Staunch conservative’s call for tax hike stunned legislators on both sides of aisle
We thought we knew Jan Brewer.
She was the conservative Republican, more party loyalist than policy expert. A former legislator and county supervisor, Brewer had risen to the state’s second-highest office, secretary of state. Along the way, she became better known for frequenting the social circuit of fundraising dinners and GOP soirees than challenging Republican doctrine.
Then, Brewer became governor.
With former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s resignation Jan. 20, Brewer automatically assumed the governorship. She inherited a state drowning in debt, with an economy in shambles and mushrooming state deficits that stretched years into the future.
Brewer, 64, did what would have been unthinkable even months earlier: She proposed a tax increase.
The still-undefined proposal would hike taxes to raise $1 billion a year for up to four years, helping close a series of multibillion-dollar shortfalls forecast in the years ahead for the state. Although part of a larger, five-part fix that includes spending cuts and reform of the Voter Protection Act, it is the tax hike that has made headlines, stunned political friends and adversaries alike and come to define Brewer’s governorship thus far.
Now, 101 days since taking the oath, it’s clear lawmakers and politicos of both parties aren’t quite sure what to make of the state’s latest accidental governor.
Defying conventional wisdom
Arizona Republicans don’t raise taxes. Conservative Arizona Republicans certainly don’t raise taxes.
Brewer junked that bit of conventional wisdom March 4.
That’s when she stepped before a rare, joint session of the Legislature and delivered a message many lawmakers didn’t want to hear: The state can’t cut its way out of this. A tax increase is needed. Two Republican legislators walked out of the chamber during midspeech.
But Brewer did not waver in the weeks that followed, pushing lawmakers to adopt her plan, tax hike and all, or put it to voters in a special election.
“You have to lay politics aside. You have to do what’s right,” Brewer told The Arizona Republic this week. “It’s simple because it is so obvious. It is so obvious in terms of what has to be done and the catastrophe we’re facing.”
Criticism has come from both sides of the aisle.
Republican legislators can’t believe that, after six years under the Democrat Napolitano, it’s a GOP governor proposing a tax hike. Democrats are nearly as leery, especially of a potential increase in sales tax that they believe would hit low-income Arizonans hardest.
Privately, though, Democrats say Brewer has been the opposite of the Republican rubber stamp they initially feared. Brewer has been pragmatic, they say. Resolute in the face of political fire. Even critical of GOP lawmakers whom she has suggested are being fiscally irresponsible and blind to the human toll of their budget cuts.
“I’m glad she has not been the ideologue I first thought of her being,” said Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia, a Tucson Democrat. “I’m glad that she has been the maverick.”
Critics have been less charitable.
Although conceding that Brewer has “performed well under incredibly difficult circumstances,” House Majority Leader John McComish, an Ahwatukee Republican, said it’s unfortunate the governor hasn’t been “reaching out more to the Legislature.”
Some question leadership
It’s a common lament among Brewer critics frustrated that she hasn’t offered more guidance to lawmakers and a better-detailed vision for the state.
Are there state programs Brewer won’t tolerate being cut? She won’t say.
Would Brewer’s budget proposal hike the state sales tax? Property and income taxes? Some combination? She’s mum.
Perhaps the best evidence of the still-shaky line of communication between the governor and GOP legislators: Just hours before House and Senate Republicans unveiled their 2009-10 budget fix Monday, Brewer said she and her staff still hadn’t seen it.
“In my opinion, it is the Legislature’s job to give me a budget,” Brewer said. “Soon, we’re gonna see something come out of the Legislature. Then, I think, it’ll probably be the appropriate time to put my fingerprints on it.
“They are policymakers, that’s why they’re there. As governor, I govern. They set the policy, and I govern.”
That explanation hasn’t satisfied some Capitol observers who say Brewer has been too tentative and distant in a time of crisis. They await a 2010 budget proposal from this governor and a guidepost for policy priorities in a year in which fiscal concerns have dominated.
“She hasn’t demonstrated that she’s a take-charge leader,” said Linda Brown, executive director of the left-leaning Arizona Advocacy Network. “She holds the veto power. The buck stops on her desk. I don’t think there’s anyone who can describe what her vision is for the state.”
Brewer supporters call the criticism unfair. They note that she took office midterm, having to assemble a staff of advisers and agency directors amid what many have called the state’s worst-ever fiscal crisis. Brewer called it a “perfect storm.” Republican political consultant Stan Barnes likened it to “trying to do the impossible at light speed.”
Barnes, who served in the Legislature with Brewer, said people were bound to be surprised by her leadership as governor. Brewer had always served among others, as part of the Legislature and Board of Supervisors. Or under the radar as secretary of state.
Now, she stands alone on the podium. The surprises may continue.
“Now that she has the megaphone, we get to see the real Jan Brewer,” Barnes said. “This is her time to be in full political bloom. This is her moment.”
By the numbers
101: Days since Brewer took office.
10: Bills she has signed.
2: Executive orders issued.
$1.6 billion: Budget shortfall legislators and Brewer fixed in January.
56 percent: Arizonans polled who approve of Brewer’s performance, according to a new ASU-KAET survey.
5: Points in Brewer’s fiscal-recovery plan.
550: Days until 2010 general election, when Governor’s Office is up for grabs.
Brewer as governor
Jan. 21: Takes the oath of office as governor; issues moratorium on new regulations by state agencies.
Jan. 31: Signs budget fix for fiscal 2009.
March 4: Unveils five-point fiscal recovery plan, includes temporary tax increase.
March 11: Writes letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates requesting federal funding to post 250 additional National Guard troops near border.
April 2: Signs executive order terminating efforts to bolster union representation of state employees. Ends former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s push to grant meet-and-confer authority.
April 22: Restates call for National Guard support in letter to congressional leaders.
April 30: Extends moratorium on new regulations for state agencies.
Source: Arizona Republic research