These Bills Really Blow!

Dispatches from the Draconian Legislature

Some 26 centuries ago, a member of the Athenian ruling class by the name of Draco drew up one of the earliest known codes of law, establishing clear penalties for specific crimes.

While no complete written record has been unearthed, Draco's laws appear to have been a trifle harsh--basically, death for most infractions. If you killed, you were killed. If you looted a house during a fire, you were tossed into the fire. If you were nabbed robbing a house, you were bricked up inside of it.

Tough though they may have been, Draco's statutes put the Greeks on the path toward the concept of democratic lawmaking that lives on today at the state Capitol. And if there's one word that sums up the 46th Legislature, it's draconian.

If you were to do a Google search of the Arizona Daily Star, the Tucson Citizen and the Arizona Republic, you'd probably land about 16,000 hits on "draconian" since the session started in January. You hear it from lobbyists, citizen advocates, pundits and even the lawmakers themselves. Within the GOP itself, the rank-and-file Republicans have tagged the budget cuts proposed by the Republican leadership as draconian; the GOP leadership has warned that the state faces draconian tax increases next year unless the cuts are made.

We wouldn't be surprised if Capitol press corps has developed a drinking game during which everyone has to do a shot every time the word is uttered.

The draconian zeitgeist has been triggered by the state's billion-dollar budget crisis, which must somehow be resolved before the fiscal year begins on July 1. And the sooner lawmakers can make a deal with Gov. Janet Napolitano, the sooner they can all go home.

But that work has been sidetracked while Napolitano and lawmakers worked to come up with $338 million to patch up the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. After weeks of wrangling, lawmakers approved a budget fix earlier this week which includes a $10 million grab from the state's Heritage Fund, which uses lottery proceeds for pay for environmental and historic projects. Sierra Club staffers say they've been beaten back 28 previous attempts to raid the Heritage Fund, but this time they finally lost one.

But the squawking from the cacti crowd is nothing compared to the roar we're hearing from the business community over a plan to raid the State Workers Compensation Fund. Established by the state but managed by an independent board of directors, the comp fund is essentially a cooperative outfit that allows companies to buy insurance to cover workmen's compensation claims. Although big businesses generally have enough resources that they don't need to depend on the fund, it's vital to smaller companies that don't have deep pockets.

Over the years, the comp fund has built up a fat surplus of more than a billion bucks--so naturally, lawmakers have begun coveting that fat, juicy low-lying fruit. How nice it would be to pick Pretty Polly from the tree and solve all of those nasty budget problems!

The East Valley Wacks first proposed selling off the fund and its assets to a private insurance company. When that plan ran into a buzzsaw of resistance, they shifted gears, pushing a plan to just grab some cash--about $50 million--in exchange for a state asset to be named later.

The plan doesn't sit too well with the 80-plus members of the comp fund, which represent a who's who of Arizona power interests: The Weekly's old friends at the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association, along with the Central Arizona Homebuilders Association, the local and state chambers of commerce, the Alliance of Construction Trades and (just in case the Democrats start getting squirrelly) the AFL-CIO. The thought of making them piss away $50 million in exchange for dumpy state "assets" (fairgrounds, anyone?) has caused the business community to vapor-lock.

"What legal genius told them they could do this?" asks one industry lobbyist in Phoenix. "It's not their fund and it's not their money. We pay for it. We own it. We'll tie their precious budget up in lawsuits for years. Why? Because we fucking can."

With attorneys like former Arizona Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman on the payroll, the lobbyist is probably right. One thing is certain: The business community is poised to go thermonuclear at a time the GOP can ill afford to lose their support.

Slash and Burn

THE FIGHT OVER THE comp fund dollars will spill over into the negotiations on next year's budget, since both sides want to tap anywhere from $100 million to $200 million to help bridge the shortfall.

At the beginning of the session, Napolitano proposed a $6.7 billion budget that borrows here, leverages there and prays to God for an economic turnaround. The Republicans responded with a $6.1 billion budget that strips state government like a Ford Expedition in a chop shop.

The GOP budget was drawn up by the staffers from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee under the guidance of Russell Pearce, the East Valley Republican who heads up the House Appropriations Committee, and Bob Burns, the Glendale Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. Despite deep spending cuts, Pearce says it's not his idea of a perfect budget.

"People give me a hard time and we laugh about it," Pearce says. "They say this is a Russell Pearce budget. I say, no, it's not. If it was a Russell Pearce budget, there'd be $600 million more in cuts and no bonding. We'd do the right thing."

Pearce warns that Napolitano's plan sets the state up for disaster. "The governor's budget doesn't fix anything. It just postpones the inevitable and puts us in a position for massive tax increases and mortgages the future of our children."

A Republican lobbyist from Gilbert calls the GOP leadership "paranoid" about the governor's budget.

"They think that the state's going to be in even more trouble next year and that her numbers won't hold up," he says. "If that's true, then they should go along with her. It's her budget and her problem if it goes belly-up a year from now. But if they're wrong and she's right, then the state's not in any trouble, is it? If leadership were political geniuses, they would let Janet take the fall for this budget by giving her what she wants. But no one ever said these freaks were smart."

The Republican budget essentially clear-cuts state government. Let's start with education, since everybody up there purports to care about the kids. In 2000, Arizona voters increased the sales tax by .6 of a cent to boost education funding. The key word there is "boost"; backers of the plan, including then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull, promised that the proposition locked in inflationary increases for education spending so the sales tax would supplement--and not supplant--current education funding. Well, the GOP leadership says they've found a loophole that allows them to shortchange the inflationary adjustment by roughly $70 million. And if you don't like it, you can take 'em to court.

The GOP plan also axes $19.5 million for grants to school districts that cover the cost of preschool, full-day kindergarten and other programs for kids through the third grade. It trims university spending by another 5 percent. And it boots an estimated 14,000 kids out of state-sponsored day care by trimming the current eligibility standards.

The state's adult education and family literacy programs are eliminated altogether. Statewide, the program helps between 10,000 and 11,000 people get GEDs every year in a state with the second-highest drop-out rate in the country, says Greg Hart, director of the Pima County Adult Ed. The cut will save the state $5.5 million, but we'll lose out on an additional $10 million in federal matching funds, according to Hart.

"From a public policy point of view, it's absolutely ruinous and bewildering," Hart says. "It's almost beyond belief."

And if you're poor, you'd better not get sick. The GOP budget proposal eliminates the KidsCare program that provides health insurance for about 50,000 low-income children. But the cut doesn't save a dime in general fund dollars, since KidsCare is funded through $19 million in tobacco tax revenues that are matched by $56 million in federal funds that the state loses if it eliminates the program.

And what about the Southern Arizona Poison Control Center, which handles 65,000 calls a year from folks who would likely otherwise crowd emergency rooms? Gone. Health Start, a prenatal outreach program that costs $2.2 million? Gone. Healthy Families, a child-abuse prevention program that costs $5 million? Gone. Drugs for low-income AIDS patients? Gone. State funding for tuberculosis prevention? Gone.

The budget even slashes spending on developmentally disabled kids. If you're a family of four making more than $40,000, you can forget all about any help from the state.

Pearce predicts funding for healthcare programs will be restored to some degree, but he hopes other cuts will stick. "When you don't have money, you can't continue to spend like a drunken sailor," he says. "Somewhere, you have to say, good or bad, aside from the merits, you simply can't afford it."

Among the items that can't be afforded in the GOP plan: the Department of Commerce, the Department of Tourism and the Residential Utility Consumer Office, which represents the average citizen when electric, gas and phone companies want to jack rates. RUCO gets its funding from a surcharge on utility bills, so eliminating the office doesn't even save the general fund any money. That's irrelevant, says Pearce, who says the budget crisis is an ideal opportunity to do a top-to-bottom review of each and every state agency. As he puts it, "You zero-base it and say, 'Come in and give us evidence that it's good.' This is simply good government."

The GOP budget also flushes the Arizona Commission on the Arts, saving about $2 mil a year and liquidating a $7 million endowment. That'll bring down the curtain on groups like the Arizona Theatre Company and Ballet Arizona that depend on assistance from the state.

If you think it's hard to attract the high-tech jobs of the future now, just wait until the closest thing we have to high culture is a gun show.

On The Firing Line

SPEAKING OF GUN SHOWS, Rep. Randy Graf is out to protect them from city officials who would require background checks on private transactions at the firearm festivals that take place at the Tucson Convention Center. The city of Tucson recently fought a court battle to win the right to conduct such background checks (before sending the issue off to a study committee to die a quiet death). So Graf, who's gone from golf pro on the Green Valley links to majority whip, has introduced House Bill 2318 to make it clear that cities have no right to regulate gun transactions. HB 2318 passed the House 36-21 on March 10 and is working its way through the Senate.

Graf is taking the mantle of the man he replaced, Rep. Bill McGibbon, as the most conservative legislator in Southern Arizona. Wild Bill just wanted to harvest the organs of death-row inmates; Graf is dead set on putting the guns in the hands of psycho killers to get them there in the first place. If the East Valley is the fount of all GOP excess, then LD 30, Graf's sprawling district of the Tanque Verde Valley, Green Valley and Sierra Vista, should be called the "East Valley South."

Graf has also targeted Arizona's concealed weapon statutes. Under current law, if you want to pack heat, you've got to wear your sidearm openly, unless you've obtained a concealed weapon permit by taking a safety course covering such niggling legal details as the circumstances under which it's legal to use deadly force. If you carry a concealed weapon without a permit, you face up to six months in jail and a fine up to $2,500.

House Bill 2321 would reduce the penalty to a petty offense with a $50 fine, which is less than the cost of taking the evidently onerous safety class that responsible gun owners are too busy to attend.

"To me, having to go through the process of getting a concealed weapon permit in order to carry a weapon for self-protection is unconstitutional," Graf says. "Don't get me wrong. The training is fantastic. Everybody should have it. But the Constitution is very clear."

HB 2321 passed the House 32-27 on Feb. 17 but stalled on a 3-3 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 5. Graf is pushing for another hearing on the bill.

In another effort to free gun owners from tyranny, Graf has sponsored House Bill 2319, which loosens restrictions that ban firearms in establishments that serve liquor. While firearms would still be banned in bars, HB 2319 would allow people to pack in restaurants that serve alcohol unless management specifically banned weapons. This one passed the House on March 12 and is in the hands of the Senate.

Ah, guns n' booze, a union of rare pleasures that the cowpokes gathered 'round the campfire Blazing Saddles might enjoy!

Ballot Busters

ON THE BULLSHIT meter, you don't hit much higher than Senate Concurrent Resolution 1012, otherwise known as the military base preservation initiative.

A bit of background: Since the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that land swaps were unconstitutional back in 1990, lawmakers have asked voters five times to amend the Constitution to allow such deals--and they've lost every time. There's good reason to be cautious, since developers always seem to manage to get ski slopes while the state ends up with a toxic pile of mine waste.

Voters most recently said no five months ago, when they narrowly rejected Prop 102, which was billed as a big boon for education. Well, it's back as SCR 1012, which is identical to the defeated proposition, although this time, in the spirit of homeland security, it's called the Military Base Preservation Initiative.

"It's one of the most outrageous attempts to deceive the public that I've seen," says Sandy Bahr, legislative lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

SCR 1012 passed the Senate 16-13 on Feb. 25 but was held by the House Environment Committee on March 17. If the bill is approved by the Legislature, voters will have final say on the 2004 ballot.

While we're on the topic of bad ballot proposals, the House has a few new screws for initiative efforts. House Concurrent Resolution 2017 would cut the amount of time available for collecting signatures for initiative petitions, moving the deadline for submitting petitions from July to April. This one passed the House by a 39-21 margin on Feb. 24 but got held up in the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 12.

House Concurrent Resolution 2009 would require all initiatives that involve tax increases to pass by a two-thirds margin. Since nothing--not even last year's landslide tobacco tax increase--ever passes by that kind of landslide, one-third of the voters will be able block any future programs.

HRC 2009 passed the House on a 31-26 vote on March 12 and is headed for the Senate. If both houses pass it, it will appear on the 2004 ballot.

Then there's House Concurrent Resolution 2018, aka the Groundhog Ballot Act, which would automatically refer successful initiatives back to the ballot every eight years. This one has been amended to include only initiatives that cost the state more than $10 million year, so at least we won't have to decide whether to ban cockfighting every eight years. But if it passes, that means backers of measures like Healthy Arizona, which expanded healthcare coverage for low-income Arizonans, would have to raise campaign funds every eight years just to keep the law in place. What makes it even more absurd is that lawmakers can put anything they like on the ballot for reconsideration with a simple majority vote in both houses.

HCR 2018 passed the House on a 32-25 vote on March 10 and is winding its way through the Senate.

Lawmakers also want to make it harder for citizens to challenge actions in cities and towns. House Bill 2436 would allow councils to increase the number of signatures required for referendum and recall efforts from 10 percent of the people who voted in the most recent election to 10 percent of all registered voters. It passed the House on a 32-22 vote on March 11 and is now in the Senate.

By the Side of the Road

FOR A GOOD EXAMPLE of how special interests get their way, check out House Bill 2364, proposed by the billboard industry. This one would allow big fat honkin' electronic message boards that flash new messages every six seconds--as if between the radio, cell phone, PDA and laptop, we don't have enough distractions while we're driving.

The bill has a serious downside, according to Arizona Department of Transportation officials, who say the state stands to lose $50 million in federal aid if it becomes law. Well, guess what? Our lawmakers aren't letting the feds push them around. It passed out of the House 39-18 on March 12.

Speaking of highways, a plan to sell off Arizona Highways, the legendary monthly published by the state's Department of Transportation, shows what kind of numbskull reasoning went into the state budget plan.

Senate Bill 1129, which never got out of committee, directs the director of the transportation department to prepare to sell off the award-winning magazine, which has been published by the state since 1925.

How much does the sale save the state's general fund? Zero. Not a dime. The magazine is self-supporting through its subscription list and the affiliated books, calendars and other products, according to publisher Win Holden. In fact, the state has swept about $6 million out of the mag's bank account over the last eight years, so it's a money-maker.

So how much would the sale bring in? Hard to say. But once it falls into private hands, it'll only be a matter of time before somebody wrecks the publication. Does it matter? Well, a study done by the magazine puts its economic impact on tourism at more than $300 million, says Holden. Even if it's half that, it's still an enormously successful asset.

"If the Arizona Office of Tourism and the Department of Commerce gets zeroed out, here is a tourism promotion vehicle with subscribers in all 50 states and nearly 120 countries," says Holden. "Why would you mess with that while at the same time trying to redirect the Arizona Office of Tourism?"

Well, the answer to that is simple: the Republicans in leadership figure the government doesn't belong in the publishing business, even if it's a successful enterprise. Once you understand that, the whole budget proposal makes a lot more sense. The GOP budget is about pruning back government, whether its working or not.

The days of the Kumbaya Legislature ended when last November's election put the ideologues firmly in control. It's kinda like that point in The Lord of the Flies where Piggy's glasses are broken and Roger is calling the shots.

If our ancient Greek friend Draco is haunting these halls, he must be smiling. We're finally getting back to government like the Founding Father had in mind.

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