Send in the Clowns

Don't bother, they're here. After a decade of voter-mandated reform, the Arizona Legislature is as out of touch as ever

A study by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University found that legislators don't have enough experience to be effective and that term limits have created a politically charged Legislature where members eyeing their next elective office focus on quick splashes instead of the long-term future. "For many, the limit to four two-year terms (eight years total) provides too little time to learn how to do the job and do it well," the authors wrote.

The lack of experience is obvious in committee chairmanships. At least four chairs of House committees have never sat on the committees they're presiding over this session. Environment Committee chairman Ray Barnes, for example, is brand-new to the committee and has never sponsored a piece of environmental legislation. "As far as I know, he has no expertise in the area whatsoever," says Bahr, the Sierra Club lobbyist. Speaker Jim Weiers, who appointed the committee chairs, concedes that legislators with so little experience wouldn't rise so quickly absent term limits. "One of the things that really works against the system and the quality is that people are rushing to try to get places faster than they ever did before," he says.

The Voter Protection Act. Barring legislators from amending voter-approved initiatives without a three-fourths majority vote hasn't stopped the Legislature from ignoring the will of the people. Lawmakers never implemented a 1998 medical marijuana initiative passed in the same election as the Voter Protection Act. Another example is the Clean Elections law, which legislators are trying to gut. Some lawmakers want to do away with matching funds for publicly financed candidates when their opponents gain a financial advantage through private contributions. Another proposal would allow publicly financed candidates to also accept money from private donors. Both ideas defeat the whole point of publicly financed campaigns: eliminating the influence of big money and special interests.

Pay raises for elected officials. For at least 30 years, voters have had the final say on pay raises for state officeholders. It's proven to be a classic case of getting what you pay for. Legislators earn $24,000 a year and haven't gotten a raise in seven years. The governor earns less than many of her department heads. Paying legislators $60,000 a year would cost the state $3.6 million annually, a relative pittance, and would attract better candidates, says Jason Rose, a GOP strategist. "It's one of the cheapest reforms Arizona can possibly have," he says.

Bill Wagner, a moderate Republican who gave up his House seat last fall and lost a bid for the Senate, says legislators need to work harder, and they can't be expected to do that with such low pay. "The amount of money you're paid doesn't even cover getting a place to live and eat and travel," he says. "I just don't think the people of Arizona understand that if you want to have good legislators, you're going to have to pay them."

Clean Elections. Publicly financed campaigns have taken root every place but the Legislature. All but one of the 11 officials elected statewide ran with public money, eliminating any chance for special interests to buy influence with campaign contributions. But in the Legislature, just seven of the state's 30 senators ran with public money. The rest did it the old-fashioned way, by hitting up political-action committees and other usual suspects. Nearly half of the House opted out of public financing. If they're not giving money directly, lobbyists are rounding up enough donations to trigger public financing, which legislative candidates receive after collecting $5 contributions from 200 people. Publicly financed legislators are allowed to collect $5,660 apiece from special interests to pay for mailers, Web sites and other expenses aimed at convincing their constituents they're doing a good job.

The law can't stop third parties from spending as much as they want to get candidates elected. The surest sign that publicly financed campaigns have backfired on proponents is a lawsuit filed last fall by Mainstream Arizona, a moderate group headed by former attorney general Grant Woods, who was a cheerleader for clean elections. Mainstream Arizona sued the state Citizens Clean Elections Commission after the commission gave conservative candidates nearly $70,000 in matching funds because mailers sent to voters by Mainstream Arizona furthered the campaigns of moderate incumbents. The judge sided with the commission, ruling that Mainstream Arizona or any other third party seeking to sway an election will only put money in the pockets of candidates they want to defeat.

Incredibly, some of the same conservative lawmakers who got into office with public funding now complain the law is too complicated and are backing efforts to gut or repeal it.

Independent Redistricting. The biggest disappointment has been the state's independent redistricting commission that was supposed to create legislative districts where either party has a shot and candidates can't get elected with no opposition. If it worked as billed, candidates at the fringe of the political spectrum would lose.

Both sides of the aisle agree: The Legislature will never change until the districts do. "I think the biggest issue about the makeup of the Legislature is always going to be the districts themselves and whether or not those districts are competitive," says Goodman, the GOP consultant. "In theory, if you had truly competitive districts combined with clean elections so that any legitimate individual who wanted to run had the means to do so, the campaigns would be more about an exchange of ideas."

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