Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Prop 200 forum: Fear mongering and guilt vs fiscal responsibility

Monday night's Proposition 200 forum was a rousing-- and a bit contentious-- political debate.

Three local news media celebrities--Bill Buckmaster from KUAT, Ann Brown from the Arizona Daily Star, and Jim Nintzel from the Tucson Weekly--asked questions of four Proposition 200 supporters and opponents. Brain Delfs of the Tucson Firefighters Association and Jon Justice, a local right-wing radio host, spoke in favor of Prop 200. Brandon Patrick, organizer of Don't Hand Cuff Tucson, and Jeff Rogers, Pima Democratic Party chair, spoke against Prop 200.

For the most part, the players stuck to their media messages with Patrick and Rogers beating the unfunded mandate drum, while Delfs and Justice ducked the funding issue and tugged at audience heart strings with crime stories.

Currently, public safety is the largest part of the city's budget, with 64% of the funding. Prop 200 calls for a change in the city's charter which would mandate automatic funding of police and fire at a rate proportional to the population. According to Rogers, the only city in the country to enact such a charter change is Aurora, Colorado, and they are now bankrupt. Patrick and Rogers contend that this would be Tucson's fate if Prop 200 were adopted. They made it clear that they support funding for police and fire departments but take issue with the mechanism of funding, particularly when the city and the country are in a recession.

Delfs refused to address the funding issue, saying that "with growth, the funds will be there." Justice rattled off a list of city expenditures that he would cut completely or reduce--including Access Tucson, funding for the arts, children's programs, and the zoo-- in the name of public safety.

Justice also called Prop 200 opponents hypocrites because the Democratic Party supports the school funding propositions on the ballot but not Prop 200. Opponents in the audience chuckled when Delfs said that the school initiatives were not needed because "the state legislature has taken care of education." (Ironically, recreational programs, after-school activities, and education have been shown to reduce crime, anti-social youth behavior, and future incarcerations, but neither side mentioned these initiatives as a long-term prevention strategies.)

Justice made the most inflammatory statements of the evening. He repeatedly said that the Tucson City Council's priorities were "screwed up" and that Prop 200 was a way to hold them accountable. Specific funding of public safety via a charter change forces the City Council's hand, but I don't see how it "holds them accountable." He also tried to paint the Prop 200 opposition as a partisan battle. These statements appeared to be primarily hyperbole. The only specific example he gave of "screwed up priorities" was giving away city buildings to arts organizations for little or no rent (as if viable businesses would occupy some of these rundown dumps the artists now occupy). Judging from his website, Justice is using Prop 200 and Tucson City Coucil bashing to boost his popularity among right-wing radio listeners.

Patrick and Rogers said that the cuts outlined by Justice would be like "chipping away at an iceberg with a pick" because they would account for only $1-2 million.

After an hour, the forum ended abruptly with several audience members still waiting in line to ask questions. Nothing was resolved by the debate, but it was a worthwhile forum to discuss specifics and hammer out details. Thanks to Arizona Public Media and Cox Communications for their sponsorship.

This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column. To view the accompanying slide show, check out this link.

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