Former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith recently sat down to talk about his campaign for governor. Smith is facing five other Republicans in the race for governor: Arizona Treasurer Doug Ducey, Secretary of State Ken Bennett, attorney Christine Jones, former California congressman Frank Riggs and disbarred former Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas. Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation.
You set yourself apart from the other Republican candidates in the race by supporting Gov. Brewer's Medicaid expansion. Why do you think that was important for the state?
Look at the facts. To me, this is not a political argument; it's a reality check. It's nice to sit up there and rail against Washington and it's another thing to really sit down with the hard facts. I think the governor did that. When you look at Medicaid expansion, you just have to ask yourself two questions: "What is the program with it" and "What is the program without it?" Strip the politics out. I can't change the politics. I can't change the fact of the voters of Arizona mandated a certain level of coverage. I can't change the fact that Obamacare mandated a certain program. What I can do as a leader is say, "That's the hand I'm dealt. What's the best for Arizona?" And when you look in Arizona without Medicaid extension, it's a sad picture, because we still have to cover a certain level and we simply don't have the money to do it. We would have to pay out of the rainy day fund to cover that. And that only covers it for about a year and a half or two years. You look at the facts and you say, "If we do Medicaid restoration, we get a three-year respite, we keep our tax dollars here, rural hospitals are shored up and protected, and we don't have to draw down on the rainy day fund and immediately put ourselves in a budget crunch. Three years now we have no guarantees. But we'll deal with that three years from now. We'll know it's coming up. The governor looked at those facts, I looked those facts. It was the right thing to do for Arizona.
What do you think the state needs to do to improve education?
I'm a big school-choice fan. I love it when children can find the place where they feel the most comfortable, so they can thrive. I think school choice has offered them that, a public charter school that fits their specific needs. The school districts have evolved and changed and I think they are better because of school choice. But after 20 years of a very successful charter school program, 85 percent of children still attend traditional public schools. Fifteen percent attend private and charter schools. And yet our discussion for the solution for all education bills is all too often universal vouchers and expansion of school choice and, if we just made every public school a charter school—which is what two of my opponents say—the world would change. No, it wouldn't. We have to focus on establishing standards and outcomes that affect every child regardless of which vehicle they use. I'm in outcomes guy. I believe that for some children, charter schools are wonderful. For other children, a traditional public school is wonderful. I like neighborhood schools. I want my neighborhood school to be excellent. This isn't either/or.
What did you think of the debate in the Legislature this year about the expansion of tax credits for parents who send their kids to private schools?
I support educational savings accounts for the purpose for which they were created. It allows parents and students who have no real alternatives to find a good place for their children. One thing that concerns me is the lack of accountability. Whenever we go to vouchers, there needs to be accountability. I haven't been shown a program on education savings accounts that has a true purpose, is outcome-based as opposed to process-based, and that that provides true accountability. Until I see that plan, I wouldn't support it.
What are the top priorities of your campaign?
Jobs is number one. Education, which goes hand-in-hand with jobs. The third is infrastructure and the fourth is public safety. Those four things are key, and you cannot have economic prosperity without a great education system, nor can you have one without an infrastructure system. Nothing matters if you don't feel safe. So those four are really co-dependent. They all feed off each other, which is why they are my top four.
The state has a structural deficit and some major shortfalls coming up in the future. How would you deal with that?
It's gut-check time. This is not what I'm going to do. This is for Arizona citizens to decide what kind of government they want. This is a conversation we had in Mesa. We were hit with a $62 million budget shortfall. We had a very serious discussion about, "What kind of community do you want? Do you want a community without libraries? Do you want a community that cuts police force?" We need to have that discussion, as opposed to a political discussion, which is "I'm going to do whatever I can to spend as little as I can to do as little as I can" and then expect great results. That's really what we do. We avoid the issue. We've got the disease but we don't go to the doctor. I would have an honest discussion with the citizens of Arizona and say. "Okay, we have a structural deficit. What does the state truly need and want?"