By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
When the wind blows in Bisbee, some little children run indoors.
It's simply too dangerous for them to breathe the air in this old, southeastern Arizona mining town, says Anjelika Johnson, a Bisbee travel agent and the mother of a 12-year-old girl.
The wind blows gritty chunks of dirt and rock off the towering piles of mine tailings deposited just outside of town. Even a mild gust can send swirling devils of dust--laden with iron and arsenic--sailing down city streets.
Johnson, whose daughter Rebecca has blood levels of lead and arsenic much higher than the national average, doesn't let the child drink the water, either--the wells in Bisbee are contaminated with sulfates and heavy metals, all as a result of run-off from the old piles of slag.
"I worry about how exposure to all this is going to affect her later," Johnson says. "We need to get this cleaned up."
Michael Gregory, the head of Bisbee-based Arizona Toxics, an environmental watchdog group, has been trying to do just that for almost 20 years--lobbying the state legislature to mandate that big mining companies like Phelps Dodge, which owns the Bisbee tailing piles, take responsibility for the job.
"I thought this year we might possibly get some action," he says. "Bisbee clearly needs help."
But it wasn't to be.
The Arizona legislature did pass a mine cleanup law--but because of intense lobbying pressure from the mine industry, it was stripped of any punch, and will have virtually no effect on the dangerous situation in Bisbee.
Phelps Dodge escaped a big cleanup bill. Rebecca, it seems, will simply have to learn to play inside.
It was a familiar story at this year's session of the Arizona legislature--when practically every professional group, business alliance and corporate behemoth with a mind to do so bellied up to the public trough, gorging themselves on tax cuts and regulatory relief.
A group of pro-business legislators, along with a few high-powered lobbyists representing the largest companies in the state, conspired to make this feast possible--by engaging in last-minute political powerball, twisting of the public will and blatant grabs for gold concealed under thin veils of altruism.
From the utilities to mines to dog tracks, from airplane builders to microchip makers, business interests were granted tax windfalls, freedom from environmental restrictions and liberty from lawsuits on a grand scale.
One longtime lobbyist, in a moment of rare candor produced only by a guarantee of anonymity, admits that he and his colleagues referred to the 41st Legislature as "being just like a candy store."
"And we were just like kids," he smiles.
In nearly every instance, the public will pick up the check for this sugary spree.
In fact, according to public interest groups that monitor such things, 1994 was the best ever for Tycoon Tom and, conversely, an all-time low for Average Joe.
But how could that be? After all, didn't the legislature just last month approve a $100 million tax break for average, middle-income Arizonans?
Yes. But Kay Jeffries, executive director of Common Cause, says such tax cuts, while admirable, are little more than bread and circuses for the masses--a populist sop to voters that pales in comparison to the loads of lucre being distributed to corporate Arizona.
"Sure, some of us will pay $30 less, or even $200 less, in taxes," Jeffries says. "But that's nothing when you think about the hundreds of millions the legislature gave out quietly this year to business behind the scenes, while things the people of this state really need, like aid for at-risk kids and education reform, are left unpaid-for.
"This session was the worst in memory for that kind of thing. There was a certain element of inhumanity about it, as human beings took a second place to corporations in office buildings. The common person got raked over the coals."
In the short run, she points out, individual tax savings may be lost to rate hikes by utilities, which have been granted a free hand by this year's legislature to boost bills. And over the long haul, she adds, the effects of dramatically reducing the tax base and casting care for the environment to the winds produce costs that will certainly dwarf any small gains made on this year's personal income tax forms.
Not all of this year's pro-business legislating should be perceived as pernicious, of course. Too often critics forget, or choose to ignore, where wealth and prosperity come from in the first place--and that the welfare of business and the welfare of the individual are, on many levels, inseparable. What is good for GM is sometimes good for you, too, and government has an important role to play in luring corporate America to the Sonoran Desert.
But while legislators taking steps to encourage economic development is one thing, hoisting big business upon their shoulders--like native bearers carrying their chief off to a merry meeting with the God of mammon--is quite another.
Representative Chris Cummiskey, Democrat-Phoenix, a reform-minded young legislator who bemoans the "way businesses in this state have been able to write their own checks at the legislature," says that is exactly what lawmakers did for their private-sector masters this year.