Timely Tim

The bell that House Speaker Jeff Groscost rings to summon legislators back to the House floor sounds alarmingly like a door-chime rendition of the theme from Jeopardy!.

At jeopardy on this particular day (some weeks ago) is the school-finance bill, and the esteemed House members are hammering out its final wording before sending it to the Senate.

It's a cynical process, and one that is unfathomable to the average taxpayer, even if he has a Mensa membership. The sergeant at arms reads each proposed amendment in an auctioneer's voice, and then with alternating gravitas or jocularity, the legislators rise from their seats and comment on such important things as whether the Arizona Wildcats will win that evening's basketball game, and never mind that what's at risk here is the state's school system, which a judge has threatened to shut down if these men and women don't come up with an equitable plan.

Up in the gallery of the assembly room, an assortment of lobbyists and educators appears to doze off. In fact, they are lapsing into a kind of altered consciousness, like certain Native American tribes in extreme northern climes who endured long winters by periodically going into energy-conserving trances.

Tim Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, slouches into one of the gallery seats.

He's a man of average height, but so lean that he seems taller. With his bald pate, glasses, businessman's suit, he cuts a strikingly anonymous figure.

Hogan is Arizona's conscience, and consciences are supposed to be invisible.
In fact, he is one of the most influential men in Arizona, and the center he directs, with its three lawyers, has been at the root of many of the state's major legal cases for the past 25 years, from civil rights to disability rights to grazing rights, from Clean Air to the hot air generated in government meetings, which because of the center's work must be open to the public.

Back in 1991, Hogan filed the lawsuit that led to the school-finance battle on behalf of 40-some impoverished or tax-beaten school districts, and he's ridden it as doggedly as a rodeo cowboy since then, all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court three times.

He's ready to go back there--this House version, which he liked, would eventually be morphed by the Senate into a proposal he feels is unacceptable under the Supreme Court decision--even if it means closing the schools.

Senator Marc Spitzer, one of the Senate finance-plan hijackers, doesn't think that will happen, but House Speaker Groscost, whose political views tend to be as far to the right as Hogan's are to the left, has fretted to the daily papers that Hogan's been right so far and will likely be right again.

On this day, Hogan is keeping watch over the political games played on the House floor, checking who is abstaining by not showing up, who is getting up, ostensibly to take a leak, rather than vote on an unpopular colon or comma on line 237 of the proposed bill.

Down on the floor, majority leader Lori Daniels is explaining that some students at some schools like to have class in portable trailers. Another representative offers that those trailers might be nicer than the ones those students live in.

"So much of the decision-making is guided by purely anecdotal material," Hogan says. He speaks in a deep monotone voice that he punctuates with a hissing laugh.

"It's frightening," he continues. "We have not attempted to make any serious study of this problem. So every time we come to critical decisions, we keep hearing anecdotal material because education is the one thing that everybody knows something about. They went to school themselves, they've got kids in school, and that's the experience that guides their decisions."

And when the floor debate becomes way too anecdotal, he takes the elevator down to the House lobby, and goes outside to have a smoke.

"The smokers will hang together regardless of their political affiliation," Spitzer notes. "I remember one day he was out there with a whole bunch of conservative Republicans. I made some comment about politics making strange bedfellows."

For years, the Republicans in the Legislature have hemmed and hawed over crafting a constitutional way to build school buildings. They threw together Band-Aid proposals that Hogan took back to court, and the court threw the Band-Aid out.

Popular wisdom says that there is strength in numbers. But Hogan has always stood alone against the legislative mob, and so far, he has won nearly every round. He is quoted near the end of every daily newspaper story about school finance, identified usually as "a lawyer who filed suit." He is the lawyer who filed suit.  

"I could take 10 lawyers and spend them on school finance, and if you look around the country at other school-finance cases, you see these cases staffed by armies of lawyers," Hogan says. "Well, we have to figure out how to do that without the armies, but we've got to get the job done."

And though he modestly refers to the center and the plaintiffs as "we," he's working the legal side alone. And if he hadn't worked so diligently, the Legislature would have let the school system slide into the Third World, with rich schools and poor schools and nothing in between.

Which some legislators deny.
"I don't think there's any basis to say that," Senator Marc Spitzer told New Times back in December.

Some time between then and now, the Republicans finally came up with a plan that was palatable to Hogan, one that eliminated bonding, that is, money borrowed against district property values and paid back through property taxes, a method that favored wealthy school districts over poor districts.

Then, when a solution seemed in sight, the Democrats suddenly turned against what appeared to be the most democratic plan to date. But it passed the House anyway, and so the Senate gummed up the works by writing a bill that allowed rich school districts to opt out of the system altogether--which once again could result in separate but unequal school facilities.

"There's political science and there's practical politics," says Spitzer by way of explanation. "The two don't always mesh."

Hogan tries to control his frustration.
"Why am I spending all day down there trying to overcome things that are just impossible to overcome--like politics? At some point, I have to realize that my role is to represent low-wealth school districts. I've done my best to achieve those objectives, and if they pass a bill, we'll take a look at it and decide whether it meets the requirements of the Supreme Court. And if it doesn't, we'll go back to court."

When that bill finally gets signed--and it may in fact be signed by the time this story appears--the dailies may run photographs of Governor Jane Hull and Speaker Groscost and maybe Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan shaking hands. Hogan likely will not be in the picture.

Hogan's friend Peter Martori, a longtime member of the board of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, says, "The governor and the Legislature and the media don't want to acknowledge that it's taken this guy, this one guy, to goad them into doing what really is their job. When they're signing the school-finance bill, they won't be giving the pen to Tim Hogan."

The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest was founded in 1974 by two Phoenix attorneys, Herb Ely and Bruce Meyerson. Ely refused to comment for this story.

Meyerson, who was the center's first director, says, "When we started, there was criticism: How do you decide what the public interest is? Who are you to decide? Our point was that the judges decide, and the Legislature. All we decide is which cases to bring. But over the years, I think the center has demonstrated that they are responsible advocates. I think it's very hard to criticize the efforts of an organization that identifies unrepresented needs and interests that affect large groups of people and raises them to the public eye."

For better or worse, the center has done that, filing litigation that resulted in the creation of the state Department of Environmental Quality, rolling back utility-rate increases, questioning the State Land Department's policies of giving away natural resources, representing the rights of the disabled. The center's lawyers solidified the open-meetings laws. Four times they won cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Baron, who has represented the center out of Tucson for 16 years, is spearheading a drive to have a growth-management initiative on the November ballot.

Baron has repeatedly sued the federal government under the Clean Air Act since 1985, and any efforts the state has made to ease air pollution--emissions testing, clean-burning fuel and the like--have come out of his efforts.

But he's had to sue repeatedly. The center's case against the state's mental-health program has lingered since 1981, and has since passed on to the attention of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, which splintered off from the center in 1993.

The Center for Law in the Public Interest has twice sued the State Land Department over grazing fees. It sued the state to require that all items on supermarket shelves bear price tags to protect the consumer; the Legislature promptly changed the law to protect the grocers. It sued to force politicians to file financial-disclosure statements.  

"They don't tell anything but they file them," Hogan says of the financial-disclosure statements.

"We're trying to change some fundamental institutions here and overcome some very stodgy thinking," Hogan says. "I suppose it's a time continuum. But at some point on the continuum, you sit and wonder, 'Well, have we reached the point of diminishing returns this time around?'"

When Hogan took his job in 1991, the center had more than 20 employees and split its resources between defending the rights of the disabled, which was funded largely by federal funds, and the more controversial "impact" cases--political, environmental, consumer cases--which were funded by grants and private donors.

The two functions were growing in different directions--the disability work taking bigger and bigger portions of the pie.

"And from time to time, there were allegations made for political purposes that the privately funded part of the center was using federal funds," Hogan says.

And although federal audits keep such things from happening, the federal monies were filtered through state agencies, which enraged the powers that be--then-governor J. Fife Symington III and then-House speaker Mark Killian.

"For both of us there were downsides to being attached to the other work," says Leslie Cohen, who worked on the disability side of the center.

The mitosis was inevitable. Hogan and Baron split away and set up small offices in Phoenix and Tucson, respectively. Cohen became director of the Center for Disability Law.

"Having our own identity and our own board, which better reflects disability-related interests, is a positive thing," she says.

The Center for Law in the Public Interest has an annual budget that hovers around $300,000, money that comes from donations, grants and--least predictably--attorney fees awarded. Last week, the Legislature finally agreed to pay legal fees of $550,000 for Hogan's work on school finance; he had asked for $1 million.

Hogan makes $86,000 a year, Baron makes less; the center has recently hired a third lawyer for the Phoenix office.

"If I could hire a hundred lawyers, I'd have things for them to do," Hogan says.

In addition to the schools case, he's still challenging grazing fees, fighting free-trade zones--artificial tax breaks given to corporations ostensibly for economic development--trying to force the state to fully fund bilingual education programs.

He challenged closed-door meetings being held over baseball and the stadium and won; challenged Fife Symington's loans from his mother and lost. He is researching but has not yet filed a suit to force the state to fully investigate child-abuse complaints. He is thinking of returning his legal eye to forcing the state to mark prices on the items on the shelves of retail stores instead of letting the stores rely on electronic scanners--if he ever finishes with school finance.

Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings calls Hogan a "minimalist" in the courtroom.

David Baron says, "He doesn't waste time on peripheral matters. Judges are human, and they need to have an issue presented simply. I can't tell you the number of times we've gotten pleadings from the other side of the case that are two inches thick. And Tim gives a five- or six-page response, and that's all we've needed. Being a good lawyer is not about how many pages you can generate. It's about being able to spot the key issue and convince the court that you're right about it."

Hogan's tongue is often in his cheek.
"He's got a hint of underlying sarcasm," says Jennings. "If he gets a smart-aleck witness, he's very good on questions. He's got a rapier tongue."

His image is squeaky clean.
His friends and acquaintances describe him as fearless. They talk of his stamina, the workload he balances: "Too much work," as one says, "so you look in the mirror, and there's your help."

His principles are higher than his expectations of others.
"I don't demand 100 percent consistent application of principles. Life isn't like that," he says. "But to at least struggle with the obvious. Some people profess principles but they immediately vanish when self-interest is involved."

His political enemies--if they bother to return phone calls to reporters--don't speak ill of him.

"I could be living in a dream world," Hogan says, "but I think you'll have trouble finding people who dislike me--or David [Baron]--personally."

Still, the knee-jerk reaction from the left makes the right knee-jerk, too.
Last December, Senator Spitzer said of him, "Mr. Hogan is very, very big at ad hominem arguments, and he has great political cachet. He's a far better politician than I am. But he phrases everything in terms of 'If you don't do what I want, you're a fascist beast, and I'll stand outside the Capitol and say the Republicans are fascist beasts,' because we don't pass the bill that he likes."  

Hogan denies the allegation.
"It always has been in their best interests to personalize these things," he says. "And we've always tried to avoid that. We don't go after individuals. We don't name names. We're going to fight in the courts and secure rights for people. And personalities don't have much to do with it."

And even if Spitzer is on the opposite side of the education fence from Hogan on school finance, he has agreed with Hogan's stances on grazing leases and on foreign trade zones. And he likes and respects the man.

"Hogan is always a very pleasant guy," Spitzer says. "And every time he's ever been in my office, he's been very reasonable and straightforward, and a no-bullshit, honest, sincere guy, even under stressful circumstances."

In fact, Hogan is so good at concealing his emotions that even his friends can't tell when he's angry in court.

"You'd have no idea he was exercised by watching him," says Renz Jennings.
If he and David Baron do not perform their advocacy law within the usual cult of personality, it is because their personalities are so suppressed. They both talk willingly to the press, but seldom offer any more information than they are asked for.

"I'm a hard person to get to know," Hogan says.
No one seems to have memorable anecdotes about the man.
Peter Martori's 16-year-old daughter Jessie interrupted an interview with her father to offer this one:

She had done poorly on a high school math exam, and Hogan offered to help her understand her mistakes. As she sat at Hogan's work table in the front room of his house, they both realized that she needed a lot more explanation than either had expected. So Hogan spent the next four hours building a math foundation for her. When they finished going over the test, she realized she had one more problem to do for the next day, but she was too tired to think about it. Hogan copied it down.

"At about 12 at night, the phone rings and it's Tim," she recalls, "and he's figured out the problem for me because he's afraid I won't have my homework done the next day. And he's never mentioned it or anything."

Hogan's much attested brilliance notwithstanding, there's a large hole in the picture window on the front of his house in north-central Phoenix.

Hogan and his 13-year-old son had set up a practice pitcher's mound in the front yard in a place that would send any wild pitch through the glass.

The paint's peeling on the carport, the grass needs mowing, evidence of a man too busy or too distracted to take care of mundane chores. Hogan spends weekends coaching his son's Little League team.

Hogan's been married to the same woman, his high school sweetheart, for 26 years. His wife, Peg, is equally pleasant, fond of words, preferring to steer the conversation away from herself and her husband onto the issues that interest her more.

They visit secondhand shops together. And Hogan's idea of a Friday night is to pick up his daughter from Northern Arizona University and drive her home.

She attended public school; she transferred out of the Glendale School District to attend Central High School in the inner-city Phoenix Union High School District. But Hogan has apparently decided to opt his son out of public high school and into Brophy.

One might question if that is an indicator of his own bad faith. Hogan says it is where his son wants to go, and regardless of the political implications, a parent needs to do what's best for his own child.

Hogan has lived and worked most of his life within a few square miles of this house. Peg has lived near here all her life. Together they live a small-town existence in the big city.

They are peacefully, self-assuredly--in a word--boring.
Hogan, 46, was born in Chicago's northwest suburbs. His father was a shoe salesman who drank a bit too much (and consequently Hogan is a teetotaler). When Hogan was a child, his parents divorced, and, "suddenly poor," as he puts it, he moved with his mother into an immigrant neighborhood of the big city.

Then, in 1966, when he was a freshman in high school, his parents remarried and moved to Phoenix. Hogan attended Central High School, where he honed what he describes as an authority problem. His wife Peg recalls that he challenged his English teacher so repeatedly that he was given a pass out of class to get rid of him. He earned A's anyway.  

He was accepted to an ivy-covered college in Oregon, but by then his parents had divorced again. Hogan had figured out early on that if he wanted to do something, he was on his own. He attended Phoenix College, paying his way by working menial jobs, and when he finished his two years there, he transferred to Arizona State University as a humanities major, where his authority problem resurfaced.

"In those days, when I found things to be insipid, I let people know," he says. "Well, tenured faculty don't care much for that."

He dropped so many classes that he lost his status as a full-time student. The Vietnam war was at its peak, and as soon as the draft board realized that his college deferment had lapsed, Hogan was drafted.

"The government can work with amazing efficiency when it wants to," he jokes.

He reported for his preinduction physical. But he also filed an appeal with the draft board and managed to get his deferment back, but this time he registered as a math major, sensing that it was the quickest way to finish his degree.

Hogan and Peg married when he was 20 and she was 19. And when Hogan graduated, they shipped out to Indiana so that Hogan could attend law school at the University of Notre Dame. He admits he really didn't know what lawyers did.

"I'd never met a lawyer in my life," he says. "I'd seen them on the television screen."

But he'd been filled with late-'60s college-boy rhetoric, a warm, fuzzy notion that money wasn't important and you could work within the system to right wrongs and effect social change. And then he went out and did just that.

He returned to Phoenix after law school and spent a couple of years at Legal Aid, then five more working in the Attorney General's Office under Bob Corbin, first on financial fraud and then in civil rights. He moved on to the Corporation Commission in 1984, rising to chief counsel.

Renz Jennings used to call him "the Perry Como of regulation," admiring him for his cool under fire and his ability to sense when a commissioner was heading into trouble.

When Hogan first came to the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest in 1991, the school-finance case was already in the works.

"It was one of the reasons I came here," he says. "It was something I wanted to do."

He'd wanted to stay longer at the Corporation Commission but felt the new offer was a job he couldn't turn down. He started in January and filed the school-finance suit in May.

Using the Roosevelt School District as the lead plaintiff, Hogan represented 40 to 45 low-wealth school districts protesting their inability to build new schools because they didn't have high enough property value in their districts to secure the bonds, and when they did, they tended to have to impose higher property taxes than in wealthy districts.

In studies done in 1990, the disparity was so great that the Ruth Fisher Elementary School District near the Palo Verde nuclear power plant had an assessed valuation per pupil of $5.8 million, while the San Carlos school district in Gila County had an assessed valuation per pupil of just $749.

Hogan lost the case in the trial court because of a similar case that had set precedent in 1973, but the judge admitted that there were gross inequities in the way the state built schools. Hogan appealed the case to the Arizona Supreme Court, argued it in late 1993, and got the court to decide in his favor in 1994. The school-finance system was ruled unconstitutional and the Legislature was to remedy the situation.

Then-Senate president John Greene had no intention of meeting the court's instructions and instead asked, "What are they going to do to us?" And the answer, at first, was nothing.

The Legislature didn't actually pass a school-finance bill until 1996, one that was woefully inadequate. It did not eliminate bonding and anted up a paltry sum of state money, $30 million toward more than $1 billion worth of problems. Hogan took that plan to Superior Court and got Judge Rebecca Albrecht to rule that it was not an adequate solution. Furthermore, Albrecht set a deadline of June 30, 1998, to reach an acceptable plan or she would shut down all the schools.

Symington appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, but the high court upheld Albrecht's decision. A year later, Symington and Senator Marc Spitzer unveiled their "Assistance to Build Classrooms" program, which still based itself on bonding and state supplements, which Hogan argued was still unconstitutional. Again, the courts took his side.  

Then, with Symington out of the picture, Speaker Groscost and Governor Hull and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan and other legislators cloistered and came up with the current bondless system that would fund schools out of the state's sizable coffers. Groscost began telling reporters that a faulty finance plan would never get past Hogan, who would pronounce the plan unconstitutional.

"He's made those assertions twice before, and he's been right," Groscost told the Arizona Republic.

"I'm in committee hearings last week and I hear conservative Republicans talking about how if bonding is reintroduced, it's going to create an unequal system," Hogan says. "What kind of a reverse universe have I fallen into?"

Hogan fixates now on the standards that will be written into the law to dictate what constitutes an acceptable school facility. The first House version had no such standards, and when Hogan squawked, he was invited to write them in, and he drafted text that mirrored the language of the Supreme Court ruling. The actual standards remain to be written.

But the Senate was not so kind to Hogan or to schoolchildren, and the governor allowed the senators to write in provisions that would allow rich school districts to opt out of state funding.

Hogan holds fast. If the rich school districts are allowed to opt out, he argues, then there still will be a two-tiered system. The worth of the plan will be in the standards set for school facilities--how many labs, music rooms, computers, gymnasiums they must have. But if the rich, influential districts can opt out and still afford all those necessities and a few luxuries to boot, there might not be pressure on the legislators to set high standards for the "welfare" districts.

"What they're saying now is, 'Yeah, it's a crappy system, but it's good enough for poor kids,'" Hogan says. "It's just as offensive as it can get. If kids aren't treated equally, we're never going to make progress."

Spitzer objects.
"He's communicated that argument to me," Spitzer says. "It's a political argument more than a legal argument. He says he'll go to court and have this thrown out, and I don't see that happening. I don't think he'll be successful in court arguing that the opt-out is unconstitutional."

Hogan says he will absolutely be back in court.
Win or lose, as Bruce Meyerson, his distant predecessor at the center, says, "This school-finance case: If he did nothing else in his life, that is a profoundly important case in the history of Arizona."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address:

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