Jan Brewer's Arrogant Bull at ALEC's GOP-Corporate Love Fest

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I kept waiting for her nose to start sprouting. Because when you tell whoppers like Governor Jan Brewer did at the American Legislative Exchange Council's opening luncheon at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa Wednesday, there really should be some Pinocchio-esque "tell" for those who don't know better.

Brewer's self-aggrandizing arrogance might have fooled some of her fellow Rs (any Dems present at the corporate-GOP love fest were either in disguise or in deep denial), but those who've been paying attention know her fantasies of state fiscal responsibility are pure shibboleth.

Arizona's grammatically-challenged chief executive painted a portrait of Arizona at the financial abyss, pulled back by her heroic Republican bean-counting.

"I'm proud to say that today we now have a balanced budget and a positive cash balance for the first time in years," Brewer read dutifully from her prepared remarks.

"And I don't need to tell you that this just wasn't just by accident."

She then went on to claim this "positive cash balance" was because of some four point plan she'd had up her sleeve for years.

The last R to make such erroneous claims was Sand Land's disgraced, driven-from-office state Senate President Russell Pearce. Pearce also argued that Arizona had balanced its budget, and that because of this, he insisted, its ledger was now in the black.

In reality, Arizona's underlying state debt is anywhere from $8.5 billion to $59.2 billion, depending on whether you ask the state's Joint Legislative Budget Committee or conservative watchdog groups such as State Budget Solutions and the Sunshine Review.

But sticking with the JLBC's number of $8.5 billion, it still gives the lie to Brewer's self-serving propaganda. 

What about "balancing" Arizona's budget? Actually, the governor and the legislature put the state $1 billion further in the hole by selling and leasing back state buildings like the Capitol.

Despite this, the 2011 budget anticipated a $332 million deficit, rolled over to 2012. This will no longer be necessary due to an uptick in tax revenue, brought on in part because people are not taking their mortgage interest deductions. 

See, when the housing industry sucks and folks' ain't got a home no more, there's no home-owners deduction, and people pay more in taxes.

But paying more in taxes doesn't go over big with the ALEC crowd, so Brewer didn't mention her 2010 temporary one-cent sales tax hike, which expires in 2013, leaving the state looking at a possible shortfall in 2014 of anywhere from $600 million to $1.2 billion, according to the JLBC.

Not that Brewer will have to worry about that too much. She's a lame-duck, and is termed out in 2014. 

Brewer also let fly some serious hogwash on Arizona's supposedly improved economy and how state government has helped bring a bunch of new jobs to the state.

"Our business client prospects have increased 350 percent on average each month," she maintained at one point.

"Prospects"? What's 350 percent of a "prospect," I wonder? Compare that to the current reality of 9 percent unemployment in this state.

Additionally, Brewer made a big to-do out of wanting to "reform the state's personnel system," making it easier to hire and fire employees. 

Snoresville. Unless, you're unlucky enough to be a state employee, that is.

If it were only easier to fire Brewer. Though a recent poll of Arizonans did show that 32 percent of them were ready to recall her leathery hide, daunting task though that would be.

(You'd need more than 400,000 signatures from registered voters to achieve this.)

If I'd been drinking milk, I would have nose-spit it on this Brewer-ism:

"We need the help of our state's universities to better prepare public sector leaders for the real demands of operating a $25 billion enterprise."

Brewer, of course, attended no university. And as I point out in this week's column, it shows. 

Indeed, she plodded through her ALEC speech, sometimes pausing before every other word. It was like watching a grade-school kid stumble over her multiplication tables.

The governor left almost immediately after her remarks, stopping in the corridor to take press queries for around three minutes total before escaping stage right. Further proving the woman is incapable of having a real press conference of any kind.

By contrast, former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese was genial and actually funny on the stump when he followed Brewer after the intermission of a speaker or two.

When he made some remarks against the federal government "overcriminalizing" actions the states had already criminalized, I made a mental note to ask him afterward about the infamous Meese Commission on pornography, which I recalled from my youth under the thumb of President Ronald Reagan.

Didn't Meese want harsher federal penalties against porn back then, I asked him after the luncheon was over?

"We were looking for federal laws [against pornography] because of the Interstate nature [of it]," he admitted.

Well, hey, that's different then, huh?

As for the ALEC-ers, there was much mention of the anti-ALEC protesters outside, though if you did not venture past the environs of the resort, or watch TV, you could remain oblivious to activism, mostly focused on Westin Kierland's eastern entrance.

Outgoing ALEC president Noble Ellington drew a laugh from the crowd with a mention of the excitement outside.

"ALEC is on the move," he said. "We've got things going our way, and we're bound to be doing something right or we wouldn't have the [police] helicopters flying around or the demonstrators."

Republican Arizona House Member Debbie Lesko, Sand Land's state chair for ALEC, even went so far as to read part of a recent, critical report "ALEC in Arizona" by People for the American Way and Common Cause, as a point of pride.

"`Arizona has one of the highest concentrations of ALEC legislators of any state in the United States,'" Lesko read to the applause of the assembled. "`At least 50 of the 90 legislators now serving in the legislature are ALEC members.' Yay, Arizona!"

(I should note that the PAW report listed one Democrat as an ALEC member, state Representative Richard Miranda. But when I called Miranda to confirm this, he stated that PAW's info was not current, and that he had not participated in any ALEC events for "at least ten years." He said he was not attending the ALEC convention, and was not sympatico to ALEC's cause.)

Afterward, I buttonholed Lesko, who I must admit I found to be a pleasant and forthright person one-on-one, and very willing to entertain questions. Much more so than the governor, natch.

Lesko saw no problem with legislators and representatives of big business talking to each other about possible legislation.

"I think the legislators in ALEC are a very good idea," she said. "Because it gets the private sector together with the public sector. This is the real world. We have to work together to build the economy and increase jobs. So to me, it's just logical."

Indeed, much of what ALEC does, much of what the PAW report chides ALEC for, would not be controversial for your average right-wing Republican. ALEC is a deeply conservative institution, one founded by the late Paul Weyrich, also co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, the infamous conservative think-tank.

A mere stroll through the vendors section of the conference confirms this impression, with more than one pro-life organization on hand, and others denouncing "Obamacare" or preaching the gospel of limited government.

And yet, though I was generally allowed to roam around the conference, ALEC retains an aura of secrecy. ALEC spokeswoman Kaitlyn Buss said I was free to attend certain ALEC workshops, but that various "subcommittee hearings," were closed to the media.

Buss could not explain why this was so. Nor did she have a good explanation for why ALEC's list of state legislative members from across the country was not being made public.

Similarly, she could not provide specifics on how much money ALEC was spending to fly out individual legislators. Though the Westin Kierland was fully booked by ALEC attendees, and I can assure you from eyeballing it that the resort is pretty posh.

When I raised this issue with Lesko, she offered that at least no public money was being spent. And she said ALEC was trying to be more transparent, and would be posting proposed legislation to a new website following the conference.

Considering the numerous deep-pocket corporate sponsors of the event -- from PhRMA and GlaxoSmithKline to ExxonMobile and AT&T -- ALEC's current lack of transparency, and its influence over state governments remains troubling.

This is why I think the work being done by Common Cause, PAW, and various other groups is important. For decades, ALEC has flown under the radar, its power unchecked and unmeasured. During my visit, I got the feeling that the protesters and the criticism had forced ALEC to at least play the PR game, if nothing else.

After the lunch speeches were over, I stuck my head in the doors of a few of the workshops open to me. These included panel discussions on common core standards for schools and increasing exports for states to improve local economies. 

I can attest that it was fairly boring, wonkish stuff, albeit with a conservative bent. In the latter workshop, I did find it amusing watching Arizona Republican State Senator Al Melvin trying to keep from falling asleep, as gal pal Senator Lori Klein -- winner of this year's New Times award for Best Bigot -- sat next to him.

BTW, am I the only one to notice these two wingnut geezers are always together in all kinds of weather? Gross. 

After this, I meandered over to the east side of the resort's hotel parking lot, to check out the police barricade and the protesters. I totally missed the pepper-spraying incident of earlier in the day, documented in part by a video released by AZResistALEC, which you can see, here.

While I observed the demonstration, there was little going on other than some guitar playing, some chanting and some sign-waving. Phoenix Police were lined up blocking the entrance to the hotel, but there was no physical confrontation between the cops and the protesters at that point.

Around 5 p.m. or so, the cops began to pack it in, and the hundred or so demonstrators present began to melt away, promising to return the next day. 

I did speak to a few who had been hit by the pepper spray, but had returned to their battle stations. Since I've gotten a face full of the stuff in the past, I feel for anyone who has had to experience these toxic blasts.

This is without passing judgment. Like I say, I did not witness the altercation.

In general, I found the protesters to be sincere and in some cases courageous, though there was a kabuki element to the proceedings. It would not have taken much for better-dressed demonstrators to infiltrate the event, perhaps even disrupt it nonviolently. 

For all I know that could still be on the protesters' agenda. But nothing like that happened on the opening day.

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