Nov 14, 2009 2:17 PM

With tax issue, Ariz. gov faces tough road in 2010

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer appears to have done almost everything she needs to get the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

The former Secretary of State took office last January upon Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's appointment as U.S. Homeland Security secretary. She's signed an array of legislation long pushed by Arizona's dominant social conservatives, including expanded gun rights, protected religious expression in schools and new restrictions on abortions.

But Brewer raised the ire of fiscal conservative Republicans when she pushed a sales-tax increase in an effort to limits cuts to education and social programs conservatives wanted, and now faces at least two solid primary challengers.

"I rather suspect that if that proposal didn't exist, the primary wouldn't either," Republican political consultant Constantin Querard said.

Former state Republican Party Chairman John Munger is in the race, Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker has launched an exploratory effort that looks like full-fledged campaigning and state Treasurer Dean Martin says he may run. And all three are wasting no time attacking the tax proposal.

"She's angered a lot of people. What it means is she doesn't have the control of her party," said Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political science professor. "As she goes into this election, she's not in a very strong position."'

Brewer's predicament also presents an opening for Democrats, who are
outnumbered but can be victorious in a state seen as increasingly competitive, largely because independents account for 29 percent of the electorate.

Republicans sit with 36 percent of registered voters, and Democrat have 33 percent.

Napolitano, for example, narrowly won the 2002 governor's race against a former congressman and then trounced a little-known conservative activist in winning re-election in 2006.

Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard is the only Democrat so far in the gubernatorial race for his party's nomination. He could benefit from a bare knuckles battle in the Republican primary as he cruises along with little criticism, and if the budget-balancing work by Brewer and the Republican-led Legislature ends with spending cuts for schools and other popular programs.

"Any time you're overseeing budget slashes (in) difficult economic times, it's bad for the incumbent party," said Patrick Kenney, an Arizona State University political science professor.

But spending cuts could also be a selling point for Brewer, especially among conservatives and independents who think government is too big and taxes too high, Querard said. Particularly in the primary, "cutting government may not be a liability."

However, anti-tax and anti-government sentiment would work against incumbents, including Brewer, said Sean Noble, a Republican political strategist and longtime congressional aide.

While both Brewer and her critics in her own party say Napolitano left the state in a fiscal lurch, both Democrats and Brewer's Republican critics fault her leadership on the issue since she took office.

"We need to get this budget fixed before we start talking about contract extensions," Martin said. "This is pretty much a wide-open race."

Brewer has said her critics aren't facing up to the reality that the state needs both spending cuts and more revenue to keep essential services going. And the former legislator and county supervisor believes she's up to the task.

"Tough times are ahead. We're going to need to need a tough leader. I'm that person," she said after announcing her candidacy for a full term early this month.

Brewer skirmished with legislative leaders last spring and summer over her three-year sales tax increase proposal and her reluctance to accept all the spending cuts that many lawmakers wanted.

The governor finally signed most of a new budget on Sept. 4 without her proposed tax increase. It closed much of a $3 billion deficit, but she vetoed parts of it, and falling revenues mean the state is looking at another $2 billion shortfall this budget year.

The next year's budget deficit looks even worse. That looming budget gap means the worst of the bad news isn't over, and observers say how Brewer handles it is key.

"The governor's big challenge is going to probably rest on her ability to get her priorities accomplished with this Legislature," said Barry Dill, a Democratic political strategist and Goddard supporter. "If she's able to do that, she's going to look like a formidable leader. If she does not, then she is hurt."


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