By Michael Bryan
I've been hearing a lot of hostility to Rio Nuevo from conservatives of late. Perhaps much of it is merely conservatives seeing an opening to attack the liberally-dominated Tucson City Council based on the legitimate criticism of how Rio Nuevo funds have been spent so far. Such criticism of implementation is certainly justified, and I have engaged in criticism of the lack of accountability and transparency in how that money is being spent myself, but it is not a reason to attack the funding of Rio Nuevo.
There are two issues here: the program and its implementation. You can support the program (using a Tax Increment Finance district to keep Tucson sales taxes in Tucson for downtown redevelopment) and criticize the implementation (how the City government is handling the planning and funds) without betraying Tucson and Pima County. If fact, by doing this you are trying to improve the program and helping Tucson and Pima County. But if you attack the program, you are attacking the vital interests of southern Arizona.
I worry that local conservative politicians may be tempted to backslide on their support for the continuance of the Rio Nuevo TIF given recent news coverage of how the first $77 million have been spent (or mis-spent). I recent heard Vic Williams, a candidate for the Republican nomination to the House in LD 26, on Emil Franzi's radio program responding to a caller who was attacking Rio Nuevo by allowing that he would be open to cutting off the TIF funds and putting them back in the general fund. I have also heard Jon Paton whispering direly about the possibility of the Maricopa know-nothings acting to kill the TIF. In other words, the "censervatives" may want to take Tucson's tax revenues away from Tucson, leading the Tucson City Council to hurredly commit the money into the future by using the future revenue stream to back new bonds, both to accelerate the spending schedule to build political support and to make it politically more dicey for the know-nothings to pull Rio Nuevo's plug. If "conservative" ire continues to build, it could spell disaster for Tucson.
To those southern Arizona politicians who are tempted to fail to carry their weight in supporting and defending Rio Nuevo I say this: DON'T YOU DARE. By failing to stand up for Rio Nuevo's funding against all comers you will betray your home... and you will betray conservative principles.
How is supporting Rio Nuevo an issue of conservative principles? Conservatives say they are for local control, local government, and making decisions about how to spend our tax money as close to the citizens as possible. I happen to agree with these principles. I don't think they are necessarily conservative (they are merely democratic - note the small 'd'), but few conservatives would hesitate to claim them. Conservatives claim to be for lower taxes and doing more with the taxes we have. Great. Rio Nuevo's financing doesn't raise a single additional cent of taxes; it merely allows Tucson to retain sales taxes collected locally to spend locally on improving Tucson, instead of sending it to the capital for a bunch of other, less accountable politicians to spend. Add to this the fact that whole idea of redeveloping our downtown is to make Tucson a better place to build a business and raise a family, and I don't see how any real conservative could want anything other than for Rio Nuevo to continue and be a huge success. Rio Nuevo is a deeply conservative program.
Southern Arizona voters should make support for the Rio Nuevo program and it's funding an acid test for any politician wanting to hold any office in southern Arizona. And indications are that they already have. Even criticizing the implementation of Rio Nuevo's TIF may have cost Ted Downing a seat in the Arizona Senate in LD 28. In hindsight, his concerns about Rio Nuevo's accounting practices for keeping track of how the money was to be spent, and how much was being spent on consultants, were clearly right on the mark. But for even looking askance the implementation while everyone else was focused on boosterism to get the program reauthorized, Downing was pilloried and his concerns were mischaracterized and his fidelity to Tucson's interests impugned.
Let Downing serve as a warning, conservatives. Criticize the City Council all you want. Call for the heads. Call for better management, oversight, planning, accounting, whatever. But call for, or even intimate that you will do anything but sacrifice your political life to defend the funding of Rio Nuevo, and southern Arizona voters will call for your head.
Vic, I await your comment winding-back your radio faux pas :)