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Rural lawmakers excited to have leaders from beyond Phoenix, Tucson

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PHOENIX – Unlike his colleagues from the Valley and Tucson, Democratic Sen. Jack Jackson Jr. of Window Rock comes to the State Capitol with concerns that he calls “Third World.”

“Forty percent of Navajo homes have no electricity, with many of those without running water of any sort,” he said as the Legislature opened Monday.

But after he and other Senate Democrats met a month ago with new Senate President Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, Jackson said he’s optimistic that the needs of the Navajo Nation will be better recognized.

“Coming from Northern Arizona, President Pierce understands some of the more unique issues in rural and tribal communities,” Jackson said.

This is the first session in eight years that leaders of both chambers are from rural Arizona. Pierce’s complement in the House is Speaker Andy Tobin, a Republican from Paulden.

Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said she’s optimistic that her Prescott-area colleagues – and, in the case of Pierce, her grade-school classmate – will keep rural Arizona in mind when considering legislation that affects the whole state.

“They can say, ‘This works for Maricopa County, but we need to tweak it a little so it doesn’t affect all of rural Arizona,’” she said.

She and other rural lawmakers pointed to water, roads and economic development as key to their areas.

The last time rural lawmakers led each house was 2004, when Republican Ken Bennett of Prescott, now secretary of state, was Senate president and the late Jake Flake, a Republican from Snowflake, was speaker of the House.

In a phone interview last week, Tobin said those who live in the Valley don’t necessarily understand the needs of rural Arizona.

“Someone who is driving around Phoenix and has to drive over potholes is going to want to try and fix the roads here,” he said. “Where I come from, we’d just like to have roads.”

Tobin said his leadership of the House won’t differ much from the leadership of his predecessor, Republican Kirk Adams of Mesa, with the exception of his eye toward rural Arizona. He said he’s eager to work with Pierce, not just because of where they come from but because each has a business background.

“It comes down to this: You have two rural people from entirely different perspectives, and neither one of us takes the place we live for granted,” Tobin said.

Rep. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, said she hopes the focus on rural areas will include better access to hospitals in her far-flung district and an economic-development bill specific to areas beyond Phoenix and Tucson.

“I think rural Arizona will take some top priority,” she said. “People are going to see those differences.”

Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said lawmakers need to understand that state cuts to local governments have affected rural areas disproportionately.

“They have to sober up and realize that larger cities have the capacity to shift funds around to compensate for funding cuts,” he said. “Smaller cities can’t do that.”