Election Day hasn't yet arrived, but nearly 24,000 Tucsonans had already cast their ballots as of Monday, Oct. 26.
Early ballots promise to be a huge factor in this year's city election. In previous city elections, voters had to ask for a mail-in ballot; in this election, more than 62,000 early ballots went out automatically to city voters on Pima County's permanent early-voter list when early voting started on Oct. 8.
By early this week, more than 68,000 of the roughly 224,000 registered voters in Tucson had received an early ballot in the mail—a pretty big number, when you consider that only 67,754 ballots were cast, total, in the 2007 city election.
It remains to be seen how many of those early ballots will come back, but given the typical lack of interest in city elections, we're guessing that the physical turnout at the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will be the lowest in history, as a percentage of the electorate.
The numbers, as of early this week, were looking good for the Democrats. A total of 32,313 early ballots went to Dems, and 12,249 had been cast, for a return rate of roughly 38 percent.
That's the same rate Republicans had seen, but the numbers were lower: 21,683 ballots went to GOP voters, and 8,249 of those had been cast.
Independents were either having a harder time making up their minds, or they weren't interested in voting: Roughly 13,500 ballots had been sent to independents, and about 4,100 had been cast, for a return rate of roughly 30 percent.
DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS
It was another rough week for supporters of the Public Safety First Initiative, aka Proposition 200, which would require the city of Tucson to hire at least 333 cops and 70 firefighters over the next five years.
First, in a long-rumored power play, Tucson Electric Power formally announced opposition to Prop 200.
TEP has now joined with the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, the Arizona Multihousing Association and Cox Cable as business organizations opposed to the Public Safety First Initiative.
"We have all the support in the world for local first responders," says TEP spokesman Joe Salkowski. "But this proposition amounts to an unfunded mandate that would draw resources from other areas where the city desperately needs to invest."
Salkowski says Prop 200 doesn't include any way of paying the estimated $63 million a year that the initiative will cost once it's fully implemented in five years, or the $150 million that it would cost to get up to the new staffing levels between now and then.
"That doesn't seem like a smart way to manage a city budget, particularly at a time when economic stresses are so high," Salkowski says.
TEP's announcement was followed by a critical examination of the initiative by Nick Dranias of the Goldwater Institute, who said that Prop 200 didn't include any mechanism to ensure the new cops would actually do enough to lower the crime rate.
"Proposition 200 would mandate hiring scores of new government employees without requiring spending be reduced elsewhere or imposing any incentive for good performance or consequence for bad performance," Dranias wrote in an op-ed. "This won't put public safety first; it will just bloat city government."
Prop 200 supporters pointed out that the Goldwater Institute hadn't actually said Tucsonans should vote against the initiative—and, indeed, the nonprofit think tank does not take positions on ballot initiatives.
So other than sending out the op-ed through their press office, encouraging the media to interview Dranias about his skepticism regarding Prop 200, e-mailing the editorial to everyone on their subscriber list and posting it on their Web site, the Goldwater Institute had no interest in influencing people one way or the other.
That said, we thought we should mention one other point that Dranias made in his op-ed: "Somewhere, somehow, Tucson taxpayers will have to pay the bill, and you can bet that will eventually come in the form of higher taxes."
Supporters still insist that the city will be receiving enough money from the state—you know, the same government that just announced that this year's budget shortfall had grown to $2 billion—to cover the costs. They also say that an economic rebound is just around the corner.
That's not a view shared by Kevin McCarthy of the Arizona Tax Research Association, who noted in an Arizona Daily Star op-ed that similar unfunded mandates have left the state with a massive budget crisis.
"With the economic crisis facing Arizona serving as a painful reminder, Tucson taxpayers can be assured that, if approved, Proposition 200 will certainly force a tax increase at some future date," wrote McCarthy, who added that adopting spending programs via initiative tends to result in fiscal disasters.
"Sidestepping the city's budgeting process allows the proponents of Proposition 200 to have an isolated budget debate regarding police and fire protection without the unpleasantness of a tax increase to fund it," McCarthy wrote. "Make no mistake; in the end, this process always poorly serves taxpayers who are left questioning why citizens were not properly informed that these services are not free."
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had to do some major backtracking last week after a letter with his name on it went out with the message that the federal government could do nothing to stop the Augusta Resource Corporation from using federal land as part of the proposed Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains.
Vilsack sent out a subsequent letter apologizing for the first one, assuring Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that "no decisions have been made" regarding whether the feds will allow U.S. Forest Service land to be turned into a dump for the mine.
The letter may have a consequence: It could put pressure on the Forest Service to deny Rosemont the permits that it is seeking, just to show that the decision process now underway was not a sham.
Augusta could go to court to overturn any decision—but that just means more time for Giffords and Congressman Raúl Grijalva to find support for a bill that would remove the Santa Ritas from mining operations.
THOSE SAGUARO RANCH NEIGHBORS REMAIN AS PESKY AS EVER
The town of Marana is having a hard time getting rid of some pesky neighbors who aren't happy with Saguaro Ranch developer Stephen Phinny and the town's bend-over-backward approach in helping to make way for the 1,035-plus-acre gated development.
In May, Phinny's most critical neighbors—Tracy Chamberlain, Sharyl Cummings and Steve Blomquist—were arrested for trespassing after walking down a portion of what they consider a legal public easement (despite the Marana Town Council decision on May 21 to abandon the road in an effort to get those neighbors to go away).
On Oct. 15, Oro Valley Municipal Court Judge George Dunscomb dismissed all criminal-trespass charges and admonished Marana's actions as an improper use of the criminal process.
Find early and late-breaking Skinny at The Range, our daily dispatch.