Thursday, October 11, 2012

Muggs: Mixed Bag o' Props

Pop Rocket, October 2012

With the primaries behind us and the relentless national campaign ahead, it's time to take a look at the initiatives on the ballot, which will likely be lost in the noise. It's a mixed bag this year.

Prop 114: Stupid

The backers of this proposition hope to employ the serious business of a constitutional amendment to address an entirely mythical problem.
     The design is to prevent criminals from winning civil damages from their victims if they are injured "while attempting to engage in, engaging in or fleeing after having engaged in or attempted to engage in conduct that is classified as a felony offense."
     My gosh, I hear you cry, we certainly don't want felons suing us for victimizing us! Of course we don't. The thing is, even if a felon had the subtle sense of irony to consider a such a suit, no judge or jury would award such damages and no lawyer would take the case. It just doesn't happen.     As an example of how absurd the whole trip is, in his official statement of support for the amendment, former Mesa state Senator Russell Pearce, the only sitting Senate president in US history to lose a recall vote, writes: "Here is one true story — a burglar fell through a kitchen skylight of a home, landing on a knife that was left on the counter. The burglar impaled himself on the knife, and then sued the homeowner for an 'unsafe condition'; the court awarding him damages for his injuries." It's an crazy scenario, taken nearly verbatim and exclusively from the Jim Carrey comedy Liar, Liar. When a Capitol Times reporter called Pearce on this, the Senator replied, "I was told it was accurate," illustrating why even longtime supporters have abandoned him as utterly clueless. His scare-tactic proposition gets the same grade.

Update, post election: It passed.

Prop 115: Evil

You won't find the phrase in the text of the proposition, but this one is about the judicial merit-selection system that Arizona has used since 1974.
     Currently we employ a bipartisan commission of lawyers and non-lawyers to vet and submit nominees for judgeships above the local level. The initiative would eliminate that, giving the Governor and Legislature essentially total control of the nomination process. It would bring back the political patronage, cronyism and corruption that led to creation of the system we use now, which by all credible accounts is working just fine.
     This is evil because it wraps corruption in the cloak of "reform," trying to fool you into voting against your own interests.


Prop 116: OK

This one would increase the exemption from property tax on business and industrial equipment from about $68,000 to "full cash value," meaning all of it. It's called the Small Business Job Creation Act, and while it seems to me that its real effect on employment will be close to nil and the "small businesses" taking the deduction will be pretty big, Republicans and Democrats agree that its effect on state revenue will be small, and it will help encourage existing businesses and attract new business from out of state.


Prop 117: Bait and switch

Every pol running for reelection wants to be able to say that he or she is doing something to reduce your taxes. The Legislature set up this proposition as a campaign booster — but not an actual tax-reducer.
     It would amend the Constitution to put a cap on annual increases in the assessed value of property to 5%, where there's no limit now. This sounds great, especially to fixed-income homeowners who watched their assessments rise like Charlton Heston's jell-o flood during the boom years.
     Keeping tax increases to reasonable levels is a fine idea, but this measure won't do it because it caps assessed value, not taxes on the property. Counties set their tax rates to pull in enough revenue to support their budgets. There would be no cap on how much revenue the state draws in property taxes overall. Assessed values are only used to determine who gets to share how much of the load, and properties rising more quickly in value are more sheltered, so, counterintuitively, this amendment would shift relatively more tax burden to lower-value properties as the county makes up the difference in rates. The taxpayer who votes for this hoping to reduce his taxes could easily find his bill going up faster afterward.


Props 118, 119: Good

These are both technical issues related to the administration of state lands, to which no one apparently objects. It's odd to see Governor Brewer and the Sierra Club both in support, so I don't think we're likely to go wrong here.
     Briefly, Prop 118 would allow a ten-year change in the formula used for distributing profits from the state land trust to increase the flow of funds to the schools. Had it been in place in 2010, says State Land Commissioner Maria Baier, our education system would have received $48 million rather than nothing from the fund that year.
     Prop 119 would change the system to allow land swaps to maintain or improve the value of state trust lands. If you've ever looked at a public-lands map of the state, you've seen the checkerboard created by alternating public and private land sections. This amendment would allow the state to consolidate high-value public areas and trade out lower-value land for development.

Update: 118 Failed, 119 Passed

Prop 120: Evil and stupid

This is silly grandstanding by the group of people who can't read well enough to understand the Tenth Amendment and wrongly deduce that the federal government is essentially illegitimate inside the borders. With a few exceptions Prop 120 declares "sovereignty" over all lands in the state and turns them over to the tender care of the Legislature. It's a little over the top to imagine that our pols might decide to allow condo developments inside the Grand Canyon, but from my reading of this constitutional amendment, there'd be nothing to stop them — except, of course, the very real and well established powers of the federal government, which would squash this amendment like a bug.
     Dream on, Tenthers, the world does not work in the way you imagine it should.


Prop 121: Maybe

Finally we get to a couple of propositions that are worth the ink to debate.
     Prop 121 is a fairly radical proposal to change our state electoral system. It would eliminate all partisan primary elections for state offices in favor of a qualified open primary, putting every candidate on the same ballot. The top two vote-winners in the primary would go on to the general election, regardless of party. The logic here is that it would dilute the influence of extreme voters in the primaries, which has been clearly giving us increasingly extreme candidates in the generals.
     California just started using this system, and so far the results have been mixed. It will take a few cycles for candidates and party organizations to figure out how it works. More candidates in the field make the results less reliable, for example, so third parties stand to lose as much as gain, and parties will have to be more focused in choosing candidates to support.
     We know that by several measures our system isn't working as it is. Is this the solution? Give it a think.


Prop 204: Maybe not

The proposition you'll hear most about in the campaign is about taxes, specifically reviving the 1% state sales tax after it expires next year. It's a very heavy and detailed document that attempts to lock the revenue in a series of boxes that the Legislature can't touch, thereby preventing the wholesale ripoff we've seen in the past three years and providing badly needed funds directly to our education system.     Can the boxes stay locked, in either the short or long term? That's hard to call, but I can say from reading it that the people behind this have gone to great length to try.
     The bigger question for me is the ripple effects through the economy of a permanent, arbitrary sales tax. Sales taxes are always harder on those with less money, including small businesses that depend on retail sales. Municipalities rely on setting local sales taxes as well, and that 1% lump substantially reduces their room to maneuver.
     The real problem here is that our Legislature has lacked either the wit or the stones to build a sensible, sustainable revenue system for the state. Taxation by initiative is acceptable as a stopgap measure when the capitol is as dysfunctional as it's been lately, but ultimately we need a better long-term solution.
     That said, no one gets a second chance to be eight years old, and for kids in school now there's no time to wait for a new crop of pols to appear. It's a tough question.


Muggs: Guns Do Kill People

Pop Rocket, September 2012

Bear with an old-car guy for a minute.
     In the decades around the turn of the 19th century, automobiles were a fascinating but mostly frivolous luxury, toys for the rich, simply because there was no real need for them. Cities and towns were compact because people walked or used horses to move themselves and their goods. Greater distances and heavier loads were handled by railroads. The system was complete, and it worked.
Industrialists got busy, the world spun a few times, and by the end of the 1920s automobiles were essential to commerce and middle-class life. Affordable personal cars created new possibilities, roads were built and smoothed, people were getting out of the crowded, dirty cities and living farther from their workplaces. Suburbs sprang up, social classes separated further, and once nearly unimaginable long-distance travel for pleasure became commonplace.
     Reel forward to today, and there can be no question that the availability of automotive technology has radically transformed our world. Owning a car is essential to identity and social status for most of us, and it obviously changes how we think about the world and act in it.
We embrace the benefits of that technology and try not to think about its costs, amounting to between 30,000 and 43,000 dead and a quarter of a trillion dollars in economic impact every year in this country alone. But does it mean anything useful to say, "cars don't build suburbs, people do"?     
     In the aftermath of the Aurora mass shooting I read a fascinating piece in The Atlantic by Evan Selinger, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, introducing me to the little-known field of the philosophy of technology. Leading thinkers in the field agree on the basic premise that a person with a given technology in hand is different from one without, in terms of how we view the world, what the elements we perceive mean and which matter more, and the choices we make.
This rings true for me, like a bell, and brings a fresh point of view to the public debate over personal firearms, one that I think essential to clarifying the basis for how we act as a society.
      Like most old saws labeled "common sense," the cliche "guns don't kill people ..." is ridiculously simplistic. Yes, the human pulls the trigger, but how we understand that act has to change if we recognize that, to some degree, holding a weapon changes us, gives us a range of different choices, and significantly alters our perceptions of ourselves and others. Who can deny the feeling of power that comes over us when gripping a handgun for the first time?
       Selinger writes, "To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape. It not only offers people, animals, and things to interact with, but also potential targets. Furthermore, gun possession makes it easy to be bold, even hotheaded. Physically weak, emotionally passive, and psychologically introverted people will all be inclined to experience shifts in demeanor. ... there is a reduction in the amount and intensity of environmental features that are perceived as dangerous, and a concomitant amplification in the amount and intensity of environmental features that are perceived as calling for the subject to respond with violence."
       It may be that this has been a more or less constant factor in the history of our relationship with firearms. But neither the technology nor our society has stood still. The weapons have grown steadily more powerful, dangerous and accessible, while at the same time our social fabric has deteriorated, leaving most people relatively isolated from larger communities and other kinds of people, infantilized in their focus on self, suckling a steady stream of media sensationalism encouraging distrust and fear. From this is born the cult of the gun, showing just how sick our societal relationship with firearms has become.
      Leaving aside our occasional fascination with mass killings like that in Aurora, Americans generally avoid thinking about cost. Each year something on the order of 100,000 Americans are killed or injured by firearms. Yet most people seem confident that the benefits of access to this technology outweigh the costs. The main benefit seems to be that a gun helps alleviate fear, usually unjustified, which has to feed back into changing the gun-wielder.
        It's a cliché to say that the men who wrote our Bill of Rights could not have imagined an AK-47, but it's also true that they had no concept of how guns change people and ultimately the society they inhabit. Anyone with better than a gnat's brain can see that the situation is out of control. Our sensible 18th-century safeguard against invasion has grown into an unrecognizable and self-destructive social pathology.
      Sensible people everywhere in this country are beginning to rethink their individual relationships with guns. I think it's high time we as a nation start to grow up about this issue, face the massive and insidious cost of the mythology we've built around it, and dig into making changes to head off an even more threatening future.