority of people in the Arizona actually fall with their viewpoints.

George Cunningham: We think the center ground is located where you have good, sound public policy based upon economic research. It's the economics that makes this organization a centrist organization.

Paul Johnson: Each of us have different ideologies, we just do. We recognize that coming in. But what we do agree with, we ought to be doing all we can do to move Arizona's economy forward, and we ought to be looking at issues from that perspective before looking at it from a left or right slant --

Ted Simons: So there will be research fellows that will be putting together projects and study guides. I notice on your website you mention among the goals was to invest rather than imperil K-12 and Universities. Voters elected a legislature that did just the opposite. How do you get past the fact that the voters elected-- same thing with I think protecting critical safety nets for families. Governor, legislature, voters put those people into office and while in office, they said no thank you.

George Cunningham: I think it's important to get back to the point that these legislators are elected from an individual legislative district. And very often they're elected in the primary. So the voters that elected that individual only represent about 10% of the adults within that district. So what you're doing is what we need to understand is that if you look at the statewide view bite voter as to what should be done with regard to K-12 and what should be done with regards to Universities, what the legislature did will not hold. But if you go to an individual district, a majority of them, it will.

Ted Simons: Isn't that saying if I could just run faster I would be a better baseball player?

Paul Johnson: I think there's no panacea. The way we elect people today personally I am an advocate of change. I think we should move to more of an open primary system. George has also talked about trying to have competitive districts. But remember, it's also important to have ideas coming out of a group that give people the ability to bridge over to the other side. That's our focus. That's our goal, to try to find a way to bridge the gap between sides to give lawmakers possible solutions that can work in the center.

Ted Simons: Is that how you see it as well?

Susan Gerard: I do.

Ted Simons: And will lawmakers cross that bridge?

Susan Gerard: I think that there's plenty of lawmakers that want to do what's right for Arizona, but they're being -- they're getting the pressure to vote with their party. We saw the example this session, when a group of business leaders sent letters to all the members saying, OK, this immigration laws that you're proposing are going to really hurt us. It gave them the backup, it gave them information that they needed that they were then able to go against their party and know that they would have maybe some protection, but it gave them backup to do the right thing. Getting good solid economically based research information to elected officials where there's really no source for it right now that can help them make better decisions and maybe stand up to the ideology.

George Cunningham: We really believe that the Grand Canyon institute's research agenda, once it is underway, will provide the intellectual capital that is needed at the legislature for decisions to be made on the basis of economics. And that is I think why we're here.

Ted Simons: If you show a lawmaker at the state capitol that X plus Y equals Z, and Z is the best way to go, and yet fundamentally these folks look at X and Y and say I just can't support -- will there be lobbying efforts? Are you going to throw the paper at them, say, here, do the math and figure it out? What gives?

Susan Gerard: It will be information that others can use to lobby the legislature. Because remember, we're a 501(c)3, we can't be doing that kind of stuff.

Ted Simons: That's right.

Paul Johnson: No silver bullet. They don't exist. It's a part of the bigger wheel here that says that today the answers are being put out by the think tanks tend to be ideologically driven. There's no group that is looking at how do we bridge the gap, come up with answers both groups can utilize. That doesn't mean they'll support our conclusions just that it gives them something else to look at, something to back up their decisions by, and we're hoping the research we do is empirical enough that we are -- we can be assured that it's backed factually.

George Cunningham: Just a small point of clarification. 501(c)3s, Susan is right, are restrictive, but there is an allowance for approximately 20% of its total activity to be engaged in legislative advocacy or advocacy of governing bodies. And we would not be under the illusion that you can do your research and you can communicate it and message it and not do some advocacy at the legislature and have any success. You've got to do that to have success.

Ted Simons: Very quickly, focused entirely on Arizona, or national issues? What do you think?

Susan Gerard: Arizona.

Paul Johnson: Arizona.

Ted Simons: At least for now.

George Cunningham: Arizona.

Susan Gerard: There could be outside forces that affect Arizona that we would look at.

Ted Simons: OK. Very good. It sounds encouraging. It's good to have you on the program. Thanks for joining us.

Susan Gerard: Thank you.

Paul Johnson: Thank you.

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