Prog Spring

Our state legislators wrapped up their work and went home quietly last week. Some limped. This was a mean session--tears in conference committees, snipes on the House floor, chains on the doors of the Senate.

Senate President Brenda Burns and House Speaker Jeff Groscost should be glad to have made it out alive, politically speaking. Particularly Burns, who was almost tossed in a late-session coup attempt by some of her GOP brethren.

Oh, sure, you've heard Burns and Groscost going on about their fabulous accomplishments this year. Indeed, they secured the funding mechanism for a new Cardinals stadium and passed a bill that ups funding for highway construction. They rammed through more tax cuts for big business, and did get a cut in the vehicle license tax, giving the little guy a break of a few dollars a year.

In fact, many have said that despite the nasty kicks and punches, this was the best legislative session in recent memory. But don't thank Groscost and Burns. Most of the victories came in spite of these two, not because of them.

The real winners this year were the Legislature's self-dubbed centrists, moderate Republicans and Democrats in both houses who formed a tight-knit coalition to battle the more conservative Groscost-Burns crowd. That's why things got ugly. The far right usually shovels its agenda through the legislative process with ease. They weren't expecting a fight this session, but they got one.

Term limits could have a lot to do with the emergence of strong leadership on the part of traditionally quiet legislators like Tucson Senator Keith Bee, a relatively progressive Republican who emerged as a leader of the anti-Burns coup. Bee and his peers know their time at the Capitol is limited and they have finally decided to get tough.

In the final analysis, Brenda Burns' Senate caucus was too small and Jeff Groscost's House caucus was too big.

Burns had a one-member majority in the Senate; to gain leverage, all the Dems had to do was hold tight and convince a couple of Senate Republicans to stray. Burns failed to recognize the potential for defections, so she didn't bother maintaining good relations with the Democrats in case she needed them to forge compromise. She ended the session with a reputation as an arrogant leader surrounded by arrogant staffers whose promises aren't worth the paper they're written on. Instead of reaching out, Burns retreated. One lobbyist told me she wouldn't even look at him toward the end of the session, let alone speak to him.

Groscost had 40 Republicans to the Democrats' 20--a mixed blessing. The speaker wasn't choosy when he hand-picked GOPers to run for the Legislature; thank him for Barbara Blewster, the House's own Klanswoman-in-training.

The 40 Republicans didn't always get along, to put it mildly. Groscost is a master glad-hander, but even he couldn't twist that many arms; he lost a group of moderates who joined with the Democrats to oppose him. They were nicknamed the Mushroom Coalition because they initially met in the dark, but as the session heated up, they made their presence known and scored the centrists' biggest victory: an extra $20 million in the state budget for education.

You may not have heard about the centrists' other victories. With a loose majority coalition whose membership fluctuated, they:

* Restored funding for higher education. The original legislative budget proposal called for a 50 percent reduction in university faculty salaries and holding the community colleges' budgets even. Both were restored.

* Increased funding for Healthy Families, a program aimed at stopping child abuse, and Health Start, which offers prenatal care to poor women.

* Secured funds that will go toward the preservation of Spur Cross Ranch, a chunk of pristine desert at the edge of Cave Creek. The ranch had been targeted for development.

* Killed a bill that would have created a new class of associate school teachers who need only a bachelor's degree and no state certification.

* Defeated legislation championed by the pro-life community that would have required a 24-hour waiting period before a woman could get an abortion.

* Killed a bill that would have given Students First a year's extension to figure out minimum standards. This bill would have potentially delayed funding of Students First by a year, as well. Students First, passed into law in 1998, is designed to equalize funding for facilities between rich and poor districts.

* Killed a bill that would have reduced funding to school districts by linking funding to student attrition during the year. Because every school has a natural attrition rate, this potentially could have hurt even overcrowded schools.

* Defeated the "Y2K Get Out of Jail Free Card" act. This legislation would have offered criminal and civil immunity for environmental contamination relating to the year 2000 conversion.

* Killed legislation that would have linked the growth of Arizona's general fund to population growth. In other words, if the state's population grew by 3 percent next year, the general fund could grow by only 3 percent (inflation would be factored in as well). But critics point out that the needs for some state services, such as prisons, grow much faster each year and are not associated with migration to the state and the birth/death rates.

* Killed a bill expanding Arizona Works, the welfare privatization program. It was demonstrated that the proposed private plan would have cost more than the state-operated plan.

* Thwarted a last-minute attempt by Mesa Republican Senator Rusty Bowers to undo a bill that benefits the state employees' union. The bill allows the union to make automatic voluntary dues deductions from its members' paychecks. Bowers' effort came in a conference committee during the last week of the session--at 11 p.m.--one of many such challenges mounted by far-right members who realized they'd lost a lot during the session.

Word has it that Groscost, Burns and the Chamber of Commerce lobbyists who pushed for bills like the "Y2K Get Out of Jail Free Card" have vowed revenge. Potential targets: moderate GOPers such as Scottsdale Representative Carolyn Allen and newly empowered Democrats like Phoenix Senator Chris Cummiskey.

But for now, the centrists are basking in their glory.
One Capitol insider says, "I think if you polled Democrats, they'd say this was the best or one of the best sessions that they've ever had."

For centrists, even the "best session" inflicts some pain.
One gaping hole in the legislative record that has gone unnoticed is the lack of a law directing the state's $177 million share of the national tobacco settlement. Phoenix Representative Susan Gerard, chairman of the House Health Committee, had hoped to secure legislation to put the money into a trust fund to pay for health care for people affected by smoking. Without such legislation, the money will be dumped in the general fund, where it will be vulnerable to a raid.

A number of anti-environment bills passed the Legislature, including one that potentially shifts costs for cleaning up contaminated land from the property owner to the taxpayer. The bill allows the responsible owner to claim financial hardship and settle on a share of the costs before the full extent of the pollution has been determined. The state picks up the rest of the tab.

And finally, HMO reform, a bill that ultimately drew support from many conservatives and moderates, died in the final hours of the session--proving that in the end, even the best coalition-building couldn't stand tough against the legion of business lobbyists set loose on the Capitol.

As Cubs fans say: Wait 'til next year.

Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address: [email protected]