Mesa Leadership learns first-hand about local legislative process

Special to the AZ Republic

Contributed by Jill Adair, a freelance journalist and an associate faculty member at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Partisan politics, compromise, voting outside your party’s caucus, budget issues and lobbyists.

Mesa Leadership participants got a glimpse at what goes into the local legislative process Dec. 4 when this month’s class focused on city and local government and was held in the lower level of the Mesa City Council Chambers.

“It’s the hardest job that I absolutely love,” said Kevin Thompson, Mesa City Councilmember from District 6.

Thompson filled Scott Somers’ vacant seat in January. He said he never intended to get into politics but as soon as he considered it seriously he was ready to take it on.

“I knocked on 4,000 doors before the election,” he said.

Thompson said while city council positions are nonpartisan, he’s stands for conservative principles but understand he represents a range of political beliefs in his district.

He said he becomes disaffected for the “vote for my project and I’ll vote for yours” way of doing things.

“I believe in doing the right thing, regardless of the party,” he said. “It’s about doing the right thing for the community; it’s about doing the right thing for citizens.”

Accompanying Thompson to speak to the Mesa Leadership class was State Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Dist. 16, and State Sen. Andrew Sherwood, D-Dist. 26.

Coleman Sherwood Thompson
From left, Rep. Doug Coleman, Sen. Andrew Sherwood and Mesa Councilman Kevin Thompson.

“I like public policy-making,” said Coleman, who represents East Mesa, Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and a part of San Tan Valley. “I don’t really like the politics behind it.”

Coleman served several terms on Apache Junction City Council and 12 years as mayor before running for state legislature.

“Municipal government is something I admire.” he said. “I think every community has its own personality and its own flavor, and I think that’s because they do have a lot of local control.”

At the state Coleman says he’s ruffled a few feathers. He voted with eight other Republicans for the expansion of Medicaid in Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget in 2013, thus being outside of his party’s caucus on the issue.

“The problem with that is when you cross your party, especially on something major, there are repercussions,” he said. “And there have been.”

“I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

Coleman said the financial benefit from expanding Medicaid has since supported his outlying vote.

“Last year we cut $500 million out of the (state) budget,” Coleman said. “If we had not passed Medicaid we would’ve had to cut $750 million. And when education’s almost half the budget, you know where those cuts would have to come from.”

Making law is an interesting process, he said. “It’s a good fight, but it is a fight every day.”

Sherwood, whose district covers west Mesa and parts of Tempe, was serving in the state’s House of Representatives when he was appointed last month to the Senate to fill a vacated seat. He said he’s also found himself a lone man on issues.

“I don’t think elected officials know who they are anymore,” he said. “They are being engineered. We need bold leadership.”

Sherwood said he is constantly reading bills and trying to educate himself on issues.

“I work about 100 hours a week at the capital,” he said.

At the state and municipal levels, the budget is always a vital consideration in the process.

Candace Cannistraro
Mesa Budget Director Candace Cannistraro speaks to group.

“The city has to balance its budget,” said Candace Cannistraro, Mesa’s budget director. By law, the city is not allowed to go into deficit, but does issue debt in the form of bonds voted on by the public in elections.

“We don’t make things, we provide services,” she said about city expenses, adding that the city’s goal is to be “effective and efficient.”

Mesa has had to make steep budget cuts over the last seven to eight years and still “total uses exceeds total sources,” Cannistraro pointed out on a graph.

“The gap is not growing,” she said. “We just need to close the gap.”

Out of a total budget of $1.61 billion, Mesa’s general operating fund is $326.9 million and debt services total $379.2.

Mesa doesn’t have a primary property tax because of profits from city-owned utilities, but voters passed a secondary tax in 2008 to pay for bond debt. Much of Mesa’s revenue comes from sales tax.

She emphasized: “The most important part: Shop Mesa.”

Eric Emmert, vice president with Dorn Policy Group, spoke to the group about what a professional lobbyist does.

Eric Emmert
Lobbyist Eric Emmert explains how he influences public policy-making.

He said Arizona has about 33 registered lobbyists to every one elected lawmaker, while Congress has about 66.

He said the value of integrity is most important.

“If you’re lobbying an issue and you don’t have integrity, you’ve already lost,” he said.

He advised local residents to make their voices heard by contacting lawmakers, but not by using the same message in mass emails, tweets or social media posts.

“Tell how it impacts your personally,” he said. “That really gets the lawmakers attention.”

 Before class Jaime Glasser gives a report about shadowing Mesa Mayor John Giles.

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