Candidates for two House seats in Legislative District 9 appeared in a forum on the Political Roundtable to discuss the campaign issues.

Republican Ethan Orr, Democrat Victoria Steele and Democrat Mohur Sarah Sidhwa are seeking two seats in the district.

District 9 covers north-central Tucson, including parts of the Catalina Foothills, Casas Adobes, Linda Vista Ridge, Flowing Wells, Blenman-Elm, Tucson Medical Center and Sabino Canyon.

Read the forum transcript here:

Jim Nintzel: Good evening everyone and welcome to Arizona Illustrated for Friday, the 28th of September, 2012. I’m Jim Nintzel, host of Political Roundtable, our weekly analysis and commentary on local, state and national politics. Tonight on the Roundtable we bring you a special Your Vote 2012 forum featuring the candidates for the Arizona House of Representatives in Legislative District 9. This new district is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans making it one of the most competitive in the state. It includes the north side of Tucson, the Catalina Foothills and parts of Marana. Let’s meet the candidates for the two House seats in Legislative District 9. We have Republican Ethan Orr, Democrat Victoria Steele and Democrat Mohur Sarah Sidhwa. Thanks to all of you for joining us. Ethan, let’s start with you. Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you got into this race.

Ethan Orr: Well, you know, I grew up here. I was born and raised in Tucson and currently I run a nonprofit agency. I’ve done that for the past nine years. We help people with disabilities find jobs, and veterans. We helped 713 people find work and I believe everyone has a purpose and part of that purpose is the job you do. I’ve been a director of economic development both for South Tucson and for Tucson. I got their empowerment zone so I understand the importance of bringing good businesses to our community. I also…my parents taught for TUSD and I myself am an adjunct professor at the U of A, I’ve taught in the classroom for 10 years so I understand the value of education and I want to bring that to the Legislature as well.

Jim Nintzel: And Mohur, how about you? You got into this race because?

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: I got into this because I had issues I thought were worth fighting for, primarily amongst them education and science and math education. I found…when I was teaching at the U of A I found there were too many kids coming out of high school that really did not have critical thinking ability or math skills or especially science skills so that brought me into it but what kept me in it and gave me the fighting abilities were some of the more interesting bills passed by our Legislature and it kind of got me upset, especially when they took on…especially when they closed down women’s shelters for domestic violence and they cut off funding for hospice care and I thought to myself, ‘This cannot be allowed to happen, not in my Arizona.’ And then they started cutting education funding for higher education, universities, community colleges. How can we grow the economy, how can we possibly compete in the 21st century if they are gutting our K through 12 as well as our higher education and that just got me going because I love Arizona too much. It has been my home for 31 years and I felt I had some things to say.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. And Victoria.

Victoria Steele: I have been in Tucson for about 25 years and 15 of that within the district that is now LD9. I am a counselor in private practice. I do marriage counseling, depression, anger management, anxiety counseling and trauma. And I also teach at a couple of different colleges. I teach graduate students counseling skills and psychology and I have a 25 year career in radio and television. That was a long time ago. Most of that was here in Tucson. And I have been watching and seeing how people are struggling. People are really getting slammed by this recession and I have seen extremists take hold of our state and take us in a very bad direction and I want to change that. I want to change that and I’m going to advocate…I’ve been advocating for people on a one-to-one level for a long time as a counselor so now I’m going to advocate for people in my community. I’m going to advocate for Southern Arizona.

Jim Nintzel: All right. And I think you’ve all expressed some concern about education funding. Mohur, the Center for Budget Priorities I think just released a report that Arizona suffered some of the worst cuts or the worst cuts in the nation over the last few years. Your thoughts on education funding and how you would, if you would restore that.

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: Absolutely because we cannot ever again divorce the economic component from the education component in Arizona because we cannot have a ready workforce unless we have education. We cannot keep outsourcing our high tech stuff or in sourcing from elsewhere. Education is the key to the success that our children need. These are the tools, education is a tool for success. How can we possibly shortchange our whole next generation because of some mindless ideology or wherever these people might be coming from. I don’t understand their lack of respect for children and their education and that relates directly to the economy. We need to attract businesses to Arizona. We can’t do that while being rock bottom in pupil spending in pretty much the whole nation. We cannot allow that to continue.

Jim Nintzel: And Victoria, your thoughts on restoring education funding and if so where do you find the money?

Victoria Steele: Well, we have cut…the Arizona Legislature has cut about $2 billion from education, $2 billion with a B in the last few years and they have resulted in the firings of 6,000 teachers. And as Mohur just said, we are now at rock bottom in terms of per student funding and we cannot grow our economy that way. We need to reprioritize, we need to shift things around. We are spending much more money to keep somebody in prison per year than we are to educate them. It costs about $9,000 to get an education at the U of A for one year. It costs about $60,000 to keep one person in prison for a year. And that has been where I’ve seen the priorities be placed and that doesn’t make any sense. We cannot have an economy, a state that is dependent on having more and more prison inmates. That doesn’t make sense. And if we keep cutting education, we’re going to need those prison beds.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. And Ethan, your thoughts on the recent cuts in education and how you go about, if indeed you support restoring that funding how you go about doing that.

Ethan Orr: Well, it’s not just restoring the funding. I think it’s also choosing to spend that money wisely. When I was in economic development, I worked closely with the Slim Fast plant and it was troubling to me that I worked closely with their HR and we couldn’t fill those positions and in fact that’s why that company left because of our tax structure and because of our workforce. And so for that reason I was one of the many people that helped create the JTED in 2006. I’m a huge believer in the JTED. And then I was dismayed in 2008 when that funding was cut and I think if you look at why that funding was cut, it was because the Phoenix people looked at the structure of the East Valley JTED, which are three years programs, and they didn’t…no one in the southern Arizona delegation raised their hand and said, ‘Whoa, whoa, everything here is a two or four year program.’ So for an $8 million savings we put vocational education in complete disarray. I have already met with the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House and a representative of the Governor’s office and said, ‘We need to restore this because this is opportunity and hope for a non-college bound and even college bound seniors.’ The other thing that’s very important to me is looking at our full time student enrollment. I’m a big proponent…back in the ‘80s they called the two plus two plus two system but I’m a big proponent of dual enrollment where I can be a senior at Amphi or University and I can work towards an Associate’s degree or even a Baccalaureate degree. This is the best way to draw students into higher education and I think we need to look at those formulas to encourage that.

Jim Nintzel: Let me follow up with the education question. Do you support the one cent sales tax proposal on the ballot this November that would fund I think 80% of it would go to education.

Ethan Orr: You know, I actually don’t and there’s two reasons I don’t. One, I think a sales tax is by its very nature regressive and I think a disproportionate impact would fall down on the poor and the working class, people that I’ve spent my entire career trying to help. In addition, the thing that I look at, any time you mandate a revenue stream, people are good at shell games and they’ll find a way of taking that money away. Already you have the State Legislature that only controls about a third of the budget. That’s why you saw the spending cuts fall so disproportionately on higher education cause you’re trying to balance a 100% of the budget on 33% of what you actually control. I think if you support education the way I do, you need to elect pro-education representatives and give them the latitude and the discretion to make the right choices.

Jim Nintzel: All right. Mohur, the one cent sales tax proposal.

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: Education was one of the responsibilities of our Legislature and they were sorely negligent, I would say derelict in their duty there. I don’t like regressive taxes. I know they hit those who can afford it the least and a one cent sales tax is regressive. Having said that, I abhor an uneducated child even more. A child not having education through no fault of their own, that is much worse. So when I look at two things I don’t like, I will always err in favor of the child but we should never have gotten to this stage with the extremists in Phoenix that we would have to do that to ourselves.

Jim Nintzel: And Victoria, your thoughts on supporting the sales tax.

Victoria Steele: I absolutely support the sales tax. It is the only thing at this point that’s going to give us a guaranteed funding source for education. Our Legislature in the past ruled by extreme Republicans have taken the heart…they’ve just gutted it and they have left us with an international embarrassment, a national embarrassment with our education. They cannot keep taking that money. We have to fund public education and that’s probably and area where Ethan might not support exactly the Prop 204 as well because I throw my full support behind public education.

Jim Nintzel: Let me follow up on the public versus private education. Charter schools are…there are quite a few charter schools here in Arizona and there’s talk of possibly changing the Arizona Constitution to allow public dollars to flow to private, religious and other schools. Do you support that?

Victoria Steele: No, I definitely do not support that. I think with charter schools we need to have more oversight. There has to be an accountability that might be missing at this point. A lot of money is being spent through charter schools. I think it’s $1,900 per student for the building and construction funding for charter school students and you don’t really see that with public education. Also, with public schools the teachers don’t have to be certified. That’s frightening to me, that’s very frightening. So we’re putting a lot of money to a place that’s not held as accountable. I’m not in favor of that and I’m certainly not in favor of taking tax dollars and putting it to private schools because that means that there are going to be children that don’t get into those schools. A public school is for everybody.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. And Mohur, your thoughts on whether public dollars should support private schools and also where we are with charter schools in this state.

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: Right. When the charter school system first started, it was a pilot program under Governor Napolitano cause I remember that initially I was very excited about it because the way it was sold but what it has become now, it’s kind of like a scheme. There are some really good charter schools, really good but the vast majority have no oversight, they go into business, take the money, declare bankruptcy, keep the buildings that they have bought with public funds. That’s one of the downside because they’re allowed to do that. Because of the lack of accountancy, accountability and also because the teachers are not required to be certified and so they could be PhDs and wonderful or they could be complete ignorance. Nonetheless with regards to your question about private schools, I grew up in a part of the world where we had a two tier school system, the public school and the private school and that led to a two tier economy. Our public school produced the Apollo Program, our public schools produced the best scientists, the best innovators and that is what must be respected.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. And Ethan, your thoughts on both the growth of charter schools and whether they need more regulation and also whether we should allow public dollars to flow to the private schools.

Ethan Orr: Well, I’ll tell you, I myself am a product of public schools here in Arizona and what’s important to me is that every child has an opportunity for a world class education. In fact I have met with all of the superintendents in this area and what I’ve told them is, ‘If I get elected, I’m going to be a freshman, I can’t do everything but I will be part of the majority caucus which means that I will have the ability to do two or three things. Mr. or Mrs. Superintendent, what is it that would help let me support your school district and make your school district more effective at serving the students?’ And we’ve had some very frank and candid conversations. For example, Flowing Wells, Dr. Clement, wanted, and it’s a very simple change, but the school facilities board is auditing him because he’s keeping his schools open for the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods love him, he wants to keep those facilities open. That is an easy fix and that is part of the job of the Legislature to support an innovative and I think simple ways those school districts. Now that said, I think we do need to give access to all types of schools for families and for individuals, for students, and that may be through a scholarship program. I think that if a family wants to spend their…send their child to a charter school or to a private school or a public school, they should have that opportunity. In fact the concept is one that TUSD has been using with the magnet schools since the ‘70s. You look at University High and it’s probably the best education, in fact I would argue it’s the best education, the most rigorous education you’re going to get in this valley and every student in TUSD has the opportunity to apply and attend that school. I think the principals that drive the magnet schools and the principals that drive the charter schools should be in play for all families. Everyone should have an education, in fact that’s why charter schools were created, to give low income, less affluent families an opportunity to get a good education.

Jim Nintzel: All right. Let’s shift gears a little bit to healthcare. A big question that lies before the Legislature at this point is, provided the Affordable Care Act remains in place, is whether or not to expand healthcare to 133% of the federal poverty level. Of course we know that the AHCCCS eligibility has been rolled back for childless adults but if the state does expand to 133% we’ll get over a billion dollars in federal funding but it will cost the state a couple hundred million dollars at least initially here. Victoria, do you support this expansion?

Victoria Steele: Absolutely. I don’t think that we…we can’t afford not. I know it’s a double negative but we cannot afford to miss this opportunity. For every dollar that is spent here, there will be 10 or more federal dollars spent per person. If we have this, we can fund healthcare. It’s one of the big things that got me into this race in the first place is I’m seeing people whose needs are not being met. I’m seeing people taken out of treatment. I’m seeing people in the middle of cancer care not have their healthcare and particularly with AHCCCS. We need this. We cannot have people getting sick because they can’t afford healthcare. We can’t afford people going broke because they can’t afford insurance. I just had a friend of my mother’s just died about three or four weeks ago. She couldn’t afford health insurance. She got sick, she didn’t go to the doctor and then she died. It was stomach cancer. It might have been detected, I don’t know. But she couldn’t afford…people should not die in this country, in this state, because they can’t afford health insurance and if AHCCCS can do this, we can’t afford not to fund AHCCCS.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. Ethan, your thoughts on that expansion that would be necessary in order to get those federal dollars.

Ethan Orr: Well, I’ll tell you one thing, and I agree with Victoria, it’s a very good investment. For every dollar that I put into prenatal or preventative care, I’m actually systemically going to reap about seven dollars back. So I think anything that we can do to support women and young children is extremely valuable. I think looking at the implementation of the healthcare exchanges, I do like the transition that the medical community is moving towards towards the medical home model. What that is is that’s an integrated cost or basically an integrated health system where all of my provision and all of my health, both mental and physical, is going to be under the same thing. I’ve seen studies that say that there’s about a 25% cost savings in doing this so I think it’s an effective and a very good way of doing it. I also look at the healthcare exchanges. I think that we need to as a state get ahead and start implementing the exchanges because there are a number of principles that I’ve talked to people, healthcare professionals throughout the state that if we integrate those into those exchanges we can have a more effective system. For example, the health savings account concept, about five years ago I moved my entire company to health savings accounts, it’s how I paid for Lasik so I no longer have those thick glasses. But I think that putting those types of incentives within our own exchanges, giving people co-pays, graduated co-pays and then discounting that for preventative or well checks and I think even giving them the ability to set aside a little bit for the future really makes a lot of sense.

Jim Nintzel: And Mohur, expansion to the 133% of the federal poverty level?

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: I think that’s very essential. We have seen a consolidation of the market in the healthcare industry. For example, Tucson Heart Hospital had to shut its doors on its vascular and a lot of the stuff and move it to Carondelet which means we’re seeing a loss of beds while the population coming to Tucson for healthcare which is uninsured because of the cuts is going up so our healthcare infrastructure is in real trouble. This is no longer just about healthcare. This is an economic issue for our whole healthcare and especially our mental health community. This is unconscionable because we cannot gut our healthcare for our most vulnerable population. There’s nobody more vulnerable than the severely mentally ill who more often than not wind up incarcerated costing the state so much more than the $16 a day they would save on somebody making sure they took their meds. There are so many problems with the cuts to AHCCCS but the biggest one is what it’s doing to our whole healthcare industry. The unreimbursed care that our hospitals are providing are making them go broke. We’re going to see emergency rooms perhaps close down because they can’t afford it anymore. I never used to be a fan of the large hospitals until I saw what they were doing and how desperately they were trying to keep their ERs open. So we absolutely…this was a very shortsighted thing to do, we lost money, Arizona lost money and most importantly because we didn’t get the federal funds we can no longer train our…it gets more difficult…it paid for the interns who were coming here. Usually those who train in Arizona tend to stay in Arizona. Luckily other jurisdictions like the county, etc., stepped in and put up some of the money but the Legislature in its wisdom is even removing money from the counties.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. And on the subject of federal funding, the Legislature passed a law this year that forbids federal funds that pass through the states from going to Planned Parenthood even for health programs that have nothing to do with abortion. Ethan Orr, a good decision on the part of the Legislature?

Ethan Orr: I think anytime you pass legislation that’s aimed at an entity or an individual you’re usually going to end up with bad legislation. I think if you…the government should be in the business of funding function and the counties as you well know are constitutionally mandated to have a public health function. Now what I think needs to happen is that needs to stay there, the funding needs to go for that public health function and if there are people that don’t like that money going to Planned Parenthood, well, then I would recommend that they create a consortium of nonprofits or other entities that can provide that same function because to simply cut off money because we don’t like an organization without having an alternative to provide that same constitutionally mandated public health function I think does a disservice to the public.

Jim Nintzel: And Mohur.

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: It was not about women’s health per se. It was about choice and pregnancy terminations, that’s what this thing was all about and that’s what these arguments have been all about. If Planned Parenthood did not provide…it’s a very small part of their function, pregnancy termination services, this whole thing would not have gotten so blown out of proportion and women’s health would not have suffered. It’s about women’s health and as far as I’m concerned they are doing a service to the uninsured women, pap smears, mammograms, one stop shopping but not just for women but also for men. Planned Parenthood also serves men and so we lost all of this because of this narrow vision of morality that some people have. I am unabashedly pro-women’s health and I will stand up for it. I don’t care whether it’s through Planned Parenthood or wherever but I would rather Planned Parenthood because they’ve had a track record, they’ve had a very good track record and to demonize one organization like I’ve seen the Legislature do and use that as an excuse is just unconscionable because it hurts people. It hurts children, it hurts women.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. And Victoria.

Victoria Steele: I’m actually concerned as I hear Ethan talk because you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth, you’re with a forked tongue if you will because it doesn’t make sense. I think what really it comes down to is you are not supportive of women’s choices, you are not supportive of women’s health in that if you can cut without even thinking about it, if you could support cuts to Planned Parenthood that provides screenings, life saving screenings, mammograms, pap smears, STD testing, if you can cut that for women, for millions of women, then where do they get that. How can you so easily cut women’s access to affordable healthcare? How can you do that?

Ethan Orr: If you listen to what I said, I didn’t say that at all. And one concern that I have…I call this teaching civil liberties, I call it my Jack Bower moment. What we do is we don’t engage in a genuine conversation and I’ll use a quick example and then move back to women’s health issues. For example, torture. Should we torture, yes or no. It’s a legitimate conversation but what we do in American political discourse with these very divisive wedge issues is we move you to one extreme or another. So I say, ‘Well, what if someone has a nuclear bomb and they’re going to blow up Los Angeles in five minutes and you have to decide right now.’ And what we did is we just crossed that line and then I start walking you back. ‘Ah, it’s Phoenix. Ah, it’s a convention weapon,’ and you don’t realize that you just crossed that line. If you look at it, I actually didn’t say…

Victoria Steele: Ethan, where are you going? Where are you going with this?

Ethan Orr: What I’m saying…

Victoria Steele: We’re talking torture?

Ethan Orr: No. What I’m saying, using an example so that you can clearly see what you just did. What basically I would not cut, and if you heard what I said, I would not cut funding for Planned Parenthood that goes towards preventative healthcare, pap smears, women’s health issues. I clearly said that and I said that if you are looking to not have money go to Planned Parenthood, provide an alternative, provide a consortium of agencies that would provide that benefit. Now in terms of…

Victoria Steele: If the program is already there, if it’s already functioning quite well, thank you very much, why do we need to cut the services?

Ethan Orr: Again, I’m not saying to cut the services. Where I see what we need to be talking about…

Victoria Steele: Would you…would you, if you were elected, would you refund, would you restore those federal dollars to Planned Parenthood? Would you?

Ethan Orr: I would restore federal dollars towards women’s issues, preventative care, pap smears…

Victoria Steele: But not Planned Parenthood?

Ethan Orr: No. If Planned Parenthood was the only agency that was able to provide that, then that money would go towards Planned Parenthood because that is an important public health service.

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: What about choice?

Ethan Orr: I think the main thing in terms of choice is again, I want to focus on the 60% to 70% of women who are trapped by economic and familial circumstances that may not want to have an abortion and my argument is how do you help them. I think you need to support prenatal care access.

Jim Nintzel: And we’re down to about 20 seconds here so we’re going to have to…if you want to make the point you’ve got about 15, 20 seconds to…

Mohur Sarah Sidhwa: For instance, are you pro choice or…

Ethan Orr: Basically I want to support women, to reduce the number of abortions in this state. Now I do not believe…I do believe that it is a life and because of that I would do everything I can to protect that child.

Jim Nintzel: Okay. We’re going to have to leave it there. I’m Jim Nintzel. Thanks for watching and have a great weekend.