Article — From the July 2010 issue
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Article — From the July 2010 issue
In 1897, when the Territory of Arizona was seeking to demonstrate its fitness for statehood, the legislature solicited bids to design a new capitol building and grounds in Phoenix. The winning entry was that of James Riely Gordon, the architect behind a number of well-regarded public buildings in Texas and Maryland. He drew up ambitious plans: an expansive dome, a grand rotunda, stately wings for each house. But funding fell short, and so the legislative wings were scrapped, and a diminutive lead-alloy top was chosen in lieu of Gordon’s more elaborate dome. Worse, in the building’s interior, a mosaic of the state seal was bungled by the contractor, who forgot to include the images of cattle and citrus, two of Arizona’s “five C’s” (the others being climate, copper, and cotton).
Despite much talk over the years of an upgrade—including a proposal from none other than Frank Lloyd Wright, who envisioned the addition of fountains, gardens, and reflecting pools—all plans were rejected as too expensive. In the 1960s, two new buildings were finally erected on either side of the capitol, one for the house and one for the senate; but these structures, which resemble Soviet apartment blocks, only made matters worse. Nowadays, the capitol’s dingy, unshaded plaza is bare save for a few small rosebushes and some patches of dry grass. The buildings themselves have been plagued by plumbing problems and leaks, making the complex “wholly inadequate” to Arizona’s future needs, according to a task force charged with studying the matter.
The general unsightliness of the capitol makes it a fitting home for today’s Arizona legislature, which is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks.Collectively they have bankrupted the state through a combination of ideological fanaticism on the Republican right and acquiescence and timidity on the part of G.O.P. moderates and Democrats. Although dozens of states are facing budget crises, the situation in Arizona is arguably the nation’s worst, graver even than in California. A horrific budget deficit has been papered over with massive borrowing and accounting gimmickry, and the state may yet have to issue IOUs to employees and vendors. All-day kindergarten has been eliminated statewide, and some districts have adopted a four-day school week. Arizona’s state parks, despite bringing in 2 million visitors and $266 million annually, have lost 80 percent of their budget, with up to two thirds of the parks now in danger of closure. The legislature slashed the budget for the Department of Revenue, which required the agency to fire hundreds of state auditors and tax collectors; lawmakers boasted that these measures saved $25 million, but a top official in the department estimated that the state would miss out on $174 million in tax collections as a result.
Any way out of Arizona’s crisis will require raising taxes, a move that is tantamount to heresy for most lawmakers. For nearly a year, the legislature refused to approve the emergency sales-tax increase (of just one cent per dollar) proposed by Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican who had been elected as secretary of state but assumed the top job in 2009 when Janet Napolitano joined the Obama Administration. Eventually, lawmakers passed the buck to voters by authorizing a May 18 statewide ballot on the sales tax—which passed, after a $2.2 million marketing effort by education and business groups—but before doing so they enacted tax cuts that over four years will deprive the state of more money than the sales-tax increase is estimated to bring in.
Instead, to raise cash, the legislature has pursued a series of wild sell-offs and budget cuts. It privatized the capitol building and leased it back from its new owner, an arrangement that brought in substantial revenue but over time will cost Arizona far more. The legislature has sold off numerous other state properties at bargain prices, and has put up future lottery revenues as collateral on a $450 million loan. Meanwhile, Arizona removed more than 300,000 adults from state health coverage and terminated one health-care program for 47,000 poor children. Funding was slashed at the agency that deals with reports of child abuse and neglect, and also at Children’s Rehabilitative Services, so that parents of children with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions are now required to pay 100 percent of treatment costs.
All totaled, the cuts amounted to roughly $1 billion, which came on top of a similar amount that had been slashed the previous year. These cuts, in combination with the sale of state assets (which raised more than $700 million) and the securitization of the lottery, plugged a massive hole in next year’s budget. But the deficit for 2011 is already projected to be at least $1 billion and possibly double that, on a total budget of only $9 billion. The situation will only worsen from there, as federal stimulus money dries up and the state runs out of short-term sources of cash. “Could we cut our way out of it mathematically?” Dennis Hoffman, an economist who has forecast revenue for Arizona governors since 1983, mused when I asked him about the crisis. “Anything is possible on paper, but for practical purposes it can’t be done, unless you want to start releasing prisoners, shutting down universities, and eliminating extracurricular activities in the schools. We’ve already had a $2 billion haircut over the past two years. Try another $2 billion and see what the state looks like.”
Arizona lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for dealing seriously with the state’s insolvency. They have instead preferred to focus on matters that have little to do with the crisis. Lawmakers have turned racial profiling into official policy, through a new law that requires police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers; anyone not carrying acceptable proof of citizenship can be arrested for trespassing and thrown in jail for up to six months. But this is just one bill in what has been a season of provocative legislating. Another new law bans the funding of any ethnic-studies programs in the public schools, while a third prohibits “intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.” Lawmakers declared February 8 the “Boy Scout Holiday,” took time out to discount fishing-license fees for Eagle Scouts, and approved a constitutional right to hunt.
In January, Senator Jack Harper, an immaculately combed zealot who speaks in the patter of an infomercial voiceover, submitted a bill that would allow faculty members to carry guns on university campuses, saying it was “one very small step in trying to eliminate gun-free zones, where there’s absolutely no one who could defend themselves if a terrorist incident happened.” The house passed a measure that would force President Barack Obama to show his birth certificate to state officials if he runs for re-election, as well as a bill that bars Arizona from entering into any program to regulate greenhouse gases without approval from the legislature. “There are only two ways to vote on this,” said Representative Ray Barnes of the latter initiative. “Yes, or face the east in the morning and worship the EPA because they own you.”
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am