Sunday, April 24, 2011

Time to update the Arizona constitution: A few modest proposals

This state is in serious trouble, the kind of trouble that won't be cleaned up for generations (if ever) and even then only if we started in on the mess right now. 

And, pardon my cynicism, I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

As much as I would like to lay the blame for the mess we're in at the feet of the Republicans in the legislature (and their ideological and corporate masters), they're just a particularly odious symptom of the greater issue.

Voter apathy.

Too many voters don't pay attention to politics or the actions and votes of elected officials until an election is nigh by which time, the rhetoric is less about a calm and honest discussion of facts and more about people screaming into a TV camera - "MY CANDIDATE WALKS ON WATER!" "NO HE DOESN'T!  HE KICKS KITTENS AND DROWNS PUPPIES! - and most casual observers (and many not-so-casual ones, too) are thoroughly turned off and angry.

They look for someone to blame, and end up voting for whichever candidates or party provides them with a bumpersticker-simple slogan that best expresses/stokes their anger, and gives them a convenient target or two to direct their anger toward (i.e. - Russell Pearce, Jan Brewer, John Kavanagh, et. al. and their targeting of immigrants in general and Mexicans in particular).

As such, we end up with a legislature like the one that recently adjourned - corrupt, bigoted, and absolutely opposed to responsible governance.  I'd call it the most craven Arizona legislature ever, but something tells me that this was just a warm up for next year.

I freely admit that it will take someone brighter than me to figure out how to crack the voter apathy problem, but I do have a few ideas for reining in the baser urges of Pearce et. al. and their future equivalents

FIrst up, the BIG ONE:  Fiscal Responsibility and Stability
This is an iffy one because it relies on the same voters I've just criticized for apathy, but it's necessary.

1. The voters need to temporarily suspend the provision in Article 9, Section 22 of the Arizona Constitution that requires a 2/3 vote of the legislature to raise taxes.  When it is re-implemented, it should be with a matching provision that would require a similar 2/3 vote by the legislature to do anything that reduces state revenue, being through repeals, rate reductions, credits, incentives, or whatever.

Simply put, even the "good" members of the legislature are rank amateurs who are heavily influenced by the pressures and vagaries of short-term political need and almost always forego proposals and plans that involve incurring near-term costs while reaping long-term benefits.

It should not be easy to raise taxes (hence the temporary suspension, not a permanent repeal), but that 2/3 provision has been used cripple the state's fiscal stability.  For more than a generation, the state's Republicans have lowered taxes, particularly for the wealthy and corporations, via a simple majority vote, but a small cadre of ideologues has used the 2/3 provision to block any attempts to correct the state's fiscal and revenue situation.

Finally, to make this work, the voters will need to elect Democrats for at least the four years of the suspension.  Some will say that is just my partisanship speaking, but in this case, my thinking is rooted in simple political reality.

It will take at least 47 members (31 House, 16 Senate) to make up the legislative majority needed to do this, and there aren't 47 Republicans in the state with the juice to make it through a primary and the spine to do what's right for the state, much less 47 who'll stand for office.

In very practical terms, the Democrats are needed.

2.  Related to #1, the voters should pass a referendum to require that each and every current legislatively-granted tax credit, reduction, deduction, etc. be referred to the voters over the following three election cycles.  If a particular provision isn't approved by the voters, whether through direct disapproval or because it didn't go before the voters, that provision ceases to exist.  The recipients of special interest tax breaks would have to stand before hundreds of thousands of voters to justify their special treatment, not just slip a few bribes campaign contributions and "educational trips" to a few lawmakers.

Other provisions (some could be done in statute, but others would have be be changes to the AZ Constitution) -

- When speaking or writing or otherwise communicating on public matters, all elected officials and all active candidates for office should be considered to be under oath until Election day (if they lose the election) or until the end of their terms (if they win).  Too much bad public policy is justified on the basis of propaganda and outright lies.

Violations would result in a perjury charge, and conviction on that charge would result in removal from office (or removal from the ballot, in the case of candidates) and ineligibility for elected office for the next two complete election cycles.

-  Any measures passed during "special" sessions need a 2/3 vote of each chamber to pass

- Appropriations and revenue bills cannot be considered or passed during "special" sessions of the lege.

- The budget must be balanced and passed by the end of the first business day in April.  If it isn't balanced and passed by then, all consideration of non-budget measures is suspended until it is done.

- If it isn't complete by the end of the first business day in May, all consideration of non-budget measures ceases for the duration of the legislative session.

- If the budget isn't complete - balanced, passed, and signed into law - by the end of the first business day of June, the governor and the 90 members of the legislature shall be incarcerated until a balanced budget is passed and enacted.  They will be held in a temporary holding facility constructed on the grounds of the Capitol Mall. 

Think Arpaio's tent city, just without the creature comforts, and located at Wesley Bolin Plaza.  And with bleachers set up outside the fence so that the public has the opportunity to observe the legislature in its natural environment.  :))

I figure they hold out for a maximum of three nights, spent try to get some sleep while learning which of the Weiers brothers snores the loudest and trying to ignore the wonderful aroma from the bank of porta-potties wafting through the tent.  :)

- With the exception of ballot referrals specifically required by the voters (such as the affirmation/overturning of special interest tax breaks above), the legislature shall refer no more than five measures to the ballot in any one two-year period, including measures for which a special election is called.

- "Emergency" measures, those that go into effect immediately upon the signature of the governor, currently require a 2/3 vote of each chamber to enact the "emergency" clause.  Unfortunately, the word "emergency" has changed in meaning to that of "politically expedient." 

Witness HB2191, a bill to bar the award of punitive damages to undocumented immigrants. 

It was designed to protect a specific rancher who unlawfully held a number of immigrants at gunpoint and was later ordered to pay damages.  This concept deeply offended the nativists in the legislature, and they used their positions to railroad through this bill in time to exempt the rancher from having to actually pay his debt.

Because of the abuse of the "emergency" clause, it's time to move the enactment threshold to a 3/4 vote.  If the abuse continues, we'll have to move the threshold to a unanimous vote.

- No "suspension of the rules" regarding time requirements would be allowed during special sessions.  Under most circumstances, it takes at least three days to pass a measure.  However, by a 2/3 vote, the rules, such as those requiring a certain amount of notice before a bill can be considered, can be suspended.  Too many bad bills have been all-but-completely-hidden from public view and input by passing them during one day special sessions.

- In cases where a legislator invokes or is granted immunity from arrest for an act committed during the legislative session, the prosecution "process clock" (the best term this non-attorney can come up with) is suspended for the duration of the legislative session.  In most cases, prosecutors have a limited amount of time to bring a case forward and losing 2, 3, or even 4 months to inaction because of "legislative immunity" can potentially impact their ability to seek justice.  Prosecutors with a legitimate case should not be penalized because a defendant is an elected official.

Yes, this is squarely pointed at Sen. Scott Bundgaard's domestic abuse incident.

- If the legislature passes and the governor signs or otherwise allows to become law a measure that is later overturned in federal or state court as unconstitutional, the legislators who voted for the measure and the governor shall be personally liable for the costs that the state incurred defending the measure.  A "good faith" exception would be made for measures that garnered at least a 3/4 vote in each chamber of the legislature.

- Measures cannot be considered by the legislature between the hours of 9 p.m and 7 a.m...this is one that I believe that most sitting legislators won't have an objection to...Particularly ones who have experienced one or more of the lege's infamous overnight sessions.

-  Lastly (for now), ethics and corruption laws would be significantly, even harshly, tightened up.  The lobbyist gift limit, currently set at $10, would become zero.  Meals, even those offered to every legislator, would be disallowed.  Inducements, such as trips and junkets, even "educational" ones, would be completely barred.

Violations would be Class Two felonies for both the givers and the recipients.  Convictions would carry a minimum sentence of five years in state prison per violation, and the terms for multiple offenses would have to be served consecutively.

It's one thing to disagree with an elected official on policy matters - it's politics, and politcs is all about disagreement.  If someone can't accept that with at least a little aplomb and maturity, they should consider staying away from politics entirely.

However, it's another thing entirely when the elected officials involved have no credibility because people have evidence that the electeds are dirty, crafting public policy based on "inducements" (aka - "bribes") from special interests.

Right now, Arizona government in general, and the state legislature in particular, is viewed as unprofessional, petty, and corrupt.

It's long past time to restore the honor and credibility of state government, even if the participants don't like it...and trust me, they won't.

...Thank you for allowing me to vent.  I'm under no illusions here - most of these ideas have no chance of ever becoming law.  However, one of my reasons for starting the blog was to serve as an outlet for expressions of frustration with what is wrong with Arizona.

After watching this legislature in action since January, some frustration has built up.


Michael Bryan said...

Brilliant suggestions, Craig! Your time watching the legislative sausage being made has clearly paid off.

I have to disagree with just one of your suggestions. I think we ought to abolish all supermajority rules for fiscal measures, whether increasing or decreasing revenues. Such rules just destroys too much of the State's financial flexibility (see California for an example of how a State becomes ungovernable when fiscal issues are removed from the normal majoritarian political process). If we are to have a republican form of governance, we ought to trust our public finances to straight-forward majority rules.

If anything should require majority votes, it should be any bill that seeks to infringe on personal liberties.

cpmaz said...

Thanks, Mike.

In general, I agree with you on supermajority rules. However, given the Arizona electorate's unwillingness to hold individual elected officials accountable for bad governance, a supermajority clause might be a clunky but necessary safeguard.

Certainly, regardless of where the threshold is set, it shouldn't be easier to decrease revenue than to increase it.

That's turned out to be the recipe for fiscal devastation.

Zelph said...

Given the unlikelihood of having enough Dems in the Lege to pass such measures, doesn't it make more sense to do it though voter initiative?

Thane Eichenauer said...

In my book a low voter turnout is indicative either of satisfied voters or a populace that has determined that it is a waste of time and energy to participate in a system who results are largely predetermined.