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DUDE, WHERE'S MY BUDGET?

These are slow days up at the Arizona Legislature, as a small group of lawmakers wrestle over the budget, and all the rest wander about, casting the occasional vote on legislation and hitting up lobbyists for their next meal.

From what we hear, the big holdup with budget negotiations comes from conservatives in the House of Representatives who still oppose borrowing money for school construction, even though it's the only realistic way to bridge the estimated $2 billion shortfall between expected revenues and projected expenses in the fiscal year that starts in less than six weeks. (Well, we suppose they could also shut down the universities, but that seems a bit shortsighted to us. But what do we know? We're among those out-of-touch elites.)

We're still puzzled by Speaker of the House Jim Weiers' determination to include his recalcitrant conservatives in the budget conversation, especially since they won't end up voting on a compromise budget even after he kisses their butts throughout the negotiation process. We suppose he's just trying to hang on to his leadership position, but no matter how this year's session plays out, he's facing trouble.

If Weiers worked with lawmakers who are more interested in negotiating and less interested in posturing, we think this whole thing could be wrapped up in no time. Instead, now we're hearing whispers that some lawmakers may want to force a government shutdown on July 1.

Wouldn't a government shutdown be great for Senate President Tim Bee's campaign against Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords? Do you get the feeling, as this drags out, that Bee might have been smarter to resign and concentrate on his campaign rather than stick around and deal with this stinking mess?


CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE

Arizona Sen. John McCain gave us a vision of the future last week.

By 2013, if he's elected president, McCain envisions that Iraq will be calm and peaceful; Osama bin Laden will be dead or captured; terrorist networks will have been smashed; our armed forces will be bigger and better; the economy will humming along; taxes will be lower; the government will be spending less money; Social Security and Medicare will have been fixed; our energy crisis will be solved; our border will be secure; schools will be better; and children everywhere will frolic in forests of cotton candy and swim in cool pools of peppermint fed by cinnamon waterfalls.

OK, we made the last bit up. But the rest of it was McCain's utopian vision of tomorrow, which we suppose reflects his response to Barack Obama's rather vague message of hope.

Maybe we're hopelessly out of touch, but it seems to us that once upon a time, candidates offered policies that had some kind of real-world basis. Then the Bush administration came along and just started presenting ungrounded economic and war plans--We'll cut taxes and increase spending! We'll be greeted as liberators!--that were supposed to result in marvelous outcomes. Now that we've seen how that all turned out--a crashing economy, enormous deficits and a messy quagmire--you'd think that politicians would be wary of offering plans that have no relation to the reality.

But McCain has actually outdone the Bush White House with visions of paradise without even presenting a plan to make it all happen. That's what we call a faith-based program.


COOKING THE BOOKS

So Tom Jenney of the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity went all wonky on us last week after we made fun of the stupid "Friend of the Taxpayer" pledge that he wants local officials to sign in allegiance to him. (You can read his letter in next week's Mailbag, or you can read it right now at the TW blog.)

Jenney said that we were the stupid ones, because we said that local governments need to increase spending to deal with inflation and population growth, but his research showed that the city and county were both spending less this year than last year.

"Nintzel is often a keen observer of the state and local economy, but he has apparently missed the dozens of news stories and official reports this year projecting sharp downturns in various streams of tax revenue, including state-shared income and sales tax revenue, which will probably come in below last year's revenues," Jenney wrote on his blog, in the letter and in a press release that people keep forwarding to us.

"Even the spendthrift majorities on the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the Tucson City Council managed to get the news--and have been putting the brakes on spending," Jenney continued. "So far, the county and city budgets from FY 2009 look relatively modest, with projected spending lower than that of FY 2008."

First of all, let us say that we agree 100 percent with the "keen observer" stuff.

We'll also note that Jenney is technically correct: Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has proposed a total budget of $1.460 billion this year, which is slightly less than the overall budget of $1.482 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

But when you're tossing around more than a billion bucks, it's a little more complicated than that. Spending in the county's general fund--the part of the budget that funds the day-to-day operation of county government--is increasing, from a little less than $489 million to more than $499 million.

The big savings in county government are coming from cutting back on capital projects--which means, in many cases, that the county is putting off projects for the future, when they'll be more expensive.

However you want to enter that into the ledger, the county will be increasing its overall property-tax levy--the total amount collected in property taxes--from $250 million to $265 million to accommodate the additional spending in the general fund and to make up for anticipated cuts in federal and state funding.

What does that mean? Anyone who supports the Pima County budget doesn't qualify for the "friend of the taxpayer" merit badge from Jenney's group.

In the city of Tucson, City Manager Mike Hein has lowered the general-fund budget by $1.7 million, but even Hein admits that's little more than financial sleight of hand. Operating funds in the city budget are increasing by $82 million, while capital costs are decreasing by about $88 million--and more than $77 million of those cuts are coming out of transportation spending. Ain't that great news for our overstressed streets?

By the way: Hein is working on the following fiscal year already, which calls for an increase of $10 million in general-fund spending to catch up with what he's not going to be able to spend this year.

The city budget includes a teeny-tiny increase in the city-wide property-tax levy totaling about $600,000, which disqualifies it from receiving that "Friend of the Taxpayer" label from Jenney's crew.

Yadda yadda yadda--all of this malarkey equals exactly one big "whatevs" to most taxpayers, so before we lose any more readers, let us just say we stand by our larger point: Elected officials should blow off anyone who asks them for a pledge, because they should think about problems like grownups rather than behave like pre-programmed robots.

Anyways: If you're a glutton for wonky punishment, Jenney and Skinny scribe Jim Nintzel will talk about budgets, revenue streams and the wisdom of taking pledges on the radio Sunday, May 25, between noon and 12:30 p.m. on Charles Heller's Liberty Watch on KVOI AM 690.

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