Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Closed-door state budget talks criticized

The state budget is all the talk at the Capitol and beyond. As in: What’s going on with the budget?

It’s hard to say, since lawmakers’ discussions have been behind closed doors.

It’s what some lawmakers are calling “opaque transparency” – a pointed jab at new House Speaker Kirk Adams’ pledge that the budget process would be open and differ from past years, when plans were rushed through with no time for review.

“An open, deliberate, caucus-inclusive, appropriations process best achieves sound budgets and good policy,” Adams wrote last fall in “Rebuilding Our Republican Majority,” the document that was the centerpiece of his successful bid for House speaker.

But with the state facing a nearly $3 billion deficit, and the 100th day of the session approaching, it’s hard to find that open process. Most of the lawmakers who defend the current approach say it’s involved more GOP lawmakers than past years, although it hasn’t moved beyond the “small groups” that are meeting privately to hash out specifics.

“If you took all my seven years (at the Capitol) and put them together, this year doesn’t look much different than in the past,” said state Rep. Lucy Mason, a Prescott Republican.

Mason has been so frustrated by the paucity of detail that she’s been conducting her own hearings – with Adams’ knowledge – to get a better understanding of what might be on the chopping block.

She won’t vote on any cuts without understanding what they would do to state agencies and the people they serve, she said.

Likewise, veteran Rep. Bill Konopnicki said the budget process so far is less transparent than last year. A small group has been making the key decisions, with the rest of the lawmakers relying on memos or verbal briefings to try to figure out the dynamic process.

Konopnicki, a Safford Republican, said the talks lack detail.

It’s not enough to tell rank-and-file members that the state’s health-care system for low-income people will absorb a certain dollar cut, he said.

“What do the cuts to AHCCCS mean to rural hospitals?” he said, citing an example.

“If it were me, I’d sit right here on the (House) floor and let people discuss it,” Konopnicki said of the budget.

Both Mason and Konopnicki emphasized that they support Adams, but his youth and relative inexperience – the Mesa Republican has just finished three years in the House – have hampered his ability to deliver on his plan.

Adams is quick to point out that there have been strides, but acknowledges that change is hard.

“With any group, changing the culture of it doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. Just look at the roadblocks that President Barack Obama has hit three months into his term, he said.

For Adams, the biggest budget hurdles have been the declining economy and the fluid details of the federal stimulus package. Those factors make it difficult to pin down how deep the deficit might be, and to calculate how much federal aid might be available to fill it.

Despite that, Adams cites the ongoing “small group” meetings involving GOP members as evidence that House members are being involved in a more transparent way.

And the public?

They will get their say when budget details go before the House Appropriations Committee. He can’t say when that will be, but adds that the public has already weighed in, judging by the thousands of e-mails he’s received.

Many of those stem from the January release of a budget “options” list – something, he notes, that was done in an unusual public meeting of the Legislature – as well as the recent budget drafts. Those drafts have not been publicly released, but have leaked. In fact, Adams was surprised that a reporter had not seen the most recent draft.

But relying on leaked documents is a far cry from running a transparent process, said Connie Andersen, a member of the executive board of the Valley Interfaith Project, a coalition of faith groups. Last fall, members pressed candidates, including Adams, for pledges on an open budget process.

And while Andersen said she was encouraged to hear that Democrats have been drawn into budget talks with the majority Republicans, she said, “that’s not public transparency.”

“Look, municipalities do this all the time,” Andersen said. “They have budget hearings. There shouldn’t be anything to fear from the public.”

One of Adams’ planks called for a “realistic” time frame for adopting the budget, with widely distributed benchmarks. That hasn’t happened. Nor has he re-established budget subcommittees, which he envisioned would do a lot of the heavy lifting on “subsets” of the budget.

It’s been hard to achieve those goals because of the deluge of bad budget news, compounded by the fact that lawmakers have had to open up the current-year budget for more work, Adams said. But he said he hasn’t abandoned his goals.

The budget process hasn’t always been so cloaked in secrecy.

Republican John Wettaw said that during his nearly three decades in the Legislature, the budget was drawn up largely by subcommittees in public hearings.

“It was all out in the open,” said Wettaw, who served on appropriations committees in the House and Senate during most of his tenure, including several turns as chairman. And the work was the equivalent of must-see TV: The gallery of the Senate, where the two chambers worked out their differences, was packed, he recalled.

Rep. Jack Brown, D-St. Johns, is one of the few lawmakers still serving who remembers the subcommittees and their influential Friday meetings. These days, the Legislature doesn’t meet on Fridays.

As for this year, Brown said he’s seen little change. He fears that when a budget is brought to the Appropriations Committee, it will be on a fast track, the votes will be lined up and the outcome will be along party lines.

Rep. Andy Biggs, a Chandler Republican who has served on the House Appropriations Committee for years, said more members have been involved in budget talks than previous years, a positive step.

Rep. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, agreed, and said the internal back-and-forth is greatly improved.

But neither legislative veteran could say when the public would get a chance to have its say on what the state should fund and what it should cut.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service