When Revolution Meets Reality

When congressional Republicans explain their ambitious plan for reforming the federal government--the Contract With America--they often use state governments as examples of the change to come. In fact, the notion that many federal programs would be more effective if they were moved--or devolved--to the state level is inherent to the Contract.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other congressional leaders regularly point to particular states andparticular programs as models for 21st-century governance in America. Education reform and Michigan Governor John Engler are synonymous for many Contract conservatives. When tax cuts are mentioned, the name off New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman often comes up.

And when the overall ethos of the Republican Revolution is being explained, the state of Arizona is invoked, as is its reform-minded governor, J. Fife Symington III. Clearly, Republican leadership sees Arizona as a proving ground for the Contract's major principles: a balanced budget, tax cuts that spur economic growth and reform that reduces the size and cost of government.

One leading conservative journal, the National Review, has praised Symington for his unabashed embracement of the Contract's central tenets. "Fife Symington of Arizona has turned out to be one of the country's best governors," the magazine said.

It is also clear that Governor Symington and his allies in the state Legislature see themselves as advance scouts for the revolution described by the Contract With America. During his nearly five years in office, Symington has increasingly pushed programs that reflect the national priorities of the Contract--especially its emphasis on returning power to the states.

As Symington said last year: "Let the little potentates of the Potomac be warned; we are growing weary of your ways, so kindly get out of ours."

As he has pursued his conservative policies, Symington has repeatedly been criticized on ethical grounds. His personal estate is in the hands of a bankruptcy court, and a federal grand jury continues to investigate both his own finances and some of his actions in office. Symington's response to that criticism has been consistent; he claims political opponents are exaggerating his personal problems and ignoring his cutting-edge accomplishments in reforming state government.

Indeed, there has been little in-depth analysis of the Arizona programs that have been referenced as experiments in the type of reform Republican revolutionaries want to spread through the nation.

More than three months of research by a team of New Times staff writers and editors, however, strongly suggests that leaders of both political parties should exercise caution before adopting Arizona-style reform as their own. That research included examination of thousands of pages of state and federal budgets, audits, financial reports and other documents, along with dozens of supporting interviews across political and ideological lines.

The public record clearly shows that many of the state programs touted as examples of reform are--in cold, hardfact--underfunded paragons of mismanagement and ineffectiveness.

The record also indicates that state government is headed for a budgetary disaster that reasonably can be expected to hamper important state programs for years to come.

During five years of Republican revolution in Fife Symington's Arizona, rhetoric has consistently misrepresented reality.

The Symington administration says it wants to cut the bureaucracy and the cost of environmental regulation, even as the environment is protected. Yet Arizona's Department of Environmental Quality has been managed in a way that frustrates business and allows even basic environmental laws to go largely unenforced. (See "Quit Polluting Our Aquifers," page 9.)

Congressional Republicans plan to move welfare programs to state control, and, with federal approval, Arizona has already embarked on a welfare reform program. But the state's welfare agency, the Department of Economic Security, remains nothing less than a monument to governmental incompetence--in the eyes of observers in both major political parties. (See "Welfare That Doesn't Work," page 14.)

Symington has touted a variety of market-based reforms as solutions to Arizona's problems in primary education. But policies enacted by Symington and his legislative allies have pushed the public school system to the verge of financial crisis, forcing school districts to raise taxes and take on massive debt. (See "The High Cost of Education Reform," page 6.)

And the state's indigent health-care program, often cited as a model for Medicaid reform across the country, is plagued by severe management problems. The program--the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System--is now under investigation by three federal agencies. (See "The Health-Care Mirage," page 12.)

To be sure, the Symington administration has had its victories. Some efficiencies have been implemented. Some budgeting processes have been placed on a more businesslike footing. Overall, however, the public record demonstrates that performance has been less important to the Symington reform agenda than appearance.

Nowhere have appearances been more misleading than in the financial arena. For the Symington administration, tax cuts have been a raison d'etre, financial responsibility a cause celebre.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty
John Mecklin