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Biz groups come out against Strong Start Tucson education initiative

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Biz groups come out against Strong Start Tucson education initiative

Opponents say Prop. 204 leaves out too many details, backers call tax measure 'vital' for kids

  • Shelley Watson of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council at the lectern during the announcement of the launch of a campaign committee opposed to the 'Strong Start Tucson' initiative.
    Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.comShelley Watson of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council at the lectern during the announcement of the launch of a campaign committee opposed to the 'Strong Start Tucson' initiative.

A coalition of business groups has launched an effort to derail Prop. 204, a sales-tax initiative that would direct $50 million yearly to early childhood education in Tucson. Proponents say it's a necessary investment, but opponents say the measure lacks oversight, with some calling it a "voucher" system.

"No on Prop. 204" publicly launched this week, running TV and radio spots against the initiative, which was put on the ballot by the Strong Start Tucson group. The measure would raise Tucson's municipal sales tax by a half-cent on each dollar spent, in order to fund pre-K education.

"Taxpayers deserve better," said Armando Rios, chair of the "No" committee, who said the proposition doesn't have enough details about financial controls, which families might be eligible for assistance, and that Tucson would be "one of the highest-taxed cities in the nation" were it to pass.

The measure is "completely irresponsible," he said Thursday.

The opponents' points are "hypocrisy ... lip service ... business as usual," said Penelope Jacks, chair of Strong Start Tucson. They "say they are early childhood education advocates, but they always have a reason to kick kids down the road," she said in an emailed statement.

The measure go before voters in the November general election; ballots in the mail-in city election will be mailed beginning next week.

Backers said about 8,500 kids within the city limits would receive assistance with preschool expenses if the measure is approved. Opponents — some of whom have been supportive of tuition-support plans for elementary and high school students — called the SST proposal a "voucher system" that wouldn't cover all Tucson kids in the year before kindergarten, and that many low-income families would not get enough fund to send their children to pre-K programs. There are an estimated 12,000 children in Tucson who are a year out from starting kindergarten.

The measure would only apply to families living inside the city limits, and most early childhood education programs are privately run. The measure would permanently amend the City Charter to institute the tax, as well as establish the committee that would outline and oversee the program.

Some liberals have come out against the program because the measure isn't specifically focused on low-income families, although backs have said that the details of the program will later be drafted with that in mind. Many local elected Democrats have been notably silent on the measure, declining to endorse or oppose Prop. 204.

The organized group opposing the half-cent hike in the city sales tax is backed by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, Tucson Metro Chamber, Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and local several prominent local businessmen. Car dealer and Republican political player Jim Click appeared at the group's press conference, and gave "over $10,000" to the group's political committee, public records show. A corporation owned by real estate investor Humberto Lopez put $25,000 into the effort, as did the SALC. The corporation behind Pima Medical Institute also put $20,000 into the group.

"I'm a big supporter of early childhood education," Click said at a press conference for the "No" committee. "I just don't think this is the way to do it."

Rios said that his group believes education is an issue better handled at the state level, and that the city should stick to the core services already outlined in the Charter.

Questioned about the Legislature's commitment to education, with a steady erosion of state funding for public schools and higher education, Rios and Click said that the state had increased funding for pre-schools by about $3.5 million this year.

By comparison, the SST measure would put $50 million each year into early childhood education just in Tucson.

Arizona's First Things First is paid for mainly by tobacco tax revenues, and funding in 2016 fell 17 percent from 2014-15. Just four percent of Arizona's four-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded pre-school program, while the national average is 32 percent for children that age.

Shelley Watson, vice president of the SALC (which represents the Tucson area's top business leaders), said the "regressive nature" of the increased sales tax would harm low-income families.

The initiative is "an ill-conceived, permanent idea which will burden all and benefit only the supporters of Prop. 204 — not children as they claim," said Robert Medler, vice president of the Tucson Metro Chamber.

"The oversight model is 'to be determined.' The voucher system is 'to be determined,'" Rios said Thursday. "We respect the effort of Strong Start Tucson to do good, but this is a bad way of doing it."

Among the major backers of the SST initiative is the nonprofit Child & Family Resources, which by early July had already donated nearly $80,000 of the initiative committee's then $217,000 campaign chest.

Although Rios said that the proposition has "no guaranteed accountability built in," he wouldn't point to any improvements that could have been made.

"It's not what's in it, it's what's not in it," he said. "It doesn't protect taxpayers ... ask (organizers) about details and they say, 'oh, those will be drawn up after the election.'"

The opponents of the proposal "have wrapped their usual 'no taxes' message in a load of false logic — red herrings — meant to mislead and scare voters," SST chair Jacks said.

"Do (they) have — or have they ever had — a proposal to give Tucson's kids at every economic level access to high quality early education?," she asked.

Strong Start Tucson submitted about 25,000 signatures in July to get the initiative on the ballot, using paid petition circulators. Rios said his group got a late start and only announced their opposition a week before ballots are mailed out "because it took a while for people to realize what is in the measure."

Strong Start Tucson has lined up a lengthy list of endorsements, including nonprofits and educational groups such as C&FR, Arizona's Children Association, Catalina In-home Services, Children’s Action Alliance, Our Family Services, YWCA and a number of pre-K schools.

Opponents said those groups would be among the beneficiaries if the measure passes, noting that some seats on the citizens commission that will pick a nonprofit group to run the program will be reserved for representatives of early childhood education providers.

While a number of Democratic politicians are backing Strong Start Tucson — including U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, state Sens. David Bradley and Andrea Dalesandro, and state Reps. Rosanna Gabaldon and Randy Friese, along with Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams and Tucson Unified School District Governing Board members Kristel Foster and Adelita Grijavla — a number have remained silent.

One elected Democrat who's come out against the initiative is state Rep. Daniel Hernandez, who is also a member of the Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board. He took issue with the measure not being limited to low-income families and only covering residents inside the city. All of the school districts that serve Tucson kids stretch beyond the city limits, he said.

None of the members of the Tucson City Council who will be sitting past the election publicly endorse it, with all of the incumbents who are seeking re-election holding their tongues, and the other candidates either opposed or also holding back on the measure.

Only Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who will leave office after the vote, has voiced support for Prop. 204.

She took issue with the characterization of the proposed tax increase as hurting poor families.

"Tucson doesn't charge sales tax on rent, food or medicine, so families with less money end up paying less than those who have extra to spend. And much of our sales taxes are collected from out-of-town shoppers," Uhlich said. "Every dime will be accounted for because citizens will be appointed to watch over the program, every step of the way."

Watson, of the SALC, said that the education tax would mean "increasing the tax rates 50 percent in just a year," when coupled with the spring passage of Prop. 101, a half-cent sales tax for roads and public safety. Watson said her group was not opposing Props. 202 and 203, which would add a 1/10-cent sales tax to fund the Reid Park Zoo for 10 years.

"That's just a tenth of a cent, and isn't permanent," Watson said. "The road tax expires in five years. (Prop. 204) would be permanent."

Jacks said the proposition will provide "what everybody agrees every community should offer to its kids — equal access to high quality early education."

"For 30 years I have heard lip-service about the vital importance of early childhood education for children, families and the community. I've seen no action," she said.

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