Months in the making, candidates for the Arizona State Senate seat in District 26 met last week to trade barbs on issues facing the Northwest and the state.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Al Melvin and Democratic challenger Cheryl Cage sounded off for nearly two hours on Thursday night, Oct. 14 at BASIS Charter School in Oro Valley before a crowd estimated at more than 300 people.
Explorer Publisher and Editor Dave Perry moderated the debate, which he had worked on since July to arrange.
Predictably, the candidates found little common ground on issues from education to the budget and illegal immigration.
Melvin expressed his oft-repeated statement that the election in November would rank as one of the most significant political events in generations.
"This is the most important election of our lifetime," Melvin said.
While keeping away from the historic pronouncements, Cage assigned ample weight to the contest, expressing her desire for the state to change from the course the Republican majority in the Legislature has set.
"My vision for Arizona is very different from what we're seeing today," Cage said.
The Democratic candidate said she would work to stop cuts to education funding, and look at the possibility of eliminating state tax credits.
"We have $10 billion in tax credits and tax loopholes that the legislature refused to look at," Cage said.
Melvin, whose opponents have painted as anti-education, defended the Legislature's cuts to education spending as remarkable considering the state's dramatic declines in revenue.
"We did everything we possibly could to protect education," Melvin said. "I think we've succeeded in very difficult times."
Melvin said state education cuts under the Republican-led Legislature totaled about 5 percent, about $300 million over three years.
The incumbent also praised BASIS Charter School as a model for the state.
"We have to teach our children the best we can, and to me that's through competition," Melvin said. "Through competition we can do wonderful things in the state."
Cage retorted that Arizona's educational system already has competition and choice, but questioned the results.
"Arizona has the best school choice in the nation — what has it gotten us?" Cage asked. Answering her own question, the Democratic challenger said the state ranks at the bottom in school funding, ended all-day kindergarten and has the second-highest poverty rate in the country.
"Public education should be fully funded," Cage said.
On the perception of low educational spending, the candidates were asked what Arizona's comparative rank should be for school funding.
Melvin responded by saying public education funding has not been recorded accurately. He said the districts lump operational costs with maintenance costs, which he said should be accounted for separately.
He also said the state doesn't get fair credit for educational achievement.
"What people don't talk about is that we are in the 30s (among the 50 states) in terms of scholastic achievement," Melvin said, adding that Arizona schools could do better.
He said he plans to call a bipartisan commission to investigate how districts can more accurately record financial data and other statistics.
Cage said Arizona schools need more money and reforms.
"We should rank No. 1 in schools," Cage said. "Just because I'm a big proponent of public education doesn't mean I'm not a proponent of reform."
When questioning turned to the choice of venue, Perry asked why Melvin did not want to debate at Mountain View High School, a public school in the Marana Unified School District.
"You wound up way over almost outside of the district, in my view," Melvin said.
While not directly answering the question, Melvin went on to praise the four public school districts in LD 26, saying they match up academically with any district in the nation.
In response, Cage criticized Melvin's apparent aversion to a debate at a district school.
"When you said you didn't want to come to Mountain View because it was a public school, I was insulted," Cage said.
Melvin alluded to his rationale for not wanting to debate at a district school in his retort to the Democratic challenger, calling attention to a video camera Cage had arranged to record the event.
"This cameraman here, I was informed by my opponent, was bought and paid for by her," Melvin said. "This is a tactic the Democratic Party is using throughout the state of Arizona. They have their own bought-and-paid-for cameramen. They prefer a public school where they can stack the deck against Republicans and then they take the tape and they slice and dice it to see if they can come up with a hit-TV piece."
He criticized Cage and others in the Democratic Party for recording his public appearances and using the footage out-of-context in political advertising.
Cage offered to provide Melvin with a copy of the recording if he wanted and said a politician shouldn't be worried about video cameras.
"Public officials should not be afraid to be videotaped," Cage said.
The candidates were later asked if they supported all-day kindergarten, for which the Legislature has cut funding.
"All-day kindergarten is a necessary foundation for a child's education," Cage said, expressing her support for the continuation of state funding. Cage called all-day kindergarten a "long-term investment."
Melvin said the costs of all-day kindergarten were too great to continue to pay in difficult budget times.
"For one thing, it's $250 million," Melvin said. "We must balance the state budget just like any family's budget in this room."
The senator also questioned the educational value of all-day kindergarten.
"There are some education experts who say all-day kindergarten is beneficial, others say it can be detrimental," Melvin said.
When the discussion turned to immigration, candidates were asked their respective positions on Senate Bill 1070, the state's immigration enforcement law now winding through the federal court system.
"When SB 1070 first came out I was very much against it," Cage said. The challenger later added: "It's unpopular to say it's a federal issue, but it is. You can't have 50 immigration policies, it doesn't work."
Cage said she supports a national effort to tackle immigration issues, and would support a guest worker program.
Melvin, who voted for and helped write SB 1070, said the bill has sparked a movement in the country, prompting numerous other states to follow Arizona's lead.
"The primary responsibility of government is to protect safety and this is a national security issue," Melvin said. "For over 30 years politicians from both parties have pointed their fingers east and said it's a federal issue."
The candidates were later asked for their views on reports the state's tourism industry had suffered as a result of boycotts in reaction to SB 1070.
Melvin cast doubt on the losses in the tourism sector, saying many people planned to visit Arizona because of the law.
"I'm getting reports from people all over the country who say they are changing their vacation plans to come to Arizona," Melvin said.
Cage, however, said the state almost certainly had been affected as a result of the boycotts.
"I don't think any reasonable person can say we didn't see any impact," Cage said.
On taxes, the candidates were asked if they voted for the statewide sales tax increase voters approved in May.
"Yes I did," Cage said. "I voted for it holding my nose." Cage said she supported the tax because it helped to stop funding cuts to public education. She also expressed concern the Republican-led Legislature would not use the additional sales tax revenue to pay for education.
She again said the Legislature should look to eliminate tax credits and loopholes before enacting new taxes.
"I personally voted against it," Melvin said, adding he believes the 1-pecent sales tax would have a negative impact on the economy. "When you pull $1 billion out of the Arizona economy, 10 (thousand) to 15,000 private sector jobs are lost."
The candidates also were asked if they would support a statewide property tax to raise revenue.
"That's not something I know much about," Cage said. The Democratic challenger said she would have an answer to the question posted on her campaign website in three days. In a posted response, Cage said she would not support the tax and reiterated her desire to have tax loopholes reviewed.
Melvin answered the question unequivocally when asked.
"We must remain revenue neutral in the area of taxes," the senator said.
In closing, Melvin again shared his belief that the November election would prove the most monumental in decades and reiterated support for SB 1070.
"We have to secure the border, we can't leave it to the federal government," Melvin said. "We have to take full advantage of our state's rights that we have in our federalism system."
Cage closed by listing her endorsements, including former Republican State Rep. Pete Hershberger, and her willingness to look beyond budget cuts.
"If you believe a budget should be looked at from both ends, revenue and expenses," Cage said, "then vote for me."