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DOOMSDAY AT THE CAPITOL: Think of the state billion-buck budget shortfall as a giant asteroid headed straight for Wesley Bolin Plaza. First there were the few who did the math, saw trouble on the horizon and sounded an early warning. They, of course, were dismissed as crackpots.

Once the oncoming meteor could be seen by any schmoe with a telescope, the voices of doom grew louder. So what did lawmakers do? They dilly-dallied their way through a pointless stalemate during a month-long special session just to cut another $220 million from this year's budget.

But our honorable elected officials couldn't remain in denial forever. Now, with the release of Gov. Jane Dee Hull's proposed budget, the whole friggin' rock is visible to the naked eye. Time to head down into the root cellar and see what's left after impact.

Hull aims to put off some $118 million in spending for textbooks and computers for classrooms, as well as delaying another $63 million in school maintenance. She's hacking away again at the universities, with the UA losing $6.2 million for the main campus, as well as $7.2 million slated to hire new faculty and $1.3 million for the Health Sciences department. Forget about a subsidy for the trauma centers this year.

Hull's also looking to swipe $16 million from the state Heritage Fund, so don't go planning any picnics at state parks anytime soon.

Other costs are being passed along to other jurisdictions, such as the plan to force county jails here and in Maricopa to house inmates who are serving less than a year and ending a state subsidy to school property taxes.

While the budget bleeds red ink, committees in both houses are hemorrhaging bills as legislators try to make up the three weeks they sat around waiting for the special session to end. Between the budget crunch and the lost time, nothing big is gonna happen this session.

Some lawmakers still suggest the session can end by mid-May, but they're living in fantasyland. Unfortunately for folks like Sen. Elaine Richardson, who has a congressional race ahead of her, we're sure this one's going to remained knotted up for a long time.

We suggest Hull ask the White House to formally declare the Capitol a federal disaster area and apply for emergency aid.


SOAK THE SMOKERS: Even before the release of her budget, Gov. Jane Dee Hull's numbers had dropped into the toilet. Her approval rating had dropped from 74 percent less than two years ago to 27 percent in January. The same poll, by Phoenix PBS affiliate KAET, showed that lawmakers were even worse off, with only 27 percent of voters approving of their performance.

A majority of those voters oppose cutting just about any state program. Eighty-six percent oppose cutting K-12 education; 85 percent oppose cutting healthcare for the mentally ill; 74 percent oppose cutting university funding; and 62 percent oppose cutting the pay raise promised to state employees.

But that doesn't mean the voters want to pay for any of it. Two-thirds oppose an increase in the state sales tax; 64 percent oppose increasing income taxes; and 60 percent oppose expanding the sales tax to services such as haircuts and legal bills.

The only area where voters see an opportunity to cut spending is the state's anti-tobacco campaign. Only a third of the voters opposed reducing that budget. Hull has already asked to transfer the funds permanently to other health care programs as part of her budget.

Hull's smokin' deal has the ever-wacky anti-tobacky lobby all set to collect signatures to ask voters to hike the sales tax another 60 cents on a pack of cigs. The new tax--on top of the 40 cents that smokers already pay in state taxes--would go for anti-tobacco propaganda campaigns and healthcare funding.

Maybe tobacco taxes--and a piece of the gambling action, which is essentially an extra tax on poor people who are bad at math (see "Odds and Ends," page 14)--are the way to go. Why waste time with these itty-bitty tobacco tax hikes? It's time for a bold new approach: slap a $10 tax on every pack and we'll solve all our budget problems!


WHO'S GOT THE LAST LAUGH? An hour after CNN brought the news that President George W. Bush nominated SWAT Doc Richard Carmona to be surgeon general Tuesday, the boys atop Pima County Administration wondered how long it would take Carmona to order up some missile strikes at county HQ.

Democrats on the Board of Supervisors forced Carmona out as the $188,000-a-year county health czar in July 1999.

Carmona tapped his Spanish lessons in the East Room announcement and gave the condensed version of the larger-than-life-as-told-by-me story. A poor Hispanic kid, high-school drop-out reaching this level "is nothing you could dream about." We still wonder how this Harlem kid's birth certificate shows a Central Park West address.

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, is Carmona's admitted "number one fan. He is one of my heroes." In the Rose Garden, there was mention of Carmona's daring helicopter and mountainside rescue, but nothing about how he blew away a deranged and menacing former county psychiatric patient Jean Pierre Lafitte in a shootout at Campbell and Grant in September 1999.

Here's the fix to that oversight: The Rich Carmona Grade-Separated Intersection at Campbell and Grant. (Provided, of course, voters approve that half-cent sales tax proposal to build the useless monstrosity.)


TROUBLE IN PARADISE: Two weeks before landing its now famous, no-bid and supposedly unrequited $169,270 contract to prepare an economic analysis of Pima County's work-in-progress Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, the Morrison Institute slapped lawyer S.L. Schorr.

"Let the games begin!" Morrison Director Rob Melnick said in an email to Maeveen Behan, who heads up all work on the conservation plan.

"I assume that the letter was mostly posturing (at Lewis and Roca's hourly rate!) and I'm not at all surprised by such action. Please be clear that none of this scares me (Hey, I'd worry MUCH more if no one was interested in our study!), but I nevertheless would like to know if/how the Board responded to this letter."

Schorr is on the top tier of developer/speculator mouthpieces. Keep him and his firm, Lewis and Roca, in mind when thinking about why Morrison walked away from the contract, complaining the county was not providing data on time.

The Morrison-Pima split came after months of intense glad-handing, cheerleading and giddiness that is reminiscent of shamed accounting giant Coopers & Lybrand--now PricewaterhouseCoopers--as it grabbed the rigged Project SLIM contract from defrocked Gov. J. Fife Symington III.

Mark Muro, formerly an "I'm-smarter-than-you" editorial writer for the Arizona Daily Star, bragged about Morrison's relationship with the county to nuts-and-bolts subcontractor Jun Onaka.

"We find them very responsive, with a flat organization that jumps when our contact says to."

Wow! Republican Supervisor Sugar Ray Carroll would love that.

Still before the contract was awarded, Muro was keeping Behan updated on his vacation "at the in-laws in Hartford; then on to Maine and my sister's in-laws. Should be rocky headlands, lobster boats, cool mist up there on a little island with canoes, etc."

On the Pima island, Behan wrote back reminding Muro "that you have a great adventure to return to."

In a Christmas e-mail (Morrison's stocking had already been filled with $80,000 in county loot) Muro wished tranquility for Behan. "I want to add, too, that Rob and I have both found you a delight to work with, and learn from. We're happy to be part of the county's grand adventure--"

Doing pre-contract work, Muro asked for contacts and was happy to get "tech-oriented types and progressives. Do you have, too, some of the heavy-weight developers themselves--Diamond, Ken Abrahams, Mehl as well as SAHBA contact etc? Those guys should be included, both for making the task useful but in the interest of inclusiveness."

Legendary Land Speculator Donald Diamond is, of course, The Heavyweight and the man who called the conservation plan "dip shit." David Mehl is up there, too. But such notice for Diamond functionary Kenny Abrahams will only further inflate his outsized ego.

Behan provided "the most attentive of the Diamond group: David Goldstein. The next candidate would be Chris Monson, then Yorum Levy."

Goldstein is in fact smart and a real mensch. Monson is the Diamond's honcho at the ever-shifting Rocking K Ranch while Levy, Diamond's son in law, is the wrangler on another eastside Diamond development.

Back to Schorr: He has represented Diamond on a few projects over the years. And he frequently speaks for developer cartel, SAHBA.

Melnick told the county that the Morrison Institute had to get on other pressing matters and could not wait for what is essentially public record from the county. Now look at Morrison's advisory board and find Chris Herstam, a former moderate state legislator who now, besides being on the Board of Regents, is director of government relations for Lewis and Roca.


SLURRED SPEECH: The Star apologized Sunday for using slurs "that should have been left on the restroom walls they were found on." Of course, when you stoop to writing feature stories about graffiti in public restrooms, well, what do you expect?

We also thought Reader Advocate Debbie Kornmiller was a little defensive in responding to reader criticism about the March 21 front page. It wasn't that there was a basketball story on Page One. It was that the basketball package took up two-thirds of the front page and included an arresting photo of a half-naked man covered with tattoos. More than a few readers considered that juvenile, but remember, the Star is trying to sell papers to young people who get their information from the 'Net. Or restroom walls.


DEDICATED FISH (WRAP) HACK: Congratulations are in order for Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star. We don't cling to every word Pascoe writes about UA basketball, but it was great to see him back for a full season after suffering a serious illness last year. We salute his strength and wish him great health.

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