Arizona Politics Trumps Economics; Students, Needy Families To Suffer

Posted By Mike Padgett

March 21, 2010

EDITORIAL

Are Arizona’s leaders, struggling with an overpowering deficit, downsizing state programs too far?

Last week, Gov. Jan Brewer signed the state’s fiscal 2011 budget of $8.9 billion, which is a reduction of  $1.1 billion.

Budget supporters called the new budget a streamlining of state government. Critics say it is hardhearted, with more pain to follow.

Arizona’s legislators for months have been tearing through the state budget like a rolling blackout. Many state agencies will keep the lights on, but others could be dimmed or darkened indefinitely.

Arizona’s residents expect the state to do its job. But when it comes to its vulnerable populations, the state has decided all it can afford to do is look the other way. The state’s legislators congratulated each other after adopting a new budget.

Looking around Arizona, I didn’t see any other celebration. Neighbors shared their disappointment. I read about families living check to check. Most are paying their bills. They are clipping more grocery coupons. There are news stories about families walking away from their mortgages. I see SUVs and other luxury cars in the parking lots of second-hand stores.

Arizona is unlikely to ever become a dead ship sailing. But critics say the state, by cutting vital social programs, is casting adrift some of its neediest populations as well as cutting basic programs and services that benefit everyone.

Unless you have a steady job, dependable health insurance and children in private schools, Arizona government has become as predictable as a junkyard dog turning on its master.

Under the new budget, signed March 18, much of the pain of the proposed budget will be felt by the unemployed, the under-employed, public schools, their students and their families, and residents without health insurance.

These populations have become as vulnerable as children wearing blindfolds in a dodge ball game.

Everyone agrees that, because of the economy, the state’s income is eclipsed by expenses. As a result, budget cuts include the elimination of state jobs, reductions in state health care, reductions in state funds to schools and universities, closing state parks, pay cuts for state employees (except for legislators), and so on. It’s a long list.

As a result, school districts face layoffs, causing increases in class size. Closing state parks means local communities will see fewer visitors. That means a weakened economy for the communities near those state parks. And that translates into more layoffs as well as vandalism and thefts in the parks.

Ironically, the decision to close state parks comes at a time when they are inexpensive vacation options for residents already struggling with unemployment.

Class sizes in public schools could reach 40 to 55, and projected increases in university tuition are among the largest in recent history.

Arizona state government’s once-helpful hands are turning into clenched fists. Taking it on the chin are the state’s most vulnerable and least-politically powerful – its poor and needy, its students, schools and universities, and residents enrolled in state health care programs.

State health care programs also are reduced. That will give former enrollees two options – they can line up at the local emergency rooms, which will force hospitals to increase their rates to paying customers, or they can delay their medical care, which could aggravate their medical conditions and lead to even more costly emergency medical care in the future.

And who pays for those higher costs of emergency medical care suffered by the uninsured delaying treatment? Insured patients, in the form of higher premiums.

Earlier this year, a study by Arizona State University economists predicted that reducing the health care program, which drops about 310,000 adults and 40,000 children from coverage, will cost 42,000 Arizona workers their jobs. That means longer lines at emergency rooms and unemployment centers.

One possible solution to Arizona’s budget crisis – a temporary sales tax increase – was rejected early in the budget talks.

That’s because, bold as Starbucks black, Republicans decided that any talk of a tax hike was forbidden territory. Several lawmakers went on to beat that dead horse by signing an anti-tax pledge. Onlookers saw the pledge for what it was – campaign rhetoric or party solidarity, and at the expense of reason, logic and compassion.

Arizona’s astute voters will remember in November, when they are asked to vote for lawmakers who prefer short-term savings over long-range gains. In Economics 101, that response would be a failing grade.

In fairness, Arizona is not alone when it comes to tackling major budget challenges. Several other states are dealing with budgets as attractive as infected zits. Finding the best response is the billion-dollar challenge.

The budget is contingent on voter approval of Proposition 100, which calls for a temporary sales tax increase. The election is May 18. If approved, the measure could raise $900 million.

For information about Proposition 100, visit www.yeson100.org.

But if voters reject that 1-cent sales tax increase, Arizona legislators will have to trim another $862 million from existing programs. And that, budget critics warn, could slow state government to a crawl.

State Rep. Steve Farley of Tucson, in a bulletin to the Tucson Weekly, says “Arizona’s future is now at risk” because of what he calls “the Republican budget.” Farley, a Democrat, says the budget “has no constituency, only ideology.”

One of the state’s budget watchers is David Griffiths, executive director of tax services at the Phoenix office of Grant Thornton. Griffiths says Arizona, where voters typically oppose tax increases, is one of many states facing severe budget challenges.

Unless Arizona’s economy makes dramatic positive changes, and soon, the state Legislature will be forced to make more budget cuts, says David Griffiths, executive director of tax services at the Phoenix office of Grant Thornton.

If Arizona voters in May reject the proposed sales tax increase, “there will be deeper cuts” to the state budget, “and I don’t know where they would cut any further,” Griffiths says.

“I don’t know what I’d recommend for a temporary fix, to tell you the truth,” Grifftths says. “

“Short of shutting government down, I don’t know what else to do,” he says. “I can’t predict. If the economy doesn’t pick up, things look pretty grim.”

For details about Arizona’s 2011 budget, visit www.azleg.state.az.us/jlbc.htm.

If you would like to contact your Arizona legislator, their names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses are available at www.azleg.gov/MemberRoster.asp.

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Mar 21st, 2010

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