MUDDY WATERS: The state's Clean Election Commission is on the verge of committing a boneheaded blunder. Commissioners are considering requiring candidates who accept public dollars for their campaigns to sign some namby-pamby pledge promising to run issue-based campaigns that don't resort to personal attacks, according to a report in the delighfully sardonic Arizona Capitol Times.

The commission oversees the state's Clean Election program, which provides public dollars for candidates for state office. The program got its trial-by-fire run last year, with more than one bump in the road. One of those was a campaign in District 1, in which publicly financed Caleb Soptelean spent about $45,000 slinging mud at incumbent Linda Binder.

The important thing to remember is that it didn't work. Voters saw through Soptelean's kamikaze campaign and re-elected Binder.

Even more important: The government has no business overseeing the content of campaigns, any more than it has overseeing the content of the press. Such a pledge runs right up against the First Amendment and leaves the government policing campaigns. And what is the definition of "dirty" and "clean" campaigns, anyway? Seems to us that a clean campaign has been defined, at least by the folks behind this reform, as one that accepts public money.

Even if the pledge is voluntary, candidates would be able to claim to be government-approved--and that type of creepy propaganda is far worse than the occasional lowball hit in a House of Reps race.

HAVING SAID THAT: We're still not ready to junk the Clean Election program, for one simple reason: It knocked sleazy Jeff Groscost out of the legislature.

Freshman state Sen. Jay Blanchard, the Democrat who beat Groscost in overwhelmingly GOP District 30 in Mesa, has said he never would have gotten into the race without public funding for his campaign. Without an opponent, Groscost would have slid back into office unopposed, despite his alt-fuel rip-off.

The Clean Elections program ain't perfect, and it may not prove to be better than the alternative program of allowing candidates to put themselves up to bid to special interests. But we're willing to give it a few more election cycles before we judge it a complete failure. If nothing else, it's making for great copy. (Of course, Sen. Groscost would have made good copy, too.)

So we're glad to see that Rep. Steve May's effort to flush the program has stalled in committee. May started out with a bill that asked voters to repeal the program altogether on the 2002 ballot. When he recognized that dog won't hunt, he went back to the drawing board. Rather than repeal Clean Elections outright, he proposed asking voters if they'd like their traffic ticket surcharges to pay for political campaigns or road improvements.

But after hundreds of Clean Elections supporters hammered the Capitol with phone calls, May's referendum has gotten hung up in committee and chances are slim that it will escape--this session, anyway.

RIO OUT-OF-CONTROL-O: The story of Rio Nuevo is turning into a story viejo. Costs for the project, which would build a host of museums downtown and reconstruct Tucson's birthplace on the west side of the Santa Cruz, have soared out of sight. Voters in November 1999 in good faith agreed to plunk down some $120 million in public money, gleaned from a state sales tax rebate and city funds, for the project. The rest of the $360 million price tag was to come from the deep pockets of private investors.

Next thing anybody knows, after some out-of-town consultants tinkered with it, the sticker price has more than doubled, to $757 million. Rio Nuevo head honcho John Jones presented the ballooning project to the City Council and mayor Monday night. But to their credit, the council members, reeling from sticker shock, decided against voting on the new proposals.

Part of the problem is a numbers game. Costs for two unrelated projects, renovation of the old Southern Pacific Railroad at the east end of downtown and completion of the downtown leg of the Barraza Aviation Highway, have inexplicably been lumped in with Rio Nuevo. Some of the private projects have grown, and the museums are all clamoring for more cash. The science museum, for instance, envisioned as a replacement for Flandrau, was originally scheduled to get $10 million. Now it's eyeing $20 million.

The biggest red flag: the so-called Bonita River Parkway, which certainly was not on any voter's radar back in 1999. Scheduled to go in on the west side of the Santa Cruz, the parkway would be squeezed in between the current river park on one side and the archaeological sites and museums on the other.

What lame brain dreamed this up? Not only would the road's traffic erode the quality of the archaeological park, which would include a reconstructed Convento; it would just about ring the death knell for the lovely bike and pedestrian lanes along the riverbank. Tucson has already done too much harm to its riverfront, and I-10 irrevocably damaged the city's center. Rio Nuevo was supposed to re-create the spirit of Tucson's early days. How did it turn into a same-old Tucson story: another road and development scheme?

BALLOT BLOAT: Some lawmakers sure are hot and bothered about the initiative process.

One bill, HCR 2012, co-sponsored by freshman Rep. Marion McClure (R-Dist. 9), refers to the ballot a constitutional amendment that would require signatures for initiatives, referenda and constitutional amendments to come from five different counties and to be apportioned among the five or more counties on the basis of the votes cast within each county in the previous gubernatorial election.

Even worse is House Bill 2556, also co-sponsored by McClure. It sets up a government review of initiatives before supporters start gathering signatures. Under the new regs, the Secretary of State gets to give an official title for each measure, which will be appended to the petition before signatures can be collected. So instead of the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, the Sec of State can elect to call it the Radical Environmentalist Economic Collapse Initiative. It also requires the Legislative Council to review the applicants' proposed law and make recommendations for changes to the public--just advisory recommendations, of course, but recommendations that will be made available to the public.

We've already seen the Legislative Council--made up of lawmakers who don't like the competition from initiatives--in action last year. Several of its ballot descriptions were so biased against ballot measures that the courts had to order them to rewrite their descriptions. In the case of the Citizens Growth Management Initiative, the Legislative Council took its description from summaries drafted by the organizations that opposed the measure.

It also establishes a financial penalty for petition passers who fail to gather enough signatures: If a county recorder finds that more than one-third of the signatures are invalid, then the political committee, the chair and the treasurer are liable for the costs of examining and verifying the signatures.

That would prove to be a powerful disincentive to run initiative campaigns. Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club warns that some counties have higher invalid rates for signatures not because the signatures are really bad, but because people do not have specific physical addresses.

The bills would make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot--unless you've got deep pockets. Corporations like Qwest and wealthy iconoclasts like Ron Ulm and George Soros would still be able to buy their signatures, while grassroots groups would find it harder to get their issue on the ballot.

While they're screwing petition-passers, lawmakers have plenty of pet projects they'd like to put on the ballot. Besides the effort to kneecap initiative campaigns and Steve May's aforementioned effort to torpedo Clean Elections, there are more than a dozen other resolutions to amend the state constitution and statute.

The efforts range from strengthening the legal right to organize unions to increasing the bonding capacity for road projects. Several are self-interested referenda, such as the efforts to expand the current two-year legislative terms to four- or even six-year terms. (Sorry--we know campaigning is a real bitch, but we like our lawmakers to remain accountable.) There's an effort to dump term limits altogether (which we could have supported, but it didn't get out of committee this year).

Among the other proposals:

· House Concurrent Resolution 2007, which would force gubernatorial appointments to the bench to come from different county supervisorial districts, which would likely prove a boon to real-estate agents as lawyers move around the county trying to establish advantageous residency.

· HCR 2011, which would lower the voting age to 16. That effort is dead for the year.

· Senate Concurrent Resolution 1001, which would force all property-tax hikes to be approved by the voters.

· SCR 1003, which would exempt some veterans from paying property taxes.

· SCR 1005, which would allow schools to tap 10 percent of the proceeds from state lands sales, rather than having all of it enter a permanent fund from which the schools draw interest.

· And, finally, SCR 1007, which establishes a flat income tax. Sen. Scott Bungaard is so frustrated that his colleagues won't support his push for a flat tax that he wants to ask voters to decide the question. Bungaard's 21,000-word legislation--and you thought the Citizens Growth Management Initiative was long!--would give voters a chance to phase in a tax cut for Arizona's wealthiest residents--in the interest of fairness, of course.

FLAKEY WAFFLEMAN GETS JOB: Foothills neighborhood activist and self-styled writer Katherine Jacobson (what with her "exclusives" in the Desert Leaf) was exactly right when she said last week that Mike Boyd could not possibly perform in his new job as a shill for Westcor, planners of the controversial La Encantada shopping center, without 1) violating state law or 2) being of no value to his new employers.

Boyd, a Republican, whose two terms on the Board of Supervisors concluded at the end of December, leaped to an offer to serve as a consultant for Westcor, which faces a tough fight with the Board of Supervisors despite its recent Superior Court zoning victory. Boyd heard numerous Westcor business proposals and litigation strategies from his job as the foothills District 1 supervisor.

State law bars ex-supervisors and other county officials from lobbying the county for one year after they leave office. It also prohibits--for two years--ex-supes or ex-county officials from using privileged information they got during and only because of the government jobs.

Jacobson, who served as an aide for one of Boyd's predecessors, Republican Iris Dewhirst, said Boyd could not possibly abide by the law and do what's necessary for Westcor. The company says it sought out Boyd only to learn about who's who in the neighborhood. Hell, he never found out after eight years.

There is a bright side to this. At least Boyd hasn't filed for unemployment like he did after another political job ended for him in 1986. He was then a key player in Burton Barr's disastrous run for governor. After Ev Mecham cleaned Barr's clock in the GOP primary, Boyd was out of work. He filed for and got unemployment. But the state caught up with him and he had to make repayment, because losing a political campaign obviously isn't a qualification for unemployment benefits.

SALES JOB: The Skinny got an official-looking envelope in the mail recently from Americans for Fair Taxation, the Houston-based gang of political hustlers pushing to scrap the IRS and replace the income tax with a national sales tax.

Inside the envelope was a highly unscientific survey "on the U.S. Tax Code and the IRS." It's filled with loaded questions busting on American's least-favorite government agency, the Internal Revenue Service, like "Do you agree with the statement: 'The American people should do away with an impossibly complex, loophole-ridden tax system and outrageously costly IRS bureaucracy and tax filing burdens--and replace it with a much simpler and fairer tax system.' "

That's a hard statement to disagree with--but even if you do agree with it, that doesn't mean you support dumping the progressive income tax system, under which the rich really do get soaked--as they ought to be. You may think the wealthy in this country escape their tax burden because they find all kinds of secret loopholes--and many of them do--but the fact remains that in 1997, the top 1 percent of earners paid 27 percent of all income taxes, the top 20 percent paid 77 percent, and the top 50 percent paid nearly 96 percent. (Of course, by the time President George W. is finished pushing his massive giveaway to the wealthy, those numbers will likely shift.)

A national sales tax would simply amount to a big tax cut for the wealthy, at the expense of the average taxpayer.

Nowhere in the survey we got is mention of the sales tax rate that would be necessary under the Fair Tax, but in other literature, it comes in close to 30 percent. Figure that the state sales tax would likely double were there no more state income tax--and since the state income tax uses figures from the IRS, eliminating the federal income tax would essentially scrap the state income tax as well--and you're talking about a sales tax hovering over 40 percent. Knock the cost of everything up that high and the black market will thrive.

Fair Tax backers say that the cost of everything would drop because "hidden taxes" would disappear, but we think that's enough bullshit to fertilize all of Texas.

You almost feel sorry for Leo Linbeck, the Houston construction magnate who has bankrolled Americans for Fair Taxation. Here his fellow Texan George W. is in the White House, there's all this talk of tax cuts, and he still can't make much headway with his national sales tax. But he's still trying, and he's making a plea for money along with his bogus survey. If you can't send a check at this time, he urges you to at least send along $9 to "defray the cost of processing and distributing the answers to my survey."

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