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LOUSY RECEPTION

Did the city of Tucson try to sell public-access TV down the Rio Nuevo? That's the scandal laid out by the morning daily's new City Hall reporter, Rob O'Dell, who had a front-page story last week suggesting how the city was muzzling any opposition to a bill that would limit the city's negotiating power with Cox Communications in exchange for an extension of the downtown revitalization district.

The plan to extend Rio Nuevo--worth more than a billion bucks in state tax dollars over the next 30 years--was sailing easily through the House, with the exception of Rep. Ted Downing's grandstanding about how voters oughta decide whether to extend the district.

But then Capitol tongues began wagging that House Speaker Jim Weiers had extracted a pound o' flesh from City Hall: Tucson had to keep quiet about House Bill 2812, which essentially snips the city's negotiating power with the cable company.

If the cable bill passes, the city will be limited in how much it can collect from Cox; the new law could trim as much as $2 million off the $5 million the city currently collects. The bill would also trim the number of public, educational and government channels from eight or nine to four, depending on how you count 'em. That would mean Access Tucson--the city's nationally recognized public-access channels where anyone with a camera and a big enough heart for showbiz can put on a show--would likely lose at least two of the three channels it currently has.

You'd expect the city to oppose the bill, but City Manager Mike Hein and city lobbyist Mary Okoye, noting that the city was in a delicate political situation, recommended the council remain neutral on the bill instead of arguing against it. Given that the mean ol' GOP-controlled City Council fiercely opposed similar legislation last year, it was curious that the new progressive council wouldn't take the same stand.

The principle players in the deal insist no quid pro quo is in play. They say the neutral position on the bill was more of a ploy in the ongoing renegotiation of the city's contract with Cox. (Guess who's giving Cox political advice these days, by the way? Democrats Dan Eckstrom, Tom Volgy and Larry Hecker, the local attorney who recently served as treasurer to Nina Trasoff's campaign.)

Here's what we're waiting to see: Does the City Council vote to oppose the cable bill? And if the council does turn up the pressure, does Rio Nuevo dry up?


BOOK LEARNING

The Tucson City Council officially agreed to turn over control of the libraries to Pima County last week, setting up another hike in Pima County's ever-rising property taxes. The bottom line: The $10 million or so the city has been spending on libraries will decline by $2 million a year over the next five years, while county property taxes that support the libraries will climb to compensate for it.

The transfer was largely driven by now-departed city officials, including former city manager James Keene and former midtown councilman Fred Ronstadt, who complained that city residents were being "double-taxed" because they paid county property taxes as well as city taxes to support the library, while county taxpayers only paid county taxes. (Because, y'know, county residents never shop in the city limits.) To give those overburdened city residents a break, the city negotiated a deal that will ultimately double the property taxes Tucsonans--along with the rest of the county residents--pay for libraries, with no corresponding cut in city taxes. What a deal!

Library workers are complaining that they come out the big losers, since county benefits aren't nearly as good as city benefits. While no one is being asked to take a pay cut, the city employees now face lower salary ceilings for their various positions. The only exception: The two top library officials, who can now earn more than they could have made at the city. Isn't it funny how that worked out?

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who is now crafting next year's budget, says he hopes to propose a plan to ratchet back tax rates to bring some relief to both homeowners (with ever-rising valuations) and business owners, but the additional library tax will cut into any savings.


GETTING TAKEN

Remember how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that it was OK to take someone's private property and turn it over to another private developer? Man, that honked a lot of people off.

Well, even though the Arizona Constitution already has stiff restrictions on the use of eminent domain, a new property-rights outfit associated with the dollar-minded Cato Institute is exploiting the ruling for as much political mileage as it can. Americans for Limited Government has targeted Arizona for a sneaky campaign under the banner of limiting condemnation.

With help of lobbyist Brenda Burns, a former president of the Arizona Senate, the group is pushing lawmakers to ask voters to pass a constitutional amendment that would not only restrict eminent domain, but also require government to pay property owners for any regulation that reduced the value of their property.

Arizona went through this routine some 12 years ago, when the Legislature passed a similar takings bill. Voters had the final say and rejected the legislation, which was vague enough to have pretty much prevented governments from passing any new regulations.

This version is almost as bad, but Americans for Limited Government put new pressure on the Legislature last week by launching an initiative campaign to put the measure on the ballot should lawmakers balk.

Lawmakers, in turn, are saying they can water down the legislative version but not an initiative, so opponents of the bill should pipe down and play ball.


SWEENEY'S BACK!

Republican Ron Drake inexplicably resigned his post as mayor of Avondale earlier this year to make a suicide run against U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva in heavily Democratic Congressional District 7.

But to take on Grijalva, Drake first has to win the GOP nomination--and standing between him and that goal of becoming Raul's personal piñata is perennial candidate Joe Sweeney. Although Sweeney leans toward the eccentric side, he's got enough name ID from his previous hundred or so campaigns to win the primary, as he ably demonstrated in 2004, when he knocked out a mainstream Republican whose name now escapes us.

In hopes of avoiding a primary showdown, Drake went through the trouble of meeting with Sweeney, who agreed to stay out of the race as long as Drake took a hard line on illegal immigration. The Skinny so wishes we could have sat in on that summit.

Alas, that accord is now broken. Sweeney says he's back in the race, because Drake endorsed a guest-worker program. As Sweeney puts it: "He's not ready to step up and solve the problem."

Sweeney's decision puts Drake in an interesting quandary. It's one thing to lose to a Democrat in a heavily Democratic district. At least then you can make some connections and--theoretically--build some name ID. But getting whipped by Joe Sweeney is a whole 'nother story.

Sweeney himself conceded that he was mostly in the race to make his point about illegal immigration, admitting there wasn't much chance he was going to beat Grijalva.

Which, when you think about, means he's a little less crazy than Ron Drake.

More by Jim Nintzel

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