We were scared even before lunch. The state's economy's in freefall, and, as she heads to Washington, D.C. in hopes of becoming the nation's Homeland Security honcho, Governor Janet Napolitano leaves behind a giant budget deficit.
But after attending the annual Legislative Forecast Luncheon hosted by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, we've gotta admit: We're terrified!
The state's newly elected legislative leaders -- Senate President Bob Burns (pictured), Speaker of the House Kirk Adams, and Minority Whips Linda Lopez and Chad Campbell -- each took the time to outline their agenda to the assembled crowd of industry mavens and political bigshots. And, suffice to say, that agenda at this point consists of one item: Somehow, get Arizona out of the red.
There were a few small digressions. Democrats Lopez and Campbell both added the caveat that the budget out to be balanced without overly penalizing health-care and education. And Burns and Adams made the admirable point of how important it is to be open and transparent even while balancing the budget. But really, the entire lunch was devoted to what bad shape Arizona's in.
In fact, Adams and Burns both told the audience that they'd be spending next week, the first of the new legislative session, making it clear to their fellow members that THERE IS NO MONEY TO SPEND. Of course, they said it a tad more politically, but the gist is just that.
"We've decided to put aside the first week for the purpose of education our members and the public of the seriousness of the crisis we face," Burns said. The Senate is calling it a budget session; for the House, it's a "boot camp."
The idea's to make it clear that belt-tightening isn't an option; it's a necessity. "We are going to ask the business community to come to the Legislature and help us make that point," Burns said. "It's important for our members to understand what private businesses have had to go through in this economy, and the different decisions they've had to make to get the budget balanced and to keep it there."
And, Burns vowed, "I will not be assigning any bills to committees until the budget is completed."
The new Senate prez said he'd make exceptions, on a case by case basis, for bills that directly affect the bottom line. But, meantime, no one should expect their pet graffiti issue or charter school plan to make one inch of movement.
The sad thing is, we don't think the new leadership's exxagerating, not one bit. We all used to mock Treasurer Dean Martin as "chicken little" for claiming the state's about to run out of money, but it turns out Martin's dire predictions are pretty close to coming true. As Speaker-Elect Adams noted, Arizona's predicting a 24 percent budget gap -- the biggest in the nation. (See this horrifying little report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
"As a percentage of our revenues, this is a bigger budget budget deficit than the state of New York, the state of California," Adams said.
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Here's another scary stat for you, this one from Dick Hannon, chairman of the Chamber. "In job creation alone, Arizona alone has gone from second in the nation to forty-eighth."
Think we're going to make up that deficit any time soon with new revenue? Riight.
So after 90 minutes of this stuff, we can safely tell Adams and Burns that it's okay to skip that whole boot camp thing, at least as far as we're concerned. When it comes to Arizona's economy, in fact, we're scared shitless.