The State of Her State

Few argue that Janet Napolitano has been a good governor. The question is, why isn't she great?

Maybe she's not the perfect governor. But damn, it could be a whole lot worse.

This could be the key to her oddly immense popularity. In Arizona, a good leader appears to be a great leader because Arizonans are used to such bad leadership.

Leadership that has kept this seemingly prospering Western state annually languishing in state rankings with the most desperate states of the Deep South.

Joe Forkan
Joe Forkan

"Arizona tends to hang around Mississippi and Louisiana when all the data is compiled," says Scott Morgan, co-founder of Morgan Quitno Press, arguably the most comprehensive benchmarking research company in the country, which publishes numerous governmental data rankings books each year.

And no, there is no significant movement in Arizona's national rankings in the Big Three categories of health, crime and education — all sweetheart issues of our governor. We're still last in education, still in the bottom five for crime, and sitting at number 39, up one, in health care.

Take heart, though, Morgan says.

"Even if good things are being done in Arizona, it can take several years for success to translate into these national benchmarking numbers," he says.

Simply, no matter how smart your All-Day Kindergartners are now, those dumb-ass fifth-graders are going to keep showing up as dumb-asses until they fail to graduate from high school.

On that topic of dumb-asses, we confront the other roadblock between Janet and success: the Angry-White-Male butt-end of the Republican Party that keeps hijacking Republican primaries to hold the Arizona Legislature.

The threat is real. And regardless of her new power, the far right will continue to trip up Napolitano whenever possible over her next term.

For example, while Janet wanted All-Day Kindergarten for all, a push she argues will kick-start Arizona's kids down the path to intellectual prosperity, the compromise with the Legislature is All-Day Kindergarten only in Arizona's more economically challenged school districts.

At the same time, Napolitano quietly allowed a $5 million school voucher program to slip into law this year.

(That said, she set a gubernatorial record for vetoes, shooting down more than 100 pet projects, many either outrageously venal or stupid, of the hard right.)

She secured pay raises for state employees, but the state pay grade still lags far behind other states.

She has backed away from politically volatile solutions to protect Arizona's water supply from overdevelopment.

Besides her lagging efforts to stem childhood asthma, she has done little as sprawl has created gridlock and a brown cloud the size of Rhode Island that, ironically, is beginning to drive people away from, and keeping people from coming to, the stinking sprawl.

Perhaps this is a new form of environmental stewardship — Malthusian smart growth.

As for protecting adults, disadvantaged or simply at a disadvantage, Napolitano's record is even less stellar.

Pushed by the courts to better serve the mentally ill, state funding for mental-health services has dramatically increased in recent years. Once near the bottom in state mental-health spending, Arizona is now 10th in overall mental-health expenditures and seventh in per-capita mental-health expenditures.

It's not unusual for this state to be forced by the judicial branch to do what the executive and legislative branches should have done by conscience.

Money given is not always money well spent, though. Channeled through ineffective policy, as well as for-profit management, many veteran mental-health professionals argue that the state is doing no better caring for the seriously mentally ill than it was a decade ago.

For the average Arizonan, care of the disadvantaged is not a household issue.

What is, however, is the household.

And for consumers, especially home buyers, Napolitano's centrist positions tend to leave her in a no man's land between those who sell and those who buy.

A 2003 report from the auditor general concluded that the state Registrar of Contractors did too little to help homeowners. The report recommended developing a program to discipline problem builders. But though the ROC officially developed such a program, its parameters were so narrow that virtually no builders qualified as "problems." The program, staffers have admitted, has fallen by the wayside without a single builder being disciplined.

Perhaps because builders are not being held accountable, lousy construction has become a major problem in Arizona. When Napolitano took office, Phoenix was ranked tops in the nation on J.D. Power & Associates' survey of "customer satisfaction" with new-home buyers. (Other Arizona cities are too small to be included.) Satisfaction has dropped steadily ever since, with a five-point drop in 2005 and then another seven-point decline in 2006. Those are among the biggest drops recorded on the survey in recent years.

When it comes to new-home building, Phoenix now ranks 25th — putting it in the bottom third of the major new-home markets in the survey.

And really, if a state built on home-building can't build homes right, what the hell can we do right?

With a state so far below mediocre in so many areas, Napolitano's willingness to concede ground on critical issues, whether because of genuine centrist beliefs, legitimate Arizona realpolitik or base political positioning, can be disconcerting to those who believe she is a leader capable of truly raising Arizona.

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