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Steller column: 10 top Tucson and Arizona stories to follow in 2018
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Steller column: 10 top Tucson and Arizona stories to follow in 2018

News-wise, 2016 was shocking, 2017 was wild, and I really hope 2018 is a bit calmer.

Here are 10 Tucson and Arizona stories I’ll be watching for as the year unfolds.

1. Heat and drought

We were lucky for a time in 2017. The winter was wet, the snowpack was good in the Colorado River basin, and the previous year’s drought conditions gave way to an adequate water supply from Lake Mead.

But then what may be our new climatic reality settled back in, and 2017 was the hottest ever recorded in Tucson. Considering that 2016, 2015 and 2014 were the other hottest years on record, there’s every reason to think 2018 will reflect this new norm.

And if the extra heat is combined with little rain, the water shortage in Lake Mead that is now forecast to hit in about May 2019 could be accelerated.

2. Tucson economy

In 2017, Tucson had a year of disappointing mixed signals. The expansions or relocations announced in 2016 started to take effect in 2017, and the unemployment rate for the area dropped to 4.0 percent.

Yet state unemployment reports and reports from employment agencies showed troubling weakness in the economy. The number of people employed in the Tucson area even dropped from late 2016 to late 2017, state economists reported.

But University of Arizona economic forecaster George Hammond said he thinks the state reports reflected a statistical anomaly, not reality. Revisions to the reports made in March 2018 will show whether he’s right and that Tucson is on track for strong growth that might even help raise local wages.

3. U.S. House races

The most hotly contested local race is likely to be Congressional District 2, where Republican Rep. Martha McSally has all but announced she is leaving office to run for U.S. Senate.

The local GOP establishment has found its candidate in Lea Márquez Peterson. But it’s unclear who else may jump in to try to galvanize pro-Trump feeling among the GOP primary voters, and if there is an experienced candidate willing to challenge her.

The Democrats have a host of candidates in CD2, including a top tier of five. But even in a district won by Hillary Clinton, it’s unclear if any of them have the secret sauce to beat a well-funded Republican.

In Congressional District 3, what should be an easy win for Democrats could get complicated if the flare-up of controversy around Rep. Raúl Grijalva starts burning hotter. And in Congressional District 1, a strong Republican could defeat Democrat Tom O’Halleran in a district won by Donald Trump.

4. Tucson police staffing

In 2017, Tucson voters approved a sales tax that is buying and updating lots of public safety equipment in the city. What it’s not going toward is hiring more cops.

Tucson has seen its police force dwindle from more than 1,100 at its peak to barely more than 800 now, even as the city’s population has grown. There was talk in 2017 about a plan to hire more officers. It ought to get started ASAP in 2018.

5. Pima County
roads deal

Everyone wants a long-term solution for the terrible condition of Pima County’s roads, but not enough can agree on how to do it. The big obstacle, of course, is money.

The usual solutions offered — a new or increased gasoline tax, a new county sales tax, an altered Regional Transportation Authority tax, and county spending cuts — have never garnered enough support either on the county board or in the state Legislature.

If the economy keeps improving, 2018 could be a great year for a grand bargain on repairing the roads.

6. Mexican election

The campaign for president of Mexico has already distorted the old, traditional party alignments in Mexico. By the time the results of the July 1 election are announced, there could be a whole new political structure across the border.

The degree of change likely hinges on whether Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City known as AMLO, rides his left populism to victory. If he wins, it could remake not just Mexican politics, but also the U.S.-Mexico relationship.

7. Tucson pedestrians, sidewalks

The surge in pedestrian fatalities in Tucson this year shows the need for a revamping of the local car-pedestrian relationship. Re-engineering the roads, increasing enforcement of traffic laws and improving crossings and lighting can all help.

I still maintain, though, that most of the metro area is lacking a basic piece of infrastructure: sidewalks. Walkers in an American city of 520,000 or a metro area of 1 million should not be obliged to share the roads with motor vehicles. It’s a ridiculous situation that begs for a massive solution.

8. School and
teacher funding

The 2017 legislative session brought the most modest of gains for Arizona teachers and schools. This year, with gubernatorial and legislative elections in the offing, it’s a good time for teachers and schools to increase the pressure.

One source of help could come from the existing lawsuit against the state for underfunding school construction and related capital needs. But the need for a new funding source is unlikely to be addressed until a ballot issues goes before voters in 2020.

9. Dirty-money initiative

A handful of familiar Phoenix political players have launched an initiative campaign to force the disclosure of the source of money donated to influence election campaigns in Arizona. Just getting the signatures and putting the initiative on the ballot will be a battle, since the dark-money sources whom the initiative seeks to expose would prefer to stay hidden.

Actually passing the initiative could have a cleansing effect on Arizona’s current politics of legalized corruption.

10. Border barriers

2018 may be the year that makes or breaks the border-wall idea that was Trump’s signature policy proposal. Lawsuits over environmental concerns have been filed against the wall. But just as important is finding the big money and political will necessary to build it. With the strong chance that Democrats will gain congressional seats in the November election, this may be the wall’s last chance.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter:


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