You Screwed Up

How voters have broken Arizona's government

The fact is that a reformer can't last in politics. He can make a show for a while, but he always comes down like a rocket. Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or drug business. You've got to be trained up to it or you're sure to fail. Suppose a man who knew nothing about the grocery trade suddenly went into the business and tried to conduct it according to his own ideas. Wouldn't he make a mess of it? He might make a splurge for a while, as long as his money lasted, but his store would soon be empty. It's just the same with a reformer. He hasn't been brought up in the difficult business of politics, and he makes a mess of it every time.

—George Washington Plunkitt, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall

As you may have heard by now, the state of Arizona is facing an unprecedented budget crisis, with a shortfall of at least $3 billion between expected revenues and anticipated expenses.

As the Legislature wrestles with that problem—putting off bills, cutting programs, raising taxes, selling off the prison system—lawmakers from both parties are also pointing fingers. Was it the fault of Gov. Janet Napolitano, who insisted on spending on new programs? Was it the fault of Republican legislators, who insisted on cutting taxes in good times instead of setting aside money for bad times?

Both share some of the blame—but the real fault lies with you voters.

We're not just referring to the knotheads and yahoos you've sent to the state Capitol. They, as always, have been a mix of good and bad, but we could have lived with them if you hadn't broken the entire system with a bunch of ill-considered reforms.

You've asked for more, demanded to pay less and stripped away the power of lawmakers to actually manage the state.

In particular, you've made six really bad decisions since 1992 that have left the state financially crippled—and even when the economy starts to turn around, we'll still be a long way from getting out of this mess.

1. You Created Term Limits

Voters typically re-elect the politicians who are in office, even though the public simultaneously expresses disgust with elected officials. Why? It probably shakes down to the simple fact that most of you don't have the time or inclination to study up on all the issues, so you go with the person whose name you recognize, provided he hasn't been caught with a proverbial dead girl or live boy in the trunk of his car.

Or, in the case of onetime Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost, provided he hasn't invented an alt-fuels program that buys an SUV for every Arizona citizen with a little cash on hand.

But you also distrust career politicians. So to protect yourself from re-electing the same people over and over again, you passed a constitutional amendment in 1992 to create a four-term limit for lawmakers and a two-term limit for statewide offices such as governor and attorney general.

Term limits have led to plenty of turnover at the Capitol, but that means you get rid of the good along with the bad. Take Republican Tim Bee, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the budget and savvy negotiating skills helped him become Senate president in 2006. Bee was termed out in 2008; he probably would have been content to remain at the top of the Senate, but term limits led him into an unsuccessful congressional run against Democrat Gabby Giffords.

You can certainly argue that Bee wouldn't have moved up the ladder as quickly if term limits hadn't forced his predecessors out of office, but that gets back to another problem with term limits: the lack of continuity and dwindling institutional memory among lawmakers.

Instead, lobbyists and staff members—who remember why decisions got made and the deals that were struck—hold increasing power while talented lawmakers are put out to pasture to make room for a new crop of amateurs who have little understanding of the system.

2. You Stopped All Tax Increases

In 1992, you amended the state Constitution to require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to pass any tax increases. Supporters argued that tax increases are so awful that they should only be inflicted on the citizens if two-thirds of our elected representatives agree to them.

Here's how it has worked out in reality: There has not been a tax increased by the Legislature since the proposition passed. That's because there's a portion of the GOP that will always oppose any tax increase. The merits don't make any difference; any tax is bad.

You might herald the lack of tax increases as a good thing, but here's why it's not: The economy is complicated, and it changes. A tax code should be nimble enough to follow those changes. That means sometimes you raise taxes, and sometimes you lower them.

A perfect example: Arizona's economy has shifted away from people buying goods and toward people spending more on services like haircuts, dog grooming and massages. But those services are all tax-free.

If the state altered the tax code, it could lower the overall sales tax—which is approaching double digits in some communities—while expanding it to cover services as well. A lower sales tax would mean cheaper goods and decrease the number of people avoiding the sales tax by, say, buying goods online. That, in turn, might improve the overall economy.

Or take the gas tax. It hasn't increased since the two-thirds majority was passed. Inflation has eaten away at its value—materials and labor cost more, so the state can do less. Meanwhile, more fuel-efficient vehicles mean fewer gallons are purchased, especially when the price of gas rises.

As a result, we have less money to build highways and fix our streets. And it's not as if voters don't pay higher taxes; in 2006, Pima County passed a sales tax to improve transportation, and Maricopa County residents have been paying a similar tax for decades.

But instead of raising the gas tax, we get talk of privatizing the highway system and setting up toll roads. Why is it better to pay a toll than to pay a gas tax? Because we like stopping during our drive to toss a few coins into a booth?

After Democrat Janet Napolitano was elected governor in 2002, she created a Citizens' Finance Review Commission, which produced three dozen recommendations for changes to Arizona's tax structure. Only one recommendation that required direct action has been followed—cutting the property tax on businesses—because most of the major reforms require a two-thirds vote, because they lower some taxes while increasing others. (One of the recommendations directly addressed that issue by suggesting that the state dump the two-thirds requirement.) Napolitano essentially put the report on a shelf and instead agreed to make Arizona's tax system even worse by signing a massive income-tax cut that overwhelmingly benefited Arizona's wealthiest citizens.

At this point, even Gov. Jan Brewer, who has been a fervent anti-tax warrior for her entire political career, admits that the state needs a tax increase, although she's arguing for a temporary one, and has given few clues about what taxes she would increase.

Her fellow Republicans in the Legislature remain firmly opposed to increasing any taxes, so the only route is taking a tax increase to the ballot.

But meaningful tax reform would have to be complicated, which makes for a lousy ballot proposition. Instead, voters are typically asked to increase the sales tax. While the sales tax is simple to understand, it's also a regressive tax that hits the poor harder than the rich.

And there's no guarantee that any tax increase would pass in this political environment. You merely have to look next door to California, where just last week, a package of tax increases was defeated by the small percentage of voters who bothered to cast a ballot.

3. You Decided You Always Know Best

In 1998, voters passed a law known as the Voter Protection Act, which requires three-fourths of the Legislature to make any change to a proposition passed by the voters—and then, legislators can only make changes that "further" the proposition's goals.

This came about because two years earlier, voters had passed a proposition that took steps toward decriminalizing marijuana. Lawmakers, who knew about the dangers of pot from Reefer Madness, quickly reversed key elements of the legislation.

That led backers to put their marijuana proposition back on the ballot, along with the Voter Protection Act. Both passed.

The idea of stopping lawmakers from reversing the "will of the voters" sounds like a great idea—which is why voters passed it in the first place. But in practice, it has locked in spending on education and health-care programs, which leads us to ...

4. You Locked in Annual Increases in School Spending

Since the two-thirds majority made it impossible to raise taxes in the Legislature, then-Gov. Jane Dee Hull led a successful effort in 2000 to persuade voters to increase the sales tax by .6 cents per dollar, with the money dedicated to education.

To ensure that lawmakers wouldn't just use the new sales-tax money to reduce the general-fund obligation, the proposition also required the state to annually adjust education funding for inflation.

You can certainly argue that the state doesn't spend enough on education and that lawmakers would not have given as much money to education if it hadn't been for the inflationary requirement. And at least you did agree to hike the sales tax as part of the deal, so it borders on a responsible decision.

But the protected portion of education has grown to $3.8 billion that can't be touched. And that ultimately means that deeper cuts have to come from elsewhere, such as programs that help disabled kids, battered women or aging seniors.

5. You Locked in Health Care Spending

In 2000, you voted to pass Healthy Arizona 2, which provided health-care insurance to anyone at the federal poverty level—certainly a worthy goal, given the growing number of out-of-work and uninsured Arizonans.

And you even came up with a funding source: The program was supposed to be funded with money that was coming to the state as part of a settlement from a lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

Unfortunately, there wasn't enough money from the tobacco settlement to completely fund the program, and the proposition required the general fund to pick up the difference. As a result, the state today has limited ability to reduce about $1 billion in annual health-care costs.

Meanwhile, demand for the program continues to grow. A few weeks ago, the staff of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System warned lawmakers that the health-care program has grown by 11 percent in the last year and added 49,000 new clients in the last two months alone. Thomas Betlach of AHCCCS estimates that the program will need an extra $250 million to cover increasing costs next year.

The voter protections on education and health-care spending aren't the only reasons that lawmakers can't cut general-fund spending; they're also required to maintain eligibility standards to qualify for federal stimulus dollars.

Nonetheless, as with the education dollars, having these programs off-limits means deeper cuts elsewhere in the budget.

6. You Created Clean Elections

We've complained in the past about Clean Elections, the program that provides aspiring politicians with money for their campaigns.

We'll admit that we supported Clean Elections when it appeared on the ballot in 1998. Get the special-interest money out of political campaigns? What could go wrong with that?

We'll tell you what can go wrong with that: Social conservatives, who once didn't have the financial resources to compete with the GOP's business-friendly wing, suddenly found themselves with plenty of government money to aim at moderates in Republican primaries. Over the course of just a few election cycles, the conservatives have wiped out moderates using hit pieces that portray their opponents as abortion-providing, gun-grabbing, tax-raising RINOs who officiate at gay weddings.

A local example: In the 2006 GOP primary, Al Melvin knocked out a more moderate Republican, state Sen. Toni Hellon, in Legislative District 26, which stretches from the Catalina Foothills up to Saddlebrooke. Melvin ended up losing the general election to a Democrat by about 500 votes, but since there was plenty of Clean Elections money available, there was no reason for him to stop campaigning.

Two years later, Melvin defeated another moderate Republican, Pete Hershberger, in the Republican primary, and went on to defeat the Democrat, Cheryl Cage, by about 2,000 votes.

Melvin is just one of many Republicans who have used Clean Elections dollars to oust moderates. The bottom line: The Legislature has lurched even more to the right than it was in the 1990s—and back then, it was hardly a lib's paradise.

This can't be what the founders of Clean Elections wanted to see happen in Arizona.

So there you have it. You said you didn't like higher taxes. You approved more spending on education and health care. You kicked out people with experience in favor of "new blood." You gave those amateurs money to run for office. And you told them that they couldn't change anything that you did.

The end result: Today's Arizona Legislature, and a $3 billion budget crisis.

How do we fix it? Unfortunately, there's only one way: to ask the voters.

Comments (13)

Add a comment

Add a Comment