Death of a thousand cuts

Tucson Weekly
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Jim Nintzel and Mari Herreras

It was another rough week for supporters of the Public Safety First Initiative, aka Proposition 200, which would require the city of Tucson to hire at least 333 cops and 70 firefighters over the next five years.

First, in a long-rumored power play, Tucson Electric Power formally announced opposition to Prop 200.

TEP has now joined with the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, the Arizona Multihousing Association and Cox Cable as business organizations opposed to the Public Safety First Initiative.

"We have all the support in the world for local first responders," says TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski. "But this proposition amounts to an unfunded mandate that would draw resources from other areas where the city desperately needs to invest."

Salkowski says Prop 200 doesn't include any way of paying the estimated $63 million a year that the initiative will cost once it's fully implemented in five years, or the $150 million that it would cost to get up to the new staffing levels between now and then.

"That doesn't seem like a smart way to manage a city budget, particularly at a time when economic stresses are so high," Salkowski says.

TEP's announcement was followed by a critical examination of the initiative by Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute, who said that Prop 200 didn't include any mechanism to ensure the new cops would actually do enough to lower the crime rate.

"Proposition 200 would mandate hiring scores of new government employees without requiring spending be reduced elsewhere or imposing any incentive for good performance or consequence for bad performance," Dranias wrote in an op-ed. "This won't put public safety first; it will just bloat city government."

Prop 200 supporters pointed out that the Goldwater Institute hadn't actually said Tucsonans should vote against the initiative—and, indeed, the nonprofit think tank does not take positions on ballot initiatives.

So other than sending out the op-ed through their press office, encouraging the media to interview Dranias about his skepticism regarding Prop 200, e-mailing the editorial to everyone on their subscriber list and posting it on their Web site, the Goldwater Institute had no interest in influencing people one way or the other.

That said, we thought we should mention one other point that Dranias made in his op-ed: "Somewhere, somehow, Tucson taxpayers will have to pay the bill, and you can bet that will eventually come in the form of higher taxes."

Supporters still insist that the city will be receiving enough money from the state—you know, the same government that just announced that this year's budget shortfall had grown to $2 billion—to cover the costs. They also say that an economic rebound is just around the corner.

That's not a view shared by Kevin McCarthy of the Arizona Tax Research Association, who noted in an Arizona Daily Star op-ed that similar unfunded mandates have left the state with a massive budget crisis.

"With the economic crisis facing Arizona serving as a painful reminder, Tucson taxpayers can be assured that, if approved, Proposition 200 will certainly force a tax increase at some future date," wrote McCarthy, who added that adopting spending programs via initiative tends to result in fiscal disasters.

"Sidestepping the city's budgeting process allows the proponents of Proposition 200 to have an isolated budget debate regarding police and fire protection without the unpleasantness of a tax increase to fund it," McCarthy wrote. "Make no mistake; in the end, this process always poorly serves taxpayers who are left questioning why citizens were not properly informed that these services are not free."