In 1885, Arizona's notorious "Thieving Thirteenth" Territorial Legislature overhauled the public school system, built roads and bridges, established what became the state hospital, created what became Arizona State University and founded the University of Arizona. Despite the fact that they spent much of their time drinking and fighting, legislators managed to do all this in a session that was only 64 days long.
In this modern, ostensibly more sophisticated era, our current Legislature has been in session for what will soon approach twice that time, but has not even begun to address the budget, the sole piece of business required by the Arizona Constitution.
A few weeks ago, the Legislature cut back its schedule to three days a week. There are only a handful of bills pending at this point, and there is a very real danger that lawmakers may run out of things to do. Idle members may clamor to get the budget done so they can get back to their regular jobs.
The funny thing here is that the leadership is usually fond of telling members that there is no time for pesky questions, and that problematic language in bills is something that needs to be handled later, because there is only so much time in a 100-day session. The two sentiments may seem inconsistent, but in either case, the real purpose is to stifle potentially uncomfortable debate.
Right now, the argument the leadership is trying to avoid is over the governor's Medicaid expansion proposal. In fairness, when I say "leadership," I am really talking about Senate President Andy Biggs, who is currently doing the legislative equivalent of threatening to hold his breath until his face turns blue in order to prevent a vote on the issue. Reportedly, Biggs fears that there may be enough support to force a successful vote on the issue on the floor by amending the budget, which is why we will not be seeing action on the budget anytime soon.
The Arizona Republic has called on Biggs to "step aside" to allow a vote to happen on the Medicaid issue. It argues that the measure has public support, and that inaction will do nothing to stop the implementation of the much-reviled Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, if recent history is a guide, neither argument will work, as both assume that the Senate president is concerned about making practical public policy, and this is clearly not the case here.
Nationally, we complain about the rigid Tea Party ideology that has held up the agenda, any agenda, in Congress. In Arizona, the phrase "Tea Party" has merely allowed us to label something that we have had to contend with for a long time. Biggs' Senate presidency has been emblematic of a Legislature dominated by a worldview that holds that strong opinions hold more sway than experience and expertise, grand gestures and empty stunts are more important than solving problems, and negative public opinion is an affirmation.
Many of my friends on the left complain about the Legislature being "ideological," but this is, in and of itself, not the problem. We all want our elected officials to believe in something other than their own advancement. The problem here is that the smug self-righteousness of these legislators makes them almost pathologically incapable of working with those who disagree with them, or even acknowledging that their concerns are legitimate. Conversely, they are so obsessed with the beauty of their ideas that making a stand on conviction overrides all else, even if this is harmful, impractical or meaningless.
In this case, Biggs' obstinacy is ultimately futile. As the Republic points out, failure to pass the governor's proposal will not reverse implementation of the Affordable Care Act, but it will make moving forward more expensive and less practical for Arizonans. Biggs cannot delay discussion of the budget forever, so a vote will happen eventually. Given the bipartisan support for the Medicaid proposal, this is a vote that he may well lose. He should grow up and accept this.
But delaying a vote gives Biggs and his partisans a chance to give the big bad black man in Washington the finger. It may not accomplish anything in the long term, but it makes them feel better, and that is what this game is all about to them.
Fortunately, history tells us that things have not always been this way. The current dysfunction is entirely a product of the current leadership. Arizona has done better and can do so again.