Democrat Dr. Richard Carmona called for more bipartisan cooperation in Congress, while his Republican opponent Rep. Jeff Flake advocated for changing the course set by the current administration.
The candidates for U.S. Senate fielded questions on a variety of topics impacting rural Arizona during a Thursday debate at Arizona Western College.
Addressing what they would do to protect Arizona water rights, Flake said he would fight hard to make sure water – “the lifeblood of Arizona” – doesn't go to the biggest threat, California.
Carmona agreed on the need to fight for the state's water rights but blasted Flake for his support of uranium mining in the watershed area of the Arizona Strip, north of the Grand Canyon, which Carmona claims would contaminate water.
Flake countered that the mining would not threaten the Grand Canyon and said he is trying to protect a bipartisan agreement and the area's economic development.
Queried about the high unemployment rate, Carmona called for reforming the tax code, not overtaxing small businesses, closing loopholes and creating an environment where small businesses can thrive.
Carmona added that comprehensive immigrant reform, such as a commuter guest worker program, should be part of the solution.
Calling the jobless rate “unacceptable,” Flake blamed “stifling” regulations on the environment, health, labor and financial sectors. One of the biggest “job killers” is the president's health care plan, he said, noting that small businesses are moving people from full time to part time to avoid hitting that 50-employee threshold.
“I will vote to repeal the president's health-care plan, my opponent will not,” Flake said.
Repealing the plan would only put the burden on the people as the general public would pick up the insurance costs for the uninsured, Carmona said.
“There are good things in the plan, but it needs a better business plan,” he added.
Speaking further on immigration reform, Flake agreed on the need for revamping immigration law, calling the H2A program “ill-suited in Yuma.”
“My commitment is to work on those issues in a way that will give access to labor that will keep jobs here in America and not ship them off to Mexico,” Flake said.
Carmona blasted Congress for not taking action before now, noting that Flake has been in Congress for 12 years.
Flake countered by saying his record showed he was “one to reach across the aisle” and that he has been working on immigration reform since he got to Congress.
Asked how they would help border communities improve border infrastructure to expedite crossing of imports and exports, Carmona said he supports stronger partnerships with Mexican counterparts and integrating resources.
He also called for better use of advanced technology to more quickly identify border crossers. Since it's about economics, border security and transportation of goods, “we all benefit,” Carmona said.
Flake responded that the most pressing problem is staffing and called for shoring up personnel, “not just green uniforms but blue uniforms.”
But first they must work to make sure the Tucson sector “looks more like the Yuma sector ... making it secure and then moving on to all the thorny issues,” including a guest worker plan and immigration reform, Flake said.
Questioned on their views of Proposition 120, which would declare the state's sovereignty over its public lands and all natural resources, Flake admitted he had not yet studied the proposition closely but that he was “skeptical.” However, Flake called for more cooperation between the federal government and the state.
“What we desperately need more is cooperation with the Forest Service and other federal agencies or our forests will go up in smoke,” Flake said.
Carmona said it was “silly to talk about seceding” and “it doesn't make sense to drop out just because you don't agree.”
The Farm Bill, which sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry policy, sparked the longest exchange between the candidates. Due to Congressional inaction, the last bill expired in September.
“It will be a priority for me because I realize how antiquated the bill is,” Carmona said.
He said the bill is naturally tied to health issues such as obesity and should offer “appropriate support to farmers struggling here along the border.”
Flake agreed on a need to redo the bill, describing it as being “out of whack.”
“Here in Yuma you get very little from the bill,” he added.
In particular, Flake said he opposes the bill's cotton subsidies to U.S. farmers, which have resulted in annual payments of $150 million to Brazil after the South American country sued the U.S. and the World Trade Organization found the subsidies “unfair” to the global market.
Queried about what they would do for rural Arizona, Flake said he would support the forest industry and thinning to save them from “environmental disaster.”
Flake also blasted the emission rule changes proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency intended to reduce haze at national parks, which would force the Navajo Generating Station to install new emissions controls costing more than $1.1 billion.
The changes could result in the closure of the coal-fired power plant, Flake said.
“Shutting down the Navajo Generating Station will be devastating” and cost thousands of jobs, he said, noting that he urged the EPA to “slow down, let's talk about this.”
Carmona said jobs were “first and foremost” on his list, describing the unemployment situation as “desperate,” in particular Yuma's 30 percent rate.
He suggested comprehensive tax and immigration reforms, tax credits to lure businesses to the state, closing loopholes, helping small businesses and keeping taxes low for families, Carmona said.
Immigration reform should include a pathway to citizenship, and “don't forget the DREAMers,” he said, referring to young undocumented immigrants.