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.

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Michael Kiefer