IN A PERFECT world, Arizona lawmakers would gather for 100 days or so, glare at each other and carefully deliberate how best to spend the public purse to provide for the common good: build habitable classrooms, pave roads, marginally help the needy get their feet on the ground, protect our property and bodies from deadly pollution and the like. The utopian vision is different depending on what color glasses you're looking through; liberals want the government to pick your pockets enough so that even stray cats will have full bellies, while conservatives want the government out of the way so the alleged free market can provide well-paying jobs for all hard-working citizens, when in fact they're usually picking your pockets for their well-heeled friends.
However, because we live in Arizona rather than our hypothetical perfect world, we have instead a greedy scramble for tax dollars by a small, elite gaggle of highly paid Lobbyists. These folks represent the special interests that have been feeding at your trough for the past century--the mines, the real estate interests, the farms, the educators, the bureaucrats and corporations.
The legislative session essentially revolves around money--where lawmakers are going to get roughly $4.5 billion and how they're going to spend it. Between now and April, all the little piggies will be lining up for the slop in Phoenix, figuring out how best to get more while paying less.
It all begins with our bankrupt Gov. J. Fife Symington's State of the State address at noon on Monday, January 8.
MANY COMPANIES FIND it very expensive to conform to stringent environmental standards (they call 'em restrictions, we call 'em safeguards), so they pay Lobbyists and contribute to political campaigns in hopes of getting regulations relaxed. It's as close as they come to a forward-looking policy--invest some money now to save dollars in the long run.
Last year, we saw this process in action. Before the session even started, Rep. Rusty Bowers, a Mesa Republican who chaired the House Environment Committee, introduced a number of bills which, when combined, would have effectively eliminated the state Department of Environmental Quality. Former enviro chair Sue Grace, a Phoenix Republican, was so disgusted she drafted a floor amendment to shut down the whole agency, but she chickened out before proposing it, knowing it would pass.
Bower's bills failed, but another, more sinister one passed: the Environmental Audit Bill, which would have allowed polluters to report their violations in secret and receive immunity from all civil and criminal penalties. After all, a toxic waste spill can really tarnish a company's squeaky-clean image. And if the audit privilege hurts innocent citizens and their property--tough.
Despite opposition from the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, Attorney General Grant Woods and all the prosecutors in the state, this polluter's protection act sailed through the Legislature. Amazingly, it was vetoed by Gov. J. Fife Symington III, who said he was troubled by aspects of the legislation. More likely, he knew environmental organizations would gather enough sigs to put it on the ballot, where it would lose, big-time.
Well, guess what? We hear the Environmental Audit Bill is coming out of the Governor's office this year, which means the Governor will say he's "fixed" the legislation. Oh, it'll be fixed, all right--greased to go right through the House and Senate like toxic waste through an aquifer. Luckily, despite the recent multi-million refurbishing, the ninth floor has zero credibility.
One of the biggest supporters of the Environmental Audit Bill is the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. Such a nice-sounding name, the Chamber of Commerce--it calls to mind well-dressed men with cigars, banding together to better the community.
And what does the Chamber have in mind for Arizona? In ACCEPT--a thrilling acronym for the "Arizona Chamber of Commerce Economic Plan for Tomorrow," a 16-page outline of the '96 agenda--they lay out their plans. And they seem to want to ACCEPT lax regulations and tax breaks.
"Changing the philosophy from a system based on command and control enforcement to a compliance-oriented system is a long-range and challenging project," according to ACCEPT, which places the environmental audit privilege at the top of its legislative priorities.
On another environmental front, look for House Speaker Mark Killian, another of those revolutionary Mesa Republicans, to take a stab at raising awareness of his particular non-issue: "regulatory takings," whereby anyone who wants to ignore health and safety laws can cry poverty and get paid to comply at taxpayer expense. Back East, they call it a "protection racket." Here proponents wrap themselves in the the flag and cry "Property Rights!" Theirs, not yours.
In 1994, Arizona voters rejected a takings bill the Legislature had passed, but Killian isn't letting that little setback slow him down. Sure, no legitimate example can be found of state government abuse of private property rights, but he's still pursuing the legislation with his characteristic zeal. It's no secret he intends to run for governor. When he does, we should all run for the hills.
It's just like date rape--no doesn't mean no to these guys. Late last year, lawmakers heard testimony from developers who urged them to pass legislation that would force taxpayers to pay them if a zoning law somewhere prevented them from maximizing their profit on a piece of land. Hey, we knew Arizona was built on land scams, but we didn't think we'd write them into law. So much for land "speculation."
THERE'S NOTHING HANDIER for a politician than an enemy to vilify, and at the statehouse, that enemy is the federal government, that rotten, corrupt snakepit of malignant Washington bureaucrats forcing Arizonans to adhere to punitive policies invented by the liberal Eastern establishment and the Trilateral Commission.
Last year, we were treated to new complaints against the feds on a daily basis. They were setting wolves loose in Arizona, ruining the cattle industry; they were destroying our economy by stopping the production of ozone; they were requiring the state to conform to these environmental standards that were costing Arizonans a fortune. Things got so silly we actually seceded from the Union for about 45 minutes; and if the Constitutional Defense Council has it's way, we'll soon be invading Nevada by siding with Nye County in its fruitcake fanatic lawsuit against Uncle Sam.
Gov. Symington, who has had his share of trouble from the federal regulators regarding all those intriguing Keating-style financial deals that finally fell to pieces last year, went so far as to describe the relationship between the state and the feds as that of a generous nephew who has kindly allowed his uncle to come visit, only to find the uncle is free-loading.
A more apt description might be that of an irresponsible nephew who, having enjoyed the largess of a rich uncle for many years, now feels he owns a portion of the uncle's estate. Last time we checked, the federal government covered the cost of the troops who made settlement possible by slaughtering Native Americans. The feds also built dams, provided grazing land at well below market value, gave away mineral rights for practically nothing, and provided a long list of other subsidies. The myth of rugged individualism taming the West is a pleasant fairy tale, but we do need to grow up someday.
Unfortunately, it won't be this year. Expect more chest-beating and cries about "giving the land back to the states"--never mind that the land never belonged to the state in the first place.
The states' rights debate is so shrill that one rep, Snowflake's David Farnsworth, regularly briefs Birchers and Posse Comitatus on the activities of FedGov, a shadowy organization responsible for most of the nation's ills, particularly secular humanists, one-worlders and the wretched welfare culture. Farnsworth, it should be noted, accepted food stamps to feed his family a few years back and feels no compunction to pay it back.
EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO, the Arizona Supreme Court recognized that a system that allowed some school districts to build domed stadiums while others used sweltering trailers as classrooms was unfair and unconstitutional. The court ordered the Legislature to come up with a fair split of tax dollars for school construction and maintenance.
Since then, the Legislature has danced around the topic without committing to a solution. We've heard tantalizing rumors of special sessions, but this education issue can't be tackled when there's a distinct absence of spines and a revolt forming against the federal government.
Gov. Symington, who recently dismissed the notion of school equity as "socialism," has his own education agenda, which basically dismantles the Department of Education and school districts and teacher certification and unions. He's also behind a private school tuition voucher plan, which sucks away tax dollars to possibly unqualified and insolvent education entreprenuers.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham is a little less ambitious; while she'd like to keep the Department of Education (and her job as head of it), she does want to scrap school districts and she supports tuition vouchers.
Plenty of lawmakers have their own ideas of how to better education, so look for plenty of squabbling on the issue through the session. But remember it's all chest-beating and election-year pandering, because they've already had a year and half to do something about it.
AS PART OF a deal struck last year, lawmakers are committed to giving Arizonans a $200 million tax break this session. Right now, they're scrambling to figure out what form that break will take, and there are, not surprisingly, plenty of folks with ideas of who should take the hit. Income taxes? Personal property taxes? Vehicle registration taxes? So many mechanisms to choose from.
How about giving total control of all special funds to the Legislature and calling it regulatory reform because we won't be able to do what the law says? Watch for this one from the GOP leadership.
The Chamber of Commerce suits have all sorts of ways to cut taxes and improve the lives of Arizonans. According to ACCEPT, that carefully worded agenda of theirs, they will work hard "to strengthen the employment-at-will doctrine," a turn-of-phrase that proves Orwellian double-speak is alive and well. Basically, the Chamber wants to make sure employers can fire just about anyone for just about any reason. Oh, and they've dedicated themselves to opposing any raises in the minimum wage.
The Chamber does these things, of course, to lure new companies to Arizona to keep our economy booming and wages low enough that food stamps and welfare health care providers thrive. And we all saw how well that worked out in the Microsoft deal down here, where taxpayers are now being asked to subsidize the rent for computer tyrannosaur Microsoft, while they import their employees and put some temps to work at a plant where the company doesn't even pay property tax.
Incidentally, half of Microsoft's $4 million rent abatement is supposed to come from the Legislature and go to the University of Arizona. Sen. Carol Springer, who heads the appropriations committee, has vowed to block that payment, which could make for some delightful fireworks.
NOT EVERYTHING THAT happens at the Legislature is directly related to money. Take abortion, for instance. For the last several years, Senate President John Greene has enforced a moratorium on abortion bills, believing the subject was too fractious for the party. But this year, he's lifting the ban because the GOP caucus says they'll behave and work together to pass a bill which will require minors to notify their parents before terminating a pregnancy. Word is it'll pass--the votes are already counted.
The state's few affirmative action programs are also coming under attack. Freshman Republican Scott Bungaard, a 27-year-old fresh-faced disciple of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and an ex-felon (the Phoenix New Times dubbed him a "man of conviction"), has concluded that since discrimination is wrong, it's also wrong for the state to engage in discrimination.
A compelling argument, until you stop to consider that our government does all sorts things individuals aren't allowed to do--like kill people, for instance. Bungaard himself, demonstrating the progressive sense of justice that's so popular in the Middle East, wants to impose the death penalty for drug dealers. Apparently, discrimination is always wrong, but killing people is only wrong sometimes. Maybe that's because affirmative action programs help minorities, while the death penalty generally kills 'em off.
The Good News
IF ALL OF this sounds depressing, don't feel too bad. It's an election year, and it costs at least $10,000 to run a decent campaign for the statehouse. Since lawmakers aren't allowed to accept contributions while in session, expect them to try to wrap things up quickly. And expect them to have their sweaty palms out once they do.
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