The "T" Word

They didn't put Fife Symington in a Plexiglas box, but the scene still reminded me of the Adolf Eichmann trial.

There the fidgeting former governor sat, front-row of the Arizona House of Representatives, face-to-face with his accuser, new governor Janet Napolitano, as she delicately alluded in her State of the State address to the civic horrors wrought by 12 years of Fife and his followers' brand of compassionate conservatism.

So much compassion for rich campaign contributors seeking tax loopholes, so much conservatism toward funding basic public services with a state general coffer increasingly turned general sieve by Fife's revenue raiders.

Thanks for this outrageous billion-dollar deficit mess, Janet said in her annoyingly peppy euphemistic style earlier this month.

I spent her whole baritone drone watching Fife from five seats down. You quickly discover that in a hall full of Speaker Jake Flake's 500 grandchildren, the only entertainment is the Theater of the Perturbed.

Janet, boldly androgynous in dark power suit, Eddie Munster hair and Herman Munster vocal cords, demanded adequate education for Arizona's children.

Fife adjusted his sock.

Janet promised to save Arizona's water, air and forests.

Fife rubbed lint from his trousers.

Janet offered affordable prescription drugs to the elderly.

Fife picked his teeth.

Janet paused for the requisite ovation. Fife leaned forward, placed his hands between his knees and clapped limply three times like a bored baroness at the third day of a loser's-bracket cricket match.

Under that famously blond mop, though, you knew the synapses were firing frickin' laser beams. I kept praying for him to snap, for him to jump up and scream:

Ha! Just try to pay for it all, beee-aattch! HAIRBALL HULL AND I TOOK ALL THE MONEY!

But it was the gubernatorial honeymoon. Lovey, lovey between Mr. Past and Ms. Future. Fife and Co. restrained.

Now, though, the thieving wing of the Arizona Legislature is saying the honeymoon is over.

They are now saying there is no way to pay for Janet's plan not to eviscerate an already skeleton state government. More pesky regulators must be let go, more Arizonans left without critical medical aid and more kids left illiterate and unprotected from abusive parents because the state budget deficit is just too great.

Republican leaders are now revisiting their old sophistic line that the problem with Arizona's government is out-of-control spending. They point to the fact that state government is spending much more than it used to.

That's a specious argument and they know it. In fact, Arizona has grown exponentially in proportion to the moderate increases in government spending. As ASU economist Dennis Hoffman points out, in 1982, Arizona ranked 24th in the country in per capita state-government spending. Now it ranks 46th in per capita spending, about the same ranking the state gets for the quality of its schools and other state services.

Now most in the Republican-dominated Legislature whine that the public, through voter initiatives, has tied their hands by mandating increased spending for services, particularly schools.

What those public votes mean, legislators don't seem willing to admit, is that Arizonans are screaming that they would like at least a mediocre state government under which to live and raise families.

What those public votes mean is that state legislators, championed by Fife and protégée Hairball, have sent the state in the opposite direction of where the majority of Arizonans want it to go.

Arizonans speak. Fife adjusts his collar.

This is to be expected from a not-so-petty thief. What is more maddening is that Janet Napolitano, in deeds and in words, is trying to appease the thieves.

Janet proposes improving state programs while not raising state taxes for a state government that will be $1 billion short of cash even though it is one of the chintziest governments in the country.

She plans to make things okay by borrowing money, shuffling money from other state funds and using revenue bonding for construction.

This is not a bad place to start. Indeed, there is a prototype in place for this plan: The University of Arizona has balanced books for years with limited funding by shuffling pots of money, scalping the fed of grant dollars and building infrastructure using revenue bonding.

Yeah, sure, if you dig into the university's books like New Times did two years ago, you'll see all sorts of questionable, if not fraudulent, deals. But perhaps the ends justify the means. It's a great university on the cheap.

The problem: The state is in much worse financial shape than the UofA was. It has much farther to go to be good, let alone great. And it's much easier to cook university books than it is the books of a whole state.

So just come out and say it, Janet. It must be said. Show us some balls.

We must raise taxes!

The state needs more money. It's very simple. We must be willing to pay for the adequate services we demand.

First, though, Napolitano and legislators can begin by raising taxes on all the dirtbags who had their taxes slashed by the myriad outrageous tax loopholes, mostly authored by Republicans, that have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from state coffers since Symington first took office.

That means an extensive and fearless review of all laws passed in the last decade that affected state revenues.

I'd like to see them start with a funny little law I wrote about several months ago in which East Valley legislators gave a massive tax break to their rich friends in Chandler's Stellar Airpark. In essence, legislators gave a tax break to fat cats who live next to airfields and have airplane hangars attached to their mansions.

It was compassion for those poor souls who must fly home in a Lear jet every day.

Ax that law now. Ax every little cancer like it.

Along the same lines, listen to legislators, such as Republican majority whip Randy Graf, when they pitch legislation to protect whistle-blowers in state government.

Whistle-blowers, as last year's Enron and Worldcom scandals prove, save money as they right wrongs. Arizona state officials, though, more often harass and fire those who report waste, fraud and abuse. And after the messenger is killed, the message is forgotten.

Once the bleeding is stopped, go for the desperately needed infusion:

Raise my taxes.

We'll all make do. We'll bring our lunch a couple more days a year. Sell plasma. Car-pool a couple times. Trim down on out-of-state purchases.

It would be worth it to have a government healthy enough to help the state provide the services that the nation's more progressive, and more successful, states provide.

You know, those states with all the high-tech industries, high-paying jobs and economies built on something other than cheap labor feeding endless sprawl.

But modern Arizona Democrats are so frightened to say the "T" word. They know the Republican majority is waiting to shoot down any such proposal, then make political hay by labeling their opponents "tax-and-spend liberals."

(By the way, was that "tax-and-spend liberal" cliché around when Carl Hayden was building Salt River Project, the San Carlos Project and the Central Arizona Project? Or were the Haydens of the world still being called "heroic statesmen" back then?)

This is where Janet and some as-yet-unseen courage comes in. She must take the issue to the people who keep passing initiatives telling governors and legislators they're incompetent at running a quality state. We have demanded more from our state government, she can say. So we must now give something of ourselves to meet our demands for something better. It's how life works, it's how a government fueled by taxation of its beneficiaries works.

She needs to wage war on the sub-mediocrity that Republicans built.

She needs to channel a little Carl Hayden.

And for God's sake, she needs to stop being so nice to her idiotic predecessors like she was in her State of the State.

Put Fife, Jane and their cronies in the Plexiglas box they deserve to be in and place their 12-year legacy on trial before the people of Arizona.

Don't placate them into compromise. Shame them into doing their duty.

And if they still just pick their teeth, hang them in the court of public opinion.

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Robert Nelson