The Arizona Republic
So, the Napolitano era in Arizona politics is coming to an end.
Gov. Janet Napolitano’s selection to be the next secretary of homeland security is official. Her confirmation is as certain as these things get, given the support of Arizona’s two Republican U.S. senators.
Any assessment of her tenure has to begin with her remarkable political dominance.
Napolitano first won election to the governorship in 2002 with just 46 percent of the vote. She was re-elected four years later with 62 percent of the vote.
In Maricopa County, Napolitano, as a Democrat, faced a registration disadvantage of nearly 200,000 voters in 2006. She carried the county by more than 200,000 votes. That’s defying political gravity.
She consistently controlled events at the Legislature, even though Republicans were nominally in charge. She ruled the Democratic Party as no politician in modern memory has.
Napolitano remains highly popular, even though a gaping budget hole has developed on her watch.
Substantively, however, Napolitano’s record is much thinner and illustratively so.
In 2002, Napolitano ran on a blistering critique of Arizona’s status quo. Arizona ranked near the bottom on educational funding and achievement. Student-teacher ratios were too high. Dropout rates were among the highest in the nation. We had a low-wage economy that left the state in the cellar on per-capita income.
After six years of her governorship, none of these measures has materially moved.
Arizona still ranks 49th in K-12 per-pupil operating expenditures. Our fourth-grade reading scores are 47th lowest on federal tests. In math, we rank 46th.
Arizona still has the second-highest student-teacher ratio in the country. According to the measure Napolitano used in her 2002 indictment, Arizona still has the fourth-highest dropout rate in the country.
In her economic plan released during the 2002 campaign, Napolitano said: “We rank at the bottom of the nation in education while leading the nation in dropout rates. We have among the highest uninsured and underinsured individuals in the country, and are dangerously close to cutting the jugular of our universities. Our economy has diversified little in the last 10 years, and we are facing one of the largest deficits in the nation. What is wrong with this picture?”
Putting aside the hyperbole about the universities’ jugular, the picture as Napolitano is leaving is pretty much the same as when she entered.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Napolitano’s 2002 critique is still heard today. Yet six years of her ministrations didn’t materially change the measures upon which it is based.
And that’s not just because she faced a Republican Legislature. She didn’t really even advance any proposals that would materially move these markers.
That’s in part because some of them aren’t particularly revealing or moveable measures. Take per capita income.
Arizona ranked 37th among the states in per capita income when Napolitano took office. As she leaves, we rank 40th.
But per-capita income is a function of demography as much as economic performance. So long as Arizona has proportionately more children, retirees and low-skilled immigrants than other places, our per-capita income will lag behind.
However, Arizona’s average wage was 21st highest among the states when Napolitano became governor, a position it retains today. In reality, the state never had a low-wage economy.
Arizona could move our position compared to other states with respect to education spending. But it would take hundreds of billions of dollars and a tax increase. Napolitano never proposed that, nor has anyone else advanced a serious proposal.
Moreover, as the Arizona Tax Research Association has demonstrated, Arizona ranks right in the middle of the states when it comes to spending per classroom. We just have more students per classroom.
Research is mixed, at best, as to whether reducing the student-teacher ratio would do much to improve educational achievement.
In reality, until someone is willing to put a big tax increase on the table, education improvements in Arizona will depend on low-cost reforms.
Napolitano was a very comfortable fit for the Arizona electorate. But in the final analysis, her most instructive legacy isn’t in what she did, but in what she complained about but didn’t change.
Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Arizona Republic
Gov. Janet Napolitano will speak with the Tucson Citizen Editorial Board on Tuesday.
Got a question you’d like us to ask the governor before she leaves early next year for Washington, D.C., to become secretary of homeland security (Senate confirmation pending)?
E-mail it to us at email@example.com, or attach it as a comment to the online version of this story, which appears at www.tucsoncitizen.com/opinion.
We’ll print the response online and in Wednesday’s paper.
1. Connecticut $50.762
2. New Jersey $46,763
3. Massachusetts $46,299
4. New York $44,027
5. Maryland $43,788
40. ARIZONA $31,936
50. Mississippi $27,028
49. Arkansas $28,473
48. Kentucky $29,729
47. S. Carolina $29,767
46. New Mexico $29,929
Source: 2006 U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis statistics