THE BUDGET BUDGES? Republicans in the Arizona Senate have finally quit posturing and developed some figures that represent a real state budget. They've bumped spending up to roughly $6.4 billion, restoring some education and healthcare funding, but are still down below Gov. Janet Napolitano's bling-bling numbers, which are somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.7 billion.

But there's still plenty wrong with the plan. The eggheads who believe in higher education complain that universities get no dollars to fund growth and get stuck with rising retirement and health care bills. The cacti crowd with the Sierra Club holler that Heritage Fund dollars are being diverted from protecting wilderness to arts funding. The arts crew, while happy that their annual budget has been restored, is a little apprehensive to see its $7 million endowment swept back into the general fund. And city leaders are howling that the state dips into court collections to balance the books.

All good points, but good luck getting your average East Valley Republican to support any of them.

As of press time, the budget was back in the House of Representatives, where some lawmakers were looking for more spending, while others were looking for cuts. Lord only knows what'll eventually reach Napolitano's desk--and whether she sign it when it does.

ON THE BLINK: One bill that does appear dead for the session is the push by billboard giants to allow big, fat, blinking billboards along state highways. But then again, this one has appeared dead at least three times this session and has risen from the grave on any number of strikers.

The latest incarnation only needs a final vote to get out of the Arizona Senate, but senators are being squirrelly about whether they'll support it--and the billboard lobby would rather put off a vote than lose. Of course, they'll undoubtedly be back next year with another version.

Besides, the billboard gang is racking up victories elsewhere. For example, in Eloy, between here and the metropolis of Maricopa, the town council is on the verge of reversing its own anti-billboard policy to allow 12 giganto billboards to go up along Interstate 10. Won't that brighten the trip to Phoenix?

NAPOLITANO'S HARD BALL: For all her big talk about being governor of all of Arizona--and all the political debt she piled up in Pima County--Janet Napolitano's partisan pettiness is hurting Tucsonans and all Southern Arizonans by grabbing office space that, since 1999, was used as a satellite for the secretary of state.

Napolitano hoarded the space in the state building, 400 W. Congress St., for little darling Ramon Valadez, a $80,000-a-year glad-hander and backslapper who carries a title as special assistant for economic development. It is a holding position for Valadez while the former Democratic state legislator awaits his queue to be gifted the Board of Supervisors slot occupied for 15 years by Valadez's mentor, Dan Eckstrom.

Booted was a small crew working for Secretary of State Jan Brewer, who is not Napolitano's kind of Republican. Betsey Bayless is the governor's type of Republican. Before she was paid off by Napolitano with yet another government appointment, Bayless was wise enough to create the local outlet during her time as secretary of state.

It was a good thing. Not everyone has a computer and not all secretary of state business can be done via computer. The local office got more than two dozen filings a day for business partnerships, trade names, Uniform Commercial Code matters, and other registrations. It worked well, particularly under former manager Sharon Collins.

A little more than $92,000 is needed to sustain a secretary of state's office here. The governor says forget it. Valadez's comfort and his ability to project relevance are more important. And that's typical. He's smart, but he's had everything in his professional life handed to him. All the talk about his work to help business is just that--talk. Business was helped infinitely more by having a functioning secretary of state's office here.

PRINCE IN A BOX: Pima County Supervisor Richard Elias, a Democrat in his second year, is in a box. His elitist constituents are clamoring for a county bond election to buy up unknown square miles with $250 million from taxpayers. Some open-space backers also want the county implement a half-cent sales tax with no vote of the people--just a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors.

Voters strongly supported the county's $27.9 million in bonds for open space in a 1997 election, although turnout was a worse-than-paltry 17.6 percent.

Does anybody need to be reminded that sales taxes are flat unpopular here? The county's attempts in 1986, 1990 and 1994, two for roads and one for jails, failed 57-43, 61-39, and 70-30. The city's half-cent sale tax for a bad transportation plan crashed last year by a 2-1 margin.

Now Elias has a real problem: How to satisfy the open-space militia while the county disses health care for the poor and Kino Community Hospital? County administration has fumbled, with supervisors' help, proposals to privatize Kino operations, and now are seeking a $55 million bond issue for Kino. Elias now gets to decide priorities.

He should check Denver, where voters overwhelmingly supported $148 million in bonds for renovation, upgrades and expansion at Denver Health Medical Center. Denver could serve as a model in how to spin the public hospital off and away from the control and oversight of the Board of Supervisors.

CHARTER SCHOOL: For unknown reasons, we were sentenced to a portion of a Bert Lee show last week, when we heard radio's premier phlegm-meister ask Republican City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar about the City Charter that renders the mayor impotent on votes to fire the city manager. Though the mayor is a voting member of City Council and gets a say in hiring of the city manager, clerk and attorney, removal is a matter only council members can decide.

So ol' Bert asked if a council majority could fire, say, Tucson Water Director David Modeer (no) or the city zoning commissioner (there isn't one, although there is a city zoning examiner, and the answer there is no).

Dunbar replied--with the supreme confidence gained when City Manager James Keene and other bureaucrats coach her that she and her colleagues are simply bystanders--that the council can only fire the manager, the city clerk and the city attorney.

She's clearly confused, but we're always happy to help. The quirky 74-year-old City Charter states that the mayor and council must approve the manager's choice of police chief, fire chief, parks director, finance director, and human resources director.

The council alone, by two-thirds majority, has the power to "remove or reduce in rank for cause" the police and fire chiefs, according to the charter. Chapter 5, Section 7, since we're so damn neighborly.

Directors or parks, finance and human resources, the charter states, can be removed by the city manager or by a two-thirds vote of the council.

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