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Ducey proposes closing state prison in Florence

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey is proposing to close one of the state prisons at Florence and move inmates elsewhere, including sending some to county jails willing to accept them.

In his sixth State of the State speech Monday, the governor also said he wants to:

  • Eliminate state income taxes — but only for retired military.
  • Finally restore funds cut from a K-12 education “district additional assistance’’ account that funds everything from computers and books to buses;
  • Provide additional dollars to families willing to adopt sibling groups “to keep families together’’;
  • Pay the entire cost of advance placement exams for needy students, allowing them to earn college credits while still in high school;
  • Fund body cameras for every state trooper;
  • Fund a new bridge over the Gila River on Interstate 10.

Ducey also asked lawmakers to put a measure on the November ballot to enact a constitutional provision to forever preclude local governments and voters from creating “sanctuary cities.’’

Existing state laws already block communities from barring police and officials from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And the lone proposal to create such a designation, which the governor called “troubling,’’ was soundly defeated last fall by Tucson voters.

But Ducey wants something more.

“Now it’s time for all Arizonans to make their voices heard, and enshrine it in our Constitution,’’ he said, saying Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, will carry the measure. “This November, let’s give all Arizona voters the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to the rule of law and ‘no’ to sanctuary cities.’’

Arizona took a public relations hit after lawmakers approved a 2010 law aimed at giving police more power to detain those suspected of being in the country illegally. That included lost conventions and visitors.

Shope, however, said he doubts having the issue on the November ballot will harm the state’s reputation.

“I think we’ve got too many good things going on here right now to have that kind of bad publicity,’’ he said. “It will do very well as the polls.’’

But Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, who voted against the Tucson proposal, suggested there was something more sinister — and political — behind the proposal.

“It’s designed to create ‘wedge’ issues,’’ he said, allowing Republicans to attack Democrats who may not have the same hard-line stance on immigration issues.

Ducey’s actual budget — his plans for revenue and expenditures — won’t be released until the end of the week. But the governor provided lawmakers with a roadmap of what he wants done.

It starts with that tax cut.

When Ducey was inaugurated in 2015 he promised to annually propose reducing income taxes to “as close to zero as possible.’’

The governor, however, has never proposed an actual reduction in overall tax rates. In fact, the only change was pushed through last year by some GOP lawmakers.

Instead, Ducey has relied on targeted tax cuts. The new proposal fits that pattern.

“Our vets have already earned their benefits, put their lives on the line,’’ the governor said. “The government shouldn’t be taxing their service to country. It should be honoring their service to country.’’

But there is bound to be kickback from lawmakers who question not just the $45 million price tag but also whether all 600,000 Arizona veterans, at whatever retirement level, should not be required to pay state income taxes.

Current law exempts the first $3,500.

Last year Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, sought to boost that in three steps to $10,000. When that proved politically unacceptable, she agreed to a $1,500 boost.

Even with that change, however, a majority of legislators questioned the wisdom of the move.

“I support veterans,’’ said Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale. But he said the plan did not target its relief to “those who need our help.’’

“We all respect and want to honor our veterans,’’ House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said following the speech.

“But I just keep thinking about how we could invest that in our public schools,’’ the Yuma Democrat said. “I think our veterans would want us to invest in the next generation.’’

Another provision of Ducey’s plan would eliminate fees to get state licenses to both veterans and the spouses of active duty military.

Ducey also announced that he is renaming the state prison system to the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, saying it “more clearly reflects the agency’s mission.’’

But the big change is shuttering the state prison at Florence where close to 4,000 of the state’s 42,500 inmates are now housed.

The issue, according to Ducey, is one of economics. He said it would take about $275 million in repairs to fix.

Aides to the governor said some inmates will end up in private prisons where the state pays a per-day rate. But they also said some could be transferred to other facilities, including the adjacent Eyman Complex.

And then there’s a plan to ask counties if they would take some — for a fee.

Reentry and corrections officers will get another raise, following up on a 10% increase they got last year, if lawmakers agree.

Closing the Florence prison, which is more than 100 years old, will also help boost staffing at nine other state prisons, including the nearby Eyman prison. Corrections has about a 20% corrections officer vacancy rate systemwide.

Ducey said focusing on rehabilitation and re-entry programs will pay off, noting that 3,900 inmates have completed second chance programs and more than 2,400 had jobs on their release.

“We know these programs work,” Ducey said. “This year we are doubling down on this successful model, to give more individuals their opportunity at a better choice and a better life.”

The governor didn’t mention sentencing reform, but some Republican lawmakers and all Democrats are pushing a revamp in state law to cut sentences for non-violent offenders.

He also is proposing additional dollars for career and technical education.

There also is a request for more cash to provide counselors and police officers for schools that want them. And his budget will contain the dollars for the last step of the plan approved in 2018 to raise teacher salaries by 20 percent by the 2020-2021 school year.

But some of the proposals have no dollar cost.

He wants to designate Sept. 25 every year as Sandra Day O’Connor day. On that day, every public school would devote all efforts to teaching about civics.

And Ducey also wants to let students take the civics exam — required for high school graduation — at any point starting in middle school: One a student passes there would be no additional bar to graduation.

The governor also said he wants more done about suicide, beyond the veteran community, saying it is the eighth leading cause of death in Arizona.

Part of that would be a mandate in state law on private insurance companies to cover mental health “just like they cover an annual physical.’’ Aides to Ducey said that’s already required by federal law but is largely unenforced.

The proposal to finance the Gila River bridge along Interstate 10 is a down payment of sorts on proposals to eventually widen the last stretch that is now two lanes in each direction to three lanes. Ducey said 62,000 people drive over that 56-year-old bridge every day.

“The Phoenix-Tucson corridor is an economic artery for our state and needs expanding,’’ the governor said.

There was no cash, though, for the request by Gila County officials for $20 million for a bridge over Tonto Creek where three children recently died. Instead, Ducey has so far has only asked for federal dollars.

Ducey also promised more focus on economic development in rural areas, including additional dollars for tourism promotion and for job training.

Some of what the governor announced does not require legislative approval. For example, he is directing state agencies that for any new rule or regulation they want to propose they must eliminate three.

“The result: New regulations will naturally mean less regulations,’’ Ducey said.

But the governor would need changes in state law to scrap the current system in which members of professions have the majority of members on regulatory boards. He threw his support behind a proposal by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, to require that a majority of each board be composed of public members.

Along the same lines, Ducey wants to forbid fee hikes by any regulatory board that has been “stockpiling cash and sitting on bank accounts of millions in reserves, all while continuing to burden real people with real fees.’’

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CG's Concert in the Park returns with a few changes Jan. 24
 mstaude  / 

CASA GRANDE — In Casa Grande, Friday nights are for dancing in the park.

The Casa Grande Community Services Department’s annual Concert in the Park series returns on Friday, Jan. 24, and includes a live musical performance at one of the city’s parks once a month through May.

“We are excited to bring another lively lineup for the Concert in the Park series,” said Mindy Pieper, recreation coordinator.

The first concert of the season, with the Fabulous Decades, features a fan-favorite that has performed its nostalgic, toe-tapping repertoire for Casa Grande audiences several times before.

The group started as a disco tribute band and have become known for their rendition of popular songs that span the decades, from the 1950s through the ’70s and ’80s.

“The audience enjoys the variety and of course the nostalgia of their songs,” Pieper said.

Audiences this year will notice a few changes to the series. While in previous years, the concerts were all held in Peart Park, with one held at the Community Recreation Center last year, the 2020 series will rotate concerts to several different parks.

The Fabulous Decades will perform as the kickoff event for the city’s first pickleball tournament, being held at the new courts at Dave White Regional Park.

“The tournament will bring a lot of locals and even out-of-town guests so we want to show them all the neat things Casa Grande has to offer, including the free concert series,” Pieper said.

With the series, Pieper said event organizers aim to find bands with a wide appeal and who perform a variety of genres.

“We try to bring something for everyone,” Pieper said. “Budget also plays into the decision making. We have to find bands that fit our budget but also still provide a quality show.”

Each two-hour concert in the series begins at 6 p.m.

On the roster this year are:

  • Fabulous Decades, Jan. 24, at Dave White Regional Park.
  • SouthBound, Feb. 14, at the Community Recreation Center. SouthBound plays a mix of current and classic country favorites, as well as southern rock and classic rock.
  • Arizona Wildflowers and three other bands, March 13, in Peart Park as the kickoff event for the Fine Art Explosion and Fiddle Festival.
  • The Real Thing Band, April 17 at the Community Recreation Center. The Real Thing Band is a variety band that plays pop, Top 40, rock, soul, funk, Motown, jazz, blues and current dance hits.
  • Rhythm Edition, May 8 at the Community Recreation Center, is a variety band that performs old school, funk, disco, rock, oldies and Latin songs.

The concerts are free to attend. Audiences may bring their own blanket or chair for seating.

For more information or to stay up-to-date on changes, visit the Community Services Department on Facebook, under CGParksRec.

Arizona store gives 'Star Wars' record back to Mark Hamill

FLAGSTAFF (AP) — The Force was strong enough at an Arizona store to reunite Luke Skywalker with his long-lost vinyl record.

Actor Mark Hamill is praising workers at Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Flagstaff for returning the “Star Wars: A New Hope” soundtrack that had been a gift from film composer John Williams.

Hamill said in a tweet Saturday that it felt “totally unexpected & positively surreal” to get back the record he hadn’t seen since the early 1990s. He commended the store about 145 miles north of Phoenix for being honest and not selling it.

“I happily offered to sign any (“Star Wars”) items they sent me,” the actor wrote.

Williams had written on the vinyl’s sleeve: “Dear Mark Hamill, May the force always be with us.”

The record was one of numerous “Star Wars” items brought in by a woman after her father’s death in 2018, the Arizona Daily Sun reported. Employees at the Arizona-based chain that sells used books, movies and CDs tried to verify the signature.

Micheil Salmons, the store’s general manager, said they eventually tried reaching out to Hamill via social media. The actor confirmed it was genuine, and the vinyl was sent back to him.

Salmons said Hamill signed a DVD of “Star Wars: A New Hope” and two medals that are replicas of those given to his character and Han Solo, played by Harrison Ford, in the film.

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CG city manager will get new contract with city

CASA GRANDE — City Manager Larry Rains will be staying on the job even though he meets all of the requirements to retire under the Arizona State Retirement System.

Rains will retire and then the city will rehire him through a contract with a company called Smart Works Plus. Once the contract is approved, Rains will draw on his retirement and be paid through Smart Works at the same time.

Smart Works Plus was created several years ago when the state saw a large number of teachers retiring, even though many wanted to continue working, because they had maxed out their benefits under the Arizona State Retirement System, said city Human Resources Director Scott Barber.

Smart Works created a contract system that allowed districts to rehire teachers who had retired, many times at a lower rate of pay, in order to keep experienced teachers in the classroom. The program also allowed districts to continue to pay into the state retirement system at a lower rate in order to keep the system whole while the teachers drew retirement benefits. Smart Works has expanded its program to include other state and local officials that fall under the ASRS system.

The Smart Works program does not include officials, such as firefighters and police officers, who fall under the state’s Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, Barber said. That retirement system has its own program to allow retired public safety employees to defer their retirement benefits for up to five years.

Barber proposed a contract arrangement with Smart Works between the city and Rains at last week’s regular City Council meeting. The council unanimously supported it and will take a final vote on the matter on Jan. 21. If the contract is approved by the council, it would go into effect on Feb. 20.

Under the contract, the city would pay Smart Works Rains’ salary, which would have to be agreed upon but is currently proposed to be $151,353 under the contract. Rains is currently paid $195,484. The city would also pay a 4% service fee and contribute to the state retirement system on Rains’ behalf, Barber said. The contribution to the state retirement system would be at a lower rate than if Rains were a regular city employee.

Barber said that under the contract the city could save more than $75,000 and get to keep an experienced employee. Rains has worked for the city for more than 18 years as a finance director, deputy city manager and then city manager. Barber also pointed out that recruiting and replacing a city manager can take a significant amount of time and money and negatively impact some of the important economic development projects the city is working on and has planned for the future.

The agreement also includes an option that would allow the city to recruit people who have retired from other cities into major administrative positions, such as a finance director, through Smart Works, Barber said. The agreement, as it is currently written, would not be expandable to other city employees who may have retired.

Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Navarro Fitzgibbons said that while she felt it was good to have new people come into the administration, she also saw the need for continuity in the city manager’s position at this time.

Councilman Dick Powell said Rains has made a lot of progress in the last six to eight years he’s been with the city.

“We have someone who is leading us,” Powell said. “He’s the key to what we do and how we do it. It would be like shutting the engine off on a car before we reach the end of the road while we’re going uphill.”