Your Preview of the 2005 Legislative Session

Our Schools Are Failing! Our Prisons Are Overflowing! Our Health Care Costs Are Soaring! The Solution: Ban Gay Marriage!

Yes, they're back! Those loopy lawmakers at the Arizona Legislature swung into action earlier this week, following Gov. Janet Napolitano's State of the State address.

In her kick-off speech, Napolitano set her agenda for the session: expanded spending on education, reform of water and land policies, targeted business tax cuts and improved border security. "Arizona is moving forward," Napolitano said. "But this is not a record to rest on; it is a record to build on. We have much more to do to continue to move Arizona forward."

Napolitano may be facing her most challenging session yet. Conservative Republicans, who remain upset about being outmaneuvered during the last two years, ousted several Maricopa County moderates in GOP primaries last year, strengthening their hold on the Legislature.

Senate President Ken Bennett and House Speaker Jim Weiers have told the press that they hope to see work wrapped up within the mandated 100 days, even though recent sessions have dragged on much longer, thanks to budget squabbles. We asked our perspicacious Magic 8-Ball whether they can keep that promise. Magic 8-Ball's response: "Don't count on it."

Our Magic 8-Ball--a registered trademark of the Tyco toy group that is used here only under the doctrine of fair and/or satirical use--had many forecasts about the upcoming session:

Let's Have Some Sex!

There's nothing more valuable to a politician than a distraction from important issues. This year, that distraction is gay marriage.

Following the lead of the 11 states that passed constitutional bans against gay marriage in 2004, Arizona conservatives are racing to put a similar question before voters in 2006. They're sure of two things: It's a winner for them and a loser for Gov. Janet Napolitano, who will appear on the same ballot if she runs for re-election. Are they right? "Signs point to yes," according to Magic 8-Ball.

Napolitano countered last week with a suggestion that if the banning of gay marriage is such an urgent issue, lawmakers ought to put the question before voters in a special election sometime this year. Given that lawmakers want to use the gay-marriage ban to boost turnout to defeat Napolitano, we asked Magic 8-Ball if her proposal stood a chance. The answer: "My sources say no."

The biggest question remains whether the amendment will ban just gay unions or go for broader language that includes all form of "counterfeit" marriages--domestic partnerships, for example, for gay or straight couples. Social conservatives say they have the votes for the wider definition, which could eliminate the city of Tucson's domestic partnership registry, as well as benefit packages that city and county governments offer to non-married couples.

Critics of the broader plan argue that combining domestic partnerships with gay marriage runs the risk of a court challenge on the grounds that the proposition would violate the Arizona Constitution's prohibition of putting more than one topic on a single ballot question--which would put the final decision in the hands of the Arizona Supreme Court. Which version will pass out of the Legislature? Magic 8-Ball says: "Ask again later."

Another topic near and dear to the heart of social conservatives: abortion. We're likely to see another version of so-called "informed consent" legislation--or, as the conservatives are calling it this year, "a woman's right to know"--mandating a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion, as well as outlining the information she must be provided. A similar law passed out of the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Napolitano.

But we're also hearing that social conservatives don't want to push that issue too hard this session, because they'd rather have Napolitano veto the law next year as she's running for re-election. Will Arizona have a 24-hour waiting period by the end of the session? Magic 8-Ball says: "My reply is no."

We Don't Need No Education

Arizona remains near the bottom of the nation in per-pupil spending, according to a report released last week by Education Week magazine. The magazine's survey, using figures from 2002 that had been adjusted to account for regional cost differences, showed that only Utah spent less per student.

Last year, the state did invest more in education by instituting all-day kindergarten for schools that had 90 percent or more of students on federal lunch programs. Napolitano and the Democrats want to expand the program this year; some conservatives, who never liked the idea in the first place, want to see it scaled back. Which way does Magic 8-Ball see things going? "The future is unclear."

Another fight looms over the notorious AIMS test, which this year's high school juniors will have to pass by spring 2006 in order to graduate. More than half of those juniors still haven't met the state's standards, leaving lots of folks worried that a significant number of next year's graduating class won't receive a diploma.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, including Democrat Ted Downing of Tucson and Republican Thayer Verschoor of Maricopa County, want to keep the AIMS test as a diagnostic tool to measure how well schools are teaching while scrapping the requirement that seniors pass the test in order to graduate.

Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who stressed the importance of the AIMS test during his 2002 campaign, opposes any plan to dump it. Instead, he's working with teachers to create a test that's more (a) curriculum-based, or (b) dumbed-down, depending on your point of view. Horne is also aggressively implementing a tutoring system to help teach students who have yet to meet standards.

Other Republicans are suggesting a two-tiered diploma system. Students who pass the AIMS test would get some kind of honors certificate, while those who fail but complete their coursework would get less-impressive credentials.

Will this year's juniors have to pass the AIMS test to graduate? Magic 8-Ball says: "Ask again later." And in the meantime, if you're a high school junior who hasn't passed the test, hit the books.

Also potentially on the agenda of the more-conservative Legislature: another push for some sort of voucher plan that would subsidize students who attend private schools. Some Republicans are hoping to link vouchers to all-day kindergarten. Will a voucher bill pass? "Better not to tell you now," says Magic 8-Ball.

Lawmakers may also tackle the issue of school construction costs. The state is obligated to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build new schools every year. Thanks to the budget crunch of recent years, lawmakers have embraced a lease-to-own program that's similar to bonding, except more expensive. Republicans hope to find the money to pay for school construction up front. Will the money be available? Magic 8-Ball again says: "My sources say no."

Finally, the universities have been taking budget hits repeatedly in recent years--and will likely be complaining again by the end of this session, especially now that lawmakers want to meddle in the ongoing university reorganization under consideration by the Arizona Board of Regents. Will higher education get screwed again this year? Magic 8-Ball predicts: "Most likely."

How Dry We Are

With an ongoing drought and non-stop growth, the issue of water is once floating to the surface at the Capitol. We expect plenty of splashing around this year, but will there be significant reform? Magic 8-Ball says: "Outlook not so good."

State lawmakers might also tackle reforming the system surrounding about 10 million acres of state land held in trust for beneficiaries such as school districts. Last year, a coalition of interests--including educators, developers, ranchers and some environmental groups--proposed a comprehensive reform package that didn't make it to the Capitol until the closing days of the session. Look for lawmakers to work on a less-comprehensive package involving state land near urban areas this session, although approval of any substantive changes will require a constitutional amendment, leaving the final resolution in the hands of the voters.

In Sickness and in Health

The number of people enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System--better known as AHCCCS--continues to climb, despite a rebounding economy. Lawmakers plan to study the question of why so many people continue to need state-subsidized health care at a time when new jobs are being created. Our guess, without the scientific consultation of the Magic 8-Ball: Fewer employers are offering health-care benefits because it costs too damn much.

Because health-care eligibility is determined by a formula locked into place by voters, lawmakers can't do much about soaring costs other than require those who qualify to apply more frequently. Originally, anyone seeking benefits had to apply once a year; lawmakers trimmed that to every six months, creating a paperwork headache for the bureaucrats who administer the program, which in turn led to a return to the annual application. Now, some lawmakers want to return to the six-month eligibility period.

The Tucson Chamber of Commerce is putting forward a plan to limit malpractice awards against doctors to keep them from leaving Arizona. Voters have shot down similar proposals in the past.

Lawmakers may also consider a ban on smoking in most public places, which has failed in previous years. Does it stand a chance this year? "Reply hazy, try again," according to Magic 8-Ball. Preferably through an initiative campaign.

Behind Bars

Last year's 15-day hostage stand-off at the Buckeye prison complex exposed a corrections system that was severely overworked and understaffed. A blue-ribbon panel appointed by Napolitano concluded that the incident "evolved out of a rich combination of complacency, inexperience, lack of professionalism, inadequate staffing, vague security procedures, poor training, lack of situational awareness, premature promotions, non-competitive pay, ineffective communication, malfunctioning equipment, high inmate-to-officer ratios, bad architectural design and myriad other causes. ..."

The pressures on the prison system have been growing right along with the prison population, which has increased more than 10-fold since 1978. The Department of Corrections now accounts for about 10 percent of the general fund--up from 3 percent in '78.

Last year, in a compromise decision, lawmakers agreed to pay for 1,000 new public prison beds and 1,000 new private prisons beds. But with about 1,000 more prisoners behind bars compared to last year, the state is barely keeping pace with demand.

One potential solution under study by lawmakers: alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders. Will that go anywhere this session? Magic 8-Ball says simply: "No."

Numbers Racket

Solving most of the problems outlined above require one common element: money. That brings us to the state budget, which has been the sticking point for the last two years, with conservative Republicans trying to keep a tight grip on the state's wallet and Gov. Napolitano pushing for spending on programs such as all-day kindergarten. Through a mix of spectacular sleight of hand, deft political maneuvering and Jedi mind tricks, Napolitano has mostly won out in the end.

As it works out, the current year's numbers look bright: As of the end of November, just five months into the fiscal year, revenues were $189.5 million above the original projections of the digit-crunchers at the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Here's the bad news: As noted above, pressure for spending is increasing on the educational, correctional and health care fronts. And because health care and education spending is driven by formulas that are locked in place by voters, the state has what the eggheads call a "structural deficit"--a gap between expected revenues and expected expenses. This year, that deficit is expected to be between $300 million and $500 million, leaving little money for, say, raises for state employees or expansion of all-day kindergarten.

On top of that, some lawmakers are continuing a push to trim business property taxes. Under the current setup, businesses basically pay taxes on 25 percent of the value of their property, while homeowners pay taxes on 10 percent. Some Republicans, including Rep. Steve Huffman of Tucson, want to gradually reduce the ratio for businesses to 20 percent. Huffman hopes to develop a method of using state general fund dollars to prevent the tax burden from shifting to homeowners in the process.

Napolitano has her own agenda of tax cuts, although it comes nowhere near the sweeping changes proposed by a committee she set up to review the state's tax structure. She wants to trim personal property taxes on small business and expand a research and development tax credit for businesses that partner with universities. She also called for "tax relief for industries that manufacture goods in Arizona and export them all over the nation and the world.

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