Republican gubernatorial hopefuls debate issues Monday night. At left are Ken Bennett, Christine Jones, Scott Smith; on the right are Doug Ducey, Frank Riggs and Andrew Thomas. Host Ted Simons of KAET-TV is in the center. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX — The questions were about improving Arizona’s economy.

But the answers provided during a televised debate Monday night by several Republican gubernatorial hopefuls were about securing the border, insisting the issues are linked. And some want to spend state tax dollars to do it.

Andrew Thomas cited a Center for Immigration Studies report that said all new jobs created since 2000 “have been taken by immigrants, legal and illegal.” The former Maricopa County Attorney said to fix high unemployment, “start with the obvious.”

Former GoDaddy executive Christine Jones wants to spend money to send the National Guard to the border and construct additional miles of fence. She insists Arizona can simply send the bill for all that to Congress.

State Treasurer Doug Ducey said everything would be on the table. He said that includes “reprioritizing” the $300 million budget of the state Department of Public Safety and working with local sheriffs to focus on illegal immigration.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett chided Jones, pointing out that Arizona has sent invoices to Washington before for things like paying the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants who violate state laws.

“You’re not going to pay for it with a magic wand,” he said. “And you’re not going to pay for it by sending the bill to Congress because they’ve already not paid several bills.”

Former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith echoed the sentiment.

“I would love to say as governor I’m going to wave the magic wand and say here’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “But then reality sets in, and the fact here is that nobody’s talking reality.”

And former California Congressman Frank Riggs said the governor does have some responsibility in helping secure the border.

“But that has to be a combined federal, state and local response,” he said. “And to constantly blame illegal immigrants for every challenge that we have as a state is absolutely irresponsible.”

Smith sought to keep the focus on the economy and job creation, referring to the study Thomas cited.

“That kind of begs the question: If every single one has been taken by an illegal immigrant, ... we are in worse trouble from an economic standpoint than an immigration standpoint because we’re not creating any high-quality jobs,” he said. “I don’t think the people who are crossing the border and walked across the desert are walking into that high-paying engineering job.”

That brought a sharp response from Thomas, who corrected Scott, pointing out, “I said legal and illegal in case you weren’t listening.”

Ducey chided Smith and other foes of more spending to secure the border for their attitudes.

“Many of us, or some of us, here are very good at telling people what can’t be done,” he said. “I think a governor has to show what needs to be done and has to be the spokesperson for it.”

He said claims the state can stop illegal immigration, or pay for such an effort, are false. “Which budget are you going to cut to transfer that?” he said.

Voters need to focus on the economy and not get sidetracked on various promises of what a new governor might be able to do about immigration, Smith said.

“We’ve only recovered half of the jobs we lost during the recession,” he said. He added that Arizona is lagging far behind even California, also hard-hit during the downturn, but which has recovered all its lost jobs despite having what might be “the worst business tax and regulatory environment in the country.”

But Smith said the problem in Arizona goes deeper.

“We’re not only recovering jobs at a slower rate,” he said. “But the quality of jobs we are recovering are basically minimum-wage jobs. They’re not the high-quality jobs that we lost.”

Ducey promised to sign a moratorium on new state regulations the first day he takes office, not withstanding the fact there already is one in place, put there by incumbent Jan Brewer.

Riggs promised new incentives for business, including the ability to take an immediate tax write-off on the cost of new equipment in the year it was purchased. Now, larger purchases must be amortized as deductions over multiple years.

Riggs was undeterred by questions of lower state tax revenues, saying the change “will pay for itself, in stimulation and job creation.”

While that helps manufacturers, Smith noted it leaves out service-oriented businesses that do not make large capital purchases.

Jones was a bit less specific, promising to “streamline” the state tax code.

And Thomas reiterated his contention that border security “dwarfs all other issues.”

The question of how to get any of this done had each of the contenders claiming some unique experience.

Smith noted his time as both mayor of Mesa and head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Ducey and Jones both cited their experience in the private sector, him as head of the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream chain and her as an executive of GoDaddy website hosting.

Bennett said he was state Senate president the last time Arizona had a balanced budget, while Thomas said he took on the powerful as a county attorney — at least before he was disbarred.

And Riggs said his three terms in the U.S. House, albeit from California, give him instant credibility in working with Congress.

All of the candidates said the emergence of the tea party is good for the Republican Party, each insisting that he or she believes in many of the same things. But Thomas, who was disbarred for abusing his prosecutorial discretion, went farther.

“The liberal media attack the tea party for the same reason they attack any real conservative: They don’t like the principles they stand for and they see that they’re effective,’’ he said.