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RENTAL RELIEF

We're going to press before the Tucson City Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 5, but from what we've heard from City Council members, there's little support for City Manager Mike Letcher's proposed 2 percent tax on residential rental payments.

Without that tax, the city will be in the hole by more than $3 million, even after the council takes other steps to shore up the budget, including long-overdue measures like raising fees for Parks and Rec classes and development services.

The council will also have to cut the pay of city employees, increase the amount of money that staffers pay toward their health insurance and retirement benefits, and accept the fact that some people are going to have to be laid off.

And outside agencies had better brace themselves for even more cuts this year—and deeper ones next year.

For details on the City Council meeting, check out TucsonWeeklyTV.com and our daily dispatch, The Range.


POLL POSITIONS

One of the more intriguing questions of the upcoming political season: Will state Sen. Jonathan Paton jump into the race to unseat Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords?

Paton is still declining to say whether he'll get into the race (and he declined to comment on this column), but a Republican political operative shared some details from a November poll of likely Congressional District 8 voters.

We weren't allowed to keep a copy of the survey, but we were able to take a few notes—and we can tell you that the results showed Paton as a strong contender against the two-term Democratic incumbent.

In a matchup between Paton and Giffords, Paton had the support of 44 percent of voters, while 48 percent supported Giffords. Once they were told about Paton's military background and legislative record, and Giffords' voting history, Paton took a 10-point lead over Giffords.

The poll, of course, is a snapshot in time at best, and much will happen between now and Election Day 2010, including plenty of negative advertising from both sides. The poll also showed that Paton had a long way to go to establish name ID in the district, although he's surely ahead of the little-known Republicans now in the race against Giffords—a crowd that includes Jesse Kelly, Brian Miller and Andy Goss.

The poll also showed that Giffords had high name ID—nearly all the voters in the district know who she is—and just more than half of the voters still approved of the job she was doing.

But discontent among voters was high: They were more likely to disapprove than approve of the job being done by President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and more than half of those polled believed the country was on the wrong track, while just about a third thought it was moving in the right direction.

As Paton has been considering the race, he's been drawing heat from the Kelly camp for a 2007 rating from the American Federation of Taxpayers that labeled him a "Friend of Big Government."

But Paton points out that his score that year was distorted because he missed a lot of votes during a month of the session while he was serving in Iraq. He was also dinged for voting with his fellow Republicans on a budget package that the AFT didn't like very much.


ARIZONA'S ECONOMIC COLLAPSE, PART 247

Arizona finished the year with yet another depressing report showing that the state has yet to hit the bottom in its seemingly endless spiral of depressed tax collections.

In the month of November, revenues dropped by nearly 16 percent compared to November 2008. That's the 16th straight month of double-digit declines, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee's monthly update.

Year to date, the state is $495.5 million below the budgeted forecast, and the JLBC is projecting a deficit of more than $1.4 billion that lawmakers will have to deal with when they swing into session next week.

More bad news: Investment firms Moody's and Standard and Poor's both downgraded Arizona's credit rating, which will increase the cost of borrowing.

Moody's noted: "While Arizona is acting to stabilize its fiscal situation, the size of the structural budget imbalance faced by the state, diminished state resources, economic uncertainty and inflexibility related to spending mandates and revenue-raising requirements pose considerable challenges to a return to fiscal stability."

There were a few (relatively) bright spots. Retail sales-tax collections were down just 5 percent compared to November 2008, which indicates that consumers are starting to shop again. Restaurant and bar collections are only down by 3.5 percent, so they're still eating and drinking.

But contracting sales taxes associated with development dropped more than 43 percent, which tells us the homebuilding industry remains stalled.

One last bit of good news: JLBC estimates that the double-digit declines in tax collections should come to an end after this month.


OUT OF THE FRYING PAN ...

In his time as publisher of the Tucson Citizen, Michael Chihak did all he could to turn around the struggling afternoon newspaper that was eventually put to sleep by Gannett last year. Sadly, Chihak's focus on local news and opinions wasn't enough to save the Gray Señorita (although a Web site lives on with an army of volunteer bloggers.)

Chihak relocated to San Francisco in 2008 to head up something called the Communications Leadership Institute, but that gig lasted for about a year.

Now he's followed in the footsteps of former Arizona Gov. J. Fife Symington III and enrolled in cooking school.

"My lifelong interest in cooking, instilled by my mom and others, has for many years included the desire to attend culinary school," Chihak tells The Skinny via e-mail. "The opportunity presented itself, and I enrolled in a one-year culinary-arts certificate program at the California Culinary Academy here in San Francisco. I am cooking in class every day and loving it."

Chihak, who still visits the Old Pueblo now and then to visit family and grab tortillas and other Sonoran staples, has a blog where he shares his culinary adventures—including the occasional recipe, such as roasted whole chicken with root vegetables.

It can be a dangerous gig: Chihak suffered an injury while practicing for a vegetable-slicing exam that sent him to the emergency room for five stitches.

Check it out at que-aprovecho.blogspot.com.


WELCOME TO THE WORLD, LUCIANA

Congratulations to Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero, who gave birth to a daughter, Luciana Reyes, on Monday morning.

Romero is married to Ruben Reyes, an aide to Congressman Raúl Grijalva.

We gotta say: That's the best excuse for missing a contentious City Council hearing that we've heard in a long time.

Find early and late-breaking Skinny at The Range, our daily dispatch.

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