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A Fine Mess

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.

Knaperek and other critics say the agency functions badly because it is starving.

In 1995, Symington ordered all state agencies to submit flat budget proposals for Fiscal Year 1997. "Agencies are directed not to request additional funds for new programs or program enhancements," he wrote.

A few months later, Symington forced Blessing to chop an additional 5 percent from her budget proposal. Even Blessing, with her bean-counting background, cried uncle with justification. The cuts were hardly pressing; a state fiscal crisis was not looming. In fact, in 1995, the state's surplus stood at $330 million.

What was Symington up to with his pretend budget crisis? He was likely trying to free additional funds for his proposed tax cut. Instead of trying to fix institutional problems at the agency, he punished it for not working effectively by cutting back its resources.

At that time (1995), Child Protective Services, a DES department, was operating with only two thirds of the staff required to fulfill its mandate. Thirty percent of reported abuse in foster-care homes was going uninvestigated.

At least 10 children died--either after DES was warned of danger to the children or while the children were in foster care--during Symington's tenure.

State Senator Chris Cummiskey, a central Phoenix Democrat, says the spending cuts were not because of a lack of available funds, but rather because of a lack of political commitment on the part of Symington. "The resources have been there for the last three or four years to make a significant dent in improving children's quality of life, and also trying to put some tax breaks in place that actually help these families. But those were not high on the priority list."

Children's Action Alliance executive director Carol Kamin says, "The infrastructure of these programs and agencies was almost destroyed, because the resources weren't there to keep the programs going--even at a constant level. Instead, they had to retrench constantly."

According to Kamin's organization, the state's total general fund increased by 14 percent between fiscal years 1995 and 1998. During that time, spending for juvenile corrections soared by almost 50 percent; spending for adult corrections increased 36 percent.

And, during the same period, spending at the state's health-care agency (AHCCCS) increased just 1 percent while the Department of Health Services' budget actually decreased 2 percent.

Spending at DES increased a paltry 2 percent.
Such skimping will eventually cost the state, Kamin says. "We've ignored problems and we've neglected a foundation, and there are those who believe that it is going to erupt into expensive crises, and there won't be the money to resolve these. So even though I think Governor Symington deserves credit for reducing taxes, no one has asked . . . 'What has been the result of that?'"

The result is that in its most recently published study, the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Maryland concluded that Arizona's children rank 42nd in the nation with regard to well-being.

This year alone, more than 4,500 reported cases of child abuse have gone uninvestigated in Arizona.

Knaperek says it's not time to shove money at DES to fix problems, contending that when the Legislature does give DES money, the agency fails to spend it appropriately. For example, Knaperek says, last year, under Symington, DES received funding for 22 caseworkers, but it only hired eight. The remainder of the money was used to hire clerical workers and other support staff.

"That's the problem," Knaperek says. "They don't have a good track record with honesty and integrity."

She admits that programs such as Child Protective Services are woefully underfunded, but Knaperek says DES won't get "one red cent" until it can prove it is accountable for its money.

Was it Symington's responsibility, as governor, to make DES improve its track record--even if, as Knaperek observes, the agency had been a mess for years?

"I don't think Symington's forte was human services," Knaperek says.

In countless state agencies, Symington's generally chaotic management style was expressed in manic hirings and firings and resignations. Under Symington, the Department of Administration had six directors in as many years; DES had four chiefs between 1991 and 1993.  

While the Department of Environmental Quality had only two Symington-appointed directors, no other agency better illustrates Symington's schizophrenic governing style--or his eagerness to emasculate government. Like a chameleon, Symington was capable of changing color from green to brown and back again in an instant, depending upon the direction of the political breezes, without so much as blushing at the frequent suggestion that he was a self-serving opportunist.

And the impact of such shenanigans was the defanging of the state's regulatory agencies, among them, the departments of Weights and Measures, Game and Fish--and Environmental Quality.

Environmental attorney and activist Jeff Bouma says, "When it was to his [Symington's] benefit to try to appear green, he would try to appear green."

And when being green wasn't to his benefit, Symington denounced environmentalism altogether. He launched a states' rights campaign via his Constitutional Defense Council. The cornerstone: fighting federal clean-air laws.

"He [Symington] was so busy going out and making speeches about federal interference in the state, he didn't seem to have time for protecting the environment," says David Baron, a lawyer with Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

In the mid-1980s, Baron helped to write sweeping environmental protection legislation that--among other things--created the Department of Environmental Quality.

Baron explains, "What we started with was a comprehensive law that required any business or industry that might affect the quality of groundwater to get a permit and to prove to the state that they were using the best available technology to prevent pollution."

But Baron and other environmentalists watched their hard work crumble as industry officials incessantly chipped away at it, with help from the Symington administration and the Legislature.

During Symington's tenure, state laws to protect underground drinking-water reserves from industrial pollution were severely eroded. The right of private citizens to sue polluters under state law was diminished. A "takings" law--allowing property owners to sidestep the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws--was signed into law; a ballot initiative took it off the books in 1994.

Symington even signed a bill that extolled the virtues of Freon, a coolant universally recognized by scientific experts as a contributor to ozone depletion and banned internationally.

Ironically, Ed Fox--who served as DEQ director from 1991 to 1995--is widely regarded as one of Symington's best appointments.

Fox was almost painfully tactful when asked about his relationship with the governor, but it was well-known that the two men increasingly disagreed on where the state's environmental policy should go.

David Baron: "Ed Fox was one of Symington's better appointees and he tried very hard to make that agency an effective one with very little support from the Symington administration."

During the Symington years, DEQ was deprived of adequate funding to hire enforcers. In 1994, Symington humiliated Fox during a public debate on the controversial environmental audit bill. The bill would have guaranteed secrecy and legal immunity to polluters who submitted a confidential audit to DEQ.

The outcry against the bill was so loud that even Symington heard it, and vetoed the legislation, but only after forcing Fox repeatedly to defend his position before the media.

In 1995, Fox left the state for a job with Arizona Public Service Company. He refused to give a reason, saying only that he was "tired." Fox was replaced by Russell Rhoades, a former bureaucrat at the Environmental Protection Agency.

He may have worked for the EPA, but since he took over DEQ, Rhoades has become known for his anti-protection, pro-industry stances, reflecting Symington's general shift to brown while in office.

Critics contend that since Rhoades took over, enforcement has practically halted. And unlike Fox, Rhoades hasn't fought the Legislature as it bulldozes through the state's environmental laws.

Jeff Bouma says, "The difference in enforcement between Russ Rhoades and Ed Fox was night and day."

Since Rhoades took over, two respected DEQ regulators--Ethel DeMarr and Kim MacEachern--have quit in disgust. Others were demoted when they attempted to enforce the law.

Baron calls Rhoades "a massive disappointment." Other detractors have nicknamed him Mr. Marshmallow.

Although he grudgingly gives Symington credit for supporting cleaner fuels legislation and creating an ozone task force during the last year, Baron dismisses that as "too little, too late."

"If he [Symington] had been the environmental governor," Baron says, "he would have convened a summit of all of the interested parties, gotten them together and hammered out a program to limit urban sprawl in Phoenix and in Tucson and to come up with a mass-transit system that is decent and to come up with a transportation plan designed to reduce the amount of driving rather than increase it.  

"Instead, he basically ran roughshod over the transportation planning process, came up with his own plan for freeways--bigger freeways, better freeways, going farther--without any regard at all for what that was going to do to air quality. So he did precisely the opposite of what an environmental governor should have done."

The final straw for Baron came, ironically, on the day of Symington's conviction. That morning, Department of Transportation director Larry Bonine and DEQ chief Rhoades held a press conference to announce their opposition to transit measures on the ballot in Phoenix and Scottsdale.

Both measures went down--in Phoenix, the margin was fewer than 150 votes--and Baron blames Symington for trotting out his minions to kill proposals he says are vital to cleaning up the air.

"I thought it was absolutely inexcusable," Baron says.
Baron speculates that Rhoades may not last long in the Hull administration, partly for his opposition to the transit initiatives.

After all, he says, big business supported the initiatives, and Jane Hull is looking for support from big business.

Jane Hull's most natural affinity is for public schools. As a former teacher, it is likely that Hull will be more sympathetic to the plight of Arizona's public education system than her predecessor.

That's a safe bet. It's difficult to imagine that anyone could be less sympathetic than Fife Symington.

Of all areas of state government in Arizona, public education is in the worst shape. That's not by accident, for it was in this area that Fife Symington most fully employed all of his strategies for destroying state agencies: He implemented bad policies, provided poor leadership and cut funding.

As governor, Symington gained national attention by slamming public education at every turn. He downsized the state Department of Education, slashed maintenance and operation funding and turned his back in 1993 when the Arizona Supreme Court mandated a new funding formula for school capital finance.

When he did pay attention to education, it was to champion his pro-choice views--first by trying to hypnotize Arizonans into liking vouchers--then, after that failed repeatedly, by supporting the creation of charter schools. Those he happily funded.

State Senator Mary Hartley, a Glendale Democrat and longtime observer of public education, is outraged by what she says are funding inequities between public and charter schools.

She notes the difference between transportation reimbursement for charter schools and public schools. Charter schools receive $174 per pupil for transportation. Public-school students who choose the state-provided open enrollment option and often live some distance from school get no state transportation help.

"This is so unfair, I think it's a class-action suit waiting to happen," Hartley says. "What they're creating is a caste system. They say we have open enrollment in this state, yet they have given no resources to allow for open enrollment. . . . Then they allow [state] transportation money to go to charter schools, but none to go to standard public schools."

As significant as Symington's poor policy decisions was his lack of leadership, his critics say.

Mike Smith, a lobbyist for Arizona School Administrators, asks, "How do you judge whether public schools are good or bad? We've been having the debate for six years, and we are no closer to an answer than we were six years ago."

In fact, Smith says, the situation has worsened during Symington's reign. School administrators don't even know which achievement tests they should be giving to their students.

Symington's inability to take the lead in education is partly because of his own unwillingness to play nicely with others.

In 1994, then-state legislator Lisa Graham reversed her long-standing position and supported vouchers at Symington's behest, in exchange for his endorsing her candidacy for state superintendent of public instruction. She won, and almost immediately the two were at odds--due in part to the fact that Graham dated and eventually married former state representative John Keegan, a Symington political foe.

The rift contributed to the state's inability to solve its capital funding problem--even though the state Supreme Court had mandated change. And some argue that Graham Keegan's agency was targeted for budget cuts because of the feud, as well.

Whatever the reason, despite Symington's frequent pronouncements that public education was receiving more and more funding, funding levels actually dipped during his administration. The maintenance and operation allowance--which accounts for general operating costs such as utility bills and teacher salaries, excluding construction and capital funding--was $2,374.52 per student in Fiscal Year 1991, in the last budget approved by Governor Rose Mofford.

Technically, the figure rose to $2,499.53 in Fiscal Year 1998 (Symington's last budget), but that doesn't even meet cost-of-living increases. To keep up with inflation, the number should have been $2,819.68 per student. So in reality, the maintenance and operating funding level was cut by more than 10 percent.  

The National Education Association statistics cited Arizona as 49th among the nation's states for per-pupil spending, down five notches from 1991. Arizona teachers dropped from 26th to 33rd in national salary rankings and the state's class size remained among the largest in the country.

The bottom line, says Mary Hartley, is the bottom line. "The problem with education is that Symington put it on a starvation diet," says Hartley.

"I mean, it's just like a car. If you don't put gas in it--it's not broken, but it ain't gonna run. And that's what Symington did. He cut off the gas."

Governor Jane Dee Hull is taking the state of the state seriously, but she appears calm. Above all, though, she's circumspect.

She acknowledges the chaos that she's inherited, and she says she intends to implement widespread changes, but she remains vague on the details.

For example, on the topic of the $500 million-plus surplus: "Obviously, we've got some concerns about what I call the competing interests for the surplus. Some people that are talking to me want to spend it all on programs. Some people want it returned to the taxpayers."

Final figures regarding just how much the surplus is--after previous commitments from the last legislative session are met--will be available later this month, she says.

As for funding public education and child welfare services, Hull agrees some money will have to be made available.

"Then again," she adds, "I think the agencies are working real hard to convince all of us that they just weren't funded at all, and I don't think that's true."

She's taking a wait-and-see approach on school-finance reform, while the state appeals a lower-court decision on the latest funding option. She wants to create a regional health authority to address problems at AHCCCS and DHS, and says DES needs to be completely revamped.

Special sessions will likely be held to address long-term care, children's issues and clean air.

No, Hull says calmly, the state's not in crisis. But "there are some hot spots that we knew would be hot," she continues.

"All of those things were identified, frankly, before we came in. There weren't any secrets."

Hull insists she intends to follow Fife Symington's path of cutting taxes and keeping down spending, but unlike her predecessor, she says she intends to focus on the boring--but vital--state agencies.

"If we're going to have government," she says, "it's going to run well.


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