Editor’s note: The Tucson Citizen invited state Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, and Carol Somers, R-Tucson, to write about the recently adjourned legislative session.
Toughest thing for lawmakers was closing $930M budget gap
By GABRIELLE GIFFORDS
After 130 days, 1,273 bills and numerous failures to come to agreement, optimism for broad-reaching reforms dimmed as the Arizona Legislature adjourned May 23.
The best that can be said for this session is that we managed the worst fiscal crisis in state history by closing a $930 million budget gap.
Because our purse was nearly empty, Arizona will have to do without some of the things we truly need: quality K-12 education, affordable health care, reasonable protections for our environment and adequate funding for public protection.
All we could bring home in our shopping carts were the staples that will keep us going for another year.
Our schools and universities won’t have everything they need, but they won’t starve to death. Local governments will share our hunger, but they, too, won’t have to go to bed completely hungry.
Our carefully crafted agreement spared Arizonans from painful cuts proposed two months ago by Gov. Jane Hull.
We avoided her proposal to leave $118 million in books, computer software and school buses on the shelf, for example, but only because Arizona will embark on a controversial and untested lease-purchase program that allows developers to pay the upfront construction costs and get their money back through many years of lease payments.
Is the lease-purchase program a good idea? Consumer advocacy groups believe lease-to-own furniture and appliance stores take unfair advantage of working-class citizens who end up paying 10 times more than retail prices. This lease-to-own concept is expected to save taxpayers $260 million.
The Legislature did manage to spread the pain around. As we did in the 2002 budget, the Legislature continued to cut funding for state agencies, this time by 2.5 to 3.2 percent. These cuts will lead to countless inconveniences, missed opportunities and higher costs in future years.
Numerous state parks, including several in southern Arizona, will close for part of the year, or even the entire year.
State universities will continue to lose their best and brightest minds to schools with more generous budgets for salaries and research.
Arizona will continue to be ranked 49th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in education spending at $5,033 per student, according to a U.S. Census Survey of Local Governments. Only Mississippi and Utah spend less.
Some kids got hurt this session. For example, the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections has one of the nation’s lowest recidivism rates. Nearly 80 percent of its delinquent youth stay out of trouble for at least one year. But they will have to absorb $2.7 million in reductions at a time when counties are sending them more youth, leaving them almost 150 beds short of their needs.
In the final days of the session, tempers ran high, bills died and coalitions crumbled. We failed to adopt a carefully negotiated plan that would have extended gambling compacts on 17 Indian reservations.
That means Arizonans will have to sort through millions of dollars in clashing television ads touting competing ballot initiatives.
A bill that would have created a “do not call” list for telemarketers also ran out of steam, coming up a couple votes shy.
We did manage to pass a number of bills that should have positive, broad-reaching outcomes. If voters approve a new 60-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes, the state will gain $151 million to help keep our trauma centers open, pay for children’s health services, provide health care for the working poor, and increase funding for medical research.
By 2004, all felons in Arizona will be tested for DNA, using the genetic fingerprint to help catch criminals involved in murders, rapes and robberies.
Children will now be required to wear a seatbelt while riding in the back seats of cars.
Even with some good decisions by our Legislature, Arizonans are very concerned about the uncertainty of where our state is headed. We are dissatisfied to be chronically ranked at the bottom among the 50 states.
According to a recent Morrison Institute poll, and a recent Arizona Town Hall, Arizona is lacking in resolve among its leadership to meet the expectation of voters to prepare us for the 21st century.
The new 2003 Legislature will be a relatively clean slate. Nearly 40 percent of legislative members were brand new two years ago.
Now, due to term-limits and redistricting, possibly 50 percent of current members will not be returning next January.
We will also be electing a new governor in November as well as a team of statewide officeholders.
When the new Legislature reports for business in January, we will be facing great challenges to fix the many problems that we left behind during this session.
I am confident that our new governor and a newly constituted Legislature will report for work full of resolve and brimming with new ideas to take on the challenges of leading a growing state into a new century.
Citizen Legislature – still the best idea – and other thoughts about this session
By CAROL SOMERS
Since 1912 citizen legislators have gathered in our state capitol to debate Arizona’s pressing issues. Ninety diverse citizens, who by and large reflect their constituents’ views, must somehow reach the proper mix of principled action and compromise to move Arizona forward. The job isn’t easy. It is mostly interesting. It is always worthwhile.
Consensus building is the key to our system of checks and balances. A slim majority requires 31 representatives, 16 senators, and one governor to agree. Sometimes liberal ideas prevail. Sometimes conservative thinking wins the day.
Of the 330 bills enacted this year, most were widely supported by both parties.
Major policy changes have the most difficulty achieving approval. Interesting combinations of legislators will coalesce around specific issues.
A bill to limit future state spending for the growth of inflation and population fell flat. A bill to eliminate the rainy day fund and return unspent tax dollars to the taxpayers went to the dustbin. Bills to recognize domestic partnerships and to require informed consent for abortions also failed. Regulation of homeowner associations and telemarketers will be brought back again next year for another try.
Costs for health care for the working poor have exceeded tobacco settlement dollars and now require a large infusion of general fund money. The Legislature rejected an idea to ask the voters to approve a simple spending cap on general fund dollars for this expanded coverage.
Instead we’re proposing a referendum to increase taxes on tobacco. If it passes, this revenue will pay for health-care coverage for the expanded Medicaid population, trauma centers, uncompensated care, health research, and other health-care safety net needs.
We approved a statute requiring all convicted felons to be DNA tested and results placed in a data bank that helps solve serious crimes like rape and murder. The debate also included misdemeanor crimes that have been made into more harsh felony offenses. Bootlegging software, DUI, and drag racing are class six felonies.
Legislative “creep” is responsible for more and more misdemeanors becoming class six felonies. Some legislators want to study the class six felonies and restore some of them to misdemeanors.
K-12 classroom funds appropriately were protected from budget cuts. Even though K-12 spending represents nearly half of the state budget, only unneeded money for building renewal was used to help balance the budget.
Classroom dollars known as “soft capital” were left intact, as was “career ladder” teacher pay. Tuition tax credits will continue. To bolster reading, we approved a plan to require schools to upgrade their K-3 programs. Curriculums must include teaching phonics. Any child who can’t read by the third grade must be given special tutoring.
Constituents tell us over and over that they want school accountability. A bill was overwhelmingly approved by the House and Senate that allows the state to assign contractors to manage poor-performing schools that fail to improve.
In the aftermath of 9-11, several bills were passed to shore up Arizona’s homeland security. We gave the governor broader powers in the event of a bioterrorism attack. Another bill tightens security involving wire transfers. Concern for safety won more votes than what some consider as erosion of personal rights.
Some have called our rejection of the governor’s gaming bill “shameful.” Others say we ran from a tough issue. It was neither. For most legislators it was one of the toughest votes we cast.
The bill was introduced late in the session as a “take it or leave it” proposition with proponents arguing it is the best we can do. No legislators were involved in the 2 1/2 years of negotiations with the tribes. The bill offered no full disclosure of expenditures and profits. The proposed revenue sharing was viewed by many as unacceptable in return for a 23-year monopoly.
The most serious flaw in the governor’s plan was the “poison pill” language that would eliminate revenue sharing and remove slot machine and table limits if gaming were expanded off the reservations during the life of the compacts. No one knows if the initiative to allow slot machines at the tracks will pass in November.
What seemed nearly impossible in January, we offset a deficit of nearly $1 billion without increasing taxes. In adopting the budget plan, we acknowledge that we likely face a $550 million deficit in 2004.
Last session, I was among those demanding we take a look at the core responsibilities of government and how we fund them. Others agreed. House Bill 2178 establishes two committees that will improve tax structure for state and local jurisdictions and recommend ways to integrate services and eliminate duplicate programs.
Citizen legislators come from different backgrounds and areas of expertise and therefore must learn about more issues than most people read about in a lifetime. We listen closely to constituents, advocacy groups, and yes, lobbyists on both sides of issues. At the end of the day, we know we have done our best on behalf of the people.
PHOTO CREDIT: Citizen file photo
CUTLINE: Because term limits will force many members to leave, almost 50 percent of the 2003 Arizona Legislature will be new.