Washington Babylon — June 16, 2010, 6:55 am

What’s The Matter With Arizona? A conversation with Senator Rebecca Rios

I have a piece in the July issue of the magazine (not yet available online) about the political looniness in the state of Arizona, which goes well beyond the issue of immigration. Arizona, I note, is essentially bankrupt; if it were a business it would be declared insolvent and put in receivership. In May, voters approved a ballot measure that temporarily raised the state sales tax to bring in $1 billion. That averted an immediate budget collapse but provided no long-term solution to the crisis.

There are multiple causes for the mess in Arizona, including the fact that the legislature is composed almost entirely of dimwits, racists, and cranks. State lawmakers turned racial profiling into official policy, through a law that requires police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand to see their papers. The Senate passed a bill to ban the funding of any ethnic-studies programs at state universities, as well as one to prohibit “intentionally or knowingly creating a human-animal hybrid.” 

And as the state’s economy teetered on the brink of collapse earlier this year, lawmakers took time out from their primary pastime — slashing social spending — to reduce what Eagle Scouts paid for fishing license fees, declared a Boy Scout holiday, and granted a constitutional right to vote.

There are a dwindling few voices of reason in the legislature, among them Democratic Senator Rebecca Rios, the assistant minority leader. I interviewed her when I was in Arizona last February and recently updated that conversation by phone. Below are excerpts from our conversations about the situation in Arizona.

On voter passage of the sales tax increase:

Everyone was surprised by the outcome. I thought it would be a razor-thin margin but it won all over the state, even in Republican areas. Its passage eliminated the need to go in and cut $1 billion in additional services, so we won’t have to make further cuts in social programs. But we’re not out of the woods yet; we are starting the next Fiscal Year at least $150 million in the hole and the budget is based on a number of assumptions that may not work out, revenue could come in lower than expected.

The legislature is still dominated by Republicans and I still expect they will go back in and try to cut social programs and pass new tax cuts, even though we still don’t have sufficient revenues. We forego $10 billion every year in tax breaks and exemptions. There have to be some loopholes we can agree to close. That would have been preferable to passing a regressive sales tax, but that approach is unlikely to see the light of day with the current legislature.

On immigration:

Immigration is a hot button issue and politicians here play that card whenever they can. Voters are concerned about drug smuggling and coyotes and drop houses, and these are relevant issues, but the focus here is punishing the guy standing out in front of the Home Depot. There are bigger fish to fry.

On tax cuts:

You can track the tax cuts over the past 15 years and see the impact. Whether times are good or bad, whether the state coffers are full or empty, the answer is always to cut taxes. There is no room for logic or facts.

You have to expand the base of people you’re taxing and suspend some of the tax credits. Every year we forego huge amounts of revenue due to sales tax exemptions for food and health care; that’s OK but there are a number of special carve-outs that need to be closed: for country club memberships, manicures and pedicures, for food and drinks purchased by airlines. That last one was passed after lobbying by the airlines.

Historically we’ve had lobbyists come in and get tax exemptions and those tend to benefit big companies and the wealthy. I represent a district with copper mines, but copper has always been taxed at a very low rate.

On spending cuts:

We rank near the bottom in the provision of social services but that’s what’s taking the biggest hit in the budget cuts. Vouchers are not helping poor kids; they are going to kids who are already in private school. Representative Steve Yarbrough is the biggest advocate and he owns a tuition tax credit business.

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