A Fine Mess

State agencies are reeling in the after-Fife, the ballyhooed state-budget surplus is all but spent, and the government bureaucracy is bigger than ever. Now it's up to Jane Dee Hull to make it all make sense.

In his first State of the State address in 1992, Governor J. Fife Symington III--as new chief executives are wont to do--anointed himself the Education Governor, the Environment Governor, the Children's Governor. The three-cornered prospectus promised an optimistically vast range of areas he would improve.

Last month as Symington exited office, local pundits rushed to declare his seven-year gubernatorial tenure a success, despite his felonious performance in the private sector. Bad businessman, good governor, they chorused.

They were half right.
Under Symington, the state's infrastructure--the programs designed to serve Arizona's citizens directly--has crumbled to the point where nearly every state agency is arguably now in worse shape than when Symington entered office. Don't look to the celebrated $500 million budgetary surplus for a quick fix. Much of it is already spoken for; final figures will be available later this month. But what remains won't come close to covering the cost of resuscitating the state.

Bottom line: Fife Symington was about as good a governor as he was a businessman.

The irony is that the three areas he had taken ownership of in the beginning are the areas that fared the worst under him. Sure, we'll remember Symington for his impact on schools, kids and nature. But if history is fair, it will be for the swift kick he gave them rather than for taking any role in their advancement.

During the Symington years, a boom in the national economy generously filled the state's coffers. But it quickly became apparent that Symington never intended to spend the money on tackling the pressing needs he identified at the start of his tenure.

During some years in Symington's administration, the agencies that account for more than half the state's budget and deliver the fundamental services of government--public education, environmental cleanup, and care for children and other Arizonans in crisis--were told to make do without so much as a cost-of-living adjustment.

But the institutional mess can't be blamed solely on underfunding. Lack of leadership, chaotic management and scandal conspired to create the Symington legacy.

At the same time Symington was starving state agencies, he made self-serving policy decisions that imperiled agencies and the constituencies they serve. When the state Supreme Court mandated fundamental reform in public-school funding, Symington refused to comply. He allowed the state's mental-health services to bottom out in crisis after experimenting with a disastrous private-management arrangement. He steered the Department of Environmental Quality down a dangerous pro-industry/anti-citizen path.

On Symington's watch, Arizona's health-care system, AHCCCS, came under federal investigation for suspicion of fraud and mismanagement of funds. Regulatory agencies such as the departments of Weights and Measures and Game and Fish were emasculated.

Good laws were changed at his urging and good regulators were forced out, as managers turnstiled through agencies such as the Department of Economic Security and the Department of Administration.

The governor used state planes for personal and political travel and redecorated his office in the finest mahogany and marble at the citizens' expense.

Symington's lone reform measure, Project SLIM, was intended to scale back big government. Instead, Project SLIM not only resulted in growth in government, it ended in scandal.

It will take years to repair the damage wrought by Symington's administration, plus fresh thinking and a lot of money.

For now, the entire reeking mess has landed squarely on Jane Dee Hull's desk. If Hull looks awfully serious these days, she has good reason. The tangle is deeply rooted in the executive office.

While governor, Fife Symington quickly earned a reputation as a penny pincher. When he rescued the arts endowment bill in 1996 by announcing his enthusiastic support of the legislation then languishing in the state House of Representatives, Symington surprised even his closest confidants.

This was a man so conservative almost no one counted on him to support even a public/private funding partnership, which is what the arts endowment fund--now law--is. The only logical explanation for his support: the Harvard Dutch art history major's appreciation for aesthetics.

But Symington was not as enlightened when it came time to fund public education and environmental-regulation enforcement. And nowhere is his penchant for spending cutbacks more evident and damaging than in the area of social services, particularly at the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the agency charged with the daunting task of administering state and federal programs for abused and neglected children, the poor, the elderly and the developmentally disabled in Arizona.

Underfunded to begin with, the department's budget has slowly been cut to the bone.

When Symington became governor in 1991, DES had earned a reputation as a bureaucratic mess. Its books were unauditable, its programs cash-starved, its staff overworked.

Frustrated by the agency's inability to untangle its financial rat's nest, in 1993, Symington named Linda Blessing--the fourth in a succession of DES top administrators--to head the agency. Blessing had been with the state Auditor's Office; she had no background in social services.

It shows.
Tempe Republican state representative Laura Knaperek says DES now has the lowest employee morale and the most personnel problems that she's ever seen, although she concedes that Blessing has made some progress with regard to financial accountability. Knaperek worked with developmentally disabled children for years before her 1994 election to the Legislature. She has long observed the way things operate--or don't--at DES.

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