Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Editorial: Earmarked finances at risk of reallocation

Our legislators, continuously frustrated that voter protections keep it from exerting control over a large portion of the state's budget, are looking at how they can change the law to allow them to graze the forbidden fruit.

The unnamed Courier editor characterizes this as focusing only on "money that is not being spent," and while some lawmakers may be saying that, it would be supremely naive to imagine that any breach in the initiative firewall won't lead to wholesale withdrawal of any funds the Legislature wants. And bear in mind that our Legislature is currently owned and operated by the radical right, which risks the decimation of any program created by voter initiative that's to the left of Jesse Helms.

The editor goes further, imagining that the Legislature can simply repeal inconvenient initiatives. This betrays a gross lack of understanding of the Arizona Constitution. The initiative process is designed specifically to prevent legislative meddling in voter-created laws. It just don't work that way. This also implies a complete misunderstanding of the legislative process, in that programs and funding mechanisms generally go hand in hand, so repealing an initiative repeals its funding as well. That's a no-gainer, budget-wise, so you have to essentially siphon off taxes that the people have dedicated to a specific purpose and apply them somewhere else. That tends to piss people off.

There are a lot of good reasons for amending the Constitution to eliminate or restructure the initiative process. Voter-protection of funding really does impair legislative work to build constitutionally mandated balanced budgets, and as these protected chunks have built up over decades, everyone agrees the system is now seriously out of balance. Large out-of-state and corporate interests have also discovered that an initiative can be packaged and sold to voters like corn flakes, and this can be very convenient for snaking something into law that even the most expensive and devious lobbyists can't get through the normal process. We have a lot of bad and clunky law on our books as a result, and other states have found themselves facing bankruptcy over such idiocies.

What's happening now may result in the Legislature creating legal fig leaves for borrowing voter-protected funds to pay back later, while a Constitutional amendment goes forward to change the initiative process. This cannot legally change previous voter protections except by other specific initiatives, the Supreme Court will see to that. There's no going back, we can only go forward.

The editor's glib conclusion, that we should just "enact smart spending at all levels," is easy to say, but very hard to manage both politically and practically. The essential part he leaves out is gathering the necessary revenue and building a dependable tax structure, no surprise as he's never seen a tax he liked. We can only hope that our lawmakers are able to cobble together a more useful understanding of the complexity of our situation and more respect for voters and the law than our editor exhibits in this piece.

Update, 5pm: It seems our governor and legislative leadership aren't even competent to count days. ABC is reporting that tomorrow's special session will be too late to legally do anything about the March ballot measures on the agenda. (Readers of the linked story will note that Ken Bennett used to be Senate President, now he's Secretary of State, of course. Gad.) Now they're talking about a May ballot. Why not do the session anyway, aiming for May instead, rather than put it off again? I swear.

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