On April 15, Leona Helmsley will report to prison. One of those desperate dowagers who wipes on the cosmetics with a catcher's mitt, the hotel hostess was convicted of being a tax weasel. On the very same day that Helmsley begins serving her sentence, the rest of us will have our own moment of reckoning with the Internal Revenue Service.

As we make out our checks of tribute to the government this month, it is impossible not to recall how our governor tried to make all of us a little richer by creating an across-the-board tax refund.

Governor J. Fife Symington III said in his State of the State speech in January that everyone in Arizona should get a tax break. In order to finance this campaign pledge, Symington proposed that a large bloc of the poor should no longer get state-insured healthcare.

This is the kind of public policy that fills the streets of Calcutta with beggars. But it is the kind of public policy Arizonans regard as sound economics when touted by no-nonsense Republican businessmen who are self-made entrepreneurs like Fife.

Of course, Fife isn't entirely the self-made entrepreneur his campaign sold us.
Fife is a fox-hunting blue blood descended from the Frick robber baron fortune who married a graduate of Miss Porter's finishing school, a woman who possessed even more trust funds than he did. Together they raised a family that matriculated at the Phoenix Country Day School.

With the kids out of the house, the Symingtons grew restless and sought the governor's office. Pouring more than a million and a half dollars in family money into the campaign, the Symingtons bought a seat on the ninth floor of the statehouse. More recently the federal government sued the couple, claiming Fife's sleazy business practices while on the board of Southwest Savings and Loan helped bankrupt the financial institution.

Symington is a man of the people-people like Michael Milken, Charles Keating and Donald Trump.

Symington's scam to fund a tax refund by screwing the poor was immediately applauded on the editorial pages of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette.

Actually, to be more precise, Symington did not want to merely screw the poor; he wanted to screw the poor when they were struck down by a catastrophic illness such as cancer, or crippled by the expense of a debilitating heart attack, or chronically bedridden by a long-term disease requiring hospitalization.

Nor were the targets of this tax-refund proposal those figments of your Arizona imagination: The welfare queens who spit out babies for AFDC payments and sell their food stamps to buy drugs; federal laws protect these citizens. No, Symington's targets were the working poor, people who hold down the state's worst jobs and are not covered by health insurance.

By abandoning 30,000 people statewide, Symington intended to save $80 million and give the rest of us a tax break.

A middle-income person could expect a tax refund from $30-enough for a case of beer and a couple of lottery ticketsÏall the way up to $60.

Sixty bucks is nothing to sneeze at; three or four years of those kinds of refunds and you could buy your kid a pair of Air Jordan sneakers.

Dr. Leonard Tamsky wears sensible shoes. He is the chief medical officer of the Maricopa County Hospital. In his office, there are as many sheets of unfiled paper as there are poor people in the clinics right outside his door.

Dr. Tamsky was direct when asked about Governor Symington's proposal: The immediate effect would be catastrophic."

Pulling charts and graphs and documents out of the paperwork that passes for office decor, Dr. Tamsky explained Maricopa County has 23,342 patients in the group the governor has targeted. In hospital jargon, they are called the ÔMedically Needy and the Medically Indigent." These are patients who, in a family of four, earn less than $5,300. For a couple with no kids, the magic number is $4,300.

County hospital treats more than 6,000 of these people, with the remaining 17,000 scattered throughout the Valley's hospitals. All of the medical institutions now treat the poor people because the state picks up the tab. Under Symington's proposal, Arizona would not pay a cent for anyone between the ages of 21 and 64. ²Overnight, 17,000 patients, the ones now going to private hospitals, would suddenly be dumped back on county hospital.

Of course the county can't afford to treat these people. Near Tamsky's office, construction of a new hospital wing is under way. While the steel goes up three floors, the county has only enough money to pay for the first floor. Voters rejected a bond proposal that would have financed floors two and three.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey