Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX — Republican gubernatorial hopefuls all promised Tuesday to help the state’s economic recovery but were divided on the question of how best to do that.

Christine Jones said the key is running the state more like a business.

Ken Bennett said eliminating the state income tax will provide the impetus, replacing lost revenues with a broad-based sales tax.

Scott Smith said what he hears from companies is they want to be sure they can find qualified, trained workers in Arizona.

And Andrew Thomas said none of that matters unless and until Arizona seals the border, calling it “the elephant in the room.

“If we do not deal with that problem, we’re just whistling ‘Dixie’ and pretending we can solve that problem when almost $3 billion a year is being earmarked not for these (state) funds but for dealing with the consequences of illegal immigration,” he said.

Frank Riggs did not disagree. But he said there is a “perception problem ... that somehow we as Arizonans are intolerant. I think we can secure the border and also show tolerance, inclusiveness.”

Tuesday night’s forum in front of hundreds of city and town officials meeting here was the last chance for the GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, as a group, to make their bid for votes before Tuesday’s primary.

Doug Ducey did not attend. Spokeswoman Melissa DeLaney said he had a prior commitment, the same reason Ducey gave for skipping a forum the prior night in Flagstaff.

All the candidates promised in some form that the next time the state runs into financial troubles they will not balance the budget by taking away money on which cities rely.

That particularly includes the Highway User Revenue Fund, made up of vehicle registration fees and gasoline taxes, which are supposed to be shared with cities. Gov. Jan Brewer and the GOP-controlled Legislature tapped that fund to minimize cuts elsewhere.

“This is not the state’s money,” said Smith, a former Mesa mayor.

Bennett agreed, saying when he was Senate president the Legislature managed to balance the budget without tapping other funds. “Especially in bad years, when the state thinks that things are tough for us, they’re tough for all of you as well,” he said.

Jones said she found flaws in some of the decisions made in the last few years to balance the budget. For example, Jones disagreed with the decision to mortgage state buildings — including the House and Senate chambers — to come up with operating cash. But she added, “I don’t think it’s helpful to sit here and criticize when we didn’t have an opportunity to offer those solutions.”

Riggs agreed. “I don’t want to Monday morning quarterback,” he said.

But Riggs said that with future financial woes on the horizon, Arizona needs to recognize the difference between capital needs that should be paid for over a long time, by those who will use them in the future, versus ongoing expenses.

Bennett was questioned about how he would make up the revenue under his plan to eliminate the state income tax. He said if the state were to tax every transaction in its $280 billion-a-year economy it would take a sales tax rate of just 3.5 percent to raise the same $9 billion a year that comes now from the combination of income taxes and Arizona’s current 5.6 percent tax rate on selected transactions.