/ Modified oct 18, 2012 8:19 a.m.

LD11 State Senate Forum

Republican Al Melvin and Democrat Jo Holt discuss issues

Read the transcript of this forum here:

Christopher Conover: Good evening and welcome to Arizona Illustrated for Wednesday, October 17th, 2012. I’m Christopher Conover. Tonight as part of our continuing coverage of Your Vote 2012 we bring you a forum between the two candidates running for State Senate in Legislative District 11. Let’s start by welcoming Democrat Jo Holt and Republican Al Melvin. Both of you, thank you so much for coming in.

Both: Good to be here.

Christopher Conover: Let’s start with you, Jo. People know Senator Melvin. Take a few minutes, introduce yourself to our viewers. You’re a political newcomer, if you will.

Jo Holt: I am. I am. I’m a newbie. I’m a newbie. This is my first time to run for public office. I’m actually a retired research scientist. My field was biochemistry and molecular biophysics. So I was actually at the University of Arizona in the ‘80s. My son was born here at TMC but then I spent about 15 years at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis before I had the opportunity to return to…I fell in love with Tucson. I’ve always wanted to come back to Tucson.

Christopher Conover: And Senator Melvin, you’re not stranger to our audience but Tucson’s a growing town, maybe some people don’t know who you are so if you can take a minute and just reintroduce yourself.

Al Melvin: Sure. Thanks. Born in Montana, my father was a career Army officer which makes me an Army brat and we were able to travel throughout Europe, the Far East and the U.S. in his career, became an Eagle scout which helped me get into the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy which started a 30 year career in the Naval Reserve retiring as a Captain in 1999 and I’ve spent 40 years in international trade and transportation and I’ve had the honor and the pleasure of representing my district in the Arizona Senate for four years now and I’m running for my third two year term.

Christopher Conover: Well, let’s start with topics. When it comes to legislation, the one overarching theme we hear throughout the session is always the budget. It is the big controlling issue it seems like. It’s been down for the past few years, this year was the first time the state put money back in the rainy day fund in a little while so let’s start with a fundamental question. Arizona is growing, which does put more stress on state services, so are budget problems, are they a spending problem or a revenue problem? Senator Melvin, we’ll start with you and then we’ll come to you Ms. Holt.

Al Melvin: Well, I went to the Senate four years ago and when I got there the budget was $11.6 billion, it’s now $8.6 billion so we’ve reduced it by $3 billion and as a result we went from the bottom 10 to the top 10 states out of 50 in three critical categories. We’re now number one for business startups, number four for job creation and we’re in the top 10 for a great business climate as a state. So good things are happening but we have to be cautious of the new revenue coming in. I and my party are opposed to this permanent one cent sales tax. We believe that’s the last thing we need in a recession. We believe that would be a job killer and we just don’t need it. But we think we can grow the state’s prosperity through new jobs and we’re doing it. We’ve just opened up two new offices in California, one in Silicon Valley and one in Los Angeles, to attract California companies here so we’re moving along. Intel’s building a multi-billion dollar facility at Fab 42 up, when you drive up to Phoenix that’s to the east of I-10. They’re building a $300 million R&D facility. The UP is looking at a $250 million facility at Red Rock so good things are happening.

Christopher Conover: Ms. Holt, the same question for you. Do we have a revenue problem or a spending problem?

Jo Holt: Uh, yes. Yes, we do. I think that my concern with the current State Legislature is that they focus entirely on cutting spending and spend very, very little effort even talking about revenue or revenue streams. I think that Arizona is in the same boat as many other states, in order to recover completely from this recession we really have to have a balanced approach. Yes, we have to have some cuts in virtually everything that the state does but there are some fundamental things that can be done with respect to revenue that we need to at least start talking about. Senator Melvin says that we rank number four in the country in jobs…growth in jobs but that very same report that put us at number four also makes it very clear that job growth is still anemic. You can still be number four and have fairly anemic job growth. I believe that we have to have a balanced approach and we really have to talk about revenue and set the ideology aside and focus on what works in a more pragmatic way.

Christopher Conover: You both mentioned jobs and that’s something I want to come back to. It’s a very common theme this election season at all levels but let’s stay on the budget for a moment. Can you give me an example, and we’ll start with you, Ms. Holt, then we’ll come to you, Mr. Melvin, of a specific program in the budget, it just needs to go? These are tight budget times and that’s something that can go and can you also conversely give me a specific example of a program that needs to stay and potentially expand even and how do you do that in these tough budget times? And we’ll start with you, Ms. Holt.

Jo Holt: I think the top thing on my list would be the money that the state is spending in private prisons. I believe that this is not a good use of taxpayer money and that that would be…that would be a cut that I would make. In terms of producing revenue, the hard things, the hard decisions that have to be made in reforming our state tax code and that includes the sales tax code in particular. There is…according to the department of revenue there’s money in that sales tax code. According to economics here at Eller and up at Morrison, we are really handing out so many tax incentives and tax credits, subsidies really at this point, that’s a form of spending that could be converted back to revenue if we weren’t doing that. I think that reforming the tax code is obviously a very, very large task here. We need to send people to Phoenix who are willing to take that task on and once again leave the ideology behind.

Christopher Conover: Senator Melvin, same question. Is there a program that it can just go and is there one that is for lack of a better term sacred and must stay?

Al Melvin: Well, I think over the last four years in order to get the budget balanced we have right size government, it wasn’t an across the board reduction of all parts, it was a systematic department by department reduction. And I like to bring up whenever the subject comes up is that the state budget is no different than a family budget. The difficulty for each family sitting down, making sure that expenditures don’t exceed income. The same is true with the state, unfortunately at the federal government we’re running a $16 trillion debt. I wish the federal government would be as responsible as the state government. But in areas that I think actually could be increased, there’s two areas in education that really appeal to me and when I’m not at the Senate I teach at the college level. One is Teach for America where we get the most, some of the most outstanding students from our best universities including the U of A, ASU to go into education to our…the most failing public schools and the worst school districts. That’s one and it’s been a huge success. The other is a program like Rosetta Stone. There’s a company up in Utah by the name of Imagine Learning and they’ve had phenomenal success with third graders getting them up to speed in English. So I think good things are happening and I’m going to work in particular on those two projects as well as restoring the fourth year to JTED, the Joint Technical Education Districts.

Christopher Conover: You both mentioned jobs a couple of times so let’s talk about jobs. As we all acknowledge, that’s a very popular topic this campaign season at all levels of campaigning but without expanding government how does an elected official create a job and we’ll start with you, Senator Melvin.   Al Melvin: Well, I firmly believe that governments…it’s not our job to create jobs, it’s the private sector but we want to do everything to help the private sector do it. One area that really excites me is the area of data centers. There are two companies that come to mind, USAA and Edward Jones, both with headquarters in the east. About 10 years ago they decided to create a data center each, their own, in Arizona that duplicated all of their data at their head office back east. And the reason they did it, the one here is not threatened by floods, snowstorms, hurricanes, you name it and once they made that commitment then they said, ‘Well, we’re already in Arizona, we’re in the west, let’s make that our western headquarters.’ So now each has thousands of jobs built around those data centers. About 20 to 30 companies have done that. I think it’s a great business model to attract more business here and I’m bound and determined to do it.

Christopher Conover: How does government attract business though?

Al Melvin: Well, I think you do it in three ways. One, you right size government, make sure it’s not bloated like it is in California, you reduce taxes and make it attractive to them, unlike California, and you get rid of onerous regulations, unlike California. So companies are fleeing California every day, many of them are going straight to Texas but by opening those two offices that I mentioned, we’re going to bring many of them here.

Christopher Conover: Ms. Holt, same question. Without expanding government necessarily how does an elected official create a job?

Jo Holt: I think that in terms of our state government we have to really focus on infrastructure, state infrastructure. Keeping our infrastructure healthy, rebuilding infrastructure that’s been allowed to crumble and decay and you could even put education, public education can also be considered to be part of the infrastructure. This is what government provides. Government provides the infrastructure upon which businesses do business. That is our responsibility and we are failing in that responsibility here in Arizona. So yeah, there may be one or two companies that may come in and provide a service or something like that or that we could provide a particular incentive to get a company in but we have a much greater problem than that which is across the board in terms of attracting businesses that will be here for the future and that are sustainable businesses that provide us with good jobs. So government responsibility is maintaining and promoting our infrastructure.

Christopher Conover: You mentioned good jobs. That’s a phrase again we here out on the campaign trail at all levels on a regular basis, we need good jobs. So I guess this is kind of one of those fundamental questions again. Define for us if you can, what is a good job.

Jo Holt: Yeah, what is a good job? A good job is something that is a job that you can rely on, that you can depend on, that you can earn enough money to support your family. A good job isn’t necessarily a high paying, one of the high paying jobs, although those are wonderful, wonderful things to have here. I know that in our district and in Oro Valley, I think that we can look forward to more biotechnology jobs and the bioscience sector and hopefully also in renewable energy types of research and development startups and things like that. But a good job pays enough for you to support your family and I’m talking to you teachers out there. This is an issue.

Christopher Conover: Mr. Melvin, same question. What is a good job? We keep hearing about them.

Al Melvin: Well, yeah. You know, the founders of the Declaration talked about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and what they meant by pursuit of happiness was a good job, to take care of your family, put a roof over the family, food on the table, clothing and we need to…yes, we need to educate our people properly so they can have good jobs. It’s said that public K through 12 education is the civil rights issue of our lifetime and that 50 percent of Black children don’t graduate from school, high school. So I believe the answer to that is maximum parental school choice where every family can send their children to the school of their choice. We have more charter schools in Arizona per capita than any state in the nation. We have open enrollment between districts. These are all good things and it’s helping but I want to talk a little bit about infrastructure. You know, I’ve lived all over the world. I’ve lived in Europe and the Far East, throughout the U.S. Anyone who’s traveled knows that the greater Phoenix area has got some of the finest roads in the world. We’re finally getting things straightened out here with the RTA in the Tucson area. There are public hearings that will…are going to be held in the next couple of days for a new Interstate 11. We’ve got a great interstate system, we’ve got two major east-west rail routes, we’ve got great airports, we’ve got all of the transportation infrastructure to launch into our new era of prosperity and I know great jobs will follow.

Christopher Conover: Let’s talk a little bit about infrastructure since you both brought it up. We have that hearing coming up on a potential new interstate between Arizona and points west. We keep hearing also talk about, and I’ve been here seven years and I’ve heard talk about it for seven years, a commuter rail line between Tucson and Phoenix. Let me get your thoughts on both of those from both of you. Senator Melvin, since you brought it up last, we’ll start with you and then we’ll come on over here.

Al Melvin: Well, you know, we talk about cooperation between the two political parties and I-11 is a classic example where there can be a lot of cooperation between the Democrats and the Republicans because of this north-south Phoenix to Reno in Nevada. The Democrat leaders in California, Barbara Boxer and others, are very interested in that interstate as is Senator Reid and we are as well. So this is going to be a classic example of where we can work together to make that happen. As far as the commuter rail, I would be interested in it if there was provision where people could take their automobile with them, say like a ferry in the Puget Sound area where there would be some cars where the rail…your personal car could be put on a car and then you’d go to a lounge car and we could take advantage of the right of way that we have already with the interstates. Another thing we need to look at is a public/private partnership perhaps to bring in some private money for this.

Christopher Conover: And your thoughts on I-11 and commuter rails between here and Phoenix.

Jo Holt: Yeah, I support…I support the new I-11. I think this is a very timely project and I very much support commuter rail service, try to get more cars off of the road and reduce the amount of pollution. I think that those are good projects that give us a future look but we have severe problems that need to be, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of public education that need to be addressed right now.

Christopher Conover: We keep talking about national topics but national topics of course play right into the Legislature, very often financially trickle down to in this case Phoenix and then points beyond. One of those is healthcare. To help balance the budget the Legislature reduced or froze eligibility in AHCCCS for childless adults. The federal Affordable Care Act gives states the option of raising the number of people in that to 133 percent of the poverty level. That will cost the state millions but in turn we can draw back what I’ve seen as estimates of billions of dollars from the federal government. Is this something that the state seriously needs to consider and we’ll start with you Ms. Holt and then we’ll come to you Senator.

Jo Holt: Yes, yes, yes. The state seriously needs to consider this because I believe that the state’s plans, the blueprint for the healthcare exchanges are…there’s a deadline looming here shortly for that. This is a good return on investment. The Grand Canyon Institute just released a study that showed that there are three options basically that the Governor can follow and that option in which you…everyone is elevated to 133 percent of the federal poverty level actually costs the state less than just elevating children to that level and also a larger return of federal dollars as well. So that studied showed us pretty clear actually that this is a very good investment of Arizona’s taxpayer money. We get so much back for it in return and it will help grow our economy and give people the healthcare that they deserve.

Christopher Conover: Senator Melvin, your thoughts on that.

Al Melvin: Yes. I’m a cancer survivor, let me start by saying that. I will be 68 years old in a couple of days, November 3rd, just before the election. I firmly believe that we’ve got the finest healthcare system in the entire world and I’m living proof of it. I’ve never felt better than as I sit here before you today. I feel great and thank the Lord for that American medical system, our doctors, nurses, research hospitals, there are so many things and I believe that ObamaCare would wipe all of that out, it would socialize the best medical system in the world. I’m opposed to the exchanges. This election is so critical. On November the 6th is going to determine whether this ObamaCare will be entrenched forever or will we go back to make our medical system we have today even better through tort reform, the purchase of health insurance across state lines. One thing, let me talk about the federal money that both of you mentioned. I want to remind people that 40 cents on the federal dollar is borrowed, a lot of it from the Chinese. I don’t want the Chinese paying for my medical care or anybody else’s. Also, what isn’t borrowed from the Chinese is generational theft. We are spending money that future generations are going to have to pay for. We have to be responsible and one way is not to implement ObamaCare. It has to be dismantled all the way to its foundation.

Christopher Conover: Keeping up…changing topics so we can talk about a number of things, we only have a few minutes left. One of the things that strikes me that walking around through the Tucson area, talking to people, there’s very often this feeling that Tucson is Phoenix little brother, little sister and the Legislature, especially the Phoenix delegation, does whatever they can to give Tucson the short end of the stick. Is that perception, Senator Melvin, A, correct and B, as an elected member, how do you fix that perception and then to you Ms. Holt, do you hear that perception and if you were a member of the delegation how do you fix that perception. We’ll start with the Senator.

Al Melvin: Well, you know, it’s interesting, all of the pro-business laws that we’ve passed, the provisions and all of the new job creation, most of it has taken place in the greater Phoenix area and not down here and I think one reason is the City of Tucson and Pima County have not been as pro-business as they could be and this election, especially for Pima County Supervisors, is really going to tell a story. If Ally Miller and Tanner Bell get elected along with the…Ray Carroll, then there will be a new majority and I think a new pro-business outlook for Southern Arizona. But it’s only now that the RTA is kicking in and we’re starting to get our road system fixed that where Phoenix has had that all along. So I think it’s we just have to work on making Southern Arizona more pro-business in my view.

Christopher Conover: Ms. Holt.

Jo Holt: Yes, well, my understanding is that there are more people that live in Phoenix than live in Tucson and therefore there will be a louder voice for things that get done in Phoenix and that that will pretty much always be the case. So, you know, I think it’s important to understand that our Legislative District 11 actually bridges Tucson and Phoenix because our largest city in the district, which is the city of Maricopa, 4/5ths of the people that live in the city of Maricopa work in Phoenix. It’s essentially a bedroom community of Phoenix. So the concerns in our legislative district are not so much based on Tucson versus Phoenix as what’s happening in the bridge between the two cities and it could make for some very interesting future developments as well.

Christopher Conover: We only have a little more than a minute left so we’ll have to keep this one short. We have a ballot initiative, the top two initiative which would change legislative elections, obviously it could affect you two. If you can in 30 seconds or so give me your thoughts on that and we’ll start with you Ms. Holt and then we’ll come to you Senator.

Jo Holt: Yeah, I don’t support the initiative. I’m really concerned about unintended consequences of going to a top two type system and one of my concerns really is money and one or two individuals who could completely skew an election. But I think there are other potential unintended consequences so no, I don’t support it.

Christopher Conover: Senator, 30 seconds.

Al Melvin: Well, you really picked a great topic because we both agree on that and we appeal to the people not to vote this jungle primary in. But this is a good example of where the parties can work together. For instance, as you know, I had a bill in the last session, I state poet laureate that took as many Democratic votes as I could get to get it passed so there are areas that we can work together on.

Christopher Conover: Senator Melvin, Jo Holt, thank you so much for coming in and talking with us and with our viewers.

Al Melvin: Hmm mm. Thank you.

Christopher Conover: We’ve reached the end of our time. If you want to see this again, you can go to our website azpm.org and learn about all the races in Sothern Arizona. Make sure to click on the Your Vote 2012 section. Early ballots are out and election day is November 6 so don’t forget to vote. I’m Christopher Conover. Have a good evening.

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