Send in the Clowns

On the left sits Harry The Politician. On the right is Tony The Lobbyist. They're talking on the telephone, swapping campaign contributions for corporate tax breaks. This is how government works in Arizona, intones the narrator in this 1998 television commercial, paid for by backers of an initiative that created public campaign financing.

Then, a giant pair of scissors cuts Harry's telephone line. "If Proposition 200 passes, we'll limit campaign spending and break the connection between politicians and lobbyists," the narrator says. "Now, who could be against that?"

Voters said yes. But seven years later, the connection hasn't been broken.

Most of the 90 members of the current Arizona Legislature didn't bother with public funding, but got elected anyway. Campaigns are more expensive than ever. And progressives, moderates and Democrats who spent nearly $1 million convincing voters that the public should pay for campaigns have seen the Legislature turn more conservative than ever.

The 1990s were heady times for progressives in Arizona, but their good-government experiments have proven to be object lessons in be-careful-what-you-wish-for.

The so-called Clean Elections initiative wasn't the only reform. Voters passed a slew of electoral changes aimed at creating a better government. Loud and clear, the people told lawmakers that they wanted a government that isn't business as usual.

Term limits to create a body of true citizen legislators. Requiring a three-fourths vote of the Legislature to change voter-approved initiatives so lawmakers couldn't trump the people. Taking redistricting away from politicians whose main goal was to draw maps that would keep themselves in office. The list of reforms goes on and on.

What did we end up with? Business as usual.

The Legislature has done precious little to dispel the myth that Arizonans are a bunch of knee-jerk right-wingers. Sure, Arizona is a conservative state, but it's conservative in the mold of John McCain, whose politics are more pragmatic than dogmatic. Think a pro-life, NRA-loving candidate who wouldn't burn an American flag to save his own life in a blizzard is a shoo-in with Arizona voters? Ask Matt Salmon, who lost the last governor's race to Janet Napolitano, who time and again has splattered GOP leaders in the Legislature like so many bugs against a windshield.

That's not so tough. Watching the Republican-controlled Legislature is like witnessing a Chinese fire drill. These clowns can't control their own caucus, let alone make laws. Instead of visionaries, we've got folks like Senator Ron Gould, who proudly flies the Confederate flag outside his Lake Havasu City home, and Senator Karen Johnson, who says abortion causes breast cancer (her bill requiring that patients be so warned came within three votes of passing the House last year) and once sponsored a bill to eliminate no-fault divorces -- even though she's been married five times.

With lawmakers like this, it's no surprise that legislative sessions have become exercises in posturing and bickering. You can't argue sense into an ideologue, and there are just enough ideologues in the Legislature to gum up the works, but not enough to turn their Alice-in-Wonderland agendas into laws. If it were up to lawmakers, you could tote a six-shooter to a beer parlor -- over protests from police and the liquor industry, legislators in the House last year voted 35-18 to allow guns in bars. The Senate killed that idea, but just barely -- the vote was 15-13.

With conservatives ousting moderates in both chambers last fall, the Legislature promises to be as silly as ever, passing stupid laws and trying to embarrass the governor by getting into fights that end with bullet holes in lawmakers' feet. There are rumblings of a bill that would require parental consent before minors could purchase condoms. Tired ideas such as requiring property owners to be compensated when land-use regulations restrict development are in the hopper, a notion voters rejected in a 1994 referendum.

"I swear, I read the bill list and I said, 'They've dredged up every bad idea from the last 10 years and re-filed it,'" says Sandy Bahr, a lobbyist for the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

Even staunch Republicans are disgusted by lawmakers' inability to accomplish anything meaningful. "In the past few years, this Legislature has become a very small board kind of thing," says Thomas Patterson, chairman of the Goldwater Institute and former president of the state Senate. One example he cites is lawmakers' fixation with homeowners associations -- last year, the Legislature passed at least 10 bills regulating everything from on-street parking to association board meetings.

"Right now, the Legislature is almost entirely reactive -- they do a lot of headline chasing," Patterson says. "In a better world, in better times, the Legislature is out there listening to people, ginning up their own ideas and coming up with not only what their constituents are bringing to them, but showing some leadership and trying to bring things that aren't just responding to gripes."

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Bruce Rushton