Reality has finally sunk in for Gov. Jan Brewer, who has given up hope of getting lawmakers to temporarily increase the sales tax by one penny per dollar.
The tax hike would require approval from two-thirds of both the House and Senate, so we all knew that was never going to happen.
Instead, Brewer is back to asking lawmakers to put the question to voters. She's been trying that for about a year with no success, but called for a special session earlier this week to give it another go. Lawmakers have until mid-February to get a package together in time for the May ballot.
In her call for a special session, Brewer also asked lawmakers to use a few more gimmicks to keep the state solvent, including an income-tax hike on part-time residents, the selling (and leasing back) of more state assets, borrowing against future lottery revenues and putting off more payments to schools.
As of press time, we were hearing that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were at least talking about a deal on the sales-tax proposition, but it looked to be a tougher sell in the House.
One stumbling block: Some House Republicans won't agree to ask voters to increase the sales tax unless they've sealed a deal to cut future taxes, but Democrats won't go along with raising the sales tax if the bargain includes future tax cuts that would largely benefit the wealthiest Arizonans.
Last week, House Republicans passed a tax-cut package without a single Democratic vote. The legislation, dubbed Arizona's Job Recovery Act, cuts income taxes, which primarily helps the wealthiest Arizonans; reduces property taxes on businesses, which means that homeowners would see an increase in their property taxes to make up the difference; and trims corporate income taxes, which means the state would see its structural deficit increase as the tax cuts are phased in.
Republicans argue that the collection of giveaways will ignite the economy and blah blah blah. It's all just swell, as long as you buy into faith-based economics.
Even as Republicans are arguing that the state needs to collect less in taxes, Arizona's economic freefall has yet to slow, according to the latest Joint Legislative Budget Committee numbers.
For 17 straight months, tax collections have dropped by double digits compared to the same month one year earlier. In December 2009, the tax take was 12 percent below December 2008.
The total tax take for December 2009 was $681 million, which was more than $90 million below the forecast.
In the first six months of the fiscal year, tax collections have shrunk 16.7 percent compared to the previous year.
JLBC projects a $1.5 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that ends in June. The staff also projects the state will bring in $6.9 billion next year—and is on track to spend $9.5 billion.
Arizona Daily Star publisher John Humenik and executive editor Bobbie Jo Buel recently tried to show us how hard-hitting journalism was done: They sent a questionnaire to lawmakers asking how they plan to solve the state's budget mess.
Hey, we've done our share of questionnaires over the years—and we've learned it's a pretty lousy way to get real answers, because any lawmaker's first instinct will be to say something bland and inoffensive. That's why you need to talk to them in person and ask follow-up questions.
Sure enough, most of the lawmakers who responded did so with vague generalities. State Sen. Jonathan Paton, for example, danced around budget-cut questions with nonsense like "we need to transform our educational system to meet the budgetary and educational challenges of today," while most Democrats sidestepped questions regarding where they would cut spending. As journalism goes, it was pretty much laughable.
But the big humiliation for Humenik came when most of the Republicans in the Southern Arizona delegation simply refused to respond at all.
We hear the boycott was led by Rep. Frank Antenori, although he was uncharacteristically humble when we asked him about it, telling us: "I don't want to take credit for it. It was a mutual decision. ... But I advocated hard, let's put it that way."
Antenori, who has had heartburn over the morning daily's editorial-page staff ever since they refused to run an op-ed that he submitted, says that Republicans are wary of the Star's liberal bias on the editorial pages.
"I'm just done with them," Antenori said, although he added that he's still happy to talk to Star reporters.
The questionnaire boycott led to a heated exchange between Antenori and Humenik at a January meet-and-greet sponsored by the Arizona Newspapers Association, where the two ended up in a shouting match.
The Star responded to the boycott by reminding readers every day that the Republicans weren't playing along. David Fitzsimmons also produced a cartoon that portrayed GOP lawmakers as a pack of dogs under the control of their Maricopa masters. Bet that will cause some real trouble for them in the upcoming election year!
Antenori says there's a simple way for Humenik to mend fences: "I told him all of this would go away if he would simply put a conservative on the editorial board. ... But he won't do it. He won't put an alternative point of view in there."
Speaking of Rep. Frank Antenori: The Republican freshman is continuing his maneuvers to get himself appointed to the state Senate once Republican Jonathan Paton steps down to focus on his challenge of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
As regular readers may recall, Antenori told us a few weeks back that the supervisors would be wise to select him for the Senate slot, because he was sure to win it in November.
"I think the Board of Supervisors would much rather have a guy in the Senate that has been working with them than a guy who is working against them," he said. "I think they'd rather have a happy Frank Antenori than an angry Frank Antenori."
Meanwhile, Republican Marian McClure, who held a House seat for eight years before getting termed out in 2008, tells us she won't be seeking the appointment, but will instead run for the seat in the August primary. That could prove to be smart politics, since she'll be able to sidestep what's sure to be a messy session with a lot of unpopular votes to solve the budget mess.
We also hear that among the names that may get forwarded by LD30 GOP precinct committeemen to the Pima County Board of Supervisors are two former lawmakers from the area: Rancher Bill McGibbon and golf pro Randy Graf.
Other dominoes are falling in Legislative District 30. With Antenori giving up his House seat, four Republicans are getting ready to run in the August primary for the two House seats: Incumbent Rep. David Gowan; Doug Sposito, who unsuccessfully ran for the LD30 House seat in 2008; Ted Vogt, who is now GOP chairman of LD30; and Kurt Knurr.
Democrat Andrea Dalessandro, who ran unsuccessfully for a LD30 House seat in 2008, is taking another shot this year.
Find early and late-breaking Skinny at The Range, our daily dispatch.