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Guest opinion

Good intentions aside, Strong Start Tucson is a bad idea


At first glance Strong Start Tucson — the city of Tucson ballot initiative that promises high-quality preschool for up to 8,500 Tucson kids — seems like a nice idea. But voters should look closer at what the initiative would actually do.

It would amend Tucson’s City Charter to increase the city sales tax by a half-cent, the same amount voters approved in May for roads and public safety improvements. But unlike that tax, which expires in five years, Strong Start Tucson’s additional half-cent would be permanent.

Proceeds from the new tax would amount to around $50 million per year in the current economy. A nonprofit would be chosen after the election to distribute these funds among preschool providers, but the initiative sets almost no rules about how this distribution would work, or how providers would be picked.

We also don’t know what kind of nonprofit would be chosen to manage Strong Start Tucson, or on what merits it would be selected. The initiative requires that the nonprofit be chosen by a seven-member commission, which would be appointed by Tucson’s mayor and Council. But the initiative does not require the nonprofit to meet any qualifying criteria at all.

It does, however, allow for up to two of its commissioners to be early childhood education providers. Because early childhood education providers would be able to receive funds under Strong Start Tucson, this may invite conflicts of interest.

Child & Family Resources, Inc., a Tucson-based organization with operations statewide and $21 million in annual revenue, appears to be positioning itself to become Strong Start Tucson’s managing agency should the initiative pass. The organization has contributed $78,508 to the campaign to date, according to their July 5 campaign finance report.

The large contribution from Child & Family Resources helped the campaign pay a Phoenix firm $43,796 to collect signatures, a local marketing firm $15,600 for marketing and polling, and three local women a combined $21,592 for their work on the campaign.

The initiative also provides no definition of what “high quality” means. And it says nothing about how applicants would be selected, or what the sliding scale would be. Tucsonans would only learn these details after it passes, because only at that point could those decisions be made.

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Additionally, the initiative allows a generous eight percent of this proposed new tax’s revenue to be used for “administrative expenses.” That works out to some $4 million per year.

What kind of administration are they anticipating they’ll need with all that money? As a point of comparison, Tucson’s mayor and Council had a budget of just under $2.4 million for the fiscal period that just ended. That includes the operating expenses of the mayor’s office and the six ward offices, including the salaries of 42 people.

Finally, the initiative contains no reporting requirements. Much of the data that will be crucial for evaluating Strong Start Tucson’s success will be in the hands of a nonprofit, beyond the reach of public records laws. Would citizens and media watchdogs be able to adequately monitor what’s being done with $50 million a year in taxpayers’ dollars? Again, we’d have to wait for it to pass to find out.

It’s hard for public figures — especially elected officials — to criticize Strong Start Tucson, because it is a proposal that aims to benefit children. That might be why so many, especially those who sit on the Tucson City Council, have quietly opted not to support it.

It would be nice if providing high-quality preschool for Tucson’s kids were as simple as the Strong Start Tucson campaign makes it sound.

It would also be nice if we — the adults — could trust bureaucrats, nonprofit executives, and their friends to behave responsibly with enormous new flows of cash that come with few restrictions on what, precisely, must be done with them.

You need not take my word that the Strong Start Tucson initiative contains no reporting requirements, sets no qualifying criteria for its managing nonprofit, doesn’t say what “high quality” means, doesn’t say how providers will be selected, doesn’t say what the sliding scale will be, and so on.

You can read the initiative yourself, and I hope you do. Strong Start Tucson seems to have good intentions. But it is flawed in ways that could produce disastrous outcomes. I think it’s a risk Tucsonans would be unwise to take.

Luke Knipe is a precinct committeeman for Legislative District 9 in the Pima County Democratic Party. He has served on the executive committee of the Pima County Democratic Party and the State Committee of the Arizona Democratic Party. He has worked in the Tucson City Manager’s Office, the Office of the Mayor, and the Pima County Assessor’s Office. He has served on the City of Tucson’s Charter Review Committee, the City of Tucson’s Independent Redistricting Committee, and currently sits on the City of Tucson/Pima County Public Art and Design Committee.

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2 comments on this story

Jul 29, 2017, 9:03 am
-0 +4

“But it’s for the children” sells a lot of scams, and conceals a lot of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Jul 27, 2017, 6:01 pm
-0 +6

Excellent assessment of a tax scam in children’s clothing.

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