Tearing Down the House

Rand Carlson

I feel naughty about my respect for Evan Mecham, so I'm badly conflicted when I see him walking toward me through the Capitol Mall between the Arizona House and Senate buildings.

Should I scold him for the Bircher-right idiocy he helped galvanize in Arizona over the last half a century, or should I vomit my respect for his lifelong steadfastness to his ideals and his uncanny ability to mount big wins and near wins against good odds?

I mean, besides stealing the governor's office (when he started his campaign, pollsters said he could muster only 5 percent of the vote), he's the guy who came within a couple of thousand votes of beating the Father of Arizona, Carl Hayden, in the U.S. Senate race of 1962. That's like coming down to a chad count against Yahweh in the race for supreme deity.

This is by far the most interesting visit to the Capitol since my asshole editor asked me to "keep tabs on the Legislature" this general session.

Monumental session, he said. What will legislators do to fight our $1 billion budget shortfall?

I could have telegraphed this one in. The Republicans will try to cut all the regulators, who are mostly Democrats, while the Democrats will try to borrow money to keep the regulators in place to protect us from all the Republicans.

"No, Bob. Go down there. Watch the show."

So I did. And if I have to read one more lunatic bill written by Representative Russell Pearce, if I have to watch one more tax loophole get slipped in by one more thief, if I have to hear one more cute cowboy quip from House Speaker and grandson-of-a-polygamist Jake "The Breeder Snake" Flake, I will douse myself with alternative fuels and have a self-immolation party right there between these House and Senate buildings.

My silent rage, mixed with watching this impeached icon of radical conservatism pass between these two legislative edifices, inspired the most delightful idea:

Hey, what would Evan Mecham think about a unicameral Legislature in Arizona?

There's the House of Representatives, the infamous home of nuts and dim bulbs, there to his left. What if we shuttered the dang thing?

Mecham has been railing about Big Government since his days in the state Senate back in the 1950s. There is no bigger symbol of Big Government than the big number of worthless government teat-suckers in the Arizona House.

Why get rid of the House over the Senate?

For starters, it costs us $12 million a year while the Senate costs $6 million.

Yeah, the Senate has idiots, too. Bob Burns, who wanted to buy property in Mexico to build a prison. Jack Harper, the new Sun City senator who didn't want rape victims to get the morning-after pill.

But the House costs more because it has more people and needs more peripheral people to move the mounds of defiled paper generated by, uh, Rhodes scholars like Representative Chuck Gray, who wanted weapons permits issued for a lifetime; John Allen, who wanted car dealerships to close on Sunday; and Gary Pierce and Andy Biggs and, well, name just about anybody else.

Grammar question: Must one capitalize all the letters in AzScam?

The savings would compound. Fewer tax loopholes would sneak through. No House and Senate joint committees, where so much of the behind-doors chicanery takes place. Over time, the savings would cascade into the billions.

And just think, Senate president Skippy (he's so dull that I can't bring myself to look up his last name) could oversee the new unicameral body, freeing up Speaker Flake to return to Flakeville up in Flake County and open the Flake Memorial Sperm Bank so Arizona could have even more Flakes.

I dream this big dream while waiting in front of the old Capitol building with Jack August, Arizona's best political historian who is three chapters into his biography of Mecham. I've been invited to tag along as the former gov searches the state archives for documents regarding his impeachment proceedings.

After a few niceties, I just toss out the big question:

"Hey, Governor Mecham, what do you think about closing one of the houses of the Arizona Legislature? You know, to save costs. To cut the idiot factor in half. To streamline."

"Hmmm," he says. "I've got to admit I have never given it much thought."

At first, I'm deflated. Later, though, as we casually talk about Arizona history, about how Mecham beat the crap out of Hayden for being a CAP-crazed, Roosevelt-loving socialist, about how he accused everybody in government of stealing from the general fund candy jar, I realize a simple truth:

There are many good ideas that have not been given much thought by Evan Mecham.  

Jack August likes my unicameral idea. He says it would be more like arena football instead of Cardinals football.

I return to the office excited. "I'm going to propose a unicameral in my next column." My editor yawns, saying, "Is anybody actually proposing this?" And I say, "No, unless I'm included in anybody.'" And he says, "No, you're not." And I say, "Whatever!" and then tell him that it's a great idea and that great ideas don't come from these dopey legislative types and obviously not from him either because he's a California bicameral piece of tofu crap and not a fine piece of Nebraska unicameral beef like me. He says, "Whatever!"

It is through brilliant debate between brilliant minds that brilliant ideas are born.

The unicameral idea was born during an early 19th-century debate between University of Nebraska government professor John Senning and George Norris, who along with Carl Hayden was one of the most influential west-of-the-Mississippi senators of the 20th century.

Senning and Norris' unicameral was modeled after single-house governments in Canadian provinces. Norris pushed the idea because he believed Nebraska's bicameral legislature, particularly when senators and representatives met in conferences to secretly hash out deals on bills, made it easier for lawmakers to slip through pork and personal favors that the public would otherwise oppose.

The idea became reality in 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression that is, in wretched fiscal times not unlike the ones in which we toil now.

In 1934, most any money-generating or cost-saving idea was on the table for voters in Nebraska. When state government was desperately short of general revenue, the citizens of that state had voted to legalize gambling. To make more money, and to reduce Prohibition-related crime, the body politic also legalized the sale of alcohol.

Arizona already has these moneymaking ventures in place.

The third step by Nebraska voters which has never been approved by the citizens of any other state, though it is a remarkably efficient method of reducing state spending was to get rid of their House of Representatives.

Even as a child going on field trips, there was something invigorating about seeing the sealed doors on one of the two chambers in the Nebraska Capitol. It was like the Tomb of the Unknown Legislators.

"[With two houses] Norris believed there was simply more opportunity for sabotage by lobbyists who might not have the public welfare in mind," says Harl Dalstrom, a University of Nebraska at Omaha historian who has written extensively about the state's political history. "He felt a unicameral would bring more public accountability for legislators.

"I think history has proven him right," Dalstrom says, commenting on Nebraska's reputation for general legislative sanity and efficiency.

Dalstrom agreed that it's time for revenue-strapped states like Arizona to go with the idea. "If it's going to happen," he says, "this is the time for it."

But putting my brilliant-idea-for-Arizona into play won't be easy.

Steve Swiggum, the popular speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, tells me he suffered blistering attacks from fellow politicians for his near-success in the last three years at getting a unicameral on the Minnesota election ballot.

"It clearly was a plan that would save money and boost accountability," says the GOP's Swiggum. "But I found pretty quickly there are a lot of politicians who don't like accountability. It came from both Democrats and my own caucus. Some people were just absolutely violently opposed.

"All I wanted was give the people a chance to vote," Swiggum laments. "You wouldn't believe the games used to stop it. It was stopped by the same kind of games a unicameral could help cut from state government."

Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura has always liked the idea. Frustrated with his state's convoluted legislative process, Ventura had tried to get a unicameral on Minnesota's ballot when he was mayor of Brooklyn Park, the state's seventh-largest city.

"At first, it was based on the fact that it was tough for him to follow the process as a mayor," says his former gubernatorial press secretary, John Wodele, now a producer of Ventura's MSNBC show. "But then it became an issue of accountability. It made complete sense. But certain people were just scared to death."

Minnesota's debt is $4.5 billion. "We're in deep doo-doo," Swiggum says. "It's an even more relevant issue now."

Which means it is also more relevant now for Arizona -- where a billion-dollar deficit also has us in the aforementioned ca-ca.

So let's begin a debate on the issue. Let's see which state legislators are willing to place their own jobs on the chopping block for the good of the people of Arizona.  

Sure, it's a fringe idea now. But a lot of fringe ideas have moved into the mainstream in Arizona.

Such as, once upon a time, Ev Mecham.

Even if my editor isn't impressed, a unicameral would be a good idea for this cash-strapped state. And, on a personal level, it might make covering the Arizona Legislature something more than a waste of time.

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