BLOWING THE WHISTLE ON THE REGENTSIS THE POWERFUL BOARD PUSHING ITS LUCK AT THE STATEHOUSE?
"All my life I've gotten everything I've wanted in politics," John Kromko says, "and I'll eventually get them, too. It's just taking a while."
Them in the combative veteran Tucson legislator's lexicon, refers to the Arizona Board of Regents, the nine-member body appointed by the governor to preside over the state university system and the single-largest appropriated chunk of the state budget (some $500 million last year). Democrat Kromko is the point man for the legislature in an increasingly bitter feud with the board, which the lawmaker claims is elitist, unaccountable to the public and "generally out of control."
Kromko, himself viewed by some as an out-of-control lawmaker, has been sparring with the board for a decade, launching numerous attempts to limit regent powers and humble individual board members. He has sponsored bills calling for the statewide election of regents, a reduction in their terms from eight to six years and a requirement for the regents to submit personal financial disclosure statements. While none of these proposals has so far made it to the governor's desk, Kromko, who one regent staff member referred to as "a royal pain in the ass," tenaciously reintroduces antiregent bills every year.
Ironically, the latest failure to restrict the regents has made other lawmakers sit up and take notice of just how powerful the board is becoming.
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This week the legislature is expected to pass a new "whistle-blower" bill, designed to protect state employees from firing or harassment in retribution for reporting misconduct by their superiors. The only exemption is for the regents, who used political muscle and intense lobbying to get themselves written out of the bill.
"What you've got here," Kromko says, "is a group of people running a huge state agency who feel the rules that the rest of us play by don't apply to them. They need to be curbed."
Significantly, one new voice raising similar concerns is Representative Jenny Norton, the conservative Republican from Tempe whose major constituent is Arizona State University. "You've got a few angry legislators and a whole lot of concerned ones down here who are doing double takes at what the regents are doing," Norton says.
House Bill 2122 provides for an independent personnel board to hear whistle-blower complaints, and levies fines on supervisors who abuse whistle-blowing staff members. By excluding the regents' staff, as well as employees at the state's three universities, the bill doesn't cover the largest single block of state workers.
John Kelly, associate director of public affairs for the regents, said the regents were exempted from the bill because the board has authority under the constitution to manage its own personnel affairs.
"We've got our own system in place to deal with whistle-blower cases. An employee can appeal any problem he has with a supervisor right up the chain of command, right to the university president," Kelly said, adding that "if there is a problem with the system, we are capable of self-correction."
But Representative Patricia Noland, a Tucson Republican and a member of the conference committee that hammered out the details of the whistle-blower bill, said she's not convinced the regents' policy is adequate.
"I've received complaints from employees who have bumped up against the regent policy," Noland said. "It doesn't seem as though the policy was good enough to satisfactorily shield them."
Kromko maintains that "what the regents and the universities want to do is be able to handle all the personnel complaints in-house, so they can hire and fire who they please, for whatever reasons they please."
The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Wayne Stump of Phoenix, admits the committee granted the regents an exemption because of political pressure.
"They were really lobbying to get out of the bill," Stump said. "They said they had court cases that would show that we can't interfere with their policies on this issue."
Stump still isn't happy that lawmakers caved in. "We gave in to the political realities in order to get a bill out there," he said, "but if I'm back next year, maybe we can do something to get the universities included in the bill."
CONFLICT OVER THE whistle-blower bill is only the most recent example of legislative/regent friction. The hostilities began to heat up last fall, when the board offered to arrange tax breaks for U.S. Memories, a microchip consortium, in an effort to lure the high-tech firm to the Valley. Legislators, who insisted they should retain control over all state tax incentives, blasted the board for "overstepping its bounds" by making the offer and because three board members--who did abstain from voting on the matter--had financial interests in the consortium.
Also attracting lawmakers' ire was a lawsuit filed against the regents by the Arizona Republic and Tribune Newspapers, brought on by the board's refusal to release the names of candidates in the search for a new ASU president. The board lost the suit, and state universities were saddled with paying the $100,000 bill for the case. The regents defended their actions, saying the board had an obligation to the candidates to keep their names private.
In addition, the size of the regents' staff (one of the largest of its kind in the nation) and the six-figure salary of Regent Executive Director Molly Broad are viewed by some legislators as excessive, especially in light of the state budget crunch.
Anger at Broad spilled out during her appearance at a state budget hearing in December, when legislators sarcastically attacked university budget proposals and a legislative staffer condescendingly referred to her as "Miss Molly" throughout the proceedings. Legislators were reportedly miffed that only Broad, and none of the actual regents, showed up for the hearing.
"Every legislator is pissed off about [Broad's salary]," Kromko said, "but we don't seem to have the guts to do anything about it. The regents have a lot of political power around here."
Senate President Bob Usdane is more discreet: "There's a perceived problem with the central office--too many people and too many dollars being spent. My opinion is that the Board of Regents has a lack of rapport with the legislature and that continues to grow."
Regent Andrew Hurwitz said that while the board should shoulder part of the blame for its "less than ideal" relationship with the legislature, part of the conflict stems from the constitutional relationship between the two institutions.
"We need to spend more time improving our communication with the legislature, but part of our independence is by constitutional design," he said. "We are mandated to make certain decisions independently, and the legislature doesn't like that. They like to be in charge."
The Arizona Constitution does give the regents special powers to administer state universities. But Kromko charges that in the case of U.S. Memories, the regents clearly exceeded their authority by offering tax incentives to an out-of-state corporation. It is a charge Hurwitz, who abstained from voting on the Memories issue because his law firm was involved in the project, thinks should be put in perspective.
"The governor came to us and asked that we help facilitate this project; she asked for our cooperation," he said. "We were trying to encourage economic development in this state under those circumstances. You have to understand the motivation was a good one."
The regents apparently realize their stock is dropping at the statehouse. Kelly says the board plans to schedule casual, relaxed social gatherings with lawmakers so everyone can get to know one another and try to resolve disagreements.
The problem may run deeper than the need for regent/legislator cookouts, however. Norton explains the rift as an institutionalized class conflict between privileged, appointed board members and more voter-conscious legislators.
"The regents have always been viewed as isolationist academicians, holding a sacred place in government structure. But down at the legislature, we've got teachers, a waitress, small-business owners--you know, just plain folks.
"And legislators don't take well to the kind of isolationist or elitist position that the regents seem to have. And, unfortunately, the whole thing has become sort of like the Hatfields and the McCoys."
Kromko is pessimistic about a reconciliation between the two government "families."
He notes that every year his regent bills get just a little farther along in the legislative process, and next session there may be enough antagonism left over to propel some of the board-restricting measures into law.
"A lot of people have respect for regents just because they are regents," Kromko said. "To me, they're just people who gave money to a governor's campaign so they could get a job."
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