In the contentious LD 28 Senate primary race, the recent successful reauthorization of Rio Nuevo has been fashioned into a sort of political litmus test for loyalty to Tucson's interests. Paula Aboud has repeatedly accused Ted Downing of not supporting the reauthorization, even though he voted for the final bill. This has been a consistent theme, if not the dominant theme in her campaign, including her debate with Downing for the Clean Election Commission.
She recently produced and distributed a mailer that, according to Downing, twists the truth about his votes on Rio Nuevo and other matters. Downing has filed a complaint (Download downingcomplaint.pdf)
with the Pima County Democratic Party asking for them to take action on this matter: the hearing will be
this Tuesday, Aug. 22nd at 6pm, presumably at the Pima County HQ. (UPDATE: At the urging of David Waid, State party chairman, who felt that Pima County was moving too quickly, the hearing has been delayed. Instead, there will be a meeting to determine the rules of the meeting next Friday, and then the actual meeting possibly on Sept. 5th, just a week before the election. Downing responds to this delay in a letter to Pima County Chair Donna Branch-Gilby (Download DowningGilby.pdf).)
It could prove to be the most contentious and explosive meeting in recent party history.
Here's Aboud's mailer:
Downing asserts that all the 'contrasts' are distortions of the record, but the one which is certain to be the most explosive and seems to be having the most political traction is Aboud's charge about Rio Nuevo:
Downing voted to pass the bill, but was not a sponsor of the Rio Nuevo reathorization. Aboud passed and was also a sponsor of the legislation. Sponsorship could be considered a vote of confidence in a bill, and act of solidarity with the Tucson delegation, so it is not trivial, and it is an issue, but this lit concatenates the minor with major and plainly misrepresents Downing's vote to pass Rio Nuevo as a "NO"; in my opinion, this is what might be termed, Truthiness.
The likely effect on the average reader is to convey the false impression that Downing did not vote for passage of the Rio Nuevo reauthorization. I don't think a primary opponent has any duty to go out of their way to explain an opponent's vote, that's a candidate's job; but I do think that every candidate has a duty to the electorate to not actively mislead people about the facts. You decide what side of the line this falls on. No doubt, the Pima County Party will be asked to do so on Tuesday.
There is no doubt that Downing had reservations about the reauthorization of Rio Nuevo, though he did end up voting for passage. Some may be inclined to think that Downing's reservations were crankish, irrelevant, obstreperous, unhelpful, and even dangerous to the successful reauthorization of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district of Rio Nuevo given the intensity of the political negotiation. Those people might be right. But Ted is a sophisticated and principled policy-maker, whatever faults he may have. I don't find his reservations to be in any way trivial, or I wouldn't spend the time to explain my own understanding of the issues that he says motivated him. Before anyone can judge Downing's actions in regard to Rio Nuevo, they should at least understand the issues.
Downing's concerns center around two main issues: the voters' right to determine how their taxes are spent, and accountability for those public funds over the long life-span of the Rio Nuevo project.
Rio Nuevo is a multi-use redevelopment district which diverts a portion of the tax revenues collected in the district, in this case Sales Taxes, and places them in a fund for redevelopement projects. A TIF district like Rio Nuevo must be authorized by a public vote. In 1999, voters approved Prop 400 which authorized the Rio Nuevo TIF for a period of 10 years.
Or did it?
Many in support of reauthorizing Rio Nuevo (disclosure: I personally support it), felt that it would be unwise to ask Tucson's voters to reauthorize the Rio Nuevo TIF. The most honest accounting of that concern I have yet heard was from LD 28 state legislature candidate Steve Farley, who opined that if Rio Nuevo went back to the voters, it wouldn't win. The dithering, incompetence, lack of visible progress, and repeated redrawing of the plan with new and better boondoggles, has left many Tucsonans with an impression, not entirely unjustified, that Rio Nuevo is a failed experiment.
So how could those who support it avoid sending it back to voters? Just have the legislature reauthorize it. There's just one pesky little detail: the law. ARS 48-4237, which authorizes multi-use TIF districts has a requirement: Section D states "The board shall state on the ballot the purpose of the tax, the maximum rate of the tax and the maximum number of years for which the tax will be authorized." Well, that's a pickle; Rio Nuevo expired after 10 years.
Supporters of the 'legislative only' reauthorization approach found a solution. They proclaimed far and wide that Rio Nuevo could be extended without refering it to the voters because, though the voter pamphet distributed to voters, and all the press coverge leading up to the vote, specified a period of 10 years, that limit wasn't actually on the ballot. Thus the Rio Nuevo TIF was not technically limited to 10 years and could be extended indefinitely. Only problem is, then that ballot violated state law.
Hair-spitting gone wild. But water under the bridge. But it leaves those advocating for the 'legislative only' approach without any real, good-faith basis for their argument. Well, actually, there is one. Back to Steve Farley's honest assessment. We won't have a vote, because it won't pass. So, no vote. If you really think Rio Nuevo is nifty and you don't care much about those pesky rules we call the law, there's no problem.
Unfortunately for Downing, he did care about the law. And he cared about the right of taxpayers to decide how their money is spent.
You see, the hundreds of millions that 'would just go to Phoenix' if not devoted to Rio Nuevo is only half the story: literally, half. Every dollar of Sales Tax that get diverted to Rio Nuevo by the TIF, must be matched with revenues by the local government. So, reauthorizing Rio Nuevo wasn't just keeping Tucson dollars in Tucson, it was also a decision to spend hundreds of millions of local tax dollars to match those funds, all of it tagged only for use on Rio Nuevo projects. So a handful of state legislators, no matter how well intentioned, took it upon themselves to decide how hundreds of millions of Tucsonans' general fund tax dollars would be spent: on Rio Nuevo. And we don't get any say about it.
Downing may have thought that was wrong. He might have thought that the reason we have a democracy is so that we get to make important decisions through elections where everyone gets a say. Even if we don't like what they say. Some have another approach when they don't like what voters say - ignore the vote, or, even better, don't have one.
Downing offered an amendment to the Rio Nuevo bill (H.B. 2702) which provided for a new general election vote on the extension of Rio Nuevo for another 30 years to be held on November 7, 2006. It failed, of course. For this he is roundly criticized. Who knows? If the case were made to the people of Tucson, and if there were some public accountability for the mistakes that have been made, instead of shoveling them under the carpet, then voters might have a newly approved TIF for another 30 years that the people of Tucson believe in, rather than one for 12 years that some people feel got foisted on them in exchange for muzzling our public access cable program, and who knows what else, in backroom deals. But that would be rather hard, and risky, and honest: can't have that.
Downing was willing to trust the voters; that's his biggest crime.
Accountability for Public Funds
There is one other problem with TIF districts. They set up a board of directors and a budget process that is at one remove from democratic accountability, even though they are using public money. Generally, this does not become a problem, but when you rely on the probity and honesty of human beings to any degree, you are eventually bound to be disappointed.
During the reauthorization battle, the Rio Nuevo Board of Directors released their accounting of the funds received and used thus far. Downing was given one spreadsheet by the board dated 12/31/05 (Download rionuevo001.pdf), and then saw a different one from a lobbyist dated 2/03/06 (Download rionuevo002.pdf). He noticed that over 8 million dollars in the Pre-Development and Operating Expenses category had mysteriously moved from the TIF Funds column to the Public Funds column. There is no good explanation of the discrepancy.
It is still a fairly fishy diddle of the numbers, but it seems that the city 'loaned' Rio Nuevo over 8 million to cover or disguise some very large expenditures in a very flexible category. It is instructive that at the same time new City Manager Mike Hein was taking control, one of his first major actions to was roll a number of heads out of the Rio Nuevo project, and make the project report directly to himself. Clearly, he was dissatisfied with the project's performance, or worse.
Like to know what Rio Nuevo spent a total of over $10 million in Pre-Development and Operating Expenses on? Me too. For perspective, that's 40% of the TIF funds expended. I haven't gotten any answers yet. Maybe if enough citizens demand that every penny of that money be accounted for, the information will flow.
So, perhaps Downing was reasonably concerned about the lack of proper accounting controls and oversight in the Rio Nuevo project. He offered an amendment that inserted into the bill, "THE MUNICIPALITY SHALL INCLUDE IN ITS ANNUAL MUNICIPAL BUDGET THE AMOUNTS, SOURCES, AND USES OF MUNICIPAL REVENUES DEDICATED AS MATCHING MONIES FOR THE FISCAL YEAR FOR PURPOSES OF THIS SUBSECTION, AND THE AUDITOR GENERAL SHALL ANNUALLY AUDIT AND REPORT THESE DATA TO THE GOVERNOR AND TO THE LEGISLATURE."
In short, Downing wanted fiscal accountability for our investment. He wanted to use an independent government auditor to make sure everything was kosher.
Let me put this in context. Our State Treasurer is in dutch for widespread misuse of public funds in his office. Our State Mine Inspector is in dutch for widespread misuse of public funds in his office. Both of those officials are Republicans. Suggesting to the politicians in the legislature that pesky civil servants like the Auditor General or Comptroller get near any real money is like offering garlic to Dracula. Needless to say, Downing's motion failed. Steve Huffman rose to speak in opposition to Downing's amendment. His reason? It might be too expensive. $600 million, or more, in taxpayer funds, and accounting for it might be too expensive?
So, those are the actions Downing took to in regards to Rio Nuevo. Did he endanger its passage? Maybe. Were his actions wise? Some say no. I say only that the issues he raised are important and valid. Did he do the right thing? Perhaps he would be comfortable with your judgment on that point if you have read this far. You should decide based on real data. Don't allow this issue to be simplified and misrepresented.
I believe Downing had the public interest in sight the whole time. Perhaps Paula doesn't see it that way. I'm sure she has the public interest in sight too, though perhaps from a different perspective from Ted's. She should aim to explain that difference to voters, and her mailer falls far short of accomplishing that.
Since the Rio Nuevo issue came out OK (though hardly perfect), I think it is unproductive that this election, which is about the future, is being framed by recriminations about the past in such a misleading way that it sheds so little light on either candidate's philosophy. However, Rio Nuevo is an important issue in discovering differences between these candidates when handled in a mature and substantive fashion. Voting records are important and powerful lenses with which to discover the real convictions and values of a candidate, it is never illegitimate to examine and question a candidate's voting record. But like any lens, it can create more heat than light if misused. In the end, the Rio Nuevo vote, and the way it is being used in this campaign, does speak volumes about both Ted Downing and Paula Aboud as candidates for this office, and voters should take note.
UPDATE 8/20: A helpful Commenter supplied an analysis from the Star of Aboud's mailer. I thought I would move in out here with my own comments in brackets. Given that the 'fact check' bears out that every single one of Aboud's contrasts was misleading, the title of the Star piece is mystifying, "Aboud's pro-Tucson flier mostly on the money". It's like titling a news article about the Watergate break-in "Nixon's Plumbers mostly obeying the law".
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Today: We look at an ad for Democrat Paula Aboud.
The Race: State Senate District 28.
Medium: A direct-mail flier.
The Message: The advertisement begins with a headline that reads "The Clear Choice Senator Paula Aboud" over a photo of Aboud at a desk, flanked by U.S. and Arizona flags.
Beneath the photo is a three-column chart characterizing how Aboud and her rival, Rep. Ted Downing, differed on four bills that are described as "issues."
The first issue says, "Sponsored and passed Rio Nuevo funding, keeping our tax dollars in Tucson, not Phoenix."
Beneath Aboud's name, there is a "Yes" in green letters. Beneath Downing's name there is a "No" in red letters. [This is was the subject of this rather extensive post, had you failed to notice...]
The evaluation continues:
● Fought to maintain Tucson's local control to levy impact fees on developers. Aboud yes. Downing no.
● Voted for $597 million for crucial Democratic budget priorities. Aboud yes. Downing no/absent.
● Real solutions, not gimmicks for our public schools. Aboud yes. Downing no.
At the bottom she further criticizes Downing and his commitment to Tucson.
The Intent: To portray Downing as someone who does not truly represent Tucson, choosing instead to make concessions to Maricopa County lawmakers.
Fact Check: Downing did not sponsor the extension for the Rio Nuevo special-tax district. But he did vote for the bill's final version, which extended the district for 12 years. Downing was critical of the original bill, which extended the district 30 years.
[This is essentially correct, but Ted was not, as implied this 'fact check', opposed to the original bill because of the 30 year period. His own amendment allowing Tucsonans a vote to reathorize Rio Nuevo also specified a 30 year extension. The 12 year period was not a factor; that period was the result of an intense, top-level, negotiation from which most law-makers were excluded. The Rio Nuevo bill was presented by leadership as a take it or leave it proposition, Ted's attempts to amend were crushed. One of the reasons Ted's amendment on a local vote was so hated, was that it would have allowed a 30 year TIF instead of the 12 years the GOP leadership was willing to give.]
It's correct that Downing supported a bill that would have limited how municipalities collect development fees. Aboud voted against the bill, which passed but was vetoed by Gov. Janet Napolitano. The bill didn't strip local control, but increased state regulation.
[And that increasd regulation would have prevented munipalities from buying airplanes with their developments fees; not exactly your standard public improvement. And Downing was joined in his vote by his colleague Rep. Bradley. I guess he hates 'local control' too... Note that this is the only time the reporter uses the words 'it's correct': how is one out of four 'mostly'?]
The $597 million in "crucial Democratic budget priorities" were part of the final budget bill introduced by Republican Speaker of the House, James P. Weiers. Downing didn't vote no. He didn't vote at all. He was absent. The final house vote was 46-9. Twelve of the 21 House Democrats, a majority, either voted against the budget or, like Downing, did not vote.
[For once I have nothing to add. Except that equating a missed vote with a NO vote in just plain dishonest. And given that a majority of our caucus voted against the bill or bugged out in a fit of ennui or sheer futility over such a tragic budget, one wonders why Aboud would highlight her YES vote.]
The reference to "real solutions, not gimmicks for our public schools," relates to Downing's vote to require a U.S. flag in every public and charter school and public college classroom. Downing voted for the bill after introducing an amendment to also require the Constitution and Declaration of Independence be displayed.
[The real problem with Aboud's mailer on this one is the framing of the 'issue' of gimmicks vs. real solutions. Those are generalities, not issues. They are prejudcial descriptions of a issue not mentioned except as a little footnote. If Aboud has just said "Putting flags and the Constitution in every classroom vs. Not", well, it wouldn't have the desired effect, but also wouldn't be misleading. She got the vote right, but deprived the voters of any real information with her characterization.
The original bill was undoubtedly pure symbolic drivel, and it was actively harmful and jingoistic. And it was certain to pass. At least Downing injected some instructional content and a positive slant into the bill, and got more than one GOPer to rub a few neurons together for a change. Instead of just futilely voting NO, Downing turned a pure turd of a bill into a half turd, half gold bill. When a Democrat turns one of these dreadful wedge issue/patriot baiting bills into a win for our side, criticizing him for it is the last thing on my mind.
So much for the 'Gimmick' Aboud refers to, but that leaves the issue of those "Real Solutions" that Aboud voted YES on, which presumably Downing did not. What exactly are those?
We should also note the use of the same jingoistic symbolism Aboud denounces in our schools in the accompanying picture of herself flanked by not one, but two flags, but not a single Constitution. I do so love irony.]
FURTHER UPDATE 8/20: I just got a call from the Aboud campaign letting me know that it is important to keep Senator Aboud in office. When asked why, the very first response was because Downing did not support Rio Nuevo. If that isn't in the call script, but merely the extemporizing of an enthusiastic volunteer (which is what I hope), I would invite the Aboud campaign to send me the script. I'd be happy to post it.