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What the Devil won't tell you

Small ball could still bring big innings for Pima pre-K proposal

The Pima County Board of Supervisors rejected plans for starting up early childhood education across the county. 

Or did they?

No, they aren't going to spend $4.8 million of our money to launch a wide program where the county takes on the risk and everyone else gets the rewards. They didn't include anything in their 2019-20 provisional budget to do anything like that.

The county so far is trying hard not to say yes, but the supervisors aren't quite saying no, either. They seem to be saying: "Grrrrrrr ... really! Again?"

The current pre-K education proposal arose from the tattered remnants of Strong Start Tucson’s self-immolating effort in 2017 to woo city voters toward the idea of a $50 million program. The Southern Arizona Leadership Council also threw in some business savvy and bite-sized wisdom so this latest take on a program would start small and build over time.

They just wanted the county to pay for it.

To understand county's reticence, recall that the city offloaded the public library system years ago, leading to the Free Library District in 2006, and then the city's transportation woes became the county’s problem to solve, which it confronted with the 2006 Regional Transportation Authority election. I would say that if the city could have hot-spudded Rio Nuevo to the county, it would have done that too. But the state did come in with an “oh-my-god, what-are-you-doing?” take over of Tucson’s Downtown redevelopment plan. Yes, this is a simplified explanation but the point remains that what struggles to take hold in the city often requires purchase elsewhere.

So I get it. This time, the county can’t take on pre-K alone.

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That doesn’t mean it is without recourse if the community wants it. In fact, the county is best situated to act as the one true regional government and provide a regional approach to pre-K and should continue after it.

As County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry put it in a memo to the board ahead of the budget meeting: 

"A successful preschool program in Pima County will require financial participation from the county, as well as all local school districts and municipal jurisdictions, business and industry, the University of Arizona, Pima Community College and finally, the state of Arizona." 

I'm with you on everything but the last one. The state Legislature is controlled by people who think universal K-12 is a Stalinist hoax. Socialized pre-K would destroy freedom as we know it.

But that says "yes" to me so long as the county is part of a solution, and not the only answer to yet another problem.

Coulda seen it coming

To understand how to keep this alive, you gotta be ready to play some inside baseball.

There’s no reason the county should pick up the bill for all of it other than the fact that it would be one-stop shopping for the backers of the idea. If the county will pay for all of it, why not give it a shot? 

Nice try.

You, dear reader living in the confines of Pima County pay said county taxes along with, perhaps, Oro Valley taxes, Sunnyside Unified School District taxes or maybe even Golder Ranch Fire District taxes. So taxes all come from the same place as far as you are concerned, and that’s your bank account.

You also get universal access to a lot of the services provided. A Tucson resident can enjoy a county park and county residents do use Tucson streets.

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If you are a county resident with an appropriately aged ankle-biter and you get to send that kid to preschool at no more charge than your tax dollars, you are happy. If you are a taxpayer without a kid, then you’ll want justification for why you should pay for it.

Don’t get all caught up in the big-picture politics of social costs and taxation is theft because we’re playing small ball here. Except to say, service users who benefit are happy. Taxpayers footing the bill without proper justification get pissed.

The pissed-off voter is always more powerful than the happy voter. Happy voters are so damn happy, they may even forget to vote. Angry voters don night-vision goggles and stalk neighborhoods on midnight lit drops, planting signs in every yard.

Avoiding the creation of pissed-off voters is paramount to the great game of consensus-based risk management known as “politics.”

The supervisors don't want to make voters angry by taking on a big, fat welfare program under county's imprimature. “This new social giveaway was paid for by you, but brought to you by Sharon Bronson, swing district Democrat 2020.”

Not exactly a slogan they'll be pitching at Strategic Issues Management Group, is it?

Voters in the city may end up paying for public preschool with higher TUSD taxes, higher city taxes and slightly lower-than-otherwise county taxes. You don't save that much if it becomes a reality. They save a lot of grief because county government doesn't really care what the city is charging you. They're more concerned with what they are not.

The next inning

So the game of inside baseball is over, right?

Wrong. It’s 0-1 in the count.

The Board of Supervisors just voted 5-0 in favor of the $1.3 billion tentative county budget. Yup, even self-styled budget hawk Ally Miller gave it an "aye."

But now the horse-trading starts, before the Supes vote on final adoption of the budget in about a month.

Chairman Richard Elias has voiced support for the county getting into the education business, although he didn't offer any amendments to add that to the budget at Tuesday's meeting.

His fellow Democrats Sharon Bronson and Ramon Valadez are more skeptical, fiscally and politically. The two Republicans on the county board, Miller and Steve Christy, are not likely fans of the plan as outlined — to say the least.

Who'll be the swing vote? Will Elias hold his breath and stomp on this issue long enough to pull along the other two Dems? Will Christy join that pair in approving a budget without the Preschool Investment Proposal? Will dropping more money on road repairs — there's some $26 million proposed now — be enough of a carrot to sway a majority away from a seemingly made-to-order feel-good program for Pima Dems?

Wags down at the county building have long noted that the only real skill involved in maneuvering through the five-member Board of Supervisors is knowing how to count to three. Who'll get there first?

For the proponents, here’s how you get county government to do what you want, with a big enough constituency. Don’t cram 43 hotdogs all at once into their faces. Just get them to taste one all wrapped in bacon as the Lord Jehovah intended and if you disagree you are just wrong.

You show support in the community that proves you are maybe a bit of a threat and let the board buy you off with “a report.” Make damned sure the work involves some contact in Huckelberry's office. If it gets farmed out to the parks department, it's gone to its great reward.

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To make sure the plan stays, let's call it "actively managed," keep building the coalition to add up to a bigger and bigger bit of consensus in the community for a need. The backers of the program have a good plan. What they need now is the Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce. Offer them some horse trading for a business initiative your group can live with.

Preferably the final report be a path toward how to pursue a program funded “multi-jurisdictionally” through “a memoranda of understanding” that will eventually yield “intergovernmental agreements.”

That's Bureaucratese for "other people will pay; we'll get them to agree in principle and then work out the final deals."

It doesn’t take long to spread that initial start up costs of $4.8 million across a half-dozen jurisdictions and it’s possible no one can be on the hook for more than $999,999.

A $900,000 program may not seem like much in the face of billion-dollar budgets but I’ve seen wars fought for less come budget time. So you gotta make it cheap. If $900,000 will keep  the Bernie Sanders Local 501 happy with cover from the Chamber, it's a cheap buy.

The idea is to spread the risk across the region for what is a regional service and make it someone’s job to get that done.

This doesn’t mean, in the end, it must be the county doing the job. It’s possible that a regional approach requires a regional authority, like the RTA — although that would probably require some rhetorical buy-in from the state, with legislation allowing such a body, even if there's no state money. The county is just best situated to get the ball rolling.

Local politicians can spread the political risk and create a service the community needs or wants. The trick then is to protect it from future budget cuts but that’s a whole ‘nother column.

Is it the best idea?

Oh that, yeah. Is this actually worth taking Oro Valley-ites money to get it done?

I don't know. That's not snark. That's an old-fashioned "IDK."

The key to all this is that it's what the community actually wants and wants among the first orders of business to making Tucson better than the free market allows.

I would caution against reading too much into the death of the 2017 ballot initiative. That plan died because a lot of the people who might support it, backed away because the idea wasn’t fully fleshed out.

The new idea is a proof of concept that would serve a few hundred families throughout Pima County to see what reality looks like. That's a better way to start with a local program.

Research abounds showing the benefit of pre-K education. This study suggests every $1 in pre-K spending yields $8.90 in benefits. That it doubles as a stopgap childcare program for low-wage workers (a.k.a., Tucson workers) is an added benefit. Then again, the research is questionable about whether these effects are academic.

Shouldn’t parents provide this for their own kids? Ideally, yes. But we live in a low-income town and low-wage earners aren’t well situated for self-sufficiency. 

The state ain’t gonna help. The feds can’t get in their own way briefly enough to fail to get out of it. The private sector thinks “it’s not my job.” Non-profits aren’t up to the scale. Unless Proxima Centurians show up with plasma fields full of money, the only sector left is the government.

I’m still not convinced the popular support exists for pre-kindergarten education in Pima County or if that is the biggest hole in our service delivery model. Part of me thinks job training opportunities for parents of kids will do more for their children but Arizonans tend to think of helping adults directly as “welfare.”

On that point, I'm really no expert.

But I've seen enough squeaky wheels get government buy in through perseverance to know how the system works for those who persist.

It's not over until you say it's over.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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