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SAN TAN VALLEY — Is Pinal County fulfilling its destiny as the growth corridor of the state of Arizona?

That was the question moderator and former state politician Stan Barnes pitched to a panel of local legislators during the first Pinal County Regional Legislative Forum. The forum, held at Poston Butte High School in San Tan Valley, was framed as a discussion of the future of economic growth in the region. Despite touting the burgeoning commerce and business moving into the county, the panel acknowledged the dual constraints of water resources and the current pandemic as major present impediments.

The panel, which consisted of three state representatives — David Cook, R-Globe; T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge; and John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction — and state Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, generally agreed that the county was moving beyond its reputation as largely a bedroom community for the Phoenix and Tucson metro regions, but that lawmakers needed to facilitate the necessary infrastructure changes, such as expanding highway systems and ensuring access to water.

“When you talk about Pinal County, this is the center of the state and this is where the growth is gonna be,” Fillmore said.

Pratt said that the region’s business potential was exemplified by the under-construction Lucid Motors electric auto plant in Casa Grande. “To watch a factory being built,” Pratt said, “and knowing they will be building the cars of the future, is really mind boggling.”

The panelists touted the county’s proximity both to natural splendor and major population centers. “The people living here choose to live here,” Cook said. “They want to live out in the country, in open space where it’s affordable and taxes are affordable.”

Any future increase in commerce or population, however, is dependent on the county’s access to water.

“Water continues to be an issue that is either going to hold up growth or allow growth to occur,” Shope said. Earlier this month, EPCOR Water reached an agreement to acquire Johnson Utilities, a move Pratt touted as a way to improve water and sewage services in northern Pinal.

Cook also mentioned the transfer of water rights from a farm in Cibola to the town of Queen Creek as another important development for the area.

Water access would be essential not just to any future housing community projects but for the tech industry, which often uses water-intensive manufacturing processes.

Several of the panelists also expressed frustration at the role of the pandemic in both budgetary discussions and more generally the restrictions imposed over the past eight months. Fillmore was adamant COVID-19 was not much worse than bird flu and contended the restriction on rights, and potential trauma to kids’ disrupted school schedules, was not worth the increased safety.

“I would like to see the governor lift the shutdown and get rid of masks,” Fillmore said. Calling it “common sense,” Fillmore insisted that the average business person knew how to wash their hands or “keep a bit of distance.”

Pratt praised Gov. Doug Ducey’s handling of the situation and said that the novelty of the pandemic means that everyone was “doing the best job we could at the time.”

Shope acknowledged that it made things difficult for budgetary issues. “Anybody who’s served (in the Legislature) knows you have to have stuff on schedule,” Shope said. “You can’t go a year without buying school buses or sheriff’s vehicles. Once you get behind, it can take multiple years to come back from.”

Another issue that was brought up is whether San Tan Valley would benefit from incorporating as a city. Shope suggested that it was important that legislators listen to residents and help them.

None of the panelists, all Republicans, wanted to comment publicly on whether they thought there would be a new speaker of the House via next month’s election. Fillmore said the situation was “fluid” and Pratt predicted at best they would retain a “thin majority” in the state House, but that they already knew several key committee chairs were moving on.

The panel was hosted by District 2 Pinal County Supervisor Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, who hoped to have similar forums in the near future. The full discussion is available on the county’s Facebook page.