Journalists’ Roundtable

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Three local journalists will discuss the week’s big stories.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable. I'm Ted Simons. Joining us tonight, Mike Sunnucks of The Phoenix Business Journal, Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Service, and Bob Christie of The Associated Press. The state legislative session is in the rear-view mirror but there's still concern over various budget cuts and the speed at which the session was conducted. We're going to get to university cuts in a second here but just in general now, we have the first time we've had this group on since the end of the session. Overall, thoughts?

Mike Sunnucks: Well, I think the governor basically got what he wanted throughout the session. He kept the tax cuts in place, whether people agree with it or not, he got a budget passed very quickly, whether people liked the cuts to education or not and he avoided for the most part all the kind of kooky bills that got us bad pub. They're able to get the budget passed by arm twisting some moderates but they used those moderates to keep some of the right wing bills that people don't like to see in the news from his desk so he did pretty well overall from his agenda.

Howard Fischer: But, you know, there's all this talk about isn't this great? It's the fastest legislation session in 50 years, it goes to Ducey's quote/unquote, we're operating at the speed of business here, whatever the heck that means. I watched the session even on normal-length sessions, so much gets through there that doesn't get the proper vetting. The budget being a piece of that. There's $24 million out there, nobody knows how the governor is planning on spending it, there's legislation that we just found out about today that has to do with adoptions and who has to help people with them. There's so much that has gone through, and speed for speed's sake, I think they're beginning to realize that maybe this isn't the best way to do it.

Ted Simons: We had Senate president Biggs on last night and he says I'm here, if you have a question, come get me, I've been here. We heard these things before, you saw the governor's budget for who knows how many weeks beforehand, does he have a point?

Bob Christie: Well, I've heard his comments last night and I don't know how accurate those are. The governor's budget was out there yes, and they did have appropriations committee hearings where department heads came and in gave their proposals and there was some small time for public input but when the actual budget deal rolled out on a Tuesday, which they didn't tell us, Thursday they did the appropriations committee hearings in the evening and there were maybe several hours of testimony, four or five people testified, and then they were done.

Ted Simons: Back to the Senate president, what he says is between what the governor wanted and you had a chance to look at, he called it 99% the same thing so why dawdle?

Bob Christie: Well, why dawdle? I think the better question is why don't you dawdle? You don't dawdle because that gives members time to go back to their districts for the weekend and talk to their city council people and their local school boards and say holy cow, you're doing what to us? That's why it's done at such speed, regardless of what the cover is.

Howard Fischer: And there was much more shoved down the throats of cities than was originally planned, a bigger cut to the universities than was originally planned. There's so much in little details in there, things they did to K-12 funding that was not originally planned. And it's those kinds of details, they tried to fix it the last night of the session, some of the stuff about funding district charter schools and they couldn't get the bill through. You rush it through and then you say man what did we do?

Mike Sunnucks: It's a function of one party rule down there, the democrats don't have much sway at all, occasional issues and the rank and file don't stand up to the governor or leadership. They go along, they're steamrolled, especially on things like the budget. They don't say no. So that leaves the media once in a while to play watchdog and find out a few bills that need to be stopped but not having Democrats strong enough down there or enough moderates strong enough, especially on something like the budget allows them to push things through.

Howard Fischer: That gets back to the point. We talked on the show about Bob Thorpe. Bob Thorpe and the president of N.A.U. put out a letter, these cuts are unacceptable. And then they voted for it.

Bob Christie: Hours later. I mean, I think one of the takeaways from this legislative session is what appeared to be a complete meltdown of house leadership in the last 24 hours of the session. The new Speaker of the House, the new majority leader, the new majority whip, there was a small little pawnbroker bill that took up hours of the house's time, we're trying to figure out why they wanted it so badly and then all sorts of things fell by the wayside because they were cajoling.

Ted Simons: Not only that, but the Senate said we're going home.

Howard Fischer: I have never -- I've been down there since 1982. I have never seen a session end this way. I was over in the Senate, and Andy Biggs was talking to the Democrats and they said our business was done at 5:00. We're just waiting for stuff to come back and they waited, Gowan and the leadership there was sitting on some bills because they were in a snit over something. And finally, a little after midnight, Andy Biggs said we're going home and they didn't even call Gowan.

Ted Simons: No kidding.

Howard Fischer: I went over to the house and informed Gowan's chief of staff you know that bill you're debating right now? Don't bother because there's nobody to send it to.

Bob Christie: That was the election harvesting bill, that went down. Then they tried to put a few more bills up that just need a final house vote, they ran through several of them, but the other big one, the repeal of clean elections, putting it to the voters, that went down in flames because some of their own members are gone.

Ted Simons: The speed, we're going to get to the university funding in a second, but the speed of business thing, we heard a little bit of this again in front of the board of regents regarding business, business, business, are we hearing a little bit too much of this? What are your hearing out there?

Mike Sunnucks: Folks in the private sector like his background. They backed him in the primary and the general. They like his business background. A lot of them have problems with the cuts to education and K-12. That's an economic development issue to them and if you look at 1062, which was a big black eye to the state. Something like cutting education and universities to some business folks, more moderate quarters, that's a hit to the state's image, if you're thinking of moving a company here, your workforce here, you want workers that can be trained, you want your kids to go to a good school. I think there is some backlash in the business community. The problem is the official business community, the lobbyists, the chambers, they're in lock step with these tax cuts. They're very conservative. They're from Republican ranks and they like these things.

Howard Fischer: Not a lot of them. You talk --

Mike Sunnucks: Where were they then?

Howard Fischer: The problem becomes, basically saying to the governor save me from the tax cuts, save our university system. We saw this group of ASU trustees, many business people, head of Fulton Homes saying look, we can't keep doing this.

Mike Sunnucks: The problem is it's all after the fact and we've talked about this before. 1062, 1070, these cuts, it's always after the fact, they're always a day late and a dollar short, it's always reactive. They don't confront the governor and part of it is the speed of the session and how these ram these things through. Where were they when this came out?

Bob Christie: The governor will say where were they in the election? And president Biggs will say that. All the Republicans will say that. Listen, the governor campaigned on this, he's going to drive taxes down, he's going to cut, tighten the state's belt but here we have the head of the universities, the schools, and we haven't even talked about the social service cuts to Medicaid to welfare which won't get a lot of press, but the schools and the universities could get some type of critical mass going.

Ted Simons: And last night, asked the Senate president for his thoughts on what happened and he says, you know, the governor was elected on a platform. We were all elected on certain ideas and we did what people wanted us to do.

Howard Fischer: Well, that's oversimplification. Fred Duval never provided alternatives. I asked him right after the Republican primary what about these hundreds of millions in tax cuts that are supposed to take effect? Here's your chance to say we're going to save the universities. Oh, no, they should be allowed to take effect. There was no real campaign out there so it left it to Republicans outnumber Democrats and Fred offered nothing.

Ted Simons: Last question on this and again, the business aspect. Is there a disconnect between the idea of running a business and running a government where one is a slave to profits and the other is a slave to service?

Bob Christie: Well, I think so. The governor addressed the board of regents today and said I want you to come up with a strategic plan. I want you to tighten your belts. They have a strategic plan. It's been in effect for several years now, that they sold to the legislature that they work on. So now, they've already spent all this money on it. Do you want to reinvent the wheel because you want a new plan? It doesn't make a lot of sense.

Ted Simons: Talk about the governor meeting with the board of regents.

Howard Fischer: On Thursday, he came in and I think they were expecting some idea of okay, here's where we are, here's how we go forward. Instead, he says I want results. What does he think the regents have been doing? They said don't fund us on the number of students we have but the number of graduates we have. We're willing to do that. We're willing to show you how we've increased graduation, how more high schoolers are getting in and he says well, you know, that really isn't it. And then he has the hutzpah to tell them and please don't hike tuition, because it's very hard on students. Well, okay, what falls off the vine? It's fine to talk about you ought to cut administration. It was the same pile of manure that he gave on K-12.

Bob Christie: And he was asked directly is this the end of the cuts? Now, when the state gets a little breathing room are we going to see some, and he basically turned them away and said these cuts we made in this budget may be permanent.

Ted Simons: And there could be more coming.

Bob Christie: And there could be more. Who knows?

Mike Sunnucks: It's tone deaf to think about, he's a business guy, it's very tone deaf to cut the universities so much because they are such drivers of the commercial real estate market here. Where are the markets doing well? Downtown Phoenix, Tempe, that's where companies want to locate, the tech transfer. We trail other states in that. All these things that the economic development portions of the schools, it's kind of tone deaf to ignore that and have these cuts and lecturing I think isn't going to go over very well with either the schools or their backers in the business community.

Howard Fischer: Here's an interesting point that Mark Killian brought up.

Ted Simons: We'll have him on the show Monday.

Howard Fischer: Good, nice promo.

Ted Simons: Thank you.

Howard Fischer: He said maybe we're at fault ourselves. We haven't done a good job of telling the community and telling the business community and telling the politicians what we do here, how we are economic drivers. I mean, we've got a state lawmaker, head of appropriations last year who said we're sending too many kids to college and wasting a lot of money on these folks.

Ted Simons: All right, all right.

Mike Sunnucks: It's a philosophical thing because the folks at the legislature, the folks on the right in the legislature think low taxes, low regulations, no unions is the way to go. If you look at the states that have really successful economies right now, a lot of it's built around universities, silicon valley, people come out of the universities, work for big companies, commercialize stuff.

Ted Simons: You could write that in the sky in big bold letters, but this K-12 funding suit comes down the wrong way, they're not going to raise taxes.

Bob Christie: They're not going to raise taxes, not unless they're ordered to and that would create a huge constitutional battle. One of the things that happened when the governor spoke to the regents is Killian came back and said we're going to have to have the conversation about the Constitution saying that universities need to provide nearly as free of an education. Whether there's a lawsuit, it could be three or four years down the road. So how do you convince the legislature to fund them, do you raise taxes? And the other issue is the university has floated a plan early in this session to get out of the state retirement system, get out of the state healthcare system for state employees because they think they can do it a lot cheaper. They want to eliminate state pensions for all of their employees which will save a huge amount of money. They want to get out of the state healthcare plan and run that at the university level which will save them a bunch of money. Those are issues that Ducey will support, and I think if they go to him and put that in the plan, he'll sign off on some of that.

Howard Fischer: I think we may be headed to the ballot. I think that much in the same way Arizonans in 2010 were willing to impose a 1 penny tax to save K-12 and to a certain extent universities, and that had there been a proper measure on the 2012 ballot, it would have passed. I think if Killian and the regents got together and said look if you let us raise half a cent, we will get back everything you've cut from us since 2008. State aid to universities in 2008 was $1 billion. We're down in the $650 million range, we've got more students, inflation and everything else. And I think there's a case to be made.

Ted Simons: Real quickly, does a Governor Ducey fight that initiative? Does he just sit back and watch it or does he support like Governor Brewer did?

Howard Fischer: Given his history on the 2012 measure, I think he fights it but he's very good at doing one of these things and look, I don't want to raise taxes, now if the voters want to raise taxes, who am I to stand in the way?

Mike Sunnucks: I think he fights it vigorously. He's in a corner, he wants to be pure on this issue, obviously. And I think him and the folks on the right have such an adversarial view of the universities.

Ted Simons: Why?

Mike Sunnucks: You look at other states that we compete with, you see much more support for the universities. We don't have that here.

Howard Fischer: They're liberals at the university, there are Democrats at the universities.

Bob Christie: It's a wildcard in going to the voters and asking them for a half-cent sales tax. We got a 1 cents sales tax for K-12 education and the legislature cut the legs out under it during the recession and here we are three or four years later talking about this lawsuit. So how do you convince -- you're going to have a core group on the right that's vehemently opposed to any tax increase and the average voter and I can see a smart P.R. guy saying well look, you know, it didn't work last time, it's not funding our schools.

Howard Fischer: It didn't work because they didn't obey it. This is the 2000 ballot measure that raised the state sales tax by 6/10 of a cent and they said this is supposed to go to inflation funding. Well, we know what the trial judge ruled. The trial judge ruled what part of what voters mandated don't you understand? If they just get where the judge said they should be, if we add $336 million to their funding on top of the $4 billion right now, that helps make them whole.

Mike Sunnucks: I did enjoy some of the Ducey supporters saying if we grow ourselves, we'll go ourselves out of this. But they haven't -- those tax cuts have done nothing. They have not paid off. It's always the supply side kind of conservative view on things that we'll keep cutting taxes, low regulations and people will move here and we'll grow our way out of this.

Ted Simons: Pretty big names on the board, Carden, Fulton, that name is on there, as well. They are saying that these budget cuts quote send a message to the state and the country that educated citizens and long-term health of the economy are not priorities for the state of Arizona. That's a lousy advertising campaign.

Mike Sunnucks: It is and where were these folks during the campaign? You had a very different type of Republican running against him, Scott Ssmith who wouldn't propose these things and the business community basically lined up mostly behind Ducey. So we get what we pay for. We talked about this before. It's a very, very conservative legislature, a very conservative anti-tax governor, we elected them and then they did what they promised.

Bob Christie: And we cut a few hundred million dollars out of the budget in order to balance it. The governor came in facing a billion and a half dollar deficit over 18 months. They got that straightened out but he also passed at least three or four tax cuts, one's going to cut $30 million out of revenue, which is quietly in normal tax bill, we have to conform our tax bills to the federal tax law but they put in a $500,000 expense that's going to cost $30 million. It wasn't in the budget, it wasn't accounted for. They cut insurance premiums which will -- by the time it's fully racked in, 40 or $30 million a year.

Howard Fischer: That's the crazy one. They said we cut corporate rates years ago. If you cut corporate rates from 6.9% down to 4.5%, maybe you could say there's some economic development. Cutting insurance premium tax cuts gets us nothing.

Ted Simons: Not according to the chamber of commerce. We had them on and they said it helps make Arizona more competitive.

Howard Fischer: For what? This is a tax on the premiums that I am paying on certain things. I'm going to buy more insurance if suddenly, the --

Ted Simons: More competitive for insurance companies.

Howard Fischer: Oh, come on, come on. I'm not buying it.

Bob Christie: At some point, will the voices of the school supporters and the universities get loud enough to overcome the anti-tax forces? That's what we're seeing in the state and when that happens, I don't know. But you see this groundswell among the regular school supporters, the parents who came down, hundreds of them at the capitol and protested.

Mike Sunnucks: They don't care.

Bob Christie: They don't care but at some point, will the voters show up? That's the question.

Mike Sunnucks: The problem is if you talk to the Senate president, the people that elect them, the Republican primary voters, the people who show up, very hard right, very anti-tax. The chamber of commerce guys that are down at the capitol, lobbyist guys down at the capitol, very Republican, very conservative. And they tend to support these types of things. The more moderate folks, the folks that take out these ads, they're not down at the capitol, they're not voting in the primaries.

Howard Fischer: Which is why you need to take it around the legislature, why you need to do what Jan Brewer did in 2010 and say I'm going to the people.

Ted Simons: Yes or no, a lawsuit over this? The university funding?

Howard Fischer: I don't think so. I think the attorney is going to say look, somebody tried this a decade ago, supreme court has said we don't know what it means so why bother?

Ted Simons: Senator John McCain wants to continue being John McCain. Any surprises?

Mike Sunnucks: He's been raising money. Look, world events, what's going on in the country and with the world, right in his wheelhouse. Foreign relations chair, all the stuff with ISIS and Russia and stuff in the Middle East and Iran, these are his issues and so he can affect a lot of things. He's been a strong Republican voice against the president on a lot of foreign policy things. He's very relevant. Maybe if the world and the country was different right now, he might hang 'em up but I think he's in.

Bob Christie: I think he likes being America's senator. If you ask people in any other state, name a senator, they know John McCain and that was even before he ran for president. He likes being a senator. He likes being engaged. He's vigorous to say the least. I've walked with him from here up in -- he's nearing 80 and I'm a little over 50 but he can beat me.

Mike Sunnucks: He likes interacting with media, the voters.

Howard Fischer: I don't know that he likes it. He tolerates us once every six years.

Ted Simons: He likes interaction with the media that he interacts with.

Howard Fischer: Yes, he likes the Sunday morning talk shows and once every six years he comes back here and deals with the local media but you can see the contempt on his face.

Ted Simons: Senator Kelly Ward has an exploratory committee. Is this just making noise?

Howard Fischer: I think that she's surrounding herself like most politicians do with like-minded thinkers, people who hate common core, who want a smaller government, who believe that Obama is a commie and probably from Kenya and Muslim to boot, and I think that she's seriously considering it. I think that she's figuring if you strike when the time is right, you know, six years from now or does she wait for flake? Flake's not retiring. Then she gets termed out of the legislature.

Ted Simons: Can a Tea Party candidate get close?

Bob Christie: Everybody I talked to yesterday, when McCain made his announcement, was, you know, whoever challenges him might get 25%. I don't think so. I don't see it happening. He has $4 million in the bank now. He hasn't really started to raise money yet. This could be a 10 or $15 million race for someone to try to knock him off and probably still come up way short.

Mike Sunnucks: You hear all the conservatives against him. He's so strong with veterans, 20%, 25% tops.

Ted Simons: Why does the Tea Party hate John McCain? I think they hate McCain more than Obama.

Mike Sunnucks: He's been known in the past to take them on, on issues. That kind of leaves a bad taste. He likes to go on CNN and meet the press and some of the main stream media which they don't care for. He was the maverick, the anti-George W. Bush candidate. That changed when he ran against Obama. So I think he's not pure enough. Sometimes, you dislike people that are closer to you that aren't like you than somebody totally opposite.

Howard Fischer: People have long memories. This is a guy who proposed immigration reform, can't have that. And it's that kind of stuff that the older voters, the folks with long memories, remember. They want somebody who as Michael said is intellectually pure, ideologically pure and John ain't it.

Bob Christie: He faced a challenge from the right in the last election, in the 2010 election from J.D. Hayward, who is tried and true from the Tea Party cloth, very popular among conservatives, a fairly well financed campaign, had statewide name I.D. and got nowhere.

Ted Simons: 30 seconds left. Anyone on the democratic side come to mind? As a challenge?

Mike Sunnucks: No.

Ted Simons: Anyone?

Bob Christie: I heard a theory that if the Supreme Court comes down and redistricts everything and Krysten Sinema gets in a very, very touchy district, she may go.

Ted Simons: Anyone?

Howard Fischer: I don't think anybody wants to take him on. Just no reason to bloody yourself that way.

Ted Simons: All right. Good stuff guys. Good to have you here.

Ted Simons: Monday on "Arizona Horizon," more on university budget cuts from the chair of the state board that oversees the institutions. And we'll hear about an upcoming conference focused on improving the delivery of food, water and energy. That's Monday at 5:30 and 10:00 on "Arizona Horizon." Tuesday, hear from both sides on the merits of for-profit higher education. Wednesday, we'll look at how the legislative session impacted issues involving children. Thursday, we'll talk about a bill to reduce the crackdown on medical marijuana. And Friday, it's another edition of the Journalists' Roundtable. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great weekend.

Mike Sunnucks:Journalist, Phoenix Business Journal; Howard Fischer:Journalist, Capitol Media Services; Bob Christie:Journalist, Associated Press;

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