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THE EARLY SHIFT: Early voting in the general election doesn't begin until October 5, but the state Republican Party is already mailing GOP and Independent households asking them to request an early ballot.

It's part of the GOP's early voting strategy. The party will synchronize the delivery of early ballots with GOP campaign mailers so voters will receive Republican propaganda in the mail at the same time they receive their ballots.

So what are Democrats doing in response? Nothing, primarily because County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez, a Democrat herself, is planning to mail an early-ballot request at taxpayer expense to every voter in Pima County. The gift from Rodriguez will save Democrats tens of thousands of dollars, but it has a considerable downside: The Dems won't be able to track requests and target follow-up mailers as closely as the GOP will.

Republicans are griping that Rodriguez is doing the mailing primarily to boost the campaign of her fiancé, Democrat Byron Howard, who is facing Republican Ann Day in the race for the District 1 seat on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Republican Rosalie López, who is facing Democrat Raúl Grijalva in the Board of Supes' District 5 race, is also off to an early start. López has already mailed Democrats in District 5, asking them to request an early ballot through her campaign. It's a smart move by López. Given that almost three of every five voters are Democrats, while slightly more than one out of every five is Republican, López will need as much crossover as possible. That's the most likely reason she doesn't even identify herself as a lifelong Republican on the mailer, as she proudly has so many times in the past.

Unfortunately for López, Grijalva demonstrated that he has his Democratic base firmly in place. He captured nearly 74 percent of the vote in the September 12 primary.

SHOW US THE MONEY: District 13 Rep. Kathleen Dunbar, who is battling House colleague Andy Nichols for the state Senate seat being vacated by Democrat George Cunningham, laid out her thoughts on campaign finance reform at a recent forum. Dunbar argued against funding campaigns with public money or setting limits on contributions. Instead, she says the most important campaign finance reform is disclosure: listing contributors as quickly as possible on the Internet--a reform she says is already in place.

Well, sorta. The Skinny is a regular visitor to the Secretary of State's web site (www.sosaz.com), where reports are indeed posted--sometimes. But regular visitors often find themselves staring at the words "Waiting for reply--" at the bottom of their Netscape window when they ask to see detailed information.

It's tough to pin the blame on the staff at the Secretary of State's office. They're doing their best in a crush of incoming reports mandated by the state's new Clean Election act. Every legislative campaign that had spent more than $7,000 in the primary had to file weekly reports up to the two weeks before the election. In the final 14 days, they're required to file daily reports.

We think the new rules are great, although we hear they're driving campaign treasurers crazy. But if full disclosure is really going to be available to the public, the Secretary of State has to have a staff capable of posting the information before the election. Here's hoping that Dunbar, should she win in November, would sponsor a bill appropriating more money to expand the SOS staff for the next election cycle.

THE COMPANY SHE KEEPS: Lisa Graham Keegan, the state schools chief, had a tough time last week; she was trying to extract Arizona students' AIMS scores from a recalcitrant hired testing company. A payment dispute has delayed the release of last May's test results to parents and students.

The snafu is still another public relations fiasco for AIMS, the high school graduation test that Keegan has made a centerpiece of her education reforms. So maybe Keegan deserved a little R&R by the end of the week. But she's got a funny idea of a good time.

The Republican Keegan spent last weekend at a conference at South Mountain with education's far right wing, the members of a little organization called the Education Leaders Council. A state official acknowledged privately that these characters make Keegan look like a moderate. They included such Bushies as Jim Nelson, the education commissioner in Texas, where high-stakes testing has come in for some pointed criticism, and Frank T. Brogan, Florida Lieutenant Governor to Governor Jeb Bush. But Arizona's teachers will be most interested in hearing that Keegan was hanging out with Eugene Hickok, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education. This fellow works closely with Pennsylvania's Republican governor, Tom Ridge, who's right now engaged in a pitched battle to bust the Philadelphia teachers' union.

Ridge has tried to blackmail Philadelphia by offering its chronically underfunded school district the money it needs to operate if and only if the teachers accept a new union-busting contract. The proposed contract would extend the teachers' work day and year without extra pay; give teachers less say in which schools they work in; make them pay more for their health plan; and, most important of all, force them to accept merit pay. Merit pay, a Republican hobbyhorse, has long been a code term for destroying union-won salary structures.

We have a money question of our own. Did the state foot the bill for this political event?

And also last week, Keegan was feted by still another right-wing education group. An outfit called the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (check out its website at www.manhattan-institute.org) awarded Arizona's public schools first place in its Education Freedom Index. The award was based on five criteria: charter schools, vouchers, homeschooling, numbers of public school districts, and the ease with which kids can go to schools in a district not their own. OK, Keegan has definitely made Arizona the kingdom of charters, no contest there, and homeschoolers operate with relative ease in the Grand Canyon State. We don't have vouchers, so author Jay P. Greene didn't give the state a high score there, but he put Arizona in the top rank for its "inter-district school choice program."

Huh? This program exists on the books only--even Greene admitted he could find no data on it--but that doesn't stop conservatives from admiring it. George Will mentioned it in his glowing appraisal of Keegan last spring in Newsweek magazine. But saying so doesn't make it so, Lisa, as any school child will tell you. This program is a big fat lie. Arizona parents cannot send their kids to whatever district they choose.

Don't believe us? If you're a TUSD parent, try, just try, calling the Catalina Foothills District and telling them you're taking advantage of the Keegan program to enroll your kids in their toney schools. When they stop laughing, they'll tell you to come right on in, provided you have the deed to your fabulous foothills home tucked under your arm. Otherwise, just forget it. The inter-district school choice program is a legal fantasy, a hoax of the highest order.

And the author of the Manhattan Institute study also opined that if states adopt his five indexes of freedom they can push up student scores without spending an extra dime. Guess the guy was too burdened down by his research to check out last year's dismal Arizona AIMS scores.

ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTIONS: You're holding in your hands the 14th annual edition of the Best of Tucson.

Something so successful is bound to inspire imitations--the latest of which comes from the New Star (which increasingly reminds us of the so-successful New Coke). The Star's copycat calendar section, Caliente, is now accepting reader nominations for Reader Favorites, which they'll soon compile in an extra-special issue. That brings a whole new meaning to "hot, hot, hot."

Hey, we'll concede that we ripped off the "Best Of" from our brethren in the altweekly community. But at least we were the first to use it in this market, somewhere back in the Reagan administration. It's kind of pathetic to see the newly revamped mighty morning daily desperately stealing ideas from us.

Maybe reader advocate Maria Parham can tackle the Star's shameless intellectual theft in a future column. She's clearly desperate for ideas herself, if we're now debating whether the Star sports page should carry the spread on football games.

Hey, Maria: Why don't you let readers vote whether they want to continue to see that dreadfully dull Neighbors section day after day?

Uh-oh--now's she gonna call us cruel again.

By the way, what's this we hear about a redesign of the redesign? Does it have anything to do with that plummeting Sunday circulation?

NAME THAT TOWN: In order to raise about a quarter-million bucks annually, the Tucson City Council is now considering allowing advertising on bus shelters. As Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt put it, "We need to be creative; we need to look at alternative funding to make the bus system viable."

If the Council really wants to get creative about raising revenue, The Skinny has some suggestions about selling naming rights, which could raise big amounts of cash. How about Mayor "Bank One Ballpark" Walkup? Or Councilwoman Carol "America" West? Councilwoman Shirley Scott "Tissue"?

Then we can put the streets up for bid to Hollywood celebrities. How about Sharon Stone Avenue or Hugh Grant Road? The Psychic Hotline might have an interest in Oracle Road. And neighborhoods could also use the revenue stream, with El Presidio Grill Neighborhood or Barrio Hollywood Video.

Here's another to consider: Remove the rainbow panel from the top of City Hall and replace it with a giant billboard reading "This Building For Sale To The Highest Bidder."

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