Times are good, but heavy lifting ahead
Jan. 8, 2006
Arizona is a land of milk and honey this year. The state budget is overflowing,
with an expected surplus of $850 million as the Legislature heads into its 2006
What a turnaround. Just a couple of years ago, the budget overflow was red ink.
Now is the time to catch up with growth, straighten out the books, add to the
"rainy day" fund, bolster education, support economic development and make state
salaries more competitive.
On the controversy meter, those goals should rank right next to motherhood and
apple pie. But the details of how to balance and achieve them are sure to be
contentious when the Legislature opens Monday.
Especially because last year's session came to such a sour finish, with
legislative leaders accusing Gov. Janet Napolitano of reneging on a deal.
There's enough leftover vinegar to curdle a tanker of milk.
Some lawmakers will certainly be tempted to settle scores and pass legislation
designed to put the governor on the spot. We hope they'll resist. This
fast-growing state, which added three-quarters of a million people in the past
five years, has pressing needs that require the Legislature's full attention.
Among the most important issues to address are:
• Budget cleanup. When Arizona was struggling with massive shortfalls in the
early 2000s, lawmakers swept money out of funds dedicated to important needs,
including highway construction, water-quality monitoring and job training. More
of those dollars should be returned.
• Education. Legislators started the ball rolling toward better education when
they approved initial funding to bring all-day kindergarten to the state's
poorest schools. They should continue to expand the program to more schools, as
Arizonans want. In an Arizona Republic Poll last week, two out of three voters
favored increased funding for all-day kindergarten.
Lawmakers should consider additional support for schools and universities:
72 percent of those polled said the state spends too little on public education.
• English-language instruction. The gorilla on the dais is the federal court
order to address the needs of students who must learn English before they can
learn anything else. Lawmakers have just 15 days after the session begins to
come up with adequate funding for English-language programs. After that, the
state faces court-imposed fines, starting at $500,000 a day and rising to $2
million if it fails to act by the end of the session. This is a contentious
issue, with some lawmakers still smarting from the governor's veto of an
inadequate bill last session. But the governor and legislative leaders have been
meeting. If everyone keeps focused on the goal, Arizona can beat the deadline.
• Growth. Development is a free-for-all in some of the unincorporated parts of
Arizona because of loose rules on lot splitting. Impromptu subdivisions spring
up with a host of problems that residents then expect counties to fix, from
flooding to substandard roads to inadequate emergency access. The Legislature
should give counties more authority to rein in lot splits.
• Identity theft. With Arizona ranked No. 1 in the nation for identity theft,
here's a good place for lawmakers to get tough on crime. Attorney General Terry
Goddard has a list of proposals, including consumer notification whenever
information is stolen, requirements to protect sensitive personal information
and the option for consumers to freeze their credit if they believe their
identity has been stolen.
• Immigration. Illegal immigration is the top concern for voters, according to
polls. In an election year, some lawmakers are eager to go after it with state
money and state law. The proposals so far include extending the vehicle barrier
that protects a small section of the border and installing high-tech cameras
made by a Scottsdale company, equipment that could run $60 million, plus the
cost of round-the-clock staffing. Let's not forget:
Immigration and border control are federal jobs. Arizona shouldn't have to
divert precious state resources into subsidizing the feds. We must continue
demanding that the U.S. government step up to the plate, including reimbursing
border communities that bear a disproportionate burden of federal failures of
• Medical school. The University of Arizona's planned medical school in Phoenix
will be a winner all around: boosting the state's supply of doctors, forming
part of a dynamic campus that will eventually include nursing and pharmacy,
attracting research investment and connecting with the region's growing
bioscience industry. Arizonans throughout the state will benefit both medically
and economically if the Legislature continues investing in this farsighted
• Meth abuse. Last year, the Legislature watered down attempts to restrict
access to the cold medications that can be used to make methamphetamine. So
cities stepped in, adopting local requirements to put Sudafed and similar
products behind the pharmacy counter. Lawmakers should take up the issue again,
adopting strict, uniform rules. Although most meth in Arizona comes from Mexico,
state restrictions will still dent the supply. Plus, they'll reduce the plague
of meth labs, which are mini-toxic-waste sites and a danger to children.
• Rainy day fund. While the sun shines, let's get ready for the next storm by
socking a substantial amount into the rainy day fund, which now has about $160
• Raises for state employees. Arizona employees are paid far less than those in
neighboring states, 25 percent less than Nevada, for instance, and many local
governments. So we're basically a farm team, losing our best workers to other
places. With turnover at nearly 18 percent, the state has to spend $50 million a
year on training and recruitment. Everyone agrees a pay raise is critical. But
how high? Legislative leaders are talking 5 percent, but a partisan salary
committee has recommended 7.5 percent. Each percent increase will cost the state
• State archives. Now that an ill-considered plan to change the location has
been nixed, lawmakers need to budget the second half of the $30 million tab for
constructing a state-of-the-art building for Arizona's irreplaceable records and
• Taxpayer bill of rights. This deceptively named notion, which limits spending
to inflation and population growth, is really a set of financial handcuffs that
would give the state no flexibility to adapt to future needs, even when the
revenues are available. The measure caused such havoc in Colorado that voters
suspended it. And Arizona has a constitutional spending
limit: no more than 7.41 percent of state personal income.
• Tax relief. As sure as Valley temperatures top 100 in June, a big pot of state
revenues brings calls to cut taxes. Arizona's booming economy shows that our
taxes are hardly a drag on growth, but the tax structure certainly needs tuning
up. A good overhaul would lower some rates and raise others, a prospect as
likely right now as snow in June. Otherwise, rushing into large tax reductions
in a flush year is a prescription for trouble in lean years.
One option: Return some of the surplus as one-time rebates so that we're not
locked into big tax cuts.
• Water supplies. Dry wells and giant fissures are warnings that water supplies
are finite in rural Arizona. At the very least, the Legislature should give
rural counties and cities the authority to link development to water
availability. Lawmakers should also require potential homebuyers to be notified
if an area has been determined to have inadequate water.
Flush economic times give Arizona extra breathing room. It's a good thing. The
Legislature has plenty of weighty issues and a lot of heavy lifting ahead.