In Tucson, Proposition 204 started a range war — between business and taxpayers

Prop. 204 is about kids and pre-school. In a state well known for starving schools to fund business, taxpayers are demanding a people-first approach, starting with their children. The business community isn’t happy…

©2017 Andrea Padilla, used by permission

It’s “poorly written,” “vague” and “lacking in oversight,” they say. Opponents of Proposition 204 are arguing that the measure is an incompetent attempt by amateurs because, well, it is impossible to win with “preschool is bad.”

On the one hand, business leaders, who seek to protect their ironclad lock on economic development priorities. On the other, the educators and parents who crafted the measure. In between, a simple referendum that is, by the way, exactly what its creators claim and exactly not what the opponents would like you to believe.

For both sides, it has become a proxy fight about who controls the soul of Tucson. Does Tucson continue to go all-in on a Business-First, “trickle-down” strategy for economic development, or begin to spend some development money on citizen services, a People First strategy now getting results in some of the country’s most successful cities.

The usual cast of characters, led by local Chambers of Commerce are back to inform you that Tucson “can’t do.” They’re repeating the strategy they used to oppose a minimum wage increase and, well, everything that doesn’t directly fund Tucson’s business-ruled economic strategy. The playbook is so well-honed that spokespeople aren’t really trying this time, offering up only vague, general indictments. But these criticisms don’t survive even a cursory fact check and rely simply on repetition to earn an illusion of respectability.

The back story is that Tucson arrived here because the three-decade desperation-experiment in putting business first never worked. Originally founded on good intentions, it has been a colossal failure. The Business First Era is marked by stagnant wages, the end of company-paid retirement, rising prices, declining opportunities, and college that’s only for rich people. Just as in other towns across the country, there was almost no trickle down.

But still (though Tucson is among the poorest cities in the country) businesses continue to wage an ongoing battle against a living wage. (Or in case of Tucson, half a living wage.) And many businesses continue to rely on welfare to administer their benefits program, which is an especially venal choice in Arizona.

It is safe to say that when business folks gather in a room, they’re not talking about how to make your kids happier or more successful. Even after acknowledging the important role businesses play in city life, their interests simply don’t align with taxpayers.

But the issue isn’t about bad guys and good guys. Business people aren’t demons, they simply aren’t suited to run public policy. The fight, here, is about the suitability to craft a win. Business leaders have turned out to be less adept at improving life than citizen-focused government ever was.

Sadly, Business-First hasn’t been great for local business either. The Bush Recession hit Tucson longer and harder than almost anywhere. And it killed off more than a few going concerns along the way.

What about Prop. 204? the citizen referendum enables a small increase in the sales tax, half a penny, to provide preschool to Tucson kids on a sliding scale basis. It should fund about 8,500 seats, about enough to pay for Tucson’s low and moderate-income kids. And it isn’t as regressive as it sounds, because Tucson doesn’t sales-tax most subsistence purchases.

©2017 Scott Christie, used by permission

Let’s debunk a few claims by opponents…

It is “poorly written.” This idea relies on the hope that voters think they can’t understand “the legal stuff” or won’t bother to read it. But if you can read this, you can read that. It’s two pages. I don’t need to debunk. Voters just need to look. Judge for yourself.

It’s “vague.” This is perhaps the least honest claim by the business community. The people who say this know full well it’s a deception. Here’s why: The nature of a law is to set out a purpose. But that’s­ — for every law — just the beginning. “Regulations” are the next critical component. Always. After a law is passed, the government (in this case, the City) writes the rules, as regulations. These determine how the law functions. And this is where the specificity always happens. Staff writes the regulations, then the Council approves them. Or not. Adopted regulations have the force of law.

The opponents of Prop. 204 know all of this. They know that regulations are where their innuendo-plagued complaints are properly addressed. They know it well, because they often try to influence drafting of regulations to weaken laws they don’t like. In this law, like every law, every one of the complaints made by Prop. 204 opponents could — and would — be addressed in those enabling regulations. In other words, in the normal way.

The 8% overhead is “too high.” First, eight percent is low. Johns Hopkins University charges 46% overhead to the US government for taxpayer-funded research. Knowing that is how I once got them to pay me 25%. Most government contractors demand at least 15%. It’s not a slush fund.

Prop. 204 supporters say that the money would include reimbursement for city and state government costs to collect and repatriate the tax (as well as the commission and the enrollment process.) That’s not in the referendum itself, which may well be a legitimate complaint. But it could and should be written into the enabling regulations. No harm, no foul.

It allows “commission members to enrich themselves” by self-dealing. This law doesn’t need to specify that no one can cheat. Tucson has a Code of Ethics that prevents board and commission members from self-dealing. In a layer above that, the Mayor and Council appoint commission members, so any bad seeds would have to be bad appointments. The Code also provides for instant removal “at will.”

Of course, the list goes on and on. That’s because it is always easier to invent a new claim than to defend a debunked one. Expect the claims to get nuttier.

What’s at stake…
Prop. 204 begins the process of rectifying the woeful state of education in Arizona. Do voters really want to live in a town where kids can’t rise as high as their intellect and effort will carry them? Where they can’t arrive at school ready to learn? Where they won’t get the best opportunity to learn? Or where they will never be able to pay for college? It all starts at the base, at preschool, for the first 8,500 children. That’s more than half of age-eligible kids and — with the right regulations — most everyone who needs financial help. It’s a good, ambitious start.

But something else is in play here too, something equally important. Prop. 204, a referendum on the ballot, is also the chance for regular citizens to instruct government in the kind of city they want and the priorities they want for the taxes they pay.

Prop 204, as written, regulated and enacted, offers a new view of how to do economic development, but not an untested one. Do we make our citizens and city more attractive, or do we use our tax money for business relocation bribes? Tucson has let its attractiveness decline, because it put all its chips on Business First. And Business First failed. But Tucson still has some cultural and environmental assets.

Bloomberg just published an interesting analysis of where America’s brainiest folks are moving. No surprises here, Boulder, San Francisco, San Jose and Fort Collins topped the list. These cities have economic development programs. But they rely on their educated population and their unique geographic amenities to attract companies. They are cool. They are pretty. And they are People First.

Tucson has the same potential, just not the same model. Basically, they’ve got one dominant company (Raytheon,) one rich guy (a successful car dealer who is bankrolling opposition to the measure,) and cheap bulldozers (from a shocking economic development deal with Caterpillar.) But the general success (of everyone) is what attracts companies to those other cities. Taxpayer funds aren’t used to create the deal, they’re just used to seal the deal. To create the deal, taxpayer funds are invested in taxpayers, and their families. Isn’t that a smarter strategy than trickle-down? It appears so.

Opponents will also tell you that it is not fair to help any child until you can help every child. But you don’t wait to count the wounded before you send out the ambulance. And you don’t stay in the station if they all won’t fit.

Sure, it’s not fair, it’s not right and a sales tax isn’t the best way to fund education. But this is Arizona. And if you want to be Tucson — the fun loving, people loving, plucky and perfect blend of Mexican, European, First Person and other cultures — and you want to be that Tucson in Arizona, you need to smash the barriers and cast off the losing strategies. Maybe Tucson, and cities like it, only need to return to a People-First playbook.

Tucson voters will decide Prop. 204 on November 7th.