Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Still Waiting

When last we left the Arizona legislature, negotiations were in full bloom. The majority party wanted numerous tax cuts -- a measure supported by the Governor but one that would cause a shrinking pool of revenue to shrivel further -- and the Governor wanted a temporary sales tax hike sent to the ballot. However, too few Senate Republicans were willing to forgo their "no tax increase" pledge to give voters the option to vote it in or not. The Democrats were treated as superfluous since the goal stated by the majority leadership was that this would be a "Republican-only budget." In the end, the Republicans could not muster the votes to present the Governor with everything on her wish list.

What she got was the same lump of coal of a set of bills she had vetoed July 1. At that time she called them "fatally flawed" and "devastating" to education and more. Lately, her rhetoric has been more toned down as she attempts to get a budget she will approve.

So what's different this time (since it's not the budget)? In the past few days, the negotiating table grew with the addition of the leaders of the minority party. Minority leaders managed to get invites to this dance and presented ideas that they have been talking about for months via web sites and public forums statewide. Furthermore, the Governor is more actively participating in the talks. At this point, the parties know what each wants to bring the votes of their caucus members into the yes column.

But what about those budget bills that were finally transmitted to the Governor? She signed one last week (to ensure that federal stimulus funds going to the Department of Environmental Quality would not be lost) and did nothing with the rest. Had she continued to do nothing through Wednesday, August 26, they would have become law without her signature. However, both chambers ended the latest special session on Tuesday, August 25 -- giving her 10 more days to deal with the bills.

What this maneuver really did was acknowledge the possibility that the current bipartisan talks may produce a balanced budget that a majority of House and Senate members -- irregardless of political persuasion -- will support along with Governor. And then, perhaps, the rest of the state can stop waiting to exhale and know how much money will be expended to educate students, support seniors, pay state personnel, and more. Even when we have to do it all with less.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Life -- and Death -- Matters

Lost among the lies about government "death panels" -- beyond the fact no bills contained any such thing and no one advocated any such thing -- seems to be the point that many people truly want to be able to openly discuss their thoughts about what they want to happen when their quality of life wanes or the quality of their thought processes grows suspect. They want to remain in control of the decision-making process, providing directives to those they entrust with their care when the time comes.

So the thought was to include the possibility of payment to have that discussion with one's doctor. Some people -- including those who formerly showed support for such an idea with their votes -- resorted to demagoguery against such a provision. And it appears others are now backing off from including such a provision in reform bills.

Why is it suddenly a bad thing to have more information? That seems to be the argument most often used when politicians want to tighten restrictions on abortion and add waiting periods and parental consent and the such. But when it comes to end-of-life issues when people do need to know what "heroic efforts" might mean -- and cost -- or what the consequences of having a "do not resuscitate" order are, apparently that is a meeting of far less importance and undeserving of underwriting according to these folks.

Doctors take an oath to "do no harm" and that includes not subjecting an individual to mounting medical care when the hope for survival is slim and a person has indicated he or she wants no part of it. But first they have to know what the patient wants. It's too bad that payment for such a discussion has become one more victim of politics and appears to have a DNR attached to it. Here's hoping someone puts this provision on life support so that more people can have the ability to have that discussion. Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Resetting the Clock

My previous post outlined Arizona's budget situation, where more than a month into a new fiscal year we stand with no final budget and no actual idea when we will have one. The Senate was set to meet August 4, which it did, when it would hopefully vote on the budget, which it did not.

Instead, the Senate met for a few minutes, after which members of each party went into caucus. The Republicans found themselves with unexpected business on their hands, as the majority whip had resigned her post that morning. Being one of the holdouts on the budget, she felt she was not serving leadership well because it would be difficult for her to round up votes for a budget she did not support. While she is not a legislator with whom I share much common ground, I appreciate her honesty and clarity in this decision.

When the resignation became public, it was accompanied by reports that another senator wanted the job. However, this senator also was a non-wavering "no" vote on the budget. He felt he could round up votes. Given his opposition to the package, one wonders what votes he was expecting to corral.

So did a new majority whip emerge? A freshman senator from northern Arizona temporarily holds the position. His ability to round up votes remains to be tested -- with senators out of town, there will be no votes taken this week.

Come Monday, August 10, the Senate faces more than an increasingly angry state populace -- they are up against what appears to be the final deadline to get a sales tax increase referred to the ballot for the November 3 election. The Secretary of State has moved this deadline a few times but this appears to be the actual drop-dead date for printing and distribution of informational pamphlets and ballots. It's also been reported to be the final deadline to get pro/con statements into the informational pamphlet, but perhaps the deadline gods could smile a little on those who would like to argue for or against the temporary tax hike and give them the same kind of grace period as the Senate.

This evening -- August 6 -- an agenda item for my school board meeting was to approve our district budget. This is not the first time we have done that this year -- by statute, we must approve it before July 15 -- and the legislature has guaranteed it won't be the last. In the past, this has been a multi-step process, but not the dance marathon we are currently caught in.

In the five years I have served on this board and voted to approve budgets, we have never missed meeting the deadlines set by the Legislature. Wish we could say the same for them.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tick, Tick, Tick....

My favorite page in my high school yearbook is a comic book "cover" with some of us from the yearbook staff working while the storyline for the "issue" reads"25 People in a Battle to the Death with 'THE DEADLINE'" next to a picture of the Grim Reaper.

I actually thrive on deadlines. As a writer, a ticking clock keeps me focused and helps me hone my words. Even after all these years, I find the tighter the deadline, the better the copy.

Not everyone works that way. Take the Arizona Legislature. After convening in mid-January, legislators had a deadline to have a budget in place by June 30. In the Senate, bills were filed but not heard as President Bob Burns kept the budget front and center.

So what happened? Did we have a budget early, say April (as has often happened)? No. May? No. Early June? Try a budget that appealed to the most conservative members of the Legislature that passed in both chambers in the wee hours of June 30. It really was July 1, but Sen. Burns literally turned the clocks off and locked the doors, so time stopped for the Senate.

Did Arizona get a budget? No, because most of the bills were promptly vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer. They contained cuts she did not want and did not refer a sales tax increase to the ballot, which she had requested. So despite the fact that the majority party in both chambers plus the executive branch are all Republicans, the unity of party registration did not produce a budget for Arizona.

A few days later, the Republicans let the Democrats join the talks and some progress was made, with the Governor signing bills to keep some critical areas running. However, holes remained and a full budget was still needed. Leaders from both parties worked together and close to the end of July, they were about $500 million apart but still talking.

Then the talks stopped and the Dems were frozen out when the Republican legislators decided to work out a deal with the Governor. She would get her sales tax referral, but in exchange she agreed to tax cuts for corporations and higher income earners and much reduced funding for education, children, health services, seniors, and more -- funding she had pledged to protect in far larger amounts. And even though the sales tax referral would go through, the revenues realized from it would no longer be dedicated to education.

According to the longest-serving legislator in Arizona, this was the worst deal he had ever seen. So is this the deal Arizona got? Well, not yet. While it eked out of the House, it has not been voted upon in the Senate. They wanted to do this with just Republican votes, and the simple majority of 16 votes weren't there. Out of 18 Republican Senators, two balked at referring the sales tax and a third will only vote to refer the sales tax and nothing else. A fourth appears to be a possible holdout on some bills as well. That's where the situation stood when the Senate adjourned last week.

They reconvene on August 4 and the word is there may not be enough Republican votes present to pass this budget. If so, where does that leave Arizona? No budget, a deeper and deeper hole of decreasing revenues, and a citizenry tired of what feels like a really bad version of Groundhog Day playing over and over again.

We elect public officials to serve the public. We expect them to do so in a professional manner, and that means hitting their deadlines, especially in this, the most important task they have. If the votes aren't there, this budget wasn't meant to be. There has to be one that is. Work together to create it, pass it, and sign it. The clock is ticking.