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The Millennial Case for Proposition 104

August 12th, 2015

By: Drew Sexton

I vividly remember my first weekend as a new student at the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus in 2008, and not just because of the 110-degree temperatures during move-in day. As proud as I was to be a Sun Devil at the brand new CronkiteSchool, the urban environment I was exploring paled in comparison to the vibrant downtown Seattle area I had grown up near.

The few shops and restaurants around were closed at 8pm, rundown buildings dotted the streets and any real places to gather seemed miles away. The exciting main campus of Tempe felt like it was a whole state away for a bunch of freshman without a car, leaving us to wonder if we’d get a “real” college experience on this isolated campus.

Fortunately, it was only a semester before the Valley Metro light rail opened up and things changed for our campus. With increased access for commuter students and a direct route to Tempe, slowly but surely, ASU Downtown evolved into the energetic community it is today. With the completion of CityScape and the future Sandra Day O’Conner Law School scheduled to open in the coming years, Downtown Phoenix has become a desirable place to go to school, eat, shop and hang out. It has turned into an anchor for the kind of urban environment that promotes and trains the Valley’s future workforce.

I was proud to live on the Downtown Phoenix campus for 3 years and share with new students how easy it was to get to a Diamondbacks game, tour the PhoenixArt Museum or HeardMuseum, or take the light rail for a trip to Target. My 3 years there were better than getting a “real” college experience; they were the foundation for creating a new, unique 21st century college experience that thousands of Arizonans are excited to be a part of every semester.

I bring this up because I know this wouldn’t have happened without Phoenix’s commitment to the light rail and its impact on Millennials, which is a key part of why Phoenix voters should vote Yes on Proposition 104.  Robert Robb doesn’t agree – calling this concept the “Peter Pan theory of Millennials.”  The problem is Mr. Robb doesn’t take into account one of the biggest factors impacting our future: education.

Our state has been in the midst of an important conversation on improving education and access to good schools and universities for Arizonans. We need to ensure that our students have access to quality education to become the trained workforce we need to attract businesses and economic opportunities.  But access to education isn’t just about tuition costs; it can also include literal transit access to campuses.

When it comes to education, there is very little that our cities and towns can do to directly improve the system.  However, transportation is one of the areas where they can have an impact.  One-third of transit riders are students, which shows that a high quality public transit system is a must for our children’s future.  Low-income, aspiring students shouldn’t be forced to decide between buying a car and parking pass to get to class or paying tuition.

One of the reasons I stayed in the Central Phoenix area after college is because of the commitment shown by our elected leaders to transportation, education, and a new urban experience. Instead of moving out to a distant suburb where housing prices are much cheaper per square foot, the idea of an exciting urban community was worth the extra dollars for me. Many Millennials feel the same way about transportation and access to education and the importance of investments in those areas. We’re not just a bunch of “Lost Boys.”  We are a growing workforce that choose to live, work, and spend our time in the urban core.

The light rail is a great, cost-effective investment not just for Millennials and our public transportation system but for the future of education in our city. Prop. 104 builds on that investment and should have our support.

Equal Opportunity for All – Investing in Arizona’s Future

August 6th, 2015

There has been much discussion over the past month regarding Governor Doug Ducey’s plan to use State Land Trust money to increase funding for K-12 education. We’ve written about the Governor’s plan and believe it is a good first step to addressing our state’s lack of education funding. It is important to remember, however, that funding K-12 schools is just one piece of the education puzzle our state is facing.

Last March, the State Legislature dealt one of the largest budget blows to Arizona’s university system by cutting $99 million, a significant reduction to our already underfunded higher education system. With continued and relentless State Budget reductions, universities have had to look at ways to cut from their budget like eliminating degrees, reducing class options, increasing class sizes and layoffs, while at the same time increasing tuition rates.

In May, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report showing Arizona leading the nation in cuts to higher education since the Great Recession. Our state now spends 47% less per college student than we did in 2008, which is more than double the national average of higher education cuts. This leads to higher tuition rates to make up for lost revenue, putting up a higher barrier for high school graduates who might not be able to afford college.

These cuts have become the “new reality” in Arizona, but it should not and cannot be our state’s future. Our state leadership needs to act now.

In late June, the State of Arizona ended the fiscal year with $250 million more in its coffers than originally expected. These aren’t imaginary dollars or funds that are locked into an agency.  This is money that could be used right now to minimize the drastic cuts to the higher education system and provide financial stability to these institutions.

Post-secondary education institutions aren’t just designed to enlighten our children; they provide the educated and trained workforce for companies to hire. Arizona’s long term economic success and competitiveness are directly tied to our ability to educate our workforce.

As Eileen Klein, the President of the Arizona Board of Regents, has noted time and again, two-thirds of jobs in Arizona will soon require some type of postsecondary education.  Investing in our students and post-secondary options is the most important investment we can make to stabilize our state’s economy and attract new business opportunities for future college graduates.

If our kids can’t afford a post-secondary education, it’s very likely they won’t be able to compete for quality, high-wage jobs.

We know K-12 education and results need to improve but we must remember the links between K-12 and post-secondary education. Right now, barely half of Arizona high school graduates enroll in a post-secondary institution immediately following graduation and less than 1 in 5 Arizona high school students have a degree from a four-year institution anywhere in the country.

Increasing student success at the K-12 level will help our universities meet a key strategic goal of providing more students with a college education to foster the educated workforce Arizona needs, and better position the state to compete in the global economy.

To use a sports analogy, it doesn’t do our team any good if our students make it through the third quarter ahead but can’t finish the fourth quarter and wind up losing. Higher education funding is the boost to ensure we give our children all the possible tools to finish the game strong and prepared to join the workforce.

We can’t afford to wait a year and a half to start funding higher education. It’s time for Arizona to create our “new reality” and ensure the opportunity to attend a post-secondary school is available to every child.

Welcoming the Newest Member of Our Team

July 28th, 2015

Our team at HighGround is proud of the work we’ve accomplished over the past 20 years, taking on the tough policy challenges and working to build an Arizona that everyone can be proud of. It takes dedication to the state, an eagerness to find solutions and a constant positive energy to overcome obstacles and “make it happen.” Most of all, it takes good people who are ready to get the job done.

We’re excited to introduce Shelbe Hunsaker as the newest member of the HighGround team, bringing a strong work ethic and energy to Arizona. She joins us after completing her college education at Missouri Valley College in Kansas City, where she earned her degree in Public Relations and was a member of the volleyball team. Shelbe has a passion for politics as well and is ready to bring a fresh perspective to the Valley.

We’re glad to have her as a member of the team and are looking forward to seeing her make it happen at HighGround.

Alaska, Texas and Wyoming – Why Not Arizona?

July 24th, 2015

In reading a New York Times guest editorial earlier this week by Gar Alperovitz and Thomas Hanna, one could make a case that for the sake of our public institutions, K-12 schools, and higher education, both Governor Doug Ducey and State Treasurer Jeff DeWit are correct.  Our State Land Trust should be protected to serve future generations, but also the State Land Department can and should be a much bigger player in funding our public education system, both K-12 schools and higher education.

The Times opinion piece points out that conservative states like Alaska, Texas and Wyoming have all kept their state taxes low, including no state income tax, through the successful public ownership and management of capital assets.

The Alaska Permanent Fund, established in 1976, collects and invests proceeds from the extraction of oil and minerals in the state. The Alaska Permanent Fund is worth more than $54 billion dollars today and sends an annual dividend check to every Alaskan resident.

The Texas Permanent School Fund, established nearly 150 years ago, took control of roughly half of all the land and associated mineral rights still in the public domain.  In 1953, the fund took control of submerged coastal lands relinquished by the federal government. In 2014 alone, state schools received $838.7 million directly from the Texas Permanent School Fund.  According to Alperovitz and Hanna, “The $17.5 billion Permanent University Fund, a separate fund from the TPSF, owns more than two million acres of land and contributes money to help underwrite the state’s public university system.”

The Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund, valued at more than $7 billion accumulated from mineral extraction, was a huge factor in the state eliminating its income tax.

Arizona has already proven that public ownership of capital assets, such as electrical distribution and generation, can greatly benefit the citizens of our state.  In Arizona, more than 40% of our annual electricity is generated by publicly owned and operated electrical entities.  We enjoy some of the lowest rates in the West and our publicly owned utilities provide reliable and affordable power throughout the state.

Nationally, there are over 2,000 publicly owned electric utilities which supply more than 25 percent of the country’s electricity.  In Nebraska, a very conservative state, every single resident receives their electricity from publicly owned utilities. Yes, that’s the same Nebraska that Warren Buffett comes from!

While other states may have resources such as oil, in Arizona, one of our greatest natural resources is land.  Countless entrepreneurs and successful businessmen and women in our state have made their fortune through the entitlement and development of land.  Today, Arizona’s Permanent State Land Trust Fund has over 9 million acres of undeveloped land and over $5 billion dollars in cash. Under the existing Arizona Constitutional provision passed by the voters in 2012, the various beneficiaries receive 2.5% of the average market values of the funds over the previous five years and will receive that amount until 2021. Governor Ducey has proposed increasing that amount over the next ten years for K-12 schools.

On the other hand, Treasurer DeWit has warned that the proposal may diminish future returns by dipping into principal balance.  DeWit instead suggests that the state sell more land to increase the long term value of the trust.

The truth is – both elected officials are right.  We need to increase the return from the fund to pay for our current education now, and like other states, we need to modernize the State Land Department so it can actively pursue efforts to increase the long-term value of the trust.  It won’t be easy, but with leaders like Governor Ducey and Treasurer DeWit, Arizona can succeed.

At HighGround, we have been looking at this type of proposal for years on behalf of our clients and because we believe it is the right thing to do to secure the future of our state.  We strongly believe a successful reform proposal can be put before the Arizona voters in the fall of 2016 that accomplishes the following five goals:

  1. Provide increased education funding upon passage of a referral to both the K-12 Education and University system as well as settle the on-going education lawsuits.
  2. Grow the Endowment Funds by creating an entrepreneurial State Land Department in which beneficiaries of the Trust will participate in the increase in equity of lands sold to developers for true value when the lands are entitled through approvals by the local planning and zoning authorities.
  3. Fund the State Land Department to augment the existing support the Department receives from the General Fund.
  4. Authorize the State Land Department to conduct planning of state parcels to prepare them for sale and entitlement.
  5. Coordinate with Arizona’s Congressional Delegation to ensure Congressional action to conform the Federal Enabling Act after passage of an Arizona Constitutional Amendment in November 2016.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”

Let’s start the discussion and get a proposal in front of voters that increases funding to public and higher education, doesn’t raise taxes, and grows our Permanent State Land Trust Fund for generations to come.

Alaska, Texas and Wyoming have done it. Arizona has done it for public power which keeps our utility bills lower.  Now, we need to do it for education.

The future of our state’s prosperity depends upon it.  Let’s get busy!

Donald, You’re Fired

July 10th, 2015

Arizona’s Summers are Hot enough – We Don’t Need Overheated Rhetoric!

The Bloviator-in-Chief, Donald Trump, is coming to town this weekend to bathe Arizonans in his overheated rhetoric which only speaks to about a third of the Republican Primary voting electorate.

The media, however, is playing along with the Manhattan-based carnival act and even the Republican Chairman, Reince Priebus has been trumped into asking the star of the Apprentice to “tone it down.”

Last November, we posted survey results on our blog which show that 51.5% of LIKELY ARIZONA REPUBLICAN PRIMARY VOTERS, support comprehensive immigration reform.

Q: Do you support or oppose comprehensive immigration reform?

22.5% Definitely Oppose
7.5% Probably Oppose
19.0% Probably Support
32.5% Definitely Support
18.5% Don’t Know, Refused

Additionally, in the same survey, we also found that the 77% OF REPUBLICAN PRIMARY VOTERS supported the “Gang of 8” proposal, from which the President has borrowed several concepts in his own reform package.  Here is what we tested:

Q: Would you support an immigration reform policy that would secure the border with more agents, fencing and technology; crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants; provide a 10 year waiting time to apply to become a lawful permanent resident, but NOT citizenship; and develop a system to issue temporary visas for limited periods for both high and low skilled workers where jobs are not being filled?

10.0% Definitely No
5.8% Probably No
34.0% Probably Yes
43.0% Definitely Yes
7.3% Don’t Know, Refused

Since 2010, there has been remarkable progress in securing our Southern border. The current Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has devoted his time, energy and our taxpayer dollars to seeing that the border is as secure as it ever has been.  And it is.

To be sure, ICE needs to do a much better job of deporting known violent criminals and keeping Americans safe. Terrible tragedies, like the murder of American citizens by known violent illegal immigrants, must be stopped.

However, these concerns should not dissuade us from addressing the bigger underlying issue – the culture of lawlessness that pervades Mexico and Central America.  Illegal immigration cannot just be treated solely as a Homeland Security issue – it is also a foreign relations issue.

A little over a year ago, we noted that the New York Times Editorial Board (Trump’s hometown paper) spent over 1,800 words analyzing the President’s foreign policy approach. The analysis highlighted Syria, the Ukraine, and the Middle East (the Greek Debt crisis hadn’t appeared over their Eurocentric horizon yet).

Looking back, the East Coast media and the Bloviator-in-Chief have something in common – they only pay attention to Mexico and Central America when it is convenient for them.

As we said, the fact that Mexico and Central/South America don’t even register as a minor component of the NYT’s foreign policy outlook is not only a tribute to East Coast elitism and snobbery, but it is also a clear message they don’t really consider these countries as important, strategic global issues for the United States.

To be fair, the Donald doesn’t consider them important either, just a post-colonial outpost for his next golf course development. Listening to the Donald is a lot like eating iceberg lettuce – it may fill you up, but it has absolutely no nutritional value.

It is time for true leaders to step to the front of the stage and articulate how our relationship with Mexico is the most relevant foreign policy challenge facing our nation today.  Mexico-U.S. relations can no longer stand as a colonialist-era leftover.

So far, Governor Doug Ducey has worked to fill the void of leadership, recently leading a trade mission to Mexico to promote economic development between our two nations. His substantive ideas on transportation and trade are a great start to reframing the issue, but he needs support from our state’s congressional delegation as well.

Fortunately, our two U.S. Senators have offered substantive solutions, but our Arizona House members are too busy voting to repeal Obamacare for the 60th time to notice!

We need our political leaders to start addressing immigration as an opportunity to enact critical infrastructure improvements that will improve trade and raise the economic development of both the U.S. and Mexico. We must have candidates who will dare to make the case that improving the economy of Mexico through better transportation and customs practices would be a win-win for both countries.

And we really would like an honest broker who will talk about Mexico’s outrageous income disparity between the richest of the rich and those who travel thousands of miles across dangerous terrain to find low-wage jobs here.

Does anyone think that Donald Trump fits that bill?

So, as the circus comes to town this weekend, let’s not all get carried all the way back to 2010.

Let’s ask our elected officials how we can improve security on our Southern border while simultaneously acting on immigration reform measures that provide greater security for the people of this country and greater economic opportunity for the citizens of Mexico, Central and South America.

It should be a requirement of the next President of the United States to demand that Mexico, Central and South America implement efforts to democratize their economies, create opportunities for its own citizens, and mature into the trading partner and ally that American and Arizona surely needs.

Let’s hope the voters of Arizona understand that and tell the Donald one last thing – “You’re Fired!”