Friday, April 24, 2009

Wednesday's budget forum in Scottsdale - Brewer lets a surrogate do most of the talking

On Wednesday, April 22, AZ Governor Jan Brewer and a clutch of East Valley mayors met at the Granite Reef Senior Center in Scottsdale to hold a forum on the state's budget crisis.

Because of my work schedule (aka - I need to get some sleep :) ), here are just a few of the high* points (* = I'm grading on a curve here) -

...While it was billed as a group meeting with the mayors, apparently they didn't get the message - only Scottsdale's mayor, Jim Lane, showed up. Mayors Vernon Parker (Paradise Valley), Scott Smith (Mesa) and Hugh Hallman (Tempe) didn't attend even though they were scheduled to appear with the governor.

...On the other hand even though the main attractions didn't show, this forum had a better secondary turnout than last week's legislative forum at the Scottsdale Library. In the audience were a number of GOP officials, including State Sen. Jim Waring, State Reps. Nancy Barto and Steve Court, newly-appointed lottery director Jeff Hatch-Miller, Fountain Hills Mayor Jay Schlum, and Scottsdale City Councilman Ron McCullagh.

...While the meeting was billed as "Public Invited" in announcements and it was held in a public building, it was made clear from the beginning that this was a partisan event. One of the first people Brewer thanked for putting together the meeting was Ray Devine, former chair of the LD17 Republicans.

...Even though they avoided speaking her name, Janet Napolitano's presence permeated the room. Mostly because whenever they needed a boogey monster/scapegoat, "the previous administration" took the blame.

...When Lane and Brewer weren't blaming "the previous administration" for the state's budget problems, they still made it clear that Brewer "inherited" the mess.

...In case the Governor's office reads this post: You seem to have forgotten her name, but the person you blame for all that ails Arizona is named Janet Napolitano.

The constant references to "the previous administration" were tiresome.

And classless.

...Brewer spent much of her brief time at the mic trying to establish her anti-tax, anti-government, pro-business bonafides. She was talking like someone who plans to run for a full term next year.

Note: AZBlueMeanie at Blog for Arizona has some tidbits concerning the race for the GOP nomination for Governor here. He thinks that Brewer has already decided to not run, and he may be correct. However, I think it is more likely that she is waiting to see how ugly the budget process and outcome gets this year before making her decision.

If she is able to make this work, she can run on that; if, however, the lege proves to be more interested in totally collapsing the state government than in doing their jobs, she can be the "good soldier" and just try to hold things together until the next Governor takes office and has to deal with it.

...While the lege and the Gov differ on whether or not a temporary tax hike to help close the budget gap is appropriate, they agree on one thing - they *really* want to do away with the Voter Protection Act.

One voter-protected initiative that she specifically cited was the $20 million in the Land Conservation Fund.

Opining that the fund is no longer necessary ("there is no urban sprawl") because home-building in AZ has slowed to a crawl, she called for emptying the fund.

Apparently, previously existing effects of urban sprawl cease to be damaging to AZ when she decides the money can be used elsewhere.

This "no sprawl" whopper* has been one of her main talking points for week, showing up at least as far back as her March speech to the lege.

*whopper = just ask anybody who falls asleep in a development in Chandler and wakes up in one in Surprise to tell the difference just by looking out a window. Sprawl exists.

...Lest you think that I'm just piling on here, they did make a few good points, though I'm not sure they understood the actual meaning of them.

- Tom Manos, a Brewer staffer, took over the guts of the presentation. He mentioned that while state revenues have been pinched since the start of the economic downturn, municipal revenues are more stable because property tax is a more significant component of their revenue streams.

- He also mentioned that cutting human services much more than they have been could be tough because during an economic downturn, more people need those services. And eligibility criteria and funding formulas are laid out in the state constitution.

- On the other hand, lest you think that Manos (and Brewer) were all hearts and violins toward AZ's neediest citizens, they dropped strong hints that they would like to find a way to change the current AHCCCS eligibility threshold (100% of federal poverty level) back to the old level (40% of FPL.)

"Strong hints" = they kept referring to 100% FPL eligibility as a major budget drain.

Note: Ummm...for a family of four, the FPL is currently $22,050. That's crap for a single. For a family? Devastating.

40% of that is $8820.

So Manos and Brewer think that a family living on, say...$10,000 per year...doesn't need help?

...Still, Brewer, Lane, and Manos *were* the highlights of the meeting. One thing that struck me was the utter lack of knowledge of the state's budget and the laws and regulations surrounding it among the audience members. I'm not trying to be insulting here - I freely admit that I don't know as much about it as I should either. But at least I'm trying to learn.

Some of the utterances from the audience were breathtaking in their ignorance (and meanness!) -

- Daryl Jacobson-Barnes, a Rep PC from LD20 and former (and future?) candidate for Tempe City Council, wondered why the state couldn't just force any laid-off workers who are eligible for COBRA insurance coverage off of AHCCCS and on to COBRA.

Laid-off workers, people who have no income, have to pay for COBRA out-of-pocket.

Manos, a *lot* more tactfully than I would have, reminded Mrs. Jacobson-Barnes that AHCCCS eligibility is "hard-written" and doesn't take into account COBRA eligibility.

Just poverty.

- Another speaker (no name given. In fact, Jacobson-Barnes was pretty much the only one that I heard give her name before speaking) wanted to know why, since his house's value had fallen to the same level it was at in 2000, why couldn't the state just budget at year 2000 levels.

Manos advised him that most of the state's costs hadn't fallen to Y2K levels, and that the state has no discretion about paying those.

- Somebody else commented that since 42% of the state's general fund expenditures go to K-12 Education, and that since he pays some property taxes that go directly to a school district, he thinks that there is a scam going on ("Somebody's not paying their fair share").

- One audience member wanted to know why, since ASU had a windfall profit of $100 million and operates on $87 million, does the state pay anything to fund ASU.

Even Brewer's jaw dropped on that one.

Nobody was sure what kind of "windfall profit" ASU could generate, and $87 million?? That would barely cover the salaries of ASU President Michael Crow, his staff, and the football coach. (OK, that's a mild exaggeration. But only a "mild" one.)

...Both Brewer and Lane tried to stress that all options regarding the budget are open -

- Brewer said that "everything is on the table."

- Lane closed with "there isn't a sacred cow out there."

Funny, but neither of them mentioned reining in the lege and its propensity for tax gifts/cuts to the wealthy and to big business.

Why do I think that any plan to address the state's budget crisis that comes from the Governor's office will be more of the "business as usual" schemes that got us into this mess, with the emphasis on business?

Assuming the lege doesn't just completely shut down the government come July 1, a rather big assumption, expect the next budget to be built on tax cuts for business with the sale of state assets and severe cuts to education and state services to pay for those tax cuts.

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