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FLORENCE — Ideas for improving Pinal County’s transportation system and state funding shortfalls were shared by candidates hoping to fill a vacancy for state representative in Legislative District 8, in interviews before the Pinal County Board of Supervisors Wednesday.

The Republican precinct committee of LD 8 nominated Neal Carter, Chuck Gray and Joseph Lutrario to be the candidates to replace Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, who died Sept. 21. The board is expected to select a candidate to fill the seat at its Oct. 27 meeting.

Since Pratt lived in Pinal County, the Pinal board must choose a replacement from the same party as Pratt under state law.

Carter is an attorney and businessman. Gray is a former state Senate majority leader, state representative and police officer. Lutrario was a decorated New York City police officer and has owned several businesses.

Carter said transportation is multifaceted, with a state element, local element and private element. Builders should be required as part of the approval process to show adequate access to their neighborhoods, he said.

As for the local or county element, he noted that voters in 2017 approved a half-cent sales tax to fund a regional transportation authority. “The challenge is for Pinal County to retain control of what is happening here. … We are paying for this. Our preferred alignments and exits should take precedence over the state’s.”

As for the state, he recalled in 2009 when it seized the road funding known as HURF from cities and counties, “stealing” to balance the state budget.

Carter said budget gimmicks are not the answer, and the state should consider a dedicated revenue stream for transportation, such as a portion of sales tax. The Arizona Constitution says gas tax must be used for transportation, but collections decline year-after-year as cars are more efficient.

He said the county must build partnerships with others, such as the Gila River Indian Community. The GRIC faces unique challenges that Pinal can help with, “and it can help us with ours.”

Gray said the state currently has a budget surplus and has committed hundreds of millions in new transportation funding, including $50 million to widen Interstate 10 between Chandler and Casa Grande; $90 million for pavement preservation in rural counties; $35 million to build a new overpass on State Route 347 to improve safety and speed of travel between Phoenix and the city of Maricopa; and $4 million to help fund a study for a future north-south freeway through Pinal.

Gray said he has met with legislators and learned they have a continued interest in helping rural counties. “I’ve actually gone out and started the ball rolling, to make sure we get those funds for these different projects” in the county’s transportation plan, such as the north-south freeway, State Route 24, widening of State Route 347, widening of U.S. 60 by Apache Junction, and improving State Route 88 or Apache Trail.

Gray said if he is selected to represent LD 8, he would meet with the supervisors and their staff to learn which projects they deem a priority for funding. He would then return to the people he laid the groundwork with at the Legislature.

He said he can work before the session starts. “Most people don’t know that, but you can go in and start writing your bills now. … and get the things you need for your county or your community.”

Candidates were also asked for their thoughts on the state shifting expenses to local governments, and if they would commit to protecting local transportation funds.

Gray said he did vote to “sweep” local transportation funds when Janet Napolitano was governor, to avoid seeing Arizona Department of Public Safety officers laid off. He said Napolitano used one-time funding for ongoing expenses, which later resulted in a budget crisis.

Lutrario said extraordinary growth is a great challenge to have. Infrastructure is the foundation of economic activity and transportation is just a small part of it, “but it is very vital,” he said. Additional taxes or higher taxes are not the solution. “We have to be able to generate other means of income without putting the burden on the taxpayers,” Lutrario said.

One other option is federal grants, which should come with no strings attached and “should be used exclusively for the project at hand.”

Cutting costs is another way, he continued. “We could revisit outdated agreements. We could draft new legislation, addressing new and future demands.” In line-by-line budget deductions, “we can always find ways to trim the fat.”

Lutrario said the county also wants to increase revenue, not by higher taxes, but by adding more residential, retail, commercial, industrial and manufacturing outlets, “creating an environment that’s ripe for growth” and giving businesses reasons to relocate here.

More infrastructure investment, especially transportation, results in more private investment for real estate development, which in turn creates more tax revenue, he said. He said Maricopa County enjoys a lot of Pinal County’s tax dollars because Pinal’s residents go there to work.

Mass advertising, such as the “I Love New York” campaign Lutrario saw growing up, could draw people from around the state to enjoy attractions in Pinal County. The county should spread the word that it’s a law-abiding county and visitors can feel safe here, Lutrario said.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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