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HIGHWAY ROBBERY

Given the repeated rejection of a half-cent sales tax down here in Pima County, we're not taking any bets on whether voters will pass the latest transportation plan next May.

Some of the complaints we're hearing about the Regional Transportation Authority's newly released draft proposal--which spends roughly 75 percent widening mostly existing roads to clear out bottlenecks, with the remainder going to projects related to mass transit--show just how little some of the critics understand about transportation costs and Arizona politics.

One vocal subset is outraged that a cross-town freeway isn't part of the Regional Transportation Authority's plan. Well, here's the reason: At $100 million a mile, you'd be lucky, over the next two decades, to end up with 15 miles of freeway with all the revenue raised--which leaves nothing for improving the arterials we'd still need to drive on once the freeway was completed. Add to that the uproar and uprooting that would come with locating a truncated highway, and you understand why the RTA decided a freeway wasn't a viable alternative.

The other big complaint we're hearing: A sales tax is regressive, so transportation improvements should be funded through a gas tax.

It's a swell idea to make those who use the streets pay for the streets, but those of us in the reality-based community understand why it's not possible. First of all, creating a regional gas tax requires an amendment to the Arizona Constitution, which would require backers of the proposal to either (a) convince lawmakers (who just love taxes) to put the proposal on the ballot, or (b) collect more than 187,000 valid signatures to go the initiative route. Then there's the expense of a statewide campaign that would surely be opposed by oil companies, which are alleged to have somewhat deep pockets.

Put simply, that ain't happening.

A statewide increase of the gas tax is a slightly more feasible option, but still outside the realm of possibility, given the current makeup of the Arizona Legislature. And if the statewide gas tax were increased, Pima County would essentially have to split its take with the state.

All of which reminds us of the other problem with a gas tax: It doesn't raise enough money to do much, unless you crank it way up. At this point, you'd need a state gas tax of somewhere in the area of 20 cents a gallon to raise what a half-cent sales tax would bring in annually. (If you went regional and didn't have to split it, the tax could drop to about a dime a gallon, but we've already been over why that won't work.)

Voters may like the idea of raising the gas tax by a couple of pennies, but once you start trying to convince them to pay an additional 20 cents a gallon, you're running on empty.


MEANWHILE, IN THE BLOGOSPHERE

The battle for Ward 6 is not only being fought house to house, mailbox to mailbox, rally to rally. It's also leapt into a new front: the Internet.

Incumbent Councilman Fred Ronstadt, a Republican seeking his third term in November, announced last week that he would now be available for instant-message chats during City Council meetings. Bombard Fred with your IMs--Y R U WEARING THAT BOWTIE?--at his online handle, fgr42@hotmail.com.

For some time now, our spam filters have been failing to block Ronstadt's Ward VI Weekly, an e-mailed bulletin catching folks up on vital efforts such as saving the Reid Park elephants. He's also upgraded his Web site with the hope that technology will bring government and people closer together--or at least give him a slick site to post a bunch of campaign propaganda.

Meanwhile, computer whiz Steve Farley, one of two Democrats vying the September primary, is blogging away about the campaign at www.friendsofarley.com. Among Farley's recent postings: an interactive map based on the most recent campaign-finance reports which shows that only 13 contributors to Ronstadt actually live in the heavily Democratic ward--and that two-thirds of his backers live outside the city limits.

Farley's Democratic opponent, Nina Trasoff, has set up a Web page at www.trasofffortucson.com, but has yet to start blogging. C'mon, Nina--what's the holdup?

If you want a look at the Democratic candidates but don't want to leave your living room, Farley and Trasoff will be going head-to-head in their first--and probably only--televised debate at 6:30 p.m. this Friday, July 22, on KUAT-TV's Arizona Illustrated. Questioning the candidates will be Jim Nintzel of the Tucson Weekly, Mark Kimble of the Tucson Citizen and Arizona Illustrated anchor Bill Buckmaster. The program repeats at midnight.


TOLD YOU SO

We ain't the Great Kreskin. But we accurately predicted that Judge Nanette Warner's ruling that ordered Joan Schwartz to cough up $44,283 to help Pima County pay for the cost of defending her ex-husband--and to sacrifice monthly support payments for her and the couple's three kids--would not hold.

That'd kinda be like holding Judge Warner responsible for defending her ex-husband, Peter Goudinoff, a former Democratic state senator and longtime UA political scientist, for some political prank--like if U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, would have truly taken offense at the ZeigKyl bumper stickers that the wise-cracking Goudinoff made years ago.

Schwartz's ex, Dr. Bradley Schwartz, is in serious trouble, accused of hiring a hit man to kill his onetime Arizona Specialty Eye Care employee, Dr. Brian Stidham.

Warner testily ordered Joan Schwartz to pay back the $44,238 and targeted for the county the $5,535 a month she and her children--the youngest of whom turned five on July 19--receive via disability insurance that the doctor has with Northwestern Mutual. Warner snapped at a hearing on June 21 that Joan Schwartz should realize her ex-husband has no power to make the money to which she was accustomed while he's in the slammer.

Dennis Rosen, Joan Schwartz's talented lawyer, bit his tongue that day, but fired off a motion to clarify and motion and reconsider eight days later.

"Ordering Joan Schwartz to repay the sum of $44,283 ... is the Court's improper attempt sua sponte (Latin for 'on its own') to retroactively modify the divorce decree and separation agreement.

"Likewise, the Court's order that the Defendant assign all future disability payments to the Pima County Superior Court Clerk, is improper."

Rosen noted that Warner failed to consider the Schwartz children and said, essentially, as the judge in the criminal trial of Schwartz and the alleged hitman, Ronald Bruce Bigger, she legally could not modify the Schwartz January 2004 divorce settlement agreement. Joan Schwartz, Rosen said, was one like of Dr. Schwartz's creditors, and the separate legal order, for Dr. Schwartz to pay up to $11,120 a month in spousal and child support, was a done deal.

In court again July 18, Rosen said Schwartz paid off some $200,000 in debts (he has another $165,000 piled up) and that Warner could not single out Joan Schwartz, among those owed money, to repay.

Rosen said it was the job of county administration--and not the court's job--to seek money from Dr. Schwartz if county officials believed he has money to pay for his lawyer.

Warner retreated well before the July 18 hearing, issuing a clarifying ruling on July 8 that vacated the June 21 order for Joan Schwartz to "pay all amounts that she has received on the defendant's behalf the disability income" to the county.

Arguments on other monies (including from the sale of Schwartz's former medical building and $70,000 on brand new equipment that was never used--it arrived after Schwartz and Bigger were arrested) were made July 18. That equipment was returned, and the $70,000 is in escrow.

Warner skeptically questioned Joan Schwartz and the doctor on July 18 and seemed surprised that Dr. Schwartz didn't have records, copies and memory of financial documents or checks. He'd need to have a separate cell--for deputies to search--to hold all that. Warner also seemed skeptical of the $30,000 Joan Schwartz sent to Dr. Schwartz's parents as payment on a $40,000 loan.

With Rosen insisting she had no business in the Schwartz's divorce business, Warner delayed any ruling on the doctor's status for a taxpayer-financed defense.


NOW WHO'S GOING TO PAY THE BILLS?

Arizona Democratic Party Chairman Jim Pederson stepped down from his job as party boss earlier this week. Pederson's resignation was "effective immediately."

Pederson's generous contributions to the party, which totaled something like $6 million over the last five years, helped buy the ads that put Democrat Janet Napolitano in the governor's office, although Democrats continue to get whipped by Republicans in most other state contests.

What's next for Pederson? Well, he could have quit because he figured it was time to get out of politics. Or he could be setting the stage for that rumored run against U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican who will be seeking his third term next year. Gee, which option is more likely?


TASER TAG

Playful fun at a fair booth of alternative-radio blaster KFMA turned career-threatening for Lisa Reis, a Pima County sheriff's deputy. Reis whipped out the taser in some play for a coveted KFMA shirt. The little skit got out of hand, and in June, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik canned Reis, on the force since January 2002.

But Reis fought back with Michael Storie, a smart lawyer who has racked up several big personnel wins against Dupnik and Dupnik's lame lawyers.

The county Law Enforcement Merit Council (the county civil service panel) voted 2-1 on July 11 to reinstate Reis to her $44,304-year-job with full back pay. Three members of the council--Mike Hellon, Manuel Medina and Michael Mincheff--heard testimony over six days. Mincheff cast the dissent.

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