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Pop Rocket, February 2012

Legislative Crazy, 2012 Edition

Every January the state Legislature starts its new session with a blizzard of new bills. The pols have only a few days to get their pet projects into the legislative process, and in the ensuing weeks the rest of us have to try to sort out what's going on in time to respond to it. It's never easy.
     This year I set out to try to read all the bills so I could report to you on this year's banquet of legislative crazy. As of this writing the House and Senate have 986 bills, memorials and resolutions in the pipe, which believe it or not is a fair bit fewer than average. But they're still coming in.
     Here's what I can cram on this page. Believe me, there's plenty more.
     John Fillmore (R-Apache Junction) is running a bunch of bills about schools, including H2009, requiring that principals have five years of classroom teaching experience, and H2039, which would allow them to hire teachers with no certificates. Presumably after five years we can have principals with no certificates as well. Terri Proud (R-Tucson) wants to make sure kids have an elective for studying the Bible in a non-religious way (H2473). Uh, sure.
     While we're on schools, Carl Seel (R-Cave Creek) wants to recalibrate school funding from average daily membership to average daily attendance. No point putting money into schools where kids are having trouble showing up. Chet Crandell (R-Heber) on the other hand, wants to use an “outcome-based funding” formula (H2180, 2182), wherein we give the school half its money up front and half on delivery of results that meet his criteria. He also wants vouchers so college students can take their state funds and spend them at private colleges, including of course the religious ones (H2181). For the rest of the school system Jack Harper (R-Surprise) has a constitutional amendment cooking to nudge vouchers under the tent (HCR2006). Apparently these guys aren't big on the technical parts of the Constitution.
     License plates are a theme this year. Let's see, we've got the Fallen Hero plate for vets (H2042), the Girl's Youth Organization plate (H2499), the Special Athlete plate (S1139), and the Service Club plate (S1238). Meanwhile the Dems propose banning license-plate covers (H2046), non-standard plate designs (H2314) and special plates altogether (H2313). I've had about enough of them myself.
     Jerry Weiers (R-Glendale) thinks we're way too strict about motorcycles. He wants to allow bikers to pass in the same lane or between lanes if traffic is moving slow (H2074, 2077). He also wants to prevent Fish & Game from limiting the size of ammunition magazines for hunting (H2640). Elk can turn on you, you know.
     Another bill from Rep. Fillmore would establish a for-profit Bank of Arizona to hold the state's revenues (H2104). That ought to be real popular following the bank bailouts.
     Majority Leader Steve Court (R-Mesa) wants a committee to study phasing out individual and corporate income taxes in favor of sales taxes (H2123).
     State capital gains taxes may go away this year. Justin Olson (R-Mesa) proposes eliminating gains from adjusted state income (H2133), as does Rep. Seel (H2488) and Rep. Mesnard (H2597). Perhaps these gents need to coordinate.
     Worker's compensation appears frequently on the list, and the Rs clearly want to find new ways to prevent your employer from paying when you get hurt. Prescott's own Rep. Karen Fann is carrying the water for her more senior seatmates (H2365, 2366, 2367, 2368, HCR2030).
     We've got something of a theme going in bills designed to limit public protests and prevent another embarrassing recall result. Judy Burges (R-Buckeye, now moving to the Senate) leads the charge with H2198, banning "public events" on public property without a permit and a damage deposit. Take that, Occupiers. Rep. Seel would amend the constitution to require a primary as well as general election in a recall action (HCR2039). Rep. Smith wants recall organizers to be only from the relevant district, and to prevent you from voting in the recall if you didn't vote in the previous election (HCR2022).
     There are a few perks for pols in the mix, of course. Rep. Harper brings us H2022, which will eliminate the awful hardship for ex-legislators of waiting a year before they can cash in on the lobbying business.  Rep. Proud want to increase allowable campaign contributions by an order of magnitude (H2213), and eliminate the cap on total contributions in a given year (H2214).
     To make sure embarrassing things don't get into the press,  David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista) wants to classify any communication between a legislator and a constituent that's "intended to be private" as not a matter of public record (H2241). Similarly, Chandler's JD Mesnard wants to have to report only items worth over $5,000 on his financial disclosure (H2603). Update: Gowan pulled the bill shortly after this writing.)
     Benefiting Republicans in particular, Rep. Fann's HCR2044 would have us vote on referenda referred by the Leg in the primary election rather than the general. Can anyone say vote suppression?
     What legislative session would be complete without more guns? Rep. Harper is teamed up with Sen Ron Gould (R-Lake Havasu) to try again to force colleges to allow firearms on campus (S1087 and H2254). The Governor vetoed this last year, but gave some hints on how to get it past her.
     Sen. Burges thinks jumping into water from a rock over ten feet high should be a misdemeanor (H2266). Watch out for her at Watson Lake on a hot day.
     It looks like unions are almost as scary as brown people this year. Rep. Fillmore wants to prevent school districts from negotiating with unions (H2040). David Burnell Smith (R-Carefree) wants to prevent the state from contracting with any union across the board, and void all union contracts (H2317, 2318). It'll be interesting to see how that works for cops and firefighters. Our Rep. Fann was first to sign on to these.
     Frank Pratt (R-Casa Grande) is living up to his "commitment to hard-working Arizona Taxpayers" by making sure they work harder. His H2387 makes it OK to make underground miners work 12-hour shifts instead of just eight. John Nelson (R-Litchfield Park) is carrying a copy (S1054) in the Senate. Nice. Sounds super-safe, too.
     The embarrassingly large ID card for food-stamp recipients is back, this time from Rep. Seel (H2582), so everyone at the checkout knows and can keep an eye on what you buy.
     And there's a raft of bills meant to claim control of land, health care sovereignty from the federal gubmint. Good luck with that rant. David Stevens (R-Sierra Vista) seems to think that the Constitution prevents issuing birth certificates to kids born to illegals, and so the state doesn't have to (H2406). He'll have a surprise in court if he gets that passed. 

     Once again the Rs have supermajorities in both houses, so they'll get whatever the leadership wants. This year the leaders of both houses are from here, so your calls, letters and email messages may have a little more effect than usual. I urge you to try. Right now I have to go take some Dramamine.

Will We Ever Learn?

Pop Rocket, January 2012

In mid-December we saw a blip on the news about Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta quietly taking down the flag and declaring an official end to the war in Iraq, the longest armed conflict in our nation's history. For millions of Americans and millions more in the rest of the world, of course, it will never be over.
     The usual measurement is from March of 2003, but active hostilities began there in January of 1991, and I recall clearly the sharp debate in my circle of international expats over the wisdom of that action and the motivations for it even then. But once we returned Kuwait to the iron rule of its rightful despots and established the siege lines, most Americans returned to their knitting and forgot about it, as they are already doing again now.
     As the flag was coming down, my family came together for a landmark birthday, and we had a great time. But like many families, we had an empty place at the table.
     My sister's son Zack was six when the Gulf War rolled into our consciousness on heroic tank treads, embedded reporters obediently putting the approved face on it. Now he's 27, a three-tour Iraq veteran, and thanks in largest part to the irredeemably stupid actions of our elected officials and military officers, he'll very likely spend the rest of his life a mental invalid, wholly dependent on public care, secure facilities and antipsychotic drugs to ensure he's not a danger to himself or others.
     A million and a half American military men and women have participated in the Iraq conquest and occupation in just the past eight years. So far it's officially killed 4,484 and wounded over 32,000 in action, not counting civilian contractors, suicides, and undiagnosed injuries mental and physical. Few returned unscarred in some way, and their families suffer with them. As we've seen so often in my lifetime, casualties will continue to mount up for a couple of generations as those hidden injuries come to light.
     Among Iraqis we'll never know how much pain and death we meted out, how many families destroyed, scattered and thrust into poverty and strife, the follow-on effects profoundly changing lives through the decades to come. Nor can we ever count how many new enemies we've made, nor know how their pain will come back to haunt us or, more likely, our children.
     We'll never know what our world might be like had we used the staggering amounts of money we collectively wasted on this 21-year atrocity in more productive ways. How much better educated and healthier might we be? How many casualties of our economic malaise might we have prevented? How many families ad businesses would have kept their mortgages rightside-up, how many fewer would be out of work?
     Sure, the war is "over," and that's good. But I'm committing to this paper the unforgivable journalistic crime of admitting that I care to make an attempt, however vain, to impress you, to sear your forebrain with a red-hot branding iron that says NEVER AGAIN.
     As our founders knew from personal experience at the wrong end of a bayonet, a standing army inevitably becomes a tool of diplomacy by other means. Take a look at timeline of United States military operationson Wikipedia, I'll bet you'll be surprised at how many you forgot about, even you students of history. We desperately hold up an image of ourselves as peace-loving, yet we've had our dogs of war barking on the ground in some other country more or less continuously since 1820. That's why the rest of the world has long seen us as a big, stupid brute, to be flattered, avoided or, sometimes, suicidally confronted. With the Bush Doctrine and its insane embrace of preemptive war,we're now known as big, stupid and aggressive.
     We're stupid because we routinely, even willfully, forget the ugly lessons we should have learned last week, leave alone those of twenty years ago, or forty, or sixty, or two hundred.
     We've quit Iraq, mostly. Yay. Did we win anything? No. Are we better off for it? No. Is anyone better off for it? Only the warmongers and profiteers. Have we learned anything from it? That's the question.
The next time someone comes on teevee explaining that we have to wind up our big mean toy and set it loose somewhere to whack someone we don't like, I want you to remember, and be very skeptical. Remember the dead, remember the wounded, remember the costs, remember the families, and remember the generations who'll be cleaning up the mess, both here and there. Then speak up against it.
     When will we ever learn?

A Return to Rationality?

Pop Rocket, December 2011

Defying nearly all the purveyors of conventional wisdom, on November 8 the voters of Mesa made history and turned their famous and powerful state senator out of office. The 12-point victory by insurgent Republican Jerry Lewis over Senate president and Fox News darling Russell Pearce is a warning shot for the 2012 election season, declaring that the reasonable center still matters.
     As I write this in mid-November, pundits and pollsters are rewriting their scratch sheets in response to what amounts to a wave of surprises on the local level nationally. By two to one, Ohioans rejected their Tea-Party governor's attempt to bust public-sector unions. Mississippians rejected fetal citizenship. Mainers voted to keep their same-day voter registration, thank you very much. Democrats won mayoral races in both Phoenix and Tucson. In every case, right-wing overconfidence, overreach and fear-mongering brought decisive defeat.
     In Arizona the Pearce-Lewis bout was the main event, breaking wide open the ongoing civil war within the Republican Party between the more traditional rationalists and the rampaging ideologues of the far right. Their methods could not have been more different. Lewis quietly talked with LDS church leaders one-on-one, building grassroots support in this Mormon-majority town. Pearce exercised raw political muscle, outspending Lewis three to one, publicly threatening Republican pols who might back Lewis against him, baldly lying about the Lewis campaign's backers and finances, and even fielding a sham candidate to siphon off Lewis votes.
     In the context of 2010 it should have worked. But voters have had a chance to see the results of the Tea Party wave, and with the dirty tricks they were clearly not amused, delivering the first recall defeat for a sitting legislator in Arizona history, and the first firing of a sitting senate president in US history.
     "There have been a lot of politicians locally and statewide and nationally who have used hate and division as their principle political tool," said Rep. Raul Grijalva in Tucson Weekly. "Pearce's loss is going to make everybody pause." Nationally, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain have all happily employed just the tools Grijalva enumerates, and found themselves out in the cold even before snow flies on the primary election season. I don't want to jinx it, but I'm thinking we may be looking at an election cycle in which reason gets some respect.
     Back in Phoenix, the surprises didn't end with the vote count. As the polls were going south for Pearce in the end of October, party bigwigs began maneuvering for position on the chance that the king might fall. In the first week of November, the oddsmakers had Majority Leader Andy Biggs just edging out Sen. Steve Yarbrough for president. But when the shouting stopped and the caucus room doors opened to the press, we learned that Yarbrough didn't even make the ballot, and Biggs had lost by one vote to our own Sen. Steve Pierce, who on the Saturday before the election had declared he had only one vote -- his own.
     Biggs, a strong Pearce supporter, remains as Leader and the new Majority Whip is Sen. Frank Antenori, a proud extremist from Tucson. Even so, it's clear that a big deal was done in that caucus room. Many voters think our Pierce is just another right-wing extremist -- as one online commenter put it, "all that's changing is one vowel" -- but they forget or didn't notice that throughout his Senate tenure Steve has argued for results first and ideology second, and he took a lot of heat in leading a successful revolt against a package of anti-immigrant bills that Russell meant as his crowning achievement. On the 2010 Republican spectrum, that made him a godless liberal. But with Lewis providing the deciding vote, the tide turned against lockstep ideology.
     We have reason to hope that this signals a new trend away from emotion and fear and back toward rationality in our kwazy Kapitol.

It's About Showing Up

Pop Rocket, November 2011

I've got a bunch of things rattling around in my beady brain that seem related, clustered around our most important right: the vote.
      First, you might be forgiven if you failed to notice that we've just had a local election. I'm sure you, dear reader, like the rest of the country, have been riveted by the slapstick antics of the plodding repeat offenders and 15-minute flashes vying for official candidacy in an election that won't take place for another year, so you could have easily missed that we just gave away a seat on the Prescott City Council basically for the asking.
      A wan hurrah to Alan Carlow for stepping up, but jeeze, is this really how little we value policy-making authority in our town? Is there no one else with the gumption to raise a hand and say, "Oh, what the heck"? It's completely baffling.
      Meanwhile a truly high-stakes game is slowly playing out under the radar, but the rules are so complex that even those of us trying to pay attention are rolling our eyes and nodding off. We're all relying on our relatively new system for redistricting to set us up with fair elections and proper representation in Congress and the state Legislature. Eleven years ago we voted to take that power out of the hands of the Legislature (or, more properly, the Republicans, who over the preceding decades had gerrymandered themselves into a permanent majority) and give it to a five-member commission of two Rs, two Ds and one independent to chair it.
      As you might expect, given a certain breadth of experience in human affairs, this tipped off a mud-spattered free-for-all ofrecrimination and legal maneuvering among members of the political class and the carrion-feeders who attend them. Everyone who's not on the commission seems to have a better idea of how to do the job than anyone on it, proving only that our decision to create what amounts to a fifth constitutional branch was a sound one.
      But our own Rep. Andy Tobin, following his meteoric and ultimately puzzling rise from rank newbie to the office of Speaker, is leading the rhetorical charge, challenging the commission's decisions even before they're anywhere near complete. Apparently a continuing reliable majority (at this writing, 15 safe Republican legislative districts out of 30, with no more than six competitive, plus four out of nine safe R congressional seats, with three competitive) isn't safe enough for his band of teabag-draped pachyderms.
      Tobin says he'll try to legislate the district maps he wants, even though it's not at all clear that the courts can even let him in the door on this issue. His stack of legally pointless bills will serve as a convenient platform for election-year attention-mongering, however.
      It's easy to criticize the district maps as proposed, of course. The commission has six required criteria to serve, along with various federal laws to protect minority communities against our state's history of discrimination. Even with a clean process, stretching nine congressional districts across the state is bound to produce some improbable fence-lines, like the one encompassing most of Yavapai County (but not most of the Verde communities), north Yuma, Lake Havasu, Fountain Hills and that weird strip of terra incognita north of the Canyon. How does that constitute a "community of interest," and how does one person represent it?
      This really points up how impractical it is to cap the House at 435 representatives for an expanding population of well over 300 million. Imagine standing in line with 700,000 other people for a moment of your representative's time, then tell me why government decision-making is ever more remote from our needs on the ground.
      And so we come to the wave of demonstrations all over the world in which disparate groups of ordinary people are occupying public spaces, crying out for economic and social justice. It's a powerful and worthy message, pointing the way to a better world, no question. But the stark contrast between the generally comfy part-time demos here in the U.S. and the extended and often bloody and risky uprisings in rest of the world is inescapable.
      How can we hope to be a great nation and live up to our common moral consciousness if we can't be bothered to show up and say we want it, or demand better representation, or push back against political grandstanding, or even try to fill an available local office? Aren't we really just getting the government -- and the economic justice -- we deserve?

Smart Meters: Spawn of Hell?
Pop Rocket, October 2011

For months my online contacts have been forwarding me dire warnings about smart meters, detailing at length how their mysterious workings cause cancer, furnish 24-hour surveillance of our every move to the Russian Mob, rob us blind and are generally the spawn of Satan. More recently, as APS began installing this resident evil in Prescott, my friends have been calling me up, asking what the heck is going on with these things and should we organize some sort of public movement to stop them.
     I noticed that the guy with the anti-Obama sign over on West Gurley recently put up another hastily lettered placard against smart meters, exemplifying how the issue has improbably united certain slices of right and left. Smart meters embody all our fears of The Man sneaking in to pick our pockets and leave us sick and penniless in the street.
     I know a lot of readers, coming to this page to exult in my radical lefty gibberings, may expect me to line up with this crowd to stick a finger in the eye of The Man and expose the insidious invasion of hellish technology masquerading as Hello Kitty's left ear. I'm afraid I have to disappoint you.
     For decades the energy industry has been talking about the need to upgrade its metering of electricity, and I've been watching it in the context of the glacially slow but ultimately inevitable shift to renewables. Every large power outage since the early ’90s has brought a blip in coverage of how our ancient, primitive electrical grid system is incapable of preventing cascading failures because it can't sense sudden changes in demand. Efforts to promote energy conservation and reduce demand for new fossil-energy plants have been stymied because extending time-of-day pricing to residential customers required dedicated meters. Smart meters are meant to address all these critical needs.
     But given the ongoing corporate depredations that infest what's left of our economy and our government's apparent addiction to surveillance, it's not unreasonable to think that a two-way wireless device stuck on the side of your house might be used nefariously or eventually cause your fillings to glow in the dark. Or something.
     So in response to these sincere and growing fears among my pals and correspondents, I looked into the facts on these things.
     It wasn't difficult to turn up an article on iFixit.com detailing a teardown of the exact model of smart meter (Elster REX2) that APS brought to my house, stealthy as elves kidnapping your baby and leaving a changeling on a moonless night.
     Several e-mail circulars peppered with exclamation points had warned that smart meters monitor your use constantly with such fine discrimination that they can decode what movie you're watching on teevee, beaming the info back to Big Brother Central with enough microwave power to nuke your brain like a 7-11 breakfast burrito.
     So. Inside the shell the iFixit geeks found a 900MHz (UHF) transmitter capable of about 1/4 watt that transmits once an hour for about 40 milliseconds, which pencils out to about 10 seconds a day. You get more radiation exposure from your cellphone in a month than from this thing in 4,000 years, and that's only if you're standing in front of it – most of the energy is directed away from the house, necessary for efficiency with such a puny source. It only has to get as far as another nearby meter to relay information up the chain.
     Even accepting the feasibility of reading raw electricity flowing by, and I don't, is 40ms enough time to deliver the amount of information necessary to tell whether you're watching The Waltons or The Playboy Channel? Not with any technology currently known to humans, sorry. The idea that this machine can furnish a detailed record of your activities is poppycock.
     Some are saying that since it's wireless, it's hackable, and that may be true despite the "advanced encryption" that the iFixit people found. But as far as I can tell the hacker isn't going to find out any more with his souped-up laptop and stalker van than he would have by walking up to your old dumb meter with nothing but a pad and pencil.
     The most suspicious aspect I've found is that many people seem convinced that their bills have gone up since the smart meter came online. That took a little more legwork.
     Here in the West, residential smart meters got off on the wrong foot when Pacific Gas & Electric started installing them in Bakersfield in 2006. Many news sources report that terrible customer communications by PG&E, aggravated by a coincident heat wave, occasional meter failures and poor installations, and changes in pricing statewide that switched some people to time-of-day pricing, led to a lot of surprise bills and sparked the wave of suspicion that has propagated to Prescott.
     Readers should note that smart-meter rollouts have been much smoother in other parts of this country and in Europe, which is already using a lot more of this technology.
     But I called the convenient number left by APS to answer my questions, and after playing the customary voicemail-tree game and waiting out the hold time for Adrian, who transferred me to Amber in marketing, who got me a callback from APS spokesperson Damon Gross, I asked:
     Does my pricing plan change with the new meter? – No, but now anyone can opt for time-of-day pricing without changing the meter.
     Can I expect my monthly cost to change? – No, the same usage will cost the same. But now anyone can access their meter data on a hour-by-hour basis and look for conservation opportunities, which can reduce cost.
     Why are some people in Prescott saying their bills have gone up with the smart meter? – "Weather is the biggest driver of energy usage," said Damon, and we're coming out of a hot summer.
     What specific information does the meter transmit? "It's like a bar graph," with a single number for each hour to show usage. The data is not continuous.
     Can someone at APS know which appliances I'm using? – No. "We have no business need" for such information, and Damon didn't think it was even possible to get it.
     As a word salesman I'd have genuinely liked to be able to give you something more gripping and less banal, but it is what it is. Can we trust APS? That might be going a bit far, but the company's answers here seem well corroborated to me. Now you can quit worrying and get going on that solar-panel installation.

Confusing Government with Business

Pop Rocket, September 2011

 As we approach the final bout in our biannual City Council tournament, it seems to me that despite changing details, what most concerns attentive voters boils down to the perennial issue of the proper role of government.
     Over the past couple of decades I see a pattern hinting at a broad consensus about what works for us and what doesn't. Elected officials who flout that consensus risk voter anger.
     A line runs from the failed deal to keep the original Wal-Mart in the city limits, through various high-profile insults to our landscape for short-term business benefit, to the current controversy over the Trader Joe's deal.
     After Wal-Mart chose to locate on the reservation at Frontier Village, "depriving" Prescott of some sales-tax revenue it never had, the City became much more aggressive about attracting business, resulting in a string of ill-considered decisions that cost pots of money and reduced quality of life in our city. Increasingly, the line between business interests and the public interest is confused.
     Prescott annexed a big tract of greenfield land to the east of the reservation and undertook a big-box campaign. It ignored environmental concerns and encouraged developers to rip the top off Bullwhacker Hill, the landmark gateway to our valley, in favor of the dicey Gateway Mall, which has never been fully occupied. The big-retail invasion of their little bit of heaven prompted residents of The Ranch to put one of their own in a Council seat.
     Remember the proposal to build a pro hockey arena in Prescott? It had gone as far as naming the team before cooler heads shut it down. The hucksters sold it to Prescott Valley for its predictably brief life, leaving voters there to hold the bag on an overscaled and now largely empty arena that reeks of small-town hubris.
     Wheeler-dealing over the fairgrounds, the golf course and its restaurant, the White Spar-Copper Basin intersection, Lowe's and many other projects have all focused public unease about overdevelopment and our quality of life.
     With the TJ's deal the City has fully embraced the role of the capitalist, unabashedly investing a couple of million clams in a risky retail venture for little more than short-term profit. Experience shows that if the numbers aren't good enough, the corporations will pull out again on short notice, leaving us to clean up the mess.
     Will the TJ's deal make money? It well could. But its adherents have refused to face the central question bothering its many detractors: is this the proper role of government?
     People of all political stripes expect government to spend their money conservatively on things and services that support quality of life. This starts with the essentials of physical security (police, fire, justice) through public infrastructure (roads, education, water and waste) and ramps out in more nuanced functions like public health, parks and recreation. The thread running through these functions is the public commons, things that are needed and shared by all, where private profit makes no sense.
     Americans also have a pretty fine-tuned sense of fairness, and we don't like it when government favors one party over another. The Lowe's, Super Wal-Mart and TJ's deals all crossed that line in that they furnished advantages to companies coming to compete with established businesses that had never been offered the same. This is perilous political territory.
     The motivation for entering that jungle is often expressed in competitive terms: we and our neighboring towns all live and die on sales taxes, so we have to compete for new businesses or risk falling behind in some vague, zero-sum-game way. To me this sounds like a mug's game, but so far our leaders have refused to seriously take on the tricky political job of coordinating with our neighbors to share revenues so everyone wins and we can present a united front in dealing with the corporations. Wouldn't that be the smart-business approach?
     At the same time I'm thinking that relying so heavily on sales taxes, which to a large extent forces visitors to pay for our services, seems as piratical as it is economically risky.
     Instead we get a race to the bottom, kowtowing to outside businesses and developers that have no stake in the community and will eventually walk away with those profits, making us all a little poorer.
     The recession that we're slowly recovering from has a silver lining -- a remission of our headlong, cancerous growth. We have an opportunity to take a breath and think about where we're going as a community, and what we want to become, before shifting economic winds reawaken the beast.
     The City's general fund is not a bank, and our Council is not a venture-capital board of directors. As a voter I'm looking for leaders who have a clear, sustainable vision for Prescott that protects and ensures the quality of life we all cherish and deals fairly with our businesses and neighboring communities. Progressive and conservative can easily agree on that.

Make a Better Choice
Pop Rocket, August 2011
With the local election season starting to heat up, you may be looking in dismay at the candidate lists and thinking, "Jeez, why can't I have better choices?" Good question.
     If you're among the fashionably cranky pack that automatically dismisses anyone running for office as a self-serving hack or worse, I can't help. But if you're looking around and seeing lots of people you'd trust more to make important decisions, I feel your pain.
     The hard fact is that our electoral system is biased in favor of zealots, crooks and rich people.
     Look at what it takes to get elected. Candidates for office must put their jobs or businesses on hold and devote a year or more to selling themselves to cynical, apathetic and uninvolved maybe-voters. They have to pay appropriate respects to religious groups, fraternal groups, business groups, newspapers and every moneyed interest in the constituency, usually with hat in hand begging for cash to spend on signs, mailings, radio, television and print ads. They're expected to know the ins and outs of any obscure issue that a given voter cares about, and smile. They have to look right, be tall enough, thin enough and dressed well enough to suit vague expectations. They must speak eloquently, forcefully and at length, but not sound too smart, or too forceful, or talk too long. They must be normal and conform, but they must also have fresh ideas and innovative ways of dealing with hard problems. They have to show how they've learned from their mistakes, but they can't ever have made one.
     If you happen to get the nod from the voters, you're immediately responsible for every foul-up your office has ever made, and you face a constant fire hose of criticism. Every bit of information you need to do your job comes from someone who could be spinning it to serve an agenda. Your colleagues routinely promise you support and renege at the last moment. You have to read and understand an endless stream of documents so dense with legal gibberish it crosses your eyes. You're obliged to spend vast amounts of time and mileage visiting constituents, attending community meetings and touching base with those moneyed interests who now think they own you. You have to stay on top of every initiative to keep it from going off the rails while your back is turned. Whatever you're doing is never, ever, enough. And, at the state and local levels anyway, the paycheck you're getting wouldn't keep a college student from homelessness.
     Long hours, low pay, daily frustration, high stress, and most everyone seems to think you're a criminal. For someone with a real life, where's the attraction? It's no wonder so few step up.
     Then throw in our party-primary-game-show system, where it's practically impossible for a reasonable person to be heard above the din. We're asking smart people to throw a party they wouldn't attend on a bet.
     I can't blame voters for tuning out, it's an ugly show. But that puts yet more power in the hands of those moneyed interests I mentioned, who are working 24/7 on one thing: making more money. Focus like that carries huge advantages in any contest.
     If you want better choices, you have to be involved in creating them. It can be done, but don't look for instant gratification. You have to be thinking at least two or three election cycles out, identifying and cultivating people who can both be trusted to govern and win a game that's shamelessly rigged. You have to give them confidence that they can do this thing and their lives won't be in shambles when they come home again. You have to participate in organizations to help them get elected and do a good job, no matter how grindingly tedious the meetings are.
     This is a lot of work, and if you're honest the only return you can hope for is a transient uptick in the quality of governance that someone else can build on. Rinse and repeat.
     So let's not get all hung up on how bad the choices are in a given moment. Think of it as the price of our own neglect. We have to do the best we can with what we've got to work with, and keep eyes on the horizon. It can get better.
     Above all we have to believe and convince others that the system can work just fine when good, solid people are involved. Without that, we're done for.

Food Fight!
Pop Rocket, July 2011
 Something historic happened last month, and it's only barely registering on the old news-o-meter.
    Responding to a bipartisan citizen's campaign, enough residents of legislative District 18 (Mesa) signed petitions to recall their Senate representative. This is the first successful recall of a state legislator in Arizona history, as well as the first of a sitting Senate president in US history.
    By "successful" here I mean getting the signature count and triggering the recall election. As of this writing we don't yet know whether that election will take place in November or May, and we can't predict its outcome. Mr Pearce will run again, and he could easily win. But the recall by itself is enough to change the game -- or it would be in a saner world -- and point up just how far from the norm our political leaders have wandered.
    Supporters of this new normal will say that the recall amounts to nothing more than sour grapes among losers, but with many Republican leaders and even the highest circle of Mormon Church executives putting both public and private pressure on Pearce to back off, the landscape is clearly more complex than that.
    The question you won't see answered, or even asked, in the mainstream media is why it's come to this. Why, a hundred years since Arizona placed the recall in our state constitution, breaking the deal with the feds on statehood to do it, are we pulling the trigger on this for the first time?
    For this writer, a lot of it traces back to the institution of legislative term limits in 2000. In the years since, all experienced legislators have been forced out, leaving us with at least one-third of seats in both houses filled with newcomers every other year. With the loss of that experience, the culture of collegiality and compromise that once moderated our public discourse quickly eroded, devolving into the sort of cliqueishness, deceit and egocentrism more worthy of a junior high school. Many legislators act as though they're playing the New Talent stage at the National Congressional Politics Festival, where they're really just hanging out in the dirt parking lot, egging each other on.
    As example, look at the recent special session on extending unemployment benefits. The issue was a single word in the state code that would allow us to accept federal funds to extend benefits from 72 to 99 weeks. It would cost Arizona nothing from state funds, and every reputable economist agreed that the cost of not doing it would be significant. The public supported it overwhelmingly in every nonpartisan poll. Mr Pearce told the Governor he had the votes to pass. It should have been a no-brainer, zip-zop.
     But when the special session convened, the deal the Governor thought she'd made collapsed in embarrassing isarray. While the Dems all patiently waited to vote, the Republicans gamed the issue, made fun of it, or just refused to show up. The tax ideologues ranted about adding to the federal deficit, the moralists characterized measly unemployment checks as incentives to avoid honest work, and the corporatists, led by our own Mr Tobin, tried to strongarm the Governor into sweetening the pot with yet more tax breaks for big businesses. In a performance both ugly and incomprehensible, Senator Don Shooter of Yuma showed up on the floor in a sombrero and serape. It was a doublecross, it was bedlam, and it quickly collapsed into the sort of angry finger-pointing tantrums among Republicans most of us wouldn't tolerate in a sugar-high six-year-old.
   At the core of this fubar was a sorry lack of experience among legislative leadership and the Governor in making deals, as well as a breakdown in the capitol culture that would have at least maintained decorum. Led by Mr Pearce's obsession with brown people or Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard's enthusiasm for teaching his girlfriend a drunken lesson on a freeway shoulder, what were once vices have become habits. The adults are locked out of the building, leaving a political culture evoking The Lord of the Flies.
    I understand the citizen-statesman ideal that most Arizonans still support, but from these and a hundred other examples,term limits have clearly made things much worse. We could roll with it when things were good, but now that the wheels have come off the gravy train, we can no longer afford this kind of immaturity.
    As I recall the story, a couple hundred years ago my ancestors joined in what seemed a hopeless guerilla war to free themselves of capricious, arbitrary, inbred despots taking advantage of them for their own narrow purposes. As we celebrate the season of our independence and approach another federal election campaign, I urge you to consider the parallel to our own time, and seek out and reward sober experience and adult behavior.

Yavapai Downer
Pop Rocket, June 2011
The beleaguered Yavapai Downs complex had its tenth anniversary on May 26, but no one was celebrating.
     The day before, Yavapai County Farm & Agriculture Association President Jeff Wasowicz announced that after a desperate search for some extraordinary public or private help, the facility would have to cancel its racing season and close down. A lot of us are asking whether that's really such a bad thing.
     The American county fairground comes from an ancient tradition. Scattered farmers and herders gathered to trade and socialize, establishing small local markets. These market centers became towns and cities, leading to the whole idea of civilization. In the West, where cattle is king, it's hard to imagine a rural county seat without a livestock market.
     While many fairgrounds still serve this function, including Prescott's own rodeo grounds, now it's really all about entertainment. For its very existence the county fairgrounds complex depends on entertainment income, most of it from professional horse racing. Its closed-circuit operation put those races on TV in off-track betting facilities nationwide. Each year about 300 people depend directly on the track for their livelihoods, along with many horse owners, trainers and private support personnel. That amounts to a sizable economic engine for the county and Prescott Valley in particular.
     But county taxpayers are reasonably asking what public good justifies a public appeal to rescue what seems to most of us to be a largely private gambling operation. Further, if the people involved have cared so little about it to let it run down so far so fast, both physically and financially, it's prudent to wonder why it deserves a bailout.
     One public good could be tax revenue, but we recently learned that the operation has been paying a tenth what it should have been since it opened for business. Some are blaming County Assessor Pam Pearsall for bringing it down by applying the commercial tax rate (at last!), but no one with authority on either side is disputing that she's using the correct formula. It's also came out that she informed them of the change last summer, so the sudden crisis over it doesn't quite add up.
     But the Ag Association says it can't pay the tax bill, at least not right away, and that's a big part of its problem.
     Seeking tax relief at the last minute, the association turned to our senior state representative, Andy Tobin, then working as House Majority Leader, who took a stab at a special tax exemption. But -- and there's no more charitable way to say it, I'm afraid -- he bungled it. Rather than follow standard procedure and attach it as an amendment to the budget, he stuck it on a bill to expand the dodge that lets rich and religious people send their kids to private schools on the public dime, a bill that everyone except Mr Tobin apparently knew the Governor hated. The veto stamp came out, the Ag Association's big tax bill came due, and Mr Tobin got a promotion to Speaker.
     Beyond the county taxes and plummeting box office, another huge factor is payments on the roughly 12 million clams in federal loans that helped build the place. When the current association took over from the previous regime, years of disorganization left it assuming a lot more debt than it counted on.
     So while we may not gain much if it continues, if it goes under we collectively stand to lose a big pile of public moolah both locally and federally. Like the man said, if you owe the bank a thousand bucks and can't pay, you've got a problem, but if you owe a million, the bank has a problem. That would be us taxpayers.
     Some are saddened that the long history of horse racing in our area might end, but for me that's not particularly interesting. Slave auctions had a long history too. This is more about playing the hand we're dealt.
     However we feel about gambling, using animals for entertainment or the facility's terrible service and management record, we don't want to get stuck holding a big mortgage gone bad, and we don't want 89A to start looking like Route 66 after the bypass. We're left with little choice but to hold our noses and find some way to keep it ticking over.
     Whether or not that involves more public money, I'll be watching for much closer public scrutiny of how the place is run, as well as more imagination and dedication in fulfilling its mission as a public venue to help support rural and agricultural interests. We don't need monster trucks, but we do need more events that get kids and adults involved in growing things and generating energy. Free dust masks at the gate would be nice, too.
     At deadline we're hearing new revelations daily of financial mismanagement, huge unpaid debts, talk of a Hail Mary plan to have the horsemen's association take over temporarily, and rising frustration and anger among the horsemen and women encamped at the track and depending on it for their livelihoods this summer.
     Ten years of bad choices have left a huge mess to clean up, one that I and many others predicted a decade ago. For now, rather than complain about the stink, let's prepare to pick up a shovel.

The Party's Over
Pop Rocket, May 2011
In April Governor Jan Brewer and our hard-right legislative leadership gave me the clearest indication yet that the whole "Tea Party movement" is a toothless sham, and that the people carrying signs for it have been cynically and egregiously manipulated.
     In last year's election campaign we saw voters whipped into frenzy over taxes, illegal immigration, gun rights, health-care reform and the President's birth certificate. Based on fear around these issues, people flocked to the "Tea Party" banner and elected veto-proof majorities to both Arizona legislative houses promising to address those concerns.
     Let's leave aside that the whole "Tea Party" thing began as a cynical astroturf PR campaign designed and paid for by a handful of corporate interests, mainly Big Oil, and its favored issues have been, charitably, distortions, exaggerations and outright lies. Many of the people identifying with it were and are sincere in their concern, and we could suppose that many of the politicians running around with Gadsden Flags in hand were sincere as well.
     But when push came to shove in our capitol, those who styled themselves as brave crusaders for the little guy showed that it was really about power and money all along, and I'm sure you're astonished to contemplate.
     Having got himself into the legislative driver's seat by whipping up fear of brown people all over national teevee, Senate President Russell Pearce was unable to push through any of his pet bills on the issue, either singly or later as an omnibus bill. The supposed "immigration emergency" evaporated as legislators began to realize that none of it had a chance of survival in court and it didn't matter all that much anyway. It was a strong, emotional issue for getting them elected, and they'll no doubt use it again, but in the end they wouldn't actually vote for it.
     While she's signed a bunch of bills dear to these voters, like establishing a State Handgun and setting up a special license plate (and, not incidentally, a funding stream) for the "Tea Party," with her veto pen the Governor struck down three far more substantial bills that many Republicans touted as crucial: the scary Guns On Campus Bill (SB1467), the nullificationist Health Care Compact (SB1592), and the crack-brained Birther Bill (HB2177). This last is particularly noteworthy.
     The Birther Bill, which would have set up a partisan (Republican) review board and a legal process to vet national candidates for citizenship after they've already passed federal muster, passed both houses with supermajorities. In the Legislature, voting for it became a litmus test for Republicans to avoid RINO status, and they stood up on the floor passionately calling it necessary to save the Republic, perhaps more vehement in its defense because of its hilarious bogosity as an issue and certain death in court.
     The Governor, likely sensing that signing it would again expose her to the derisive laughter of the entire civilized world, refused to go along. Here's where it gets interesting for political junkies like me. 
     Pearce and Speaker Kirk Adams had the votes in hand to override the veto even before it went before the Governor. On the other two they were within two or three votes, and a little arm-twisting would have got them done as well. But as far as I've been able to discover, they did not even pose the question of override to their legislators.
      This tells me that the people voting for these bills, including leadership, never intended that they should become law. The stern comments to the press, the jumping up and down, the dire warnings and angry rhetoric, it was all just for show.
     While this was attracting the media lights, the Taxed-Enough-Already issue fell quietly under the bus. You see, that supposedly balanced budget the Rs rammed through in record time amounts to the largest transfer of revenue sourcing from the state to its counties and municipalities in Arizona history. In short, in return for your right to pay for a Tea Party license plate, your local taxes -- property, sales, fees, etc. -- are going up. Corporate taxes, on the other hand, dropped considerably. I call that a bait-and-switch of epic proportions.
     It's clear that to the extent it ever existed at all, the "Tea Party" is over. It pretended to be a bottom-up movement speaking for citizens, but by any reasonable measure it's been a top-down tool to manipulate gullible voters into campaigning against their own interests and in favor of rich corporatists.
     While it's not quite dead, it's a zombie, insensate and moving only at the bidding of its creators. If its masters see a use for it, they may revive it for the '12 campaign, and I'll be watching for money taps opening later this year. But to those who sincerely believed it was real, you have my sympathy. I just hope you won't be fooled again so easily.

Kill Your TV
Pop Rocket, April 2011
 Just kill your TV.
     Over the past month our magpie media have been finding no end of distraction in secondary, wrong and pointless stories, taking their readers and viewers with them down Alice's rabbit hole. This is nothing new of course, and it doesn't really matter whether it's a shadowy conspiracy or just gross incompetence, the result is the same. It's making us all stupid.
     This month's Big Story hasn't been one of the largest recorded earthquakes in history or the tidal wave that wiped out an entire regional economy, displaced millions and likely killed over 25,000 people, not really. That headline's been hijacked by a slight elevation of barely measurable, far-below-background radiation from the busted nuclear reactors there, wafting over the western US in news graphics that might have been lifted from a John Carpenter movie.
     Now the pharmacies and health-food stores in the Prescott environs and across the West are uniformly besieged by scared shoppers demanding nostrums to protect them from a nuclear menace less threatening than the granite we take for granted in our backyards. They're poisoning their babies by putting potassium iodide in the formula. Folks are just as panicked in China, but there they make their mojo with iodized salt instead, far less harmful to the liver and at least equally effective against this immense non-problem.
     Could we be more silly? I'm afraid we can.
     From daytime chat shows to the Sunday news analyses that aren't much better, suddenly the tube is full of supposed presidential aspirant Donald Trump. Ever since McCain's impetuous and ghastly choice of a running mate in '08, a feint for president has become a sure ticket to breathless media exposure, no matter how unlikely, unsuitable or plain boneheaded the pretend-candidate.
     Somehow Trump's ignominious descent from real-estate magnate to abusive game-show host is being sold as proper experience for the next leader of the free world, but that apparently isn't quite enough. To lock in his cred among the Tea Partiers currently wagging the Republican Party dog, he needed a Big Issue, so he chooses: the President's birth certificate. Reality is now satire, irony is dead.
     I'm starting to see a new common name for this phenomenon among the media-savvy: the circus candidacy. Get yer cotton-candy here, folks, and keep yer eye on the clowns.
     Then there's Libya. TV has long tired of our crappy worn-out old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and really needed a shiny new one, sparking up our evenings with a good old-fashioned villain to hiss. Never mind the astonishing reality that poor, ordinary, unarmed people across North Africa and the Mideast are standing up to oppressive dictators and demanding exactly the same sort of self-determination that inspired our own founders, and never mind the question of why they don't rate the same sort of assistance. I guess it's just an obscure physical law that oil naturally attracts planes, tanks, cameras and your tax money.
     I'm not complaining that our ideals as Americans happen to coincide, however briefly, with the pragmatic urge to protect the flow of oil that's driving this additional drawdown of our national bank account. I'm saying that the rocket's-red-glare fireworks and patriotic music obscure the larger context, the underlying motives and broader implications of risking yet more soldiers' lives and national treasure on armed conflict and open-ended foreign commitments that create more enemies than they eliminate.
      We can no longer afford mistakes. For decades the U.S. has been living off the fat we put on in the immediate postwar period, and that's about used up. Our national and global economies are changing radically, and we're unprepared. Our planetary environment is at risk, and we're only making things worse. Never in my lifetime has it been more vital to think things through carefully and make our moves deftly, with a strong grasp of our highest priorities and hardheaded insistence on sober facts, conservative estimates and best practices. We need to be smart and canny, but our national attention is wasted on trivia, smoke-screens and bald-faced lies.
     It's not because Americans are any less intelligent than anyone else. But we are special in that we live inside the biggest, most advanced and best-funded propaganda machine on the planet, and where we should have clear windows on the world we generally get only funhouse mirrors reflecting our prejudices and desires. That keeps us buying things we don't need, running from insubstantial threats, and voting against our own interests.
     To address the real problems we face, we'll have to shuck our petty anxieties, find our feet again and ground ourselves in reality.
     There's one thing any of us can do to save ourselves, our country, and our children and grandchildren: unplug the TV and pitch it. I guarantee your world will immediately change for the better.

It's Worse Than We Thought
Pop Rocket, March 2011
I told my esteemed editor this month I'd cover the craziness going on in our Legislature, and while I knew it would be extensive, on digging into the research I find it's an order of magnitude beyond what even this old curmudgeon imagined. I could fill every page of this paper in eight-point type with examples of raging crazy that you really need to know about, and by next week it'll be even crazier.
     You'd think that with the economic downturn our lawmakers might bear down on the essentials and focus on securing jobs, educating kids and ensuring that vital state services are maintained. Instead, they apparently think what we really need is more guns, more gambling, more control of women's bodies, less education, less regulation, less security in employment, health and families, lower taxes on business, higher taxes on individuals, and of course fewer Mexicans. And that's just from reading the titles on the unprecedented 1,334 bills and 132 resolutions and memorials dropped in the House and Senate as of this writing.
     I absolutely cannot do this subject justice in 750 words. I can only get into a few of the more egregious examples.
     If you've watched the press at all, you heard about the February special session to pass a massive set of tax cuts for big business that will reduce state revenues by hundreds of millions of clams. The governor and Republican legislative leaders rammed this deal through with so little chance for deliberation that even arch-conservatives Ron Gould and Eddie Farnsworth balked. What you may not have heard is that the counties will be forced to make up those cuts by raising your property taxes. That's the legislative strategy for living up to those no-new-tax pledges: make someone else do it.

The Senator from Yuma wants a special 
license plate honoring the Gadsden Flag, 
recently beloved of Tea Partiers. 
     How about a personal army for the governor? Rep. Judy Burges and Sen. Sylvia Allen, from our neighbors in LD4 and 5, want to fund a new volunteer armed militia, outside the National Guard command structure, not subject to the military justice code, and answerable directly to Gov. Jan Brewer for "any reason the governor considers to be necessary." The imagination reels. Considering who's signed on to this already, House Bill 2070 will pass.
     Think our higher-education system has taken enough hits yet? Senate Bill 1115, which is sailing through committee process as I write, will disband the Arizona Board of Regents, bring the system under the direct control of legislative leadership, reduce funding dramatically and force the universities to fight each other for the crumbs.
     Even with veto-proof majorities in both houses, Sen. Andy Biggs felt compelled to sneak this one through. He had an anonymous technical bill assigned to his own committee, then rewrote it as a strike-everything amendment, ensuring an easy process and quick passage in the Senate. This little shell game makes it harder for journalists to track, let alone the people who will be most affected by it.

Our new official State Firearm
     But wait, as they say, there's more crazy. Sens. Biggs and Gould have an open fast track on SB1519, which will explicitly repeal the entire AHCCCS system and replace it with private reinsurance for the "indigent," cutting the funding of an already strapped system by half (before turning off all federal matching funds) and siphoning half the remainder off into corporate bureaucracies and profits. The scope of this plan is breathtaking, and its effects will be disastrous. There's even an emergency clause to pull the plug on the system by the end of September.
     You've heard about the neo-confederate push to shred the 14th Amendment and strip the children of immigrants of their citizenship. You may not have heard about SB1405, which will require hospital admissions staff to act as immigration enforcement officers, or SB1407, which will force school districts to "gather data" on "alien" kids. The kicker for that last appears as a striker to SB1141, under which schools must "require and maintain verifiable documentation of residency" for every enrolled child. And you thought the era of big government was over.

     The legislative push for a return to 1850 doesn't end there. Have a gander at SB1433, which will establish a "Joint Legislative Committee on Nullification of Federal Laws," which would vet federal legislation and rules and assert that we don't have to do anything that our majority-party leaders don't like. These boys are thinking big.
     Most of these bills will surely pass and the governor will happily sign them. Things are moving so fast that some may already be law before this paper hits the street.
     This is just the first month, mind. This legislature has almost two years to hatch more nutbar schemes before we can hope to see adults in charge. They will eventually lose many court battles, but only after creating a lot of havoc. Even my Republican friends are amazed and angry that things have gone so mean, so out of control. An organized and insistent public movement is the last useful deterrent. Can Arizona "go Egypt"? Please?

Rethinking the Glass Problem
Pop Rocket, February 2011
An awful lot of Prescottonians, including yours truly, were dismayed when the City "suspended" its glass recycling program in September. Some were outraged. Of the myriad materials we send to the landfill, glass is arguably the most durable and among the simplest to recycle. It simply should not be in the waste stream.
     When The Daily Courier quoted City staff saying that there was "no market" for recycled glass and that "manufacturers found it cheaper to start from scratch to make new glass products," my internal BS alarm went off.
     Among the outraged is my partner Lesley, recently moved to Prescott from Sedona, a much smaller municipality that manages to maintain regular glass recycling through a private-sector arrangement. She dug into the issue and turned up some illuminating facts.
     It turns out that yes, prices for used glass are down, but it's not quite true that there is no market. A look at how the big kids do it shows that a lot depends on how you design your program.
     Prescott contracts with Norton Environmental in Flagstaff to pick up our recyclables at the Sundog transfer station, and we pay $10 per ton for the privilege, a savings compared to paying Waste Management to entomb the stuff out at the Grey Wolf landfill.
      But Norton has never been able to handle our glass. The City's glass effort has been a separate stream involving local crushing and direct marketing. In the mid-aughts, prices for glass fell below the costs (including transport, a big piece) of this relatively small operation, creating the sort of fluctuation squeeze any commodity manager can see coming when margins and efficiency are low. 
     Efficiency comes with scale. Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, several smaller Valley cities and a bunch of large corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and the US Postal Service concentrate their recyclables on the huge Hudson Baylor facility in West Phoenix. This New York-based company does single-stream recycling, meaning all recyclables, including glass, go into the same bin and large machinery does most of the sorting. HB pays the cities for their materials, and it sells the sorted products to reprocessors. A YouTube search for "Hudson Baylor Avondale" will get you a look at how it works.
     Currently the most valuable materials in the recycle stream are aluminum and cardboard. (A large proportion of the cardboard winds up sold to Chinese concerns, an interesting foreign-trade angle. We may not be leading the world in manufacturing anymore, but our consumer culture does pump out a lot of salable waste.) With a diversified income stream, the more profitable materials compensate for lower-yielding materials, like glass is right now. The simplicity of single-streaming encourages people to recycle more, bringing in more profitable materials, and its processing efficiency reduces cost.
     Asked whether HB would be interested in taking on Prescott's recycle stream, Marketing Director Will Herzog is quite positive: "I would be more than happy to come up and meet with your City Council to discuss possible solutions." Herzog tells us that HB has never received an inquiry from Prescott. 
     So where's the catch? A couple of factors stand out.
     One is practical. Prescott would have to truck its recyclables to Phoenix, adding some cost. But rather than pay Norton $30,000 a year, HB would be paying us, and we'd be saving some tonnage cost on additional recyclables not sent to Grey Wolf. We'd have to work the numbers there, but the problem doesn't look insurmountable.
     The other catch is more about vision. We would have to think a little bigger to build an integrated system more in line with the economics of the industry. Recycling isn't just a feel-good perk, it is already a major money-saver for many cities and industries, growing more economically essential every day. It's unwise to hold off acting until the need becomes acute and obvious.
     A partnership with HB is a strong possibility, but clearly it will take a lot more research to determine what would be the best fit for Prescott or perhaps the region more generally. Many cities apply federal and state grants for this purpose, and the opportunities there require careful, expert scrutiny. Here I just hope to restart the conversation.
     The central question is not whether we can find a way to recycle our glass or anything else, it's clear that we can, but rather whether we care enough to deal responsibly and conservatively with our ever-growing piles of waste.

Big Ideas for Budget
Pop Rocket, January 2011
In January our state government goes to work on the budget, and this year most of the attention will focus on a battle between the radical and somewhat-less-radical wings of the Republican Party. Before that elephantine tussle drowns out everything else, I think it's worthwhile to point out that there are ideas on the table other than dismembering education and health care — ideas you're not likely to hear about otherwise.
      He may be able to hold his caucus meetings in a phone booth, but House Minority Leader Chad Campbell (LD14) remains upbeat about having a say in the process: "We have to make sure there is a transparent and very public discussion about the budget decision being made over the next year." With Republican supermajorities in both houses and a governor who's happy to do the brewing for the tea party, he has his work cut out for him.
      Campbell promises that this will be more about seeking common ground than political gamesmanship: "We do not have the luxury or the time to play games any longer. We are in a fiscal emergency, and if we don't get the ship righted soon, it might be too late."
      In terms of specific ideas, he's going for the big bite: "We need to sit down, look at our tax code and do a complete overhaul. It's a broken system. There are many different loopholes and special credits that are benefiting just a very small group of people. We need to close those loopholes, make the tax code fair, and hopefully lessen the tax burden across the board for most individuals and businesses."
      In particular, "The sales-tax code contains pages and pages of loopholes for special interests." He wouldn't tax food or medical care, "but after that we have at least $3 billion in loopholes," more than enough to make up next year's $1.4 billion shortfall without further cuts.
      That sort of revenue shift, the reasoning goes, would let us balance the budget and repeal the Prop 100 sales-tax increase, which Campbell despises. "The sales-tax expansion is an expensive increased tax on individuals, especially lower-income and middle-class families. It really does put our retailers at a competitive disadvantage, it's already impacting some big-ticket purchasing, it's a really shortsighted move and it had no long-term vision behind it. We just can't afford that anymore."
      Asked whether there are budget cuts he can support, Campbell points to Republican sacred ground: "The school tuition tax credit. It's not working. We're wasting basically $100 million on this program and we're not getting any of the results we hoped to get." That's a big number relative to the governor's cutting off AHCCCS transplant coverage to save $1.4 million.
      The first Republican budget card on the table will be tax cuts for businesses, and for Campbell that's not necessarily a bad idea: "I think business property taxes are too high in this state, they're putting us at a competitive disadvantage in some ways. But again we have to look at it as a whole, because the last thing we need to be doing is to cut business taxes now just to shift that burden onto homeowners. Unless we restructure how the tax code works, that's exactly what will happen."
      The unavoidable question there is how to get that restructuring done. "It just takes political leadership. Bottom line is we're elected to do a job, to get this state back on track in a place where we can be competitive."
      I have to add that it takes a certain quality of political leadership as well, emphasizing commitment to the greater good and respect for everyone at the table, rather than the "we-won-you-lost" style of the current majority.
      Campbell is well respected on both sides of the aisle and I applaud his pluck, but I have a hard time ginning up optimism about his prospects. Over the years we've seen many calls for major government restructuring from the Legislature and the governor's office — schools and the Department of Education, AHCCCS, DES, and always the tax code — but despite their promise and the work that goes into them, our governors don't bother to read the blue-chip plans they commission, and our legislators generally have neither the depth nor inclination to do the homework, take on the political risk or sit still for the necessary negotiations among stakeholders.
      Without vocal support from voters first and committed, visionary legislators second, the big ideas, the ones that could do some real good, starve to death out in the cold. Make no mistake, in our current situation, small ideas won't help us one bit.

Pearce: Let Them Eat Cake
Pop Rocket, December 2010
With the election in the bag, in early November Senate Prez-elect Russell Pearce began talking publicly about his plans that don't involve harassing brown people, proposing to slash funding for AHCCCS, the state's Medicaid program. The move would disqualify Arizona for over $7 billion in annual federal funding.
     Well over a million of us, one in five Arizonans, rely on AHCCCS for affordable health-care services, and it's the second-largest chunk of the legislative budget. It's natural to look there for savings as revenues shrink, and so no surprise that Bob Burns and other ranking state legislators agree that Arizona can no longer afford this "socialist" program, as Pearce calls it.
     It's not like there's much fat left to trim. In the past couple of years AHCCCS eligibility has been cut in half, and over 18,000 children in the KidsCare program have lost their benefits. But with another billion-dollar state deficit looming, Republicans see an opportunity to be "fiscally responsible" by killing an entitlement program they've always despised on principle. The reasonable question is whether this idea for saving money has any real merit on the ground.
     First, the math. Medicaid money hinges on matching funds from the state, and this year that amounts to about $2.5 billion. That comes at a discount under the American Recovery and Revitalization Act ("The Stimulus"), which allows us a three-to-one match. ARRA expires next year (fiscal 2012), and the match will rise to two-to-one, meaning annual cost to us of $3.5 billion.
     Pearce imagines cutting health-care funding to zero. Cutting it by half could save the state somewhere between $1.5 and 2 billion, but at cost of over $10 billion to the Arizona economy. AHCCCS mainly spends on services, mind, and that means jobs. Many jobs.
     There's a catch. As part of that same stimulus package, Arizona accepted an extra $4 billion in federal cash and promised to maintain at least 2006 levels of health-care funding through 2014, when the reform fully kicks in. "To refuse to provide services or reduce the services or eligibility levels would be in violation of (our legal commitments in) taking that money," says former LD17 Representative and health-care expert Mark Thompson. If we renege now, we'll actually have to give that money back, canceling any savings for two years and killing yet more jobs. In addition, says Thompson, "we've budgeted $400 million for Medicaid programs in the fiscal 2011 budget. That's money already built in to balance this year's budget that we would have to give back."
Regardless of how much state money remains in the system, the effects will be enormous. Speaking only of the federal piece, Yavapai County Community Health Services Director Robert Resendes says, "We would lose 40% of our income. I hate to say this, but we'd probably have to look at closing down or reducing our services tremendously. . . . In our clinic alone we'd be looking at close to 3,000 people with nowhere to go.
     Many will wind up in emergency rooms, where the impact will be "huge and immediate. It would be such a hardship," says Resendes, "I would not be surprised to see emergency rooms having to close just financially and mathematically — not out of desire, not out of pushback, but out of common, easy math. It just doesn't work."
     Don't forget that Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals will also go away. Says Thompson, "Many hospitals outside the kingdoms of Maricopa and Pima Counties" are already struggling with previous cuts, and further reductions in Medicaid are "likely to put them over the edge."
     Pearce suggested on Fox12 that rather than eliminate AHCCCS, "There's gonna be co-pays, premiums, we're gonna fix it." Thompson says that the Legislature considered co-pays in '02, but rejected them as more cost than savings. Resendes: "Co-pay is a double-edged sword. For the provider it's nice, they get a little money in their pocket, but for the patient who can't afford the co-pay, they put off getting their health care," ultimately increasing costs to the system overall.
     Pearce insisted that families, charities and churches should pick up the slack. Thompson, who works with several nonprofits in the field, says they are already running services once provided by the state, and demand is exploding while funding is dwindling. Many are on the verge of collapse as it is.
     Resendes sums up: "If you turn off Medicaid in Arizona, you'll save billions of dollars today, but you'll pay for it dearly just weeks down the road when diabetics start showing up in emergency rooms who haven't had their insulin, cancers now turn into things that require organ transplants, there will be a huge ethical price to pay as well as medical for not taking care of people."
     Thompson says the idea just won't fly: "When you ground things in reality, it's going to be quite different," from what Pearce imagines. "I don't think that it's possible."
     As deadline approaches we're hearing that Pearce is backing away from his statements on the subject. He was chair of Appropriations in the House for years, making him passing familiar with the realities of state budgeting, and so had to have known that the idea makes no sense even as he was selling voters on it. We have to hope that he'll be entertaining more practical ideas as he takes the gavel on a veto-proof Legislature.
     Happy Zappadan!

Elks Theatre: The Problem is Management
Pop Rocket, November 2010
"What a pretty little theatre! Why isn't it working?"
     The James family and the Elks Opera House Foundation deserve a ton of credit for the refurbished interior and lobby of the Elks Theatre. It's a joy to visit now, with its sweeping horseshoe balcony, new seats, fine acoustics and early-last-century detailing. But visitors and residents alike reasonably wonder why, after the millions invested over a decade, the stage and seats are still usually empty. Many think the whole project has been a massive waste of public resources, and would happily see it sold or even torn down for a parking lot.      As a theatre pro and semi-pro for forty years, I've been ranting about this problem ever since the Prescott Area Arts and Humanities Council (including me) sold the City on the idea of acquiring the Elks. I love the theatre and think it has enormous potential, but I've been regularly critical in person and in print because from the beginning the City has been trying to operate it like a department or ordinary business. The results have been awful from many angles, and that's dangerous to the theatre, because however pretty it is, a theatre has to work for a living.
     From the Council level on down, the City has consistently demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding about how community theatres work. It's a tough business, requiring specialized experience and the sort of vision, enterprise and risk-taking that bureaucracies famously lack.
     This misunderstanding and the resulting frustration, combined with the city manager's high priority on cost-cutting, probably had a lot to do with the crossed swords and conflicting allegations of wrongdoing between Elks Manager Dawn Castaneda and her boss, Administrative Services Director Mic Fenech, that made the news in recent weeks. However that little drama shakes out, it's important to maintain focus on the Elks as a community asset, and consider how it can best serve the needs of Prescott.
     Conventional business thinking demands that income match costs for personnel and overhead, and that's led the the City to charging producers very high rates for the stage and take substantial chunks from ticket sales as well to pay directly for utilities, maintenance and management. Local producers have to pass on these extra costs to ticket-buyers, and with relatively few seats available, not enough local residents can afford them. Out-of-town professionals generally won't work with the theatre's poor facilities and equipment or its bureaucratic, unskilled management. So the Elks stays dark.
     Breaking that economic impasse requires opening the accounting to less tangible factors, like street traffic, vitality, sales tax-receipts and quality of life. Thousands of old theatres and movie houses are working across this country under nonprofit or municipal management, encouraging lively street life, building traffic for local businesses and supporting special events to draw tourists.
     We as a community need to understand that even when the theatre is full and humming, providing us with all these benefits, it's still likely to be "losing money" from a standard-accounting perspective. That's just how theatres work. The real profits are in the happy experiences of the audience and the cash registers of surrounding businesses.
     On that basis, any theatre can shine, including the Elks. The key is not what's on stage per se, rather getting butts into the seats, and the trick there is presenting experiences that people want and can't get free on teevee, at prices they can afford. Theatre professionals understand this challenge, and have the experience and adaptability to meet it.
     After accepting that a community theatre is not like a restaurant, the City has to bite the bullet and put up reasonable salaries for at least two experienced, full-time professionals to book, manage and maintain the theatre. Then it has to trust them about pricing and budgeting, give them an account to work with, reduce standard-accounting expectations and get out of the way.
     Until we can do something to expand and improve the theatre's equipment and support facilities, for the meat and potatoes the pros will likely focus on the sort of show that has drawn people to the Elks since the early days -- films. From art festivals to silent cowboy movies for tourists, it's not hard to get movies to pencil out in a theatre this size if the theatre itself is part of the draw. The ongoing Prescott Film Festival is an obvious and worthy candidate as a premiere downtown attraction that will draw synergistic benefits from a regular film schedule. There are many other angles to play as well.
     Think of it as a community economic asset, bring in the professionals and support them in finding ways to offer good value for the money, and the Elks Theatre will be more than a pretty museum piece -- it'll be an engine for downtown vitality that we can all enjoy.

Note: I'm perfectly aware that the City calls it the "Elks Opera House," but I am adamantly opposed to using that. It's always been called the Elks Theatre, that's what's on the marquee, and that's as it should be.

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