THE STATE OF THE CITY IS REALLY, REALLY SCREWEDThe city's civic leaders aren't going to let a little economic meltdown stop them from enjoying a plate of rubber chicken and an opportunity to network. Mayor Bob Walkup drew the usual full house for his annual State of the City address in a big ballroom in the bowels of the Tucson Convention Center last week.
But just as Democrat Janet Napolitano did when she delivered the State of the State a few weeks ago (shortly before abandoning the state for a better gig in Washington, D.C.), Walkup left out a traditional line in the speech last week: There was none of this "state of the city is strong" stuff.
Normally a bubbling fountain of optimism, Walkup struck a much more somber tone with the annual speech, stressing the financial challenges facing local government, businesses and charities. He warned that layoffs and furloughs could be in the future for city staff, and that entire departments could be eliminated as the City Council grapples with what's expected to be a $80 million shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Walkup reminded the crowd that earlier generations had faced more serious challenges--"marauding armies, scant resources, little escape from the oppressive heat"--and had managed to survive, although we imagine past City Councils never had to deal with the Pima County Interfaith Council or Brian Flagg's gang of homeless bus riders.
When he wasn't encouraging Tucsonans to support local businesses and give to local charities (and we gotta say we agree with him on those points), Hizzoner was building the case for downtown revitalization.
Walkup said that even in the lousy economy, development was beginning to take shape downtown. He cited a host of public projects--the urban streetcar, the new Fourth Avenue underpass, a new Fire Department headquarters--and a few private ones, including the new Maynards restaurant and market at the train depot, Madden Media's move to the MacArthur Building and the recent push by a group of developers to remodel the east end of downtown.
(By the way, we sure hope that those rumblings we're hearing about that latter deal crashing and burning are overblown. It would be a real shame if Portland developers Williams and Dame decided to pull out of the project.)
Walkup's downtown boosterism was a strategic move to counter plans by lawmakers such as Rep. Frank Antenori, who represents the eastside of Tucson, to yank funding for the city's Rio Nuevo redevelopment program.
The city will have a fight on its hands to protect those dollars as the state wrestles with a $3 billion shortfall in the budget for the next fiscal year. Sure, taking away Rio Nuevo funding will only make a difference of $10 million or so in the short term while most definitely screwing over Tucson in the long term, but many of our state lawmakers (a) don't like the libs down in Tucson, and (b) aren't showing much in the way of long-term vision.
After the speech, Walkup vowed to fight for the Rio Nuevo funding.
"I can tell you that we're not going to let that happen without a concerted effort on our part to explain what this means to the region, what this means to creating jobs and wealth in this community," Walkup said. "We are not going to go down without a strong fight on this issue."
PUBLIC ACCESS GOES DARKSam Behrend, the executive director of Access Tucson, announced last week that the public-access station would be shutting down for the month of June.
Behrend said that cuts in city funding--which comes from cable-license fees from Cox Communications--forced the move to furlough workers without pay that month, along with other personnel cuts.
City Manager Mike Hein included the elimination of public-access funding as a budget option in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
RTA REJECTION REDUXThe folks who want to recount the ballots from the Regional Transportation Authority's 2006 election had another setback in court last week.
If you want more details, you'll find 'em at the TW blog, but here are the basics: Pima County Treasurer Beth Ford, who is tired of storing the ballots from the RTA election, says that state law requires her to destroy them. Last summer, she announced plans to do just that, leading to a court challenge by attorney Bill Risner, who is fighting on behalf of the Democratic Party (with a little help from the Libertarians, too).
Risner, who has insisted that the election was rigged, has been trying to convince Attorney General Terry Goddard to recount the ballots as part of a criminal investigation. Goddard has declined to take him up on that, although he has had some investigators poking around.
Risner had hoped to convince Pima County Superior Judge Charles Harrington to not only prevent the destruction of the ballots, but also order a recount of the ballots in order to settle the question of whether Pima County flipped the election.
Last week, Harrington said he did not have any legal authority to take possession of the ballots and count them to confirm that the election was on the up-and-up, although he has not yet ruled on the question of what do with the darned ballots themselves.
Risner says he'll file a motion asking Harrington to change his mind and take possession of the ballots as the first step toward a recount.
NUMBERS GAMEAs the budget fix demonstrates, we've got a whole new state government. Republicans are in firm control, after increasing their legislative numbers in last November's election and capturing the governor's office thanks to Democrat Janet Napolitano's decision to split town and turn over the keys to Republican Jan Brewer.
But does that mean, as some Republicans have been crowing, that Arizona is a reliably red state?
Not according to the voter-registration numbers through the end of last year, which were released last week by Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
Both major political parties added voters last year in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Republicans added 111,159 voters to climb to a total of 1,140,609, but Democrats added 157,711, to climb to 1,047,126. (In addition, 105,295 new independent voters joined the voting roles, increasing that number to 860,095.)
On a percentage basis, Republicans dipped from 38.25 percent of the overall total voters to 37.15 percent, while Democrats increased their overall percentage from 33.04 percent to 34.10 percent since Jan. 1, 2008.
No one knows how many of the voters who signed up to vote in the presidential election will stick around; there will undoubtedly be a drop in the 2010 elections.
But if Republicans at the Legislature continue slashing education funding, closing down state parks, stripping away health-care coverage from poor people and alienating the business community by cutting funding for their pet programs to deal with the budget shortfall, they may just help Democrats close that registration gap even further. And Republicans in swing districts--such as Sen. Al Melvin and Rep. Vic Williams in Pima County's Legislative District 26--may find they're not coming back for a second term.