Six Reasons Arizona Politics are Messed Up

April 2, 2010

Every state in the nation has peculiar political traditions and laws that make it a mess.  And being the perceptive creatures that they are, people often recognize that their particular system is a mess.  Not having the perspective of experiencing the systems in different states however, most people are wrong.  Generally speaking, states are equally messy and imperfect.  It’s a creature of democracy.

Here in Arizona, however, things are particularly bad.  There are (at least) six different changes that true conservatives and those interested in good government should look to make.  Each of the six by themselves may have been well-intentioned.  Each may have some benefits.  But, without a doubt, each of them has more significant costs as well.

As conservatives, we’re the thoughtful ones.  Liberals have it easy.  Do you love kids?  We’ll take care of kids!  Want to help the poor?  We’ll help the poor!  Their solutions are simple.  Their programs are like point of sale displays at the checkout counter designed to make you feel good.  All too often, we make the purchase.  It’s our cross to bear as conservatives.  We’re forced to argue three points (on the easy issues) to make our case.  They only need to state one shared desire, while they hand out a piece of candy that no one needs but everyone wants.

Some states experience the positive and negative (mostly negative) consequences of one or two of these policies.  None that I’m aware of suffer the consequences of all six.  Combined, the negative consequences of all six create the perfect storm for political disaster here in Arizona.

First, we have term limits.  Term limits seemed like a wonderful concept when Tip O’Neill served as Speaker over a Democratic Congress that seemed like it would exist into perpetuity.  The powers of incumbency are enormous at the Congressional level (and at lower levels to varying degrees).  As conservatives, we champion the idea that government should not be entrenched.  It should be more about the people, through the electoral process, having the power to change the system.  Before Newt Gingrich became Speaker, it seemed like the only way conservatives and Republicans had any chance at cracking the Democratic stranglehold was through term limits.  As an additional benefit, term limits encouraged an end to the idea of the professional politician.  Because of Newt Gingrich’s ascension to the Speakership and houses of our Congress changing hands since then, we understand that the framers had it right.

In practice, term limits are a disaster.  First of all, let’s discard the notion that elected officials are the real creators of policy in Congress or in the state capitol.  There are some “hands on” legislators in our state legislature and our Congress, but make no mistake they are the exception, not the rule.  In most cases, long-term staff (and long-term lobbyists) have more power than most people know.  Even without term limits, elected officials look to their more seasoned and experienced staff and say “what should I do?”  Those are the powerful elected officials.  In reality, most of our “leaders” have staff that say “you need to be here at this time, you will say this and not that, and you will speak personally to these three people and then we’ll get you out the door.”  Even without term limits, staff wields enormous power.  With term limits, the influence of staff (and lobbyists), and the disconnection from the people, grows exponentially.

Additionally, term limits completely distort the leadership system within a legislative body.  Let’s look at the past year as an example.  First, our Governor gets appointed to the cabinet.  Thus, Jan Brewer becomes Governor.  That’s fine.  Ideally in such situations, you have a Governor who was never elected to the post, counterbalanced by a Speaker and Senate President who have not only been elected, but been engaged in the legislature long enough to rise through the ranks of their seasoned (and new) caucus members and become leaders.  In such cases, you have a Speaker and a Senate President who really wield more power than the Governor.

Because of term limits in Arizona, however, we had a Speaker (though I disagreed with him on some fundamental issues) who really did a pretty remarkable job holding his caucus together and navigating these treacherous waters as best he could given the fact that he was a rookie Speaker.  Kirk Adams possesses the skill and ability that could have righted this ship as a participant.  But as a rookie Speaker, it would have been unrealistic to expect him to overcome the total incompetence we’ve seen from the Senate President and the Governor.

One might look at Bob Burns and say “term limits didn’t make him Senate President, he’s an experienced leader!”  One who would make such a comment would be right on the “experienced” part, but couldn’t be more wrong on the “leader” part.  There is a reason that in his lengthy career Bob Burns never became Senate President.  First, he is not a leader.  He’s a valuable grunt.  If this past challenging experience with this legislature has demonstrated anything, it’s that Bob Burns is not a leader.  He’s achieved during his career because when the leaders called and said “jump!” he asked “how high?”  But the world has past Bob Burns by.  In the instant communicating world of the internet and ever-changing legislators (because of term limits), he expected his caucus (and his caucus leadership) to do what they were told.  Having the communication skills of Frankenstein’s monster didn’t help.  He told his caucus “jump” and pass the tax increase.  Thankfully, at least two members said “hell no!”

Term limits are a disaster.

Clean elections.  Thankfully we have the Goldwater Institute that has the ideological commitment to not only speak eloquently about the problems of clean elections, but to fight them based on their Constitutional shortcomings.  And let’s stop using the term “clean elections” from the start.  That’s us talking their language.  If they control the messaging, they are halfway to winning the battle.  There is nothing “clean” about clean elections.  If we had successfully framed the issue years ago, we’d have won this war long ago.  The system we’ve been experiencing here is more appropriately identified and framed to the people as “your tax dollars for basically anyone who wants them, to pay for sleazy, self-serving political ads.”  Sadly, that’s seeing “clean elections” in the best light.  In reality, candidates are securing the funds, running phony campaigns, transferring funds to the political parties (primarily to the Democratic Party, not because they are more corrupt, but because the Republican Party leadership in Arizona is incompetent and untrustworthy at best) and “donating” excess funds to some charity that the candidate’s spouse runs out of their basement.  There is nothing “clean” about clean elections.

Each of these first two policies independently are damaging.  Combined, they are a disaster.  First, through our term limit law, we toss legislators out of office who have the knowledge and experience to stand against staff (and lobbyists) and really direct the government.  So, not only do we have a massive body of inexperienced legislators, but we give tax dollars for anyone and their brother (or puppets of lobbyists and insiders) to fill those seats.

In 1992, voters in Arizona approved term limits overwhelmingly.  Voters, through the ballot initiative, also passed taxpayer financing of political propaganda (previously known as “clean elections”) through a ballot initiative which brings us to the third problem we experience here in Arizona.  Voter (and ballot) initiatives.  Like term limits, the voter initiative seems like an empowering opportunity for the people to have a voice.  Sounds good, but let’s be honest.  Ballot initiative are bad in two ways (at least).  First, remember when we discussed how liberals only need to make one general statement of an agreed goal and hand you a piece of candy to make their case and we conservatives need to string together three arguments to get you to even consider our position?  Well, that’s tailor-made for ballot initiatives.  Additionally, ballot initiatives (whether voter-initiated or not) are often well-fund by liberal (tax-sucking) special interests who appeal to the most simplistic desires of the populace.  They create a recipe for disaster.  “We love kids!”  “Yes!”  “Term limits to end professional politicians!”  “Yes!” and we could go on and on.

Spending approved by voter initiatives requires a supermajority to change it.  It’s pretty tough for the legislature to cut our budget to the extent they need to do so, when you pretty much take a good chunk of the spending off the table because it was passed by feel-good ballot initiatives.  Ballot initiatives also provide elected legislators with an out that we shouldn’t provide them.  We elect them to make policy.  We elect them to sit through hours of boring committee hearings and meetings to understand programs and make the best, most thoughtful and deliberate decisions for our districts and the state of Arizona (maybe we should pay them more than $24,000 … we’ll discuss this on another day).  But voter initiatives and all ballot initiatives give legislators an out.

The current initiative before the voters is a perfect example.  Do you know why a $3 billion tax increase is now before the voters of our state (funded by $50,000 from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and gads more from every liberal special interest and their cousin)?  It’s because this ballot initiative option gave legislators an out.  Russell Pearce is often held up as a great example of conservatism.  Instead of “What Would Jesus Do” bumper stickers on their cars, many knee-jerk conservatives ask “What Would Russell Do?”  Let’s not kid ourselves.  Russell Pearce is a staunch supporter of strong measures to end illegal immigration.  He has worked hard to earn that reputation.  And, he’s generally conservative (though he supports spending anything and everything for law enforcement, regardless of how it impacts individual liberty or how much it costs).  But one would be a wealthy man if he dad a dime for every time Russell Pearce said in Committee that “I’m not voting for a tax increase.  I’ve never voted for a tax increase.  I think the voters are going to defeat this.  But I’ll vote yes.  But I am clearly against a tax increase.”

We didn’t elect Senators and Representatives to pass the buck.  We elected them to make decisions.  If Russell believed it was bad for Arizona he should have done everything possible within his power to shut this awful idea down before putting it before the voters and joining the “Axe the Tax” (more appropriately named “Cover My Ass”) movement that has raised next to no dollars and is facing the liberal government spending establishment and the money of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce pushing for a $3 billion tax increase on Arizona’s working families.

Voter initiatives and “pass the buck” ballot initiatives complete the first “hat trick” in the first half of the problem that confronts us.

The last three handicaps to having a political and electoral system in Arizona that in any way resembles sanity are the “resign to run” law, at-large legislative districts and two-year Senate terms.

There is no good reason for Arizona to have “resign to run” laws.  They are feel-good and stupid.  In the last several months, we’ve seen Sam Crump presumably run for reelection to his Arizona House seat, “explore a run” for Attorney General, decide finally to stop exploring and run for reelection to his Arizona House seat, and then quickly change directions and decide he was going to run for the Congressional District seat that he believes he was born to fill (even before he abandoned his political career in California to find a place in Arizona where he could fulfill his self-inspired destiny).  Sam Crump obviously is someone who wants to be something, but he just can’t figure out what it is.

Let’s quit the charade that we all know exists.  If you want to hold your seat and run for another.  Run.  John McCain and many honorable men before him ran for President while sitting as Senators or Governors.  Let the voters decide.

Lastly, in Arizona we pride ourselves on having a Constitutional system that was in many ways developed on a framework laid out by our forefathers in the U.S. Constitution.  Well, the U.S. Constitution was developed after many long discussions, heated debates and much forethought.  Where concessions were made in one area, they were painstakingly counterbalanced by particular provisions in others.  Take a few of those provisions out and the whole masterpiece falls apart like a house of cards.

The U.S. Constitution specifically creates Senate terms that are longer than House terms so that the Senate can be a more deliberative body.  The House is designed to be more responsive to the immediate, often short-lived, passions of the people.  The Senate, having longer terms, is still responsive to the people who have the ultimate power to remove them from office.  However, because the terms are longer (and staggered), the pressures of the short-term passions of the people (which the framers recognized as often counterproductive to the long-term interests of the nation) are designed to have less effect on the Senate.  By having two-year Senate terms in Arizona (which by definition can’t be staggered and mirror the two-year House terms) we eliminate the deliberative, somewhat less passionate influences on, and more long-term vision of, that body.

The same abandonment of principles applies to our system of at-large districts whereby two Representatives and one Senator represent the very same districts.  All legislators should have unique districts.  All should disproportionately represent the interests of those districts (versus the interests of the whole) in the greater legislative body.  By having each representative and the accompanying Senator speak for the very same district, and be elected on the very same election cycle, we lose any reasonable ability to claim that our system is developed on a foundation established by the framers.  We have just as much legitimacy making that claim as President Obama does claiming that Obamacare is consistent with the intentions of the framers because it “provides for the general welfare of the United States.”

So, if looking around, you think Arizona’s political and electoral system is a mess, you’re right.  It is a mess.  And yes, it is indeed more of a mess than that of most other states.  And there are (at least) six reasons why and six things that need to be changed:   Term Limits, Taxpayer-funded political propaganda, resign to run laws, at-large legislative districts and two-year (not staggered) Senate terms.

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