In a conversation with State Representative David Stringer, he explained his vision of an ad hoc committee set up to address the issues of unfunded liabilities in the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
Question: Describe the ad hoc committee?
Stringer: "I envision the ad hoc committee, it's going to be similar to every other ad hoc committee. It's going to be similar to what Senator Lesko did two years ago. I think our ad hoc committee is going to be a little broader and go a little deeper. But, it's going to be similar to every other study committee set up in the state legislature. We are going to look at solutions to the PSPRS underfunding problem."
Question: What will this ad hoc committee accomplish?
Stringer: "Well I want to hear what stakeholders have to propose. I don't want to go in with a lot of preconceptions like these are my solutions, and I'm going to force them on a committee. That's not the goal at all. This is a true study committee and we are going to have to be open to all the stakeholders involved. There are other cities involved, Bisbee, Flagstaff, Phoenix themselves. I have never talked to the mayors and councils. I'd like to hear what their ideas are in solving this underfunding liability. I have begun discussions with the Reason Institute, but very, very preliminarily. So, there's a lot of people who have studied this problem, there are a lot of stakeholders involved. Obviously we need to hear from everybody. So, I'm not going there with any preconceptions."
Question: Do you hope to draft legislation from the information you receive from the ad hoc committee?
Stringer: "What I'm envisioning is that there will be a committee. And there will be a lot of witnesses coming before the committee. There will be a lot of groups submitting information to the committee. And that we will thrash it out and try to come up with the best solutions that we can. And that at the end of the day, we're going to come up with some kind of proposed legislative solutions. That may be things that the legislature can do, it may be negotiations with PSPRS, it may be a referral to the voters for a referendum, or a constitutional change. All those things are possible, but none of them has been decided on. We just got the authority to set up the committee last week. So, I think the details have yet to be fleshed out. But we all know there's a problem, and we all know that we have to find some very creative solutions. And we need to bring all the stakeholders to the table. So, those are sort of the foundational principles of what we're trying to do."
Question: Is there anything more that you want your constituents to know about beyond what the press release said?
Stringer: "There's nothing more that I want to say today. The press release sort of speaks for itself. That we are just at the very beginning of this process. So, I don't want to say things prematurely that I haven't discussed with Noel and to other people that might be participating with the committee. So, we have to disclose information and engage the public as the information becomes available. But we are hoping to get started right after session. So, we're hoping that by May, we can start involving stakeholders in the community. So, obviously, there will be more information coming out as we develop the committee."
Question: Will these committee meetings be open to the public?
Stringer: "Informal hearings will, there may be study committee hearings that I don't know are always open to the public. I am going to have to hedge on that, I'm not quite sure. The idea is with transparency, obviously at the end of the day, everything is going to be open to the public. The intent certainly is to get ideas from the public and all the stakeholders, so we're going to be as open and transparent as we possibly can be.”
"By the way we have Open Meeting laws here in Arizona and we're going to comply with Open Meeting laws.”
Question: Will any Senators be involved in the ad hoc committee?
Stringer: "We may invite someone from the Senate. I think that would probably be a good idea. Noel is the chairman, and I am the co-chair. So, I don't want to speak without Noel's presence or Noel's input into this. I would think that we would want to have someone from the Senate involved, maybe Miss Debbie Lesko, or maybe somebody she suggests to us. But it won't be just legislators. We need to get people from the community. We need input from other mayors and municipalities that are similarly situated as Prescott. So, it could be mayors, or their designees. I'm not envisioning a huge, huge committee. I'm thinking maybe 7-9, we don't want 15-20 people on the committee. But there will be a lot of people coming before the committee, and invited to the committee."
Question: How did this committee get formed?
Stringer: "Noel is the Chairman of the Committee, and Noel and I both went together to speak to the Speaker. I had been pushing the idea. But I don't mean to suggest that Noel is not fully involved in this or that he is not as enthusiastic as I am."
Question: Tell us about some of the other committees you serve on in the Legislature.
Stringer: "I'm on the Education Committee, I'm on the Judiciary Committee and I'm on the Federalism Committee. I really enjoy those committees."
Question: Can you give an update on some of the committee efforts?
Stringer: "This past week, we had some marathon sessions because this was the last week that House Bills were to be considered. I think we may pick a few up on Monday, but we were trying to get committee business done. So, the way it works, is that the bills get proposed, then they go to the House committees then they come to the House floor, then then get sent over to the Senate. Next week and the week after, we'll be sending our voting bills on the floor. This past week we were sort of in a rush to get things out of Committee. The one that I think is most important to me is one that I co-sponsored. It was not my bill, but I did help co-sponsor it. Actually, I co-sponsored it in the city, with Debbie Borelli and Lesko. And it is the ESA accounts. I think David Livingston and John Allen, it is actually their bill in the House. I co-sponsored the Senate bill, not the House bill. But, anyway it is the same bill. And that is to expand ESA accounts. So we had a late night session, I think it was Tuesday night, we were there until after 11 o'clock. It was a 6-5 vote, and I think I was the 6th vote that supported the ESAs and got it out of committee. It is going to be very tight."
Question: When you refer to ESA accounts, you are referring to Empowerment Scholarships, is that correct?
Stringer: "It is similar to what we already have. I think Nevada and a few other states have similar things. It's Arizona's answer to vouchers. We can't have vouchers, our Supreme Court told us that we can't have vouchers because vouchers typically go directly to the schools or to the entities. But the Supreme Court told us that if the money goes to the family or the child it would be ok. This is the separation of church and state issue by the way. So, that's what Arizona has designed. I think this was originally designed by the Goldwater Institute a few years ago. It was tailored specifically at that time to disabled children, special needs kids. It's been expanded a time or two. And this is the effort to make it available to all children in Arizona. It expands the eligibility, it does not change the current, cap on how many scholarships can be made available, which I believe is still pegged at ½ of 1%, about 5000 and some change. So, that doesn't go away for another couple of years. But it does expand the eligibility for the ESA. I support ESAs, I support school choice, I support empowering families and children."
Question: Some people in district schools may be concerned that the ESAs will pull money from their schools. Are you concerned about that?
Stringer: "I wouldn't say that I am oblivious of [the idea that ESAs may hurt district schools] I do think that we have to protect our district schools. I think there needs to be a transition period. But the basic principle for me is this: The ESAs are about a little over $5000. The average per pupil expenditure in our traditional, government run schools, is over $9000. So, every time the child opts for an ESA, as opposed to enrolling them in a district school, it saves taxpayers money. It's a more efficient way to educate a child and it empowers a family, it empowers that child. So, it allows for a more tailored kind of education. So, it's a cheaper way and a very effective way, in my judgment for families to educate their children. At the end of the day, it does save taxpayers money. It may cost that individual district school for losing a child, but then they don't have to educate that child. Now, that's a slight oversimplification, because there's some fixed costs and things of that nature that a district school has, so it's complicated, and we have to be very careful. But the basic principle that ESAs are cheaper for the taxpayer than running a district school, I think that's a valid point."
Question: Do you envision a time when all public schools will be charter schools?
Stringer: "I don't know about, school choice is the wave of the future. It may or may not be charter schools, it may be some other kind of learning. But we have a president that supports school choice. We have a Secretary of Education now that supports school choice. We have a governor who supports school choice and we have leadership in both the house and the senate in the State of Arizona that supports school choice. So, I would say yes, school choice is going to expand in the state of Arizona and probably nationally. Whether this transition is over a generation, that's what I personally expect, but I do think that there will be expansion of school choice."