Journalists Roundtable

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Arizona journalists review the week’s top stories.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Joining me tonight are Mary Jo Pitzl of "The Arizona Republic." Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. And Doug MacEachern of "The Arizona Republic." The Wallow fire continues to burn forest land and threaten towns in eastern Arizona. Governor Brewer earlier this week declared a state of emergency and spoke with President Obama about getting as much assistance as possible from the federal government. Mary Jo, give us an update, first the numbers we have. What's happening with the fire and then the public policy?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Apparently, it's been a calm day up there, which has allowed them to do a lot of fire fighting but only about 5% contained over 400,000 acres affected in the White Mountains and Apache and Navajo counties. Either 50 structures either totally damaged or burned somehow. Lots of evacuations.

Howard Fischer: In terms of the governor's conversation with the president, one of the issues for the people living there, is information. They're having a hard time getting what they need and told the president, you're doing your twice a day briefing but what about interim stuff and apparently the request worked. The White House will do minor updates during the day and so it's amazing these little things make a big difference to the people up there.

Ted Simons: Doug, the full containment, at best, maybe three weeks to go. A lot of folks up there, businesses and tourism and recreation areas all getting hit hard. With that in mind, let's get to the public policy aspect. The blame game has already begun regarding how you thin a forest to protect from fires.

Doug MacEachern: It was inevitable it was going to happen. There's a lot of frustration on both sides already about what -- the reasons for it. Sylvia Allen, one of the letters that took off on environmentalists was complaining about the fact that they were restricting the ability of people to get in to thin the forests. It's an unfortunate situation. It truly is, because just last year, last fall is when all of the stakeholders, all of the interested parties came really finally came to a real conclusion with about what the -- what thinning would constitute. What size trees could be cut. And how they go about it. They just didn't quite get it past the planning stages in time. The other piece of the problem is that the head of the U.S. forest service said if we do the plan the way we're doing it, it might take 20 years to fully treat the forest. We don't have 20 years. Do you use commercial logging operations to do it, the problem the 20 years is the cost to the federal government and congress has been unwilling to come up with the money. The loggers wants the big ponderosa pines. The idea is are we going to thin out the little stuff. They've tried to get rid of, passed a special bill in the Arizona legislature to gather it and use it for pellets for wood burning stoves. You're stuck with congress funds it or you give the private companies the abilities to go in and get what they want.

Doug MacEachern: There's a demand for the pellet industry. It's an alternative to fuels and cheap. And the question is who is going to put up the money for the infrastructure in order to create that. As for logging, in Arizona there, no logging industry anymore. With the fire, the conversation is going to shift to salvaged lumber. You can go in a period up to three years after the fire and pull salvageable wood out of there. They're burned but not burn to the core and those have value but you have to wait until the flames die out before you do that.

Doug MacEachern: And that's going to test whether or not there's any real agreement between the interested parties as to whether or not you can go in and take those out because a lot of those will be much bigger than the trees they agreed to salvage.

Ted Simons: We should mention, the four forest restoration initiative is a big plan and we're going to do a full show on that on Monday. Keep that in mind for Monday. Before we get off this, budget cuts, are they impacts much in terms of fighting the fire and keeping things in order?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Well, the state officials say no.

Ted Simons: State budget cuts.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Yeah, the state officials say no, but it is clear there have been budget cuts and even as the governor was putting her budget together earlier this year, her office said, look, the forester's office has taken a 47% cut over the last couple years and luckily it's happened when it's a quiet fire season. Well here we are. And warned about further cuts yet the fire suppression fund has taken sweeps they claim because of some inefficiencies they can overcome that, but if it continues and other fires crop up and we have a couple more weeks of fire season, it might strain the budget.

Ted Simons: Another major story regarding unemployment and the idea of an special session at the capitol. To extend unemployment benefits -- what? -- 15 some odd thousand at no cost to the state.

Howard Fischer: But costs someone. Arizona provides 26 weeks of unemployment based on a tax on employers and it's a self-replenishing fund although we've will to borrow because we've been up employed so long. Another 53 weeks and the last 20 weeks was called extended benefits. If you been out of work for more than 79 weeks. But the federal says you only get it if it's 10% above the baseline. It's set for two years, but congress will let it set for three, in which ways case, we continue to get the benefits. Government says $3.2 million a week flowing into the state, people spending money and staying this their homes from a lot of people's perspective well, that's coming out of the federal deficit. The problem is while it doesn't cost them anything, it costs somebody something and that's where we ran into a problem today.

Ted Simons: The legislature was supposed to have a special session and get an emergency vote so that there's no gap. 15,000 people will get their unemployment benefits extended. And yet, there was no vote. What was going on here?

Mary Jo Pitzl: No vote. Not eveh a bill. I mean, there was a bill proposed but did not get introduced. Legislative leadership pulled it back because they didn't have the votes to make it happen. Why in because of arguments such as Howie talked about. There are philosophical objections to it and there are those who believe the longer you keep people on unemployment, the longer they'll be unemployed and less inclined to go and look for a job.

Howard Fischer: That gets tricky. Look at the fact, 9.3% unemployment. That only works measuring those looking for work, not the discouraged. One out of every 11 who wants work cannot get it. Are there jobs out there we were talking earlier McDonald's had 1300 jobs and something like 14,000 people applying for the jobs. And so the question is are there the jobs there for the people who want them.

Ted Simons: Doug, here's a question: I'm sure an electrical engineer out of work for a long time. 50 some years old, let's say, needs a job, to maybe go -- needs a job, may be go and get minimum wage work. If you're working all day for a minimum wage job, you're not looking for an electrical engineering job anymore. It's more than black and white here isn't it?

Doug MacEachern: It's a great question what benefits you the most. There's an economic theory that says if you extend unemployment benefits too far, you extend the length of your downturn because people aren't looking for work as aggressively as they would otherwise. That -- under these circumstances, in this recession, with this many people out of work and that few number of jobs available, that's a pretty harsh conclusion to arrive at.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And also, your example, this electrical engineer probably wouldn't get hired by McDonald's. Why are they going to hire someone who is 50 years old, who is used to the salary and has the training, knowing that that person will jump the minute a better offer comes along.

Howard Fischer: There's another point to remember. These folks getting fat and happy sitting home. Unemployment is supposed to be half what you were making but there's a cap of $240 a week. You could be -- earn $50,000 a week and get $240 a week. I don't see a lot of people saying I'd rather sit home and get the $240 a week. Even if they are eligible for food stamps and AHCCCS. I don't see this as a disincentive. We're the second lowest rate of pay in the nation.

Ted Simons: And this is federal money coming in. Yes, it impacts the federal deficit, but it's money coming this that a lot of folks are guaranteed to use. I don't think a lot of people are going to use their unemployment to fatten up their 401(k). Or whatever you've got. The people are going to use this stuff. I would imagine.

Doug MacEachern: Of course, and again, falling back on classic economic theory, money like that used to provide some -- a support for your livelihood is money that goes directly into the economy and most effective at at least keeping things at a status quo.

Mary Jo Pitzl: The governor just this afternoon said it's $80 million for our economy. This money does get spent right away and we want to keep that going. It's a no-brainer. What happened Howie? She didn't have enough votes. Called the special session without having the votes?

Howard Fischer: She insists she had a deal with senate president Russell Pearce. Figured she could get it out of the senate, it would force the issue. Russell told me this afternoon, said, I told the governor's staff last night they didn't have the vote, number one, and number two, the bill they were presenting wasn't the final version. We needed a few other things. From Russell's perspective, he needs antifraud and abuse measures. Accountability measures for -- to make sure people aren't just sitting home. House speaker Andy Tobin, said hey, here's the opportunity to create jobs. He wants to resurrect some of the bills the governor vetoed earlier in the sessionhaving to do with special tax breaks. Everyone sees it as an opportunity.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Open it up and it's a Christmas tree. But at this point, it can't be, the governor issued the call and it's out there. And it's limited. You can only do work within the parameters she set. Most tellingly is, the legislature went away and be back on Monday at 1:30. The governor doesn't have any strategy for going forward -- not going to do anything different.

Howard Fischer: Beyond that, not only not going to negotiate, my feeling is you take the weekend, you go out and use your bully pulpit, if you think you can get the votes, go out and get on TV and go on the radio and go to places and tell people, look, these people are hurting and build the public support. For whatever reason, her staff doesn't seem to be capable to marshal that kind of public support.

Ted Simons: Talk about that. The public response of something like this. As the academic exercise, people saying this is a subsidy. As far as getting the money to these unemployed people. But a lot of us know people who are unemployed and need the help. The fallout, what do you see?

Doug MacEachern: I see sympathy for the people unemployed. That's constant. I don't think people look at them as being freeloaders or taking advantage. The $250 they get a week. I think that -- I -- the governor was wise to pursue this, she would have pursued it a little bit more with a game plan. That gets to what happened earlier.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Yes. There was some talk during the regular session, the governor insists she raised the issue and the leadership wasn't interested. But the Democrats say we raised it but didn't prepare an amendment. Somehow, it would have been attached to the bill that was passed on the surcharge, it could have been attached to a half dozen bills and nobody did anything which is why all of a sudden they knew that we would fall below the federal threshold this summer and nobody did anything.

Ted Simons: Are Democrats a lock for this? Let's say the special session we wind up is extending the benefits but also with tax cuts and economic incentives that the Democrats don't like. How far are they going to go along?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Probably not far. They don't want to talk about something until they see something. They want a straight up vote on extending the benefits, that's it. We asked the minority leadership Campbell this morning in the house, there's been some talk about reducing the size of the benefit from $240 to the average of $216 a week, would you go along with that, and he said, we'd have to say, if it was a $1 deduction, ok. If it's $40, probably not.

Ted Simons: Last question on this -- what does this say about the dynamic between the governor and legislature. You had Ron Gould calling her Marie Antoinette -- What's going on down there?

Howard Fischer: I think the governor, I don't know if it's a feeling -- a function of look, I have nothing to lose -- is fighting with everybody. Fighting with Tom Horne her own attorney.

Ted Simons: Talk about that.

Howard Fischer: Talk about throwing somebody under a bus, here's Tom Horne who campaigned on the idea. I'll defend the state, I will defend 1070 with the Supreme Court. The governor, quietly without telling Tom Horne went and hired someone else. Didn't ask his advice who to hire and left him saying, as her counsel, I have to be supportive. She's very combative. When she was in the press room today, we we saw there, we asked her, governor, if you can get what you want on unemployment why aren't you willing to talk about these issues. I'm not, this is the way it is. And she's feeling her oats.

Ted Simons: Doug, you are seeing a change in dynamics here. What's happening?

Doug MacEachern: I think Howie is right. The governor is not going to run again so doesn't necessarily feel she has to sooth anyone's feathers -- she can ruffle feathers but -- [Laughter] -- but still she has certain things she wants to get through. Policies like the special session she wanted to accomplish and doesn't look like she's going to do that and I think there's some -- some bad tactics at play here. What do you make of this?

Mary Jo Pitzl: 2009, starting to look like 2009 all over again. When Jan Brewer came in as governor, open warfare with the Republican legislature about the budget and about her call for a sales tax. That was a long drawn out battle. Remember who won? She got the sales tax vote and I think that has buoyed her. She can champion the issues and suspects she has the public on her side with this one. There's a lot of sympathy for people who need an extra $200 a week to keep it together. They came together last year on 1070. Nice election year. And she doesn't have another election to worry about but there are a bunch of Republican who is do have elections in about 16 months.

Ted Simons: One is going to have one sooner than that. Real quickly, the business of the recall and the donations and Russell Pearce wants Tom Horne is wanted by someone, to give a formal opinion who can donate --

Howard Fischer: This gets into a bunch of issues. Arizona law says that corporations and unions cannot donate directly to a candidate. But they can to initiatives and ballot measures. The state elections director when asked about this was questioned, can corporations give to an effort to stop a recall because it's a ballot measure. And Amy said no, you're influencing an election. By trying to get an election not to happen. She said no. Well, the -- Russell's very competent attorney at least understands a lot about election law, says I don't read it that way so she prepared a Russell, a long, four-paged single spaced treatise going to ask for a formal A.G.'s opinion and that's almost as good as having a court decision. Tom wanting no part of the politics of this has said, I'm going to send it to the solicitor general's office, whatever the solicitor general says, is what I say. It's going to be interesting to see who can contribute and how much and when you need to report the contributions.

Doug MacEachern: But it gets more stupid and complex than that. [Laughter] There are corporations that are contributing to Russell Pearce's campaign. Corporations that have had their checks I believe returned now, because they're afraid of these conflicts. Had they not acknowledged the fact they were in Pearce's corner and contributing for his campaign, as if they'd do it for any other reason, they would have been able by law to contribute.

Howard Fischer: That's what gets interesting. Not so much the anti-recall effort but the team America which is Tom Tancredo's pack. You can do independent expenditures that U.S. supreme court ruling last year that says corporations are people. I don't buy that but a few justices did, and, therefore, they can contribute to independent expenditures and if team America hadn't been stupid enough to say we're working closely with Russell Pearce, they could have spent whatever they wanted but now that they're working together you run into different problems.

Ted Simons: We've got a minute left. We found out that Scott Bundgaard had been charged with misdemeanor assault and endangerment. What does that mean?

Mary Jo Pitzl: It means he'll go to court in late June unless they're still in special session working on unemployment and he's going to have to explain himself in court and possibly be up for a possible jail sentence.

Ted Simons: No charges against the girlfriend?

Doug MacEachern: That's the interesting thing, especially since both of them came out of the -- out the incident with scratches and bruises on them, but there were those five witnesses that said he was the aggressive one.

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think --

Howard Fischer: It's fascinating that we got a press release from Scott's publicist. You can go to jail for six months on one of these. This isn't a traffic ticket here.

Mary Jo Pitzl: It hasn't triggered a recall action. He's going to remain as state senator, it appears. And run for election next year and voters will weigh in.

Ted Simons: Alright, we'll stop it right there. Thank you so much. Monday on "Horizon" -- The wallow fire and Arizona's other catastrophic wildfires are a symptom of unhealthy, overly dense forests. Find out what's being done to fix the problem. That's Monday at 7:00 on "Horizon." "Washington week" is next. That's it for now, I'm Ted Simons. Thank you very much for joining us. You have a great weekend!

Mary Jo Pitzl: Arizona Republic; Howie Fischer: Capitol Media Services; Doug MacEachern: Arizona Republic;

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