Tucson’s business leaders have found a new tool in their longtime efforts to boost the local economy and their sales — the survey.

Two surveys released in the last week seek, on the one hand, to point out what’s holding us back and, on the other hand, to propel us into a prosperous future in the military sector. They complement each other and give business leaders an extra bit of leverage in the ongoing argument over how we move Tucson forward, though they have an air of predetermined outcomes about them.

One man key to both surveys is Mike Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce and chair of the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance. The first survey released, by the chamber, was of bigger local employers — 129 local employers with 100 or more employees. Perhaps the most evident takeaway from their responses is that, despite efforts by Pima County and the city of Tucson to improve their facilitation of business, businesspeople still think they do a pretty poor job.

Asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Overall, I believe that government bodies in the Tucson Metro Area and Pima County understand business,” 72 of 107 who answered disagreed.

Varney noted several initiatives the county and city have undertaken to smooth business processes, but said they apparently haven’t done enough to change perceptions yet.

“I don’t think they’re deaf to this,” Varney said. “I just think they haven’t found a way yet to drill down to a point where it makes a difference.”

It’s interesting to note, however, that though the survey asked three questions about whether local government helps or understands business, and the respondents said resoundingly “no,” that issue isn’t what’s most holding these businesses back. Asked what the biggest obstacles to their businesses’ growth are, the respondents’ answers ranked this way:

1. Health-care costs

2. Recruiting qualified workers

3. Growing sales

4. Land use/building restrictions

5. Regulatory compliance — federal

So while local governments still are not helpful enough, from a business perspective, they get a little more blame in the survey for local businesses’ problems than may be warranted based on that ranking.

“There are many many different pro and con influences on business, but one thing for sure is that everybody has to deal with government,” Varney said.

The second survey enumerates what many of us have suspected — that vast majorities in the Tucson area support the military installations here even with aircraft noise. The purpose of the survey by the Southern Arizona Defense Alliance is clearly to show how nearly unified support is in this area for our military installations. That could be helpful in arguing Southern Arizona’s case before Defense Department officials, even for putting aircraft such as the F-35 in our local bases.

City Councilman Steve Kozachik, a longtime doubter of the F-35 and its appropriateness for Tucson, noted that most of the survey’s questions were not exactly tough ones, including “Which of the following best describes your level of support for the military installations throughout Southern Arizona?”

“I would not challenge the result of their survey. It was a marketing tool and it achieved its end,” Kozachik said.

However, Kozachik sharply criticized the release of the chamber’s survey on the local business climate just as Tucson is trying to convince Tesla Motors to build a plant here.

I think the timing was counterproductive, putting that out in the public domain when we’re trying to land a huge employer,” said Kozachik, who has had several public disputes with Varney over business issues.

The courting of Tesla

Last week I reported how a 2000 state law prohibits Tesla Motors and other auto companies from selling directly to consumers without a dealer.

This week, one legislative committee took a step to change that. The state senate’s Committee on Commerce, Energy and Military Affairs voted 3-2 for a strike-all amendment that would allow manufacturers who make only electric cars — i.e. Tesla — to sell them directly to consumers in Arizona.

Sen. Al Melvin, the SaddleBrooke Republican who chairs the committee, voted no, saying he wasn’t convinced Tesla needs special treatment under the law.

Of course, the motivation for the proposal appears to have little to do with the right or wrong of existing state law. Officials want to encourage Tesla to locate its $5 billion “gigafactory” in Arizona — Tucson has acknowledged making a bid — and this might help encourage Tesla to choose this state.

But you’ve got to think it will be a hard go for this bill, HB 2123, the rest of the way. Bobbi Sparrow, the president of the Arizona Automobile Dealers Association, opposed the bill in committee and told me she will continue to fight it.

"We’ll just see how it goes from here,” she told me Thursday evening, sounding confident.

Beyond the legislative proposal, all nine U.S. representatives from Arizona signed a letter to Tesla this week encouraging the company to pick Arizona. U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, who signed that letter, also sent another one encouraging the company to pick Southern Arizona.

This sounds familiar...

The well-known former governor of Sonora, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, found himself in a familiar position this week, accused by news reports of criminal wrongdoing. A Guanajuato newspaper, AM, said Beltrones had demanded a "commission" in return for steering 160 million pesos to road-paving projects in the area.

Beltrones is the leader of the ruling PRI party faction in the Mexican house of representatives. Beltrones issued a letter Thursday denying the reports of bribery.

It's a familiar exercise for him. Back in 1997, a New York Times report accused Beltrones of cooperating with drug traffickers in Sonora. Beltrones denied the reports and later hired Tucsonan and former Star reporter Keith Rosenblum to write a book analyzing the New York Times report, which was part of a group of stories on Mexico that won the Times a Pulitzer prize.

"Once more there are accusations with statements and not proof, accusations that, if true, should be presented to the appropriate authorities," Beltrones wrote in Thursday's letter, which he sent to the newspaper chain's president. "I trust in your professionalism, as I always have, and I hope that this story resulting from a 'supposed investigation,' is just that, not an escalation of attacks on my character or that of other members of the house of representatives."

Just like old times!


Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter