City loses clout despite growth

Posted on February 25, 2007 | Type: In the News
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With the Tucson metropolitan area now home to more than 1 million people, it might stand to reason Southern Arizona would see its political clout mount.

But as Tucson flexes its new muscles, other Arizona cities and towns are downing steroids. As much as Tucson has grown, and continues to, other parts of the state are growing faster.

One result of that trend is that Southern Arizonans can expect more and more of their tax dollars to pay for government lobbyists, as Tucson already reporting that it spends more on lobbyists than any other Arizona city struggles to maintain its political influence as its relative share of the population shrinks.

While the 1 million mark might mean a greater possibility of attracting high-end retail stores and chain restaurants, the area's political weight and share of state money is quickly decreasing.

Pinal County, specifically the corridor between Tucson and Phoenix, is expected to see enormous population growth. And bedroom communities outside Phoenix places you may never have heard of, like El Mirage are budding into the real metropolises of tomorrow.

"Even at a million people, we're dwarfed by Maricopa County," said Martin Willett, Pima County's chief deputy administrator, who earns a portion of his salary lobbying at the state Capitol. "The biggest issue we have is getting our area our fair share of resources."

Already, the city of Tucson spends more money on lobbyists than any other city in the state, according to figures from the Arizona Secretary of State's Office. Part of the reason, city lobbyists contend, has to do with reporting tactics. But Tucson also has more challenges to overcome than Phoenix: its distance from the Capitol and a smaller number of legislators.

"Every year it gets more difficult than the year before," said Mary Okoye, Tucson's lobbyist for the last 17 years.
And that defense mechanism could be at risk, too, as legislators this session debate outlawing governments from spending tax dollars on lobbyists.

Critics of government lobbyists say they aren't lobbying so much for the public's interest as they are for those of the government bureaucrats who hire them.

"When you explain this to people that these governments get a lot of taxpayer money and hire lobbyists to get more money they are very offended and upset," said Tom Jenney, executive director of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers. "It just isn't right."

Losing weight

Over the last 25 years, the Tucson region lost seats in the Legislature.

In 1980, eight legislative districts were either based in or spilled into Southern Arizona, giving the area eight members in the Senate and 16 in the House.

After redistricting in 2002, the area was down to six districts. In the worst-case scenario, lawmakers and government officials are anticipating Tucson will lose another district possibly two in 2012.

"Already a lot of the work we do here in the Legislature has to do with Maricopa County," said state Rep. Tom Prezelski, a Tucson Democrat who frequently brings up Tucson in House committee hearings. "The rest of the state ends up existing as a colony of Maricopa."

When it comes to state-shared revenue, over the next five years Tucson will lose out on at least $55 million from the state, and that figure will probably go up, city officials have said. That translates into less money for police officers, firefighters, roads, parks maintenance and recreation programs.

The new figures stem partly from an updated census Maricopa County did at a cost of $8 million, which confirmed a trend state economic analysts had already identified.

In fact, some Maricopa cities and towns are growing so fast that the results of a 2003 population projection that looked ahead 30 years are already outdated.

As a result, the Maricopa Association of Governments is working to update the figures by summer, said Harry Wolfe, socioeconomic program manager.

Pima County taxpayers are at a disadvantage because a great deal of the county is unincorporated area, making it harder to claim state-shared revenue.

Some residents, like neighborhood activist Mac Hudson, would like to see less competition between Arizona's two population centers.

"There's major challenges with growth," the 40-year-old said. "I think that it would be great to see a Legislature and a governor work more constructively for the entire state."

"The trends from 2006 midterm election, to me, show that people were looking for representatives with a more moderate position," Hudson said. "So I guess that even though Southern Arizona may lose through population, it looks like generally, it's easier to accomplish things today."

Making up for the loss

Still, county and city lobbyists are betting on their jobs becoming more important as Tucson becomes a smaller share of the state.

Currently, roughly 15 percent of the state's population is in Pima County, based on projections. In 1980, the area was home to 20 percent of the state's residents.

Okoye questions numbers showing Tucson spends the most on lobbying, since Phoenix doesn't claim the full salaries of its lobbyists. But she says the local efforts are worth it, pointing to the Rio Nuevo tax package approved last year as a big win.

"Even though the (future projections) look really bad, we still manage really well," she said. "We have a huge return on our investment."

Phoenix does have a larger overall budget for government relations and more staff than Tucson, but Karen Peters, chief lobbyist for Phoenix, said less than half the office's time is devoted to lobbying the Legislature.

And Peters said even though Phoenix has more legislators than Tucson, it's not necessarily easier to sway lawmakers.
"I suppose if you look at it from the perspective of more legislators from Phoenix equals more votes, we're more likely to carry the entire body," she said. "But that's not usually how it works."

In addition to Willett, Pima County pays two outside lobbyists who together earn close to $200,000 a year.
The county saw of number of victories in the Legislature last year, pulling an extra $12 million into its coffers to pay for road projects, summer jobs for teens and air-quality programs.
Willett said three lobbyists are necessary to be successful.

"If you're really going to make contact, you've got to be chasing people in the parking lots," he said.
But Rep. Marian McClure, a Tucson Republican, says while other Arizona communities tend to send elected officials in to educate her on bills, Tucson and Pima County mostly seem to focus on lobbyists.

"I have now been here seven years. I have never ever seen a (Pima County) supervisor. I have never seen a (Tucson) City Council person," she said. "If you don't do your own lobbying, you have to pay people more."

What's next

Motivated by a study done by the Goldwater Institute, a small government advocacy think tank in Phoenix, a move is afoot in the Legislature to prevent government agencies from spending taxpayer dollars on lobbyists.
Earlier this month a bill passed through a Senate committee, breaking down on party lines, that would stop the practice.

The hearing room was loaded with lobbyists for counties, towns, school districts and state agencies worried it would be next to impossible to garner more funding for pet projects if the bill were to pass.

Benjamin Barr, the Goldwater researcher who completed the study, which tagged Tucson as the biggest spending city in the state on lobbyists, says the practice is unethical.

He says the question is: "Should bodies of government be involved in this arms race of spending more and more taxpayer funds to gain more funding for their organization?" And he points to situations where cities and towns have lobbied against public opinion, like on issues of eminent domain.

But for Tucson, planning ahead for a day soon when its political clout is further eroded, lobbyists are one tool to have a voice, officials say.

"It would be great if other governments woke up in the morning and said, 'What do the people of Tucson want?' But they don't," Okoye said.

Read the entire Pima County at one million series at go.azstarnet.com/onemillion

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