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AMNESTY, SHAMNESTY

Having overthrown the GOP overlords, the new Democratic majority in Congress has their hands full this week, what with the plans for increasing the minimum wage, muscling the drug companies to reduce prescription-drug costs, boosting homeland security and busting on oil companies.

But we're hopeful that they're soon going to turn their attention to our beleaguered border--one area where Democrats and the White House might actually find bipartisan agreement, since one of the few things that the Bush administration has gotten right is the call for a guest-worker program to go along with more border security.

The GOP-controlled House of Representatives effectively blocked any progress on the Senate's reasonable McCain-Kennedy legislation, because they said the portion of the plan that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country after paying a fine amounted to a reward for people who break our laws. Instead, they pushed an enforcement-only plan to spend a whole lot of money to beef up the Border Patrol and build a wall along the southern border.

Let us make two points: First of all, it's not amnesty if there's a penalty attached to it--in this case, a fine and/or a requirement to pay back taxes. And frankly, plenty of people in this country break laws and never get punished--or simply get probation, as long as they promise to follow the law in the future. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are here because they need to find a way to work and take care of their families, not to break our laws.

And second: Have the folks who want to round up the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country given any thought to what that would entail? How much it would cost? How it would tear apart families? And how long it would take? The logistics boggle the mind.

The expense simply isn't worth the payoff, which is evidently some sort of moral satisfaction that lawbreakers have been punished.

The only practical strategy is providing undocumented workers with an incentive to come out of the shadows, pay a fine and get legal status. If they have a criminal record--if they're gang members, or rapists, or murderers--then hell yes, toss them back home, or put them behind bars.

But otherwise, we should get them enrolled in a guest-worker program so we can find out who is in this country. And that guest-worker program should allow companies to check the legal status of prospective employees so we can stop the current wink-wink bullshit that goes on with forged documents.

This is not a simple solution--because this problem doesn't have a simple solution--but it's the best option that we have. Without a guest-worker program, all the effort to clamp down on the border will amount to a gigantic waste of money, because people will continue to enter the country looking for work--and the agricultural, hospitality, construction and restaurant industries will continue to need them.

As an aside, we wonder how conservative Republicans, who are the most passionate about kicking illegal immigrants out of the country, will react to Sen. John McCain if his reform passes. Here in Arizona, there's a vocal contingent who are already convinced he's a traitor to the conservative cause, despite his many efforts in recent years to shore up his bona fides as he prepares for that presidential run. We're guessing they'll go ballistic if McCain-Kennedy manages to become law.


FORCE MULTILPLIER

Speaking of Sen. John McCain's presidential ambitions: How does his call for more troops in Iraq play out on the campaign trail?

It was probably less of a liability before it appeared that President George W. Bush would actually agree to put more troops into Iraq. After all, if McCain called for more troops, but the White House refused to send them, and then the Iraq government completely collapsed, then McCain could say that he had a solution, but he was ignored.

But if Bush does send more troops, and the situation continues to worsen, then all McCain has done is put more U.S. troops in harm's way during a war that a majority of Americans now say was a big ol' mistake.

Of course, there's always the third possibility that sending in more troops will stabilize Iraq, and democracy will flower across the Middle East, but we're figuring that's a long shot at this point.


SIGNATURE EFFORT

Members of the Healthy Arizona Coalition are putting their heads together to draft a 2008 ballot initiative that would provide health care for all state citizens.

HAC member Dr. Matt Heinz said more than 1 million people are among "the masses of uninsured in Arizona."

"I think it's an embarrassment to our state and nation," said Heinz, who emphasized health-care issues in his unsuccessful bid for a state House seat last year. He added that it's "a public-health disaster that needs urgent and effective resolution."

Details on the proposition are sketchy right now, as the dozen or so HAC members have just started batting around ideas. No one would comment on possible funding mechanisms or any other contours of the plan, although Heinz said they're meeting with stakeholders across the spectrum to flesh out ideas. Just guessing, but we suspect cigarette taxes have been pretty well played out.

"We've talked to a large number of people out there," said HAC member Dr. Mark Osterloh, who saw his zany voter-lottery initiative shot down last year by two-thirds of voters. "We've talked to union people; we've talked to businesses. We've talked to hospitals, different political party members, legislators. We've talked to a huge group, and we're pulling it all together."

Still, it's a pretty safe bet the initiative will run into heavy opposition from the health-insurance industry.

HAC members also include Eve Shapiro, a pediatrician and patient advocate who's worked on previous health-related ballot measures; Ann Nichols, wife of the late public-health patriarch and state Sen. Andy Nichols; retired pediatrician Duke Duncan; and health-care policy advocate Eva Shaw.


PARTY POOP

Speaking of Mark Osterloh: The good doctor/lawyer/politician will be running for one of the vice-chairmanships in the state Democratic Party, he told the Weekly.

"I think the Democratic Party has the potential to make some significant strides here in the future," he said. "I've had a lot of experience organizing, getting initiatives passed and getting people registered to vote--things like that. And I've also run for office, so I understand some of the things the party has to do to build up the volunteer structure within the party."

Also in the hunt for a vice-chairmanship in the party: Jeff Latas, the Jet Blue pilot and Gulf War vet who finished a distant third behind Democrats Gabrielle Giffords and Patty Weiss in last year's Congressional District 8 primary.

The contest for the top spot in the party is boiling down to a race between current party boss David Waid and Randy Camacho, who has landed the support of Congressmen Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor.

Back at the ranch, Vince Rabago has been elected chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party, replacing Donna Branch-Gilby.


COMINGS AND GOINGS

Former Tucson City Councilman Fred Ronstadt has landed a new gig as executive director of the Tucson Utility Contractors Association. Ronstadt, a Republican who represented Ward 6 between 1997 and 2005 before being unseated by Democrat Nina Trasoff, is also hosting a monthly poker game, for those of you feeling lucky.

Meanwhile, former Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar appears serious about leaving town for a new life in Prescott. Dunbar recently sold her Richland Heights East home, near Prince Road and Tucson Boulevard, for about $719,000, which was a sweet increase over the $573,000 she paid for it back in November 2004. By Jim Nintzel and Saxon Burns

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