Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fixng what's wrong with AZ government

...Just some idle musings that were a better way to spend my evening than crying about the Red Sox losing and the Yankees winning their respective playoff series. :)

Holy cow! The AZ Republic published something about politics that doesn't look to be a press release or something cribbed from other sources (EV Trib, AZ Cap Times, AZ Guardian). The next thing you know, the desk jockeys from Gannett's HQ in Virginia might let some of their newspaper employees get back to actual journalism.

OK, probably not, but one can hope. :)

Anyway, on Sunday the Republic published a piece about Arizona's broken government and invited a number of political and community luminaries to weigh in on what ails AZ's political structure and how to fix it.

The story has its roots in Sandra Day O'Connor's "O'Connor House Project."

The end result of a list of issues with Arizona government and possible solutions is here.

During the discussions among the luminaries, a number of questions were asked to help formulate the above list of issues and possible solutions. That list is here.

In the interests of starting a discussion that extends to the folks who make the actual decisions on any remedies/changes, here are the questions and my responses. Just some stuff to think about and hopefully talk about -

- Should we elect a lieutenant governor on the same ticket as the governor? a partisan, I'd say yes. However, as a voter, I'm not so sure. I grew up in a state (MA) with a Lt. Governor, and as with most such positions, it was a largely ceremonial position. It's usually an unnecessary one, unless the governor of a given state patronizes hookers, gets caught trying to sell a Senate seat, or(just maybe in the near future the Lt. Gov. will be needed in this example), thinks that "hiking the Appalachian trail" is an acceptable euphemism for "goin' on a booty run to Argentina."

The problem in Arizona, with Janet Napolitano's promotion to DC and Jan Brewer's ascension to the 9th floor, was that the person who was next in the line of succession just wasn't ready for the job.

A dedicated Lt. Governor's position could minimize the possibility of that happening in the future, but so could simply electing competent people to the down-ballot offices.

And given that three out of our last five governors entered the office via succession, not election, maybe a plank of "ready for the top job" should be part of every SOS candidate's campaign platform.

- Are there statewide offices the governor should appoint and the Senate confirm?
Yup. While most states' Attorneys General and Secretarys of State are elected, treasurers and education chiefs are mostly appointed Cabinet-level positions.

And why are we even considering electing a state mine inspector? That's not even a cabinet level post, it's a staff job. Actually, since it is safety-related, the holders of the job should be knowledgeable professionals, not career political hacks looking for a safe sinecure until they start collecting a pension.

- Are there legislative reforms that will lead to a Legislature more representative of the public?

"Legislative" reforms? Maybe, but the issue is more cultural. The real problem, if you want to characterize it as that (and I do), is that because of the number of "safe" districts (dominated by one of the major parties) the lege is representative of primary voters, who tend to represent the more ideological wings of their respective parties.

Find a way to mitigate voter apathy and ignorance between elections. Get people to pay attention to what goes on in the lege and the Executive Tower in odd-numbered years as much as they do in the even-numbered ones.

- Do former reforms such as term limits, clean elections and redistricting work for Arizona?

Redistricting isn't a reform, it's a regular mandate. How we redistrict can be the problem, and I don't know enough about the ins and outs of that process to comment here.

As for term limits and clean elections, I'd say yes. They weren't implemented to keep extreme ideologues out of office; they were implemented to open up public office to more citizens. They've worked.

The problem is the side effects, and it's tied into the safe districts mentioned above, is that too many voters are disinterested in government until they are holding a general election ballot in their hands, and most of *them* vote by partisan affiliation. Which leads to the hardcore ideologues who were the darlings of their party's extreme base having an easy path through the general election.

Still, ending CE and letting in corporate money, permanently elected politicos, and the entrenched corruption that characterized AZ politics for decades may be too high a price to pay for weeding out a few wingnuts.

Better to fight voter apathy.

- Are there reforms that can increase voter turnout?

Vote-by-mail and early voting are already doing wonders for shoring up turnout (other than in stand-alone special and some municipal elections), but they do little to counteract voter apathy and lack of education on the offices/questions that they are voting on.

- Does a longer-term focus occur if senators are elected for four-year terms?

Perhaps, but an even better move might be to fashion the structure of the Arizona State Senate after the structure of the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Congress was laid out as a bicameral legislature to ensure both that House members each represent (roughly) the same number of residents, leading to large population states having a proportionately large influence in the House, and that each state has an equal number of Senators, leading to small states having as much influence in the Senate as large states.

In that spirit, how about changing the makeup of the AZ State Senate? There are 30 members now.

We could elect one member from each of the state's 15 counties to fill half the membership. The other 15 could be elected from "senatorial" districts (think: a combination of two of the current LDs).

If we go to four-year terms for senators, that would set up an election pattern of where 15 senators were up for election every cycle, with a natural division of county senators on the ballot for one election and SD senators on the ballot two years later.

All of this would help ensure that Arizona's rural areas are adequately represented while adding a layer of stability to the institutional culture of the Senate.

- Should there be more time between the primary and general elections?

Umm - YES!!

There's roughly 4 to 5 weeks between the primary and the mailing of early ballots for the general election. That means that campaigns have change from "primary" mode to "general election" mode and be fully up to speed by then, and that is difficult, if not downright impossible, for challengers and minority party candidates in a given district.

A longer campaign season between the primary and the general election would increase the ability of those candidates with an uphill battle to get out their messages and maybe turn a few of those voters who reflexively vote their party line.

- Are there changes that can limit fraud on initiative petitions?

Not sure. I am not too familiar with the nuances of initiative petitions, so I'll have to think on this a while. If anybody has insights on this, please feel free to share them in a comment.

- Should the way the names of propositions are set be changed to avoid misleading voters?

Yes, but not sure how.

- Are there changes needed to the process for initiatives to get on the ballot?

Well, we can start by limiting the number of questions placed on the ballot by the lege. Also, given the number of competing/contradictory questions that have been placed on the ballot in recent years, a ballot structure where the SOS (or appropriate elections oversight agency) could join the questions in a structure of "vote for one of the following - Yes on proposal A, Yes on Proposal B, or None Of The Above."

Now, from the summary of problems and possible solutions linked above, some of those "solutions" and my take -

1. Kill Clean Elections.

No. The problem isn't that too many "bad" people are running for office - there have always been fringe candidates, and there always will be. The problem is that too many voters still don't pay attention to candidates and qualifications for governing until they are casting their ballots. And too often, not even then.

2. Create competitive districts.

Well, yeah, but we all need to remember that because of demographic and population shifts, this cycle's safe district is the next cycle's hot spot, and vice versa. The redistricting commission should do the best, fairest possible job they can, and be prepared, within two years, for complaints about how lousy and unfair a job they did.

3. Eliminate term limits.

I don't think so. They might need to be tweaked a little, but since they aren't hard limits (other than for executive-level offices, officeholders are only enjoined to take a term off from a particular office, not permanently barred from ever holding that office again), so completely setting term limits aside isn't appropriate.

We'd be better off raising legislative compensation. At $24K/year, most legislators are A) independently wealthy, B) retired, or C) hoping their dedication to public service doesn't lead them to bankruptcy court.

4. Sunset initiatives.

No. Some tweaking might help here, though. Most initiatives that spend money are tied to dedicated sources of revenue. Tie their sunset to the lifespans of those sources (actually, I think they already are, to a point anyway). Otherwise, leave them alone. The voters enacted them, the voters can change or end them.

And if we do enact a general sunset provision for all voter-mandated initiatives, it really should apply to all of them, not just the fiscally-related ones. In 2006, a number of ugly anti-immigrant questions were put on the ballot by the bedsheets and burning crosses crowd, and if measures to create a vibrant public health and educational infrastructure are are subject to sunsetting, those others should also be subject to sunsetting.

5. Keep unrelated policy out of the budget.

Actually, this is already kind of the way that it is - already the general appropriations bill can only address actual appropriations. Any policy changes can be found in "budget reconciliation bills", or BRBs, where changes to law that are necessary to make a budget work are supposed to go.

The problem is in sessions like this past one where things got so petty and spiteful that BRBs were used to enact policy changes (like certain ones attacking teachers' unions) that really had NOTHING to do with the state's budget.

Perhaps setting up a mechanism where citizens could turn to the courts to challenge particular provisions based on germaneness to the budget would work here.

Any comments/ideas?

Edit on 10/12 to add: Greg at Espresso Pundit, also a participant in the discussions that generated the above questions/problems/solutions, has a post on this same topic here.

Apologies for the long post, but with the Red Sox' season over, I had the time. :))



testcase said...

As currently constituted, I think we would actually be better off eliminating the state senate. It really seems to serve no purpose in relation to the house.

The one way to eliminate fraud on petitions would be to get rid of paid signature gatherers.

cpmaz said...

I don't know if a unicameral legislature would be a great solution, if only because having two chambers helps create checks and balances within the legislative branch.

As ugly as this past session was and as bad as many of the lege's new laws are, imagine how bad it could have been if the legislators in the House and Senate had had their s**t together? Something that would have been easier if Rep leadership only had members from one chamber to wrangle into line.

Elizabeth Rogers said...

The reason we have an elected State Mine Inspector is back when Arizona was a very important mining state, it was considered vitally important that a non-mine owner person regulate the mines.

Granted things have changed but it was an attempt to stop the State Government from letting bad things happen to miners.