CASUAL CONFLICTS

ARIZONA LAWMAKERS OPERATE UNDER A SYSTEM INCAPABLE OF STEMMING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.

From February 1989 to December 1993, DHS inspectors visited Rainbow Elementary Prep II nine times, according to reports obtained from the agency.

Only once--in July 1989--was the center found to be in compliance with ratio standards. The other eight reports document example after example of too many kids and not enough caretakers.

On a visit in January 1993, the inspector found 33 4- and 5-year-olds alone in a classroom. The prescribed ratio for that age group is one staff member for every 15 children.

"I don't think the kids were alone," says Burns, adding that he doesn't recall such a report. "If they were alone, it was for maybe a minute or something while one of the teachers was standing in the doorway."
Records prior to 1989 have been destroyed, but in 1989, the Associated Press reported a long list of violations--including those involving ratios--at Burns' centers in Phoenix and Glendale. (He now owns only the Glendale center.)

Burns criticizes DHS for overregulating him and his industry. "It's not possible to comply, fully, 100 percent of the time," he gripes.

@rule:
@body:Our lawmakers are correct when they argue that the foundation of a citizens' legislature is the experience and knowledge of its members. But to limit the definition of a conflict of interest strictly to legislation that results in blatant, isolated financial gain for a particular member is to ignore the reality that the system is abused.

Reform-minded legislators and citizens say the rules should be tweaked and the public should hold lawmakers accountable for their actions.

House Minority Leader Art Hamilton points out that any person is entitled to submit a complaint to the secretary of the Senate or the clerk of the House requesting an ethics investigation of a member's conduct.

According to a recent national report by Common Cause, there are actually eight states that don't require legislators to submit any sort of financial disclosure, considered the most effective bulwark against conflicts of interest. Arizona does require financial disclosure, but critics complain that the forms aren't monitored closely enough.

Representative Gary Richardson, Republican-Tempe, for example, lists insurance sales as his profession. But he fails to detail what sort of insurance he sells. It is impossible to tell if any of the scads of insurance-related bills he supported in this session could have benefited him.

Richardson isn't the only one. "Just look at the 90 legislators' [financial disclosures]," Arizona Common Cause's Larsen says. "They're filled out 90 different ways. There is nobody making sure that these things are done right, and when a public official files it, that person has no idea whether they've done it correctly or not."

The forms are worthless, says Representative Chris Cummiskey. "We need to be held to a higher standard in terms of putting our cards on the table," he says. The current system gives legislators--particularly committee chairs like Bob Burns--so much power, it invites them to kill bills that might damage their businesses.

Since 1976, Common Cause has advocated the automatic calendaring of bills, a process by which bills are assigned to committees on a more egalitarian basis.

Kay Jeffries, executive director of Arizona Common Cause, says she will try one more time to get an automatic calendaring bill through the legislature--ironically, the bill isn't always heard--and then Common Cause will consider bypassing the legislature with a ballot initiative. A similar initiative was recently approved by the electorate in Colorado.

In the end, some worry that the concern about conflicts will always be motivated by fear, not altruism. That, says Senator Marc Spitzer, Republican-Phoenix, can result in poor public policy.

Spitzer, a lawyer who came under fire for a bill critics said would help him and other attorneys by prohibiting legal assistants and paralegals from performing certain basic legal services, says his colleagues often wimp out by declining to vote on or sponsor legislation that may be construed as a conflict--but which is really in the best interest of the public.

"The shame of it," he says, "is people are looking in terms of the hit pieces and what is going to be on the front page of the paper the next day." @rule:

@body:Bob Burns is not concerned with headlines. He's emerged as one of the key players in a possible special legislative session on children's issues--now tentatively slated for June. And he continues to lobby on behalf of the private day-care industry.

Just after a caucus meeting of Senate Democrats last week, Senate Assistant Minority Leader Pete Rios told New Times that his colleagues are grousing about Burns' day-care legislation.

The Democrats can support watered-down versions of education reform and Success by Six, Rios says, but not the bill that would require public schools to meet standards set for private centers.

That provision is on the table for a special session "because Bob Burns wants it," Rios says.

Burns says he's thinking of children's safety when he insists that public-school day-care programs be forced to comply with private-center standards.

Rios counters, "The only reason the schools are setting up these after-school programs for latchkey kids is because the parents cannot afford private day-care centers. So, in essence, what the bill does is it forces us to push thousands of kids out on the street." Even Governor Fife Symington's precious school vouchers may be sacrificed in the name of passing children's legislation. But now the entire special session could collapse under the burden of Burns' insistence. The Democrats, Rios says, may refuse to cooperate.

"Why should we agree to a special session that includes Bob Burns' day-care bill?" Rios asks. "What does that have to do with Success by Six, and what does that have to do with education reform?

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