IN THE WANING days of the legislative session last week, a story began to circulate about a representative standing next to a bureaucrat at a urinal in the men's washroom.
As he dripped, zipped and flushed, the rep muttered, "This is the only room in the place where I know what I'm doing."
That seems to sum up much of the 1995 session of the 42nd Legislature, during which lawmakers spent more time bickering over the ozone layer and arguing the merits of gila monster ranching than they did debating the possibility of giving health care to the working poor. They didn't have time to fix an unconstitutional method of school financing, but they did find a moment to secede from the Union.
From start to finish, Republicans were in the driver's seat. Curiously, for such anti-government folks, they had plenty of ideas about what government should be doing. GOP lawmakers signed onto an average of 58 bills apiece, as opposed to 42 each for Democrats. Of course, the Demos knew all along their stuff didn't stand much of a chance of passing, so that might have tempered their bill-writing fever.
The environmental community took a beating this session. Undoubtedly the worst bill passed was the environmental audit legislation, which allows companies that violate environmental regulations to escape penalty if they report the infractions to the Department of Environmental Quality. Dubbed the Polluter's Protection Act by opponents, the bill also makes the reports secret, so companies that create Superfund sites won't have to suffer any of those nasty PR problems that often come with toxic spills.
The bill was so sinister it was opposed not only by environmentalists, but also by the Department of Environmental Quality, the Arizona Attorney General's Office and a coalition of county attorneys. Even Gov. J. Fife Symington III said the bill was troubling and had implied he would veto it, until lawmakers agreed to pass a presidential primary bill if Symington would back off on the audit legislation (more on that later).
Lawmakers also took away your right to sue companies if the Department of Environmental Quality fails to enforce its own regulations and make firms clean up enviro violations. Since citizens first got this privilege during the 1980s, there have been only a handful of suits, some of which landed hundreds of thousands of dollars for the state. Nonetheless, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa), said the business community was worried about dealing with four million "vigilantes," which we thought was a terrific way to describe citizens.
Another bill moved the funds generated by those cool environmental license plates from the Department of Education to Natural Riparian Conservation Districts, which are groups of ranchers who say they'll use the money to create educational projects. Yes, they're certainly more qualified to provide learnin' than those high-falutin', book-dependent schools.
And, of course, there was Rep. Jean McGrath's nitwit CFC bill, which makes chlorofluorocarbons legal in Arizona. CFCs are still banned by federal law and international treaty, so McGrath's bill is blatantly unconstitutional, but that didn't really bother this bunch much.
The CFC bill was a prime example of the running anti-fed theme of the session, which brings us to our next topic.
Lawmakers marched to the revolutionary drumbeat of the states' rights movement from start to finish this session, rarely missing an opportunity to bitch about those unfair requirements the feds have for keeping our air breathable and our water drinkable.
One especially fervent supporter of the states' right movement was Rep. Jeff Groscost (R-Mesa), who came up with all sorts of interesting legislation, including a bill that would put a bounty on endangered wolves--which those dastardly feds are reintroducing in eastern Arizona--and another which made it a crime for state employees to comply with the Endangered Species Act without checking with the Legislature first. The former failed, the latter passed.
But despite the inflamed rhetoric, not many other states' rights bills got through. The Legislature passed one bill that cut off funding for the "special masters" appointed by federal court to be a watchdog over state prison conditions.
Lawmakers also passed a bill sending an Arizona delegation to a Conference of the States in Philadelphia next year. The plan was to have a big confab where the states would assert their independence and marshal their forces against the feds.
Sadly, the hot air has pretty much escaped that balloon. Most states have shown less interest than our rabid lawmakers and the conference is currently on hold.
The big casualty of the states' rights movement was a plan that would have increased the eligibility level for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently people making more than the princely sum of $3,200 a year are ineligible for most AHCCCS services. Yes, we're caring, wonderful people here in Arizona. A new proposal championed by Republican Sen. Ann Day of Tucson would have brought the level up to $14,000 for a family of four. Since the federal government would have picked up the tab, the Arizona treasury wouldn't have had to fork over one dime to help the working poor get health care. Good deal all around, right?
Not with this bunch. Sen. Carol Springer of Prescott refused to hear the bill, because she said it would just expand the welfare rolls. Between Springer's unbelievably cruel intransigence and Senate President John Greene's unconscionable refusal to support the bill, the plan went nowhere, despite the support of Symington and even U.S. Sen. John McCain.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope. Symington has said he'll call a special session of the Legislature soon to revive the proposal.
The good news is lawmakers trimmed taxes by $200 million dollars--a terrific feat for taxpayers. The bad news is that half of that tax cut--a full $100 million--went to the wealthiest 4 percent of Arizonans.
The tax plan was assembled behind closed doors by a gang including Symington, Senate President John Greene, House Speaker Mark Killian and Sen. Mark Spitzer (R-Phoenix). It passed without amendment and so quickly that many members weren't even aware of what they were voting on.
Spitzer, who had proposed a 3.15 percent flat tax system this year, only to discover weeks later that the plan wouldn't work because he'd been using bad numbers from the Department of Revenue, crowed about the fact that the wealthiest Arizonans benefited the most from the tax deal, calling the progressive tax a "dinosaur."
So now rich Arizonans have the best of both worlds--all the deductions and shelters of the progressive tax system and the low tax rate of a flat tax.
While they're enjoying spending all that extra money, wealthy Arizonans may want to stop to consider that, once again, the education budget was not adjusted for inflation. Hey, so what if there are more students and books cost more?
While lawmakers didn't do much to help public schools this year, they didn't do much for private ones, either. Private school tuition vouchers once again flunked out, despite several ambitious schemes.
Lawmakers also failed to correct a school-financing mechanism the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a while back. They were too busy debating bills about gila monster ranches to do anything about it, apparently.
Schoolchildren may not be getting any more money, but politicians are.
County officers, including supervisors, treasurers, recorders and assessors, will pick up $10,000 raises, from $42,000 to $52,000. That's what, a 20 percent raise? Not bad, especially when you toss in the free car and other perks that come with the office. Big Ed Moore and Paul "Dim Bulb" Marsh could probably use the money. And Mike Boyd will finally be able to afford breakfast at The Waffle House.
County attorneys are doing even better, going from $75,000 to $92,000. Looks like crime does pay, for some folks.
JUST PLAIN DUMB
While there was plenty of dumb legislation floating around, just a few of those bills actually became law. Who can forget the Veggie Hate Crimes bill? That one makes it a crime to slander Arizona's poisonous, cancer-causing produce. (Go ahead, press charges.) Looks like the legislature finally found a constituency to watch out for.
Even worse is the presidential primary lawmakers approved in the closing hours of the session. The primary will be held on February 27 next year, one week after New Hampshire kicks off the presidential election season. This, the lawmakers believe, will make people all over the nation look to Arizona as a leader in choosing the chief executive. And just think of the positive economic impact of having all those politicians and news crews wandering the state.
In one of their more egregious examples of arrogance of the Republicans in the Legislature, they chose February 27 as the date, knowing full well the national Democratic Party's rules don't allow Demos to participate in a primary before March 5--the notion being that the damned presidential season is long enough as it is. Which means taxpayers will cough up anywhere from $2.5 to $4 million for a GOP-only primary. That's sure to put us on the map, all right--just look for Moronville.
The primary was pushed heavily by Symington and Sen. John McCain, who hope to give the presidential bid of their bloated U.S. Senate pal Phil Gramm a big boost with an early victory. Although the bill had earlier met with defeat, it was resurrected in the closing hours of session, with Tucson Sen. Keith Bee one of the key lawmakers reversing his vote. Thanks for nothing, Keith.
Capitol insiders say Yuma Sen. Jim Buster, who had previously voted to kill the primary, changed his vote after getting Symington to agree not to veto that environmental audit bill.
Now there's some great dealmaking: Arizona taxpayers get the Polluter's Protection Act and a chance to give a generous campaign donation to Phil Gramm in one foul sweep. Wow, the fatcats win and the citizens lose once again.
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