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Prop. 204 is about kids and about the town where they live

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Guest opinion

Prop. 204 is about kids and about the town where they live

You shouldn’t believe the anti-204 propaganda

 It’s “poorly written,” “vague” and “lacking in oversight,” they say. Opponents of Prop. 204 are arguing that the measure is an incompetent attempt by amateurs because, well, it is impossible to win with “preschool is bad.”

On the one hand, business leaders, who seek to protect their ironclad lock on economic development priorities. On the other, the educators and parents who crafted the measure. In between, a simple referendum that, by the way, is exactly what its creators claim and exactly not what the opponents would like you to believe.

For both sides, it has become a proxy fight about who controls the soul of Tucson. Does Tucson continue to go all-in on a business-first, trickle-down strategy for economic development, or begin to spend some development money on citizen services—a people-first strategy now getting results in some of the country’s most successful cities.

The usual cast of characters, led by local Chambers of Commerce are back to inform you that Tucson “can’t do.” They remind us of this whenever something doesn’t directly fund Tucson’s business-focused economic strategy. The playbook is so well-honed that spokespeople aren’t really trying this time, offering up only vague, general indictments. But these criticisms don’t survive even a cursory fact check and rely simply on repetition to earn an illusion of respectability.

The true story is that we are here because the three-decade experiment in putting business first never worked. Originally founded on good intentions, it has been a colossal failure. The business-first era is marked by stagnant wages, the end of company-paid retirement, rising prices, declining opportunities, and college that’s only for rich people. Remember that time that guaranteeing workers half a living wage was the road to economic collapse? That was them. And many businesses continue to rely on welfare to administer their benefits program, which is especially venal in Arizona.

Trust me, when you put a bunch of business owners in a room, they’re not talking about how to make your kids happier or more successful. Even after acknowledging the important role businesses play in our community, their interests are not your interests.

But this isn’t about bad guys and good guys, it’s about suitability to the task. These folks have turned out to be less adept at improving your life than citizen-focused government ever was. Sadly, Business First hasn’t really been great for local business either. The Bush Recession hit Tucson longer and harder than almost anywhere. And it killed off more than a few going concerns along the way.

What about Prop. 204? Let’s debunk a few claims by opponents…

Claim: It is “poorly written.” This idea relies on the hope that you think you can’t understand “the legal stuff” or that you won’t bother to read it. But if you can read this, you can read that. It’s two pages. I don’t need to debunk. You just need to look. Judge for yourself.

Claim: It’s “vague.” This is perhaps the least honest claim by the business community. The people who say this know full well it’s a deception. Here’s why: The nature of a law is to set out a purpose. But that’s — for every law — just the beginning. “Regulations” are the next critical component. Always. After a law is passed, the government (in this case, the city) writes the rules, as regulations. These determine how the law functions. This is where the specificity always happens. Staff writes the regulations, then the Council approves them. Or not. The adopted regulations have the force of law.

The opponents of Prop. 204 know all of this. They know that regulations are where their innuendo-plagued complaints are properly addressed. They know it well, because they often try to influence drafting of regulations to weaken laws they don’t like. In this law, like every law, every one of the complaints made by Prop. 204 opponents could — and would — be addressed in those enabling regulations. In other words, in the normal way.

Claim: The 8 percent overhead is too high. First, eight percent is low. Johns Hopkins University charges 46 percent overhead to the U.S. government for taxpayer-funded research. Knowing that is how I got them to pay me 25 percent. Most government contractors demand at least 15 percent. It’s not a slush fund.

Supporters say that the money would include reimbursement for city and state government costs to collect and repatriate the tax (as well as the commission and the enrollment process.) That’s not in the referendum and may well be a legitimate complaint. But it could and should be written into the enabling regulations. No harm, no foul.

Claim: It allows nonprofits to enrich themselves. The law doesn’t need to specify that no one can cheat. Tucson has a Code of Ethics that prevents board and commission members from self-dealing. In the layer above that, the Mayor and Council appoint commission members, so if any bad seeds are deliberately appointed, elected officials would be in violation of the Code of Ethics as well. The code also provides for instant removal “at will.”

Of course, the list goes on and on. That’s because it is always easier to invent a new claim than to defend a debunked one. Expect the claims to get nuttier.

What’s at stake

Prop. 204 begins the process of rectifying the woeful state of education in Arizona. Do we really want to live in a town where our kids can’t rise as high as their intellect and effort will carry them? Where they can’t arrive at school ready to learn? Where they won’t get the best opportunity to learn? Or where they will never be able to pay for college? It all starts at the base, at preschool, for the first 8,500 children. That’s more than half of age-eligible kids. It’s a good, ambitious start.

But something else is in play here too, something equally important. Prop. 204 is also your chance, regular citizen, to instruct government in the kind of city you want and who you want to be priority for the taxes you pay.

Prop 204, as written, regulated and enacted, offers a new view of how to do economic development, but not an untested one. Do we make ourselves more attractive, or do we use our tax money for business relocation bribes? Tucson has let its attractiveness decline, because we put all our chips on business first. And business first failed. Bloomberg just published an interesting analysis of where America’s brainiest folks are moving. No surprises here, Boulder, San Francisco, San Jose and Fort Collins topped the list. These cities have economic development programs. But they rely on their educated population and their unique geographic amenities to attract companies. They are cool. They are pretty. And they are people first.

Tucson has the same potential, just not the same model. We’ve got one company, one rich guy, and cheap bulldozers. But the general success (of everyone) is what attracts companies to those other cities. Taxpayer funds aren’t used to create the deal, they’re just used to seal the deal. Sparingly. To create the deal, taxpayer funds are invested in taxpayers, and their families. Isn’t that a smarter strategy than trickle-down?

Opponents will also tell you that it is not fair to help any child until you can help every child. But you don’t wait to count the wounded before you send out the ambulance. And you don’t stay in the station if they all won’t fit.

Sure, it’s not fair, it’s not right and a sales tax isn’t the best way to fund education. But this is Arizona. And if you want to be Tucson—the fun loving, people loving, plucky and perfect blend of Mexican, European, First Person and other cultures—and you want to be that Tucson in Arizona, you need to smash the barriers and cast off the losing strategies. You need to run a people-Ffirst playbook. That starts with a yes vote for Prop. 204.

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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