Ralph Atchue (center) and Vince Leach debated the issues in a Town Hall session facilitated by AnnaMarie Knorr. Photo by Jeff Kronenfeld

Democrat Ralph Atchue came out swinging against Republican Rep. Vince Leach in the first debate of the day for the InMaricopa.com General Election Town Hall on Saturday.

The two candidates for the state Senate seat for Legislative District 11 offered strongly contrasting views on important issues for Maricopa residents such as education, taxes, prisons, water policy and new development in desert areas.

Atchue went on the offensive in his opening remarks, stating that Arizona was facing “tough problems” and his opponent was not only “part of the problem” but was the “main obstacle standing in the way of coming up with common sense solutions.”

In contrast, Leach avoided personal remarks, offering a more optimistic view of the state’s current condition, though he did dispute Atchue’s claims a number of times. The positions of each candidate generally corresponded to that of their party.

Education funding levels were front and center throughout the debate. Leach argued only slight increases in state revenue would be needed to fully fund Gov. Doug Ducey’s planned 20 percent increase to Arizona public school teachers’ salaries by 2020.

“We’ve put $2.7 billion back in the school system since I came in 2015,” Leach said.

Atchue rebutted this with a scathing criticism of Leach and Gov. Ducey’s education policy, stating the Republicans initially offered teachers only a 1 percent increase in pay, relenting to the greater increase only after tens of thousands of teachers walked out of schools in April.

AnnaMarie Knorr, president of the Maricopa Unified School District governing board, served as the moderator and opened the debate by asking whether current taxes in the state were too high, too low or just about right. Atchue said taxes were “out of balance.” He proposed an audit of the state’s current tax scheme, attacking what he described as tax loopholes and tax credits, which he claimed offered little return on investment.

“Because the state has abdicated it’s responsibility for funding things like public education, infrastructure, juvenile detention, many things, the tax burden has been pushed onto counties and cities who have no recourse but to raise sales taxes and property taxes,” Atchue said.

Leach acknowledged the state had experienced “tough times” in the past, mentioning a one-time budget shortfall of $3 billion, but said Arizona was now experiencing increasing revenue.

“Our overall tax system is very, very good in the state of Arizona,” Leach said. “In fact, we’re a tax haven.”

Leach cited lowering taxes and other pro-business policies as responsible for attracting new residents and businesses to the state. Atchue disputed this last claim, arguing the state’s climate was more responsible for attracting new residents than its tax policy.

The two candidates also differed on infrastructure issues, though both agreed on the need to improve dangerous intersections and to expand road capacity.

A question about the use of private prisons demonstrated a strong difference of opinion between the candidates. Leach supports the use of private prisons when cost-effective and claimed prison populations in the state were declining. Atchue disputed that prison populations are decreasing and did not support increasing the use of private prisons.

As both candidates’ forceful closing remarks made clear, residents of Maricopa have two very different options available in the senate race for Legislative District 11 this November.

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