Conversation about education dominated the League of Women Voters-sponsored candidate forum in SaddleBrooke last Friday, Sept. 24.
Incumbents and hopefuls in the race for state House and Senate in Legislative District 26 answered nearly two hours worth of audience-provided questions, many of which focused on public education funding in Arizona.
Republican incumbent Sen. Al Melvin and Democratic hopeful Cheryl Cage exchanged a few lively barbs. Republican incumbent Rep. Vic Williams and Democratic incumbent Rep. Nancy Young Wright also attended, along with Republican hopeful Terri Proud.
In November, voters will send one Senate candidate and two House candidates to the capital to represent the district.
Melvin stressed to the crowd his belief in the gravity of the November vote.
"In my view and the view of many, this is the most critical election in our lifetime," Melvin said.
The senator told the group of more than 250 people that the Democratic Party in Arizona and the Obama administration have given the people a clear choice.
"We want to roll back Obamacare by rolling it back and defunding it," Melvin said.
Cage sought to draw distinctions between herself and the current Republican majority in the state capital.
"My vision for Arizona is quite different from what is happening now," Cage said.
The Democratic hopeful, who lost to Melvin in 2008 by less than 2,000 votes, said Southern Arizona could re-energize its economy by utilizing existing resources, such as an emerging biotech industry and the University of Arizona.
Williams said he chose to run in 2008 to end a "borrow and spend mentality." He stressed his efforts to find balance between the government and private sectors.
"I stand here today because I've listened to you, the voter," Williams said.
Young Wright focused on education and the decade she spent on the Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board.
"We had five associate superintendents when I got there, we had one when I left," Young Wright said.
She said voters should be concerned about the level of spending on public education in Arizona, saying the state ranked last in dollars-per-student spending.
Proud said the state has to focus on lowering the tax burden on businesses to drive more growth.
"If we have no business, we have no jobs, if we have no jobs we have no taxes," Proud said.
Much of the questioning centered on the state of public education. Legislative cuts to public education spending over the past two budget years have garnered much criticism. Candidates were asked what level of spending was appropriate in Arizona. None of the candidates provided a specific spending threshold.
Proud said schools continue to ask for more money, though she claims too much money doesn't go toward teaching children.
"What's happening is the money is not going into the classroom," Proud said.
Williams said despite the cuts, more than half the state budget goes into public education. He said there should be higher levels of responsibility.
"It's not about money, it's about accountability," Williams said.
Young Wright was critical of the private school tuition tax break program in Arizona that allows residents to receive a $1,000 state income tax credit in exchange for giving money toward private school education.
"Something is wrong in Arizona when we're diverting $90 million into a private fund," Young Wright said.
Cage reflected on the commitment to public education of Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson.
"Our Founding Fathers knew that the way we were going to remain free was through an educated populace," Cage said.
Melvin stressed his desire to have more competition in public education.
"The more competition we have with home schooling, parochial and charter schools, the better," Melvin said.
The senator also defended the levels of spending on public education in Arizona, saying the state allocates more than $9,000 per child.
"I think we're doing a good job of defending funding in Arizona," Melvin said.
Continuing on the topic of public education, candidates were asked how they would improve school performance.
Cage said she wanted to restore funding for early childhood education, calling it a "travesty" that spending in the area had been cut.
"I would have all-day kindergarten re-established," Cage said.
Melvin said voters need to be realistic when it comes to school funding.
"We're going to have to learn to live within our means," the senator said, again citing the $9,000 per student figure.
Melvin went on to criticize teachers unions and others critical of education spending cuts.
"For all the public school teachers and the Arizona Education Association who come to me with one solution — to raise taxes, they don't care where it comes from — let them pay it," Melvin said.
Williams said more parents should get involved in their children's schooling, while Proud said she would favor a back-to-basics style reform.
On the passage and aftermath of the state's controversial immigration enforcement bill, S.B. 1070, the candidates were split on party lines.
Williams said he supported the law, adding it had had built-in checks against the racial profiling that critics of the law have targeted.
"We should enforce S.B. 1070 to the fullest extent," Williams said.
Proud also said she supported the law.
"I just find it outrageous that people say this bill is racist," Proud said, later adding, "We have state sovereignty, it's the states who made the federal government, not the other way around."
Melvin defended the law as well, calling it one of the most monumental pieces of legislation in the country's history.
"I'm proud to say I helped write it and I voted for it," Melvin said.
Earlier in the debate, Melvin said the costs of illegal immigration in Arizona were too high and that the state has an obligation to protect residents from the problems associated with it.
"Illegal immigration costs Arizona between $2 billion and $3 billion," Melvin said.
Young Wright said the law has had a negative impact on the state.
"I think it has affected our businesses unfortunately," Young Wright said. The Democratic incumbent distanced herself from others in her party who supported boycotts against the state saying she was not in favor of such actions.
Cage too, said she does not support boycotts of Arizona.
Candidates also spoke about their ideas to attract new businesses to Arizona.
Proud said she would like to see tax burdens lowered for business.
"I think we need to be more business-friendly," Proud said. "We tax business too much, it's entirely too high."
Williams said the state needs a long-term plan to attract large employers while focusing on improving the climate for small companies.
"Probably the most important thing we can do immediately is deregulate small business," Williams said.
Young Wright said a focus on improving the state of public education would help attract more employers in the future.
"It isn't all about a tax climate," Young Wright said.
Cage also stressed the need for better quality public education.
"We have to make sure our public education system is the best we can make it," she said.
Melvin talked about reducing business taxes, such as the business personal property tax, but also spoke about issues normally associated with national policies.
"We need to look at things like capital gains taxes," Melvin said. "Another is tort reform."
The senator also said national income tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration should be extended.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2. Residents not already registered to vote have until Monday, Oct. 4 to sign up.
For more information on candidates or to register, visit the Arizona Secretary of State website at www.azsos.gov.
Information also can be found at the county recorder web sites. Pima County voters can find information at www.recorder.pima.gov or 740-4330. In Pinal County voters can visit pinalcountyaz.gov or call (520) 866-6830.
Some heat from Melvin during debate
Things got momentarily heated at the League of Women Voters candidate forum in SaddleBrooke last Friday.
The league moderator had asked the audience to refrain from applause or making comments until the two-hour discussion ended.
Attendees complied for the most part, but when a group began to clap following comments by Democratic Senate challenger Cheryl Cage, Republican Senate incumbent Al Melvin took offense.
"Are you going to do something about this applause?" Melvin asked the moderator.
Cage later asked that Melvin remove from his campaign literature a claim that she supported boycotts against the state following the passage of S.B. 1070, an immigration enforcement bill. Cage said she never has supported the boycotts.
Melvin retorted by linking Cage to a group called Progressive Majority. The senator said Cage had attended a candidate training session sponsored by the group, calling it an "ultra-left" organization.
"She's been trained by Progressive Majority," Melvin said.
Melvin also linked the group to the Service Employees International Union, which had supported the boycott.
Many audience members shouted and jeered at Melvin following his comments, which prompted another rebuke from the senator.
"Madam, if you can't have order, I suggest you shut it down," Melvin said to the League of Women Voters moderator.
With order restored, Cage took her next turn to dispute Melvin's claim.
"I hope I had fun at Progressive Majority training session," Cage said, "because I didn't go." The Progressive Majority website does list Cage among state-level candidates the group supports.
In addition to his opponent, Melvin took aim at the League of Women Voters. In his closing statements, Melvin said voters should look at the stance on issues the group has taken.
"In the interest of critical thinking I would challenge everyone to go to the League of Women Voters website and see the issues that are important to the organization," Melvin said. The senator added that the group expressed "support of Obamacare and cap and trade."
The League of Women Voters is a non-partisan organization that does not endorse political candidates. The group does take stances on political issues.
The national league president, Mary G. Wilson, sent members of Congress a letter in March urging them to vote for the subsequently passed healthcare reform legislation.