As the Arizona State Legislature prepares to convene, we’ll take a look at some of the legislative reforms recommended by participants in the most recent Arizona Town Hall.
Ted Simons: As the 50th Arizona state legislature prepares to convene next Monday, one group is suggesting changes that could improve the legislative process. The Arizona town hall met at the Grand Canyon in November and adopted a series of recommendations time to improve state government for the next 100 years. Here to talk about those recommendations is town hall participant Deb Gullet, she's a former Republican state lawmaker and former chief of staff to both senator McCain and Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon, and also here is Democratic senator Ken Cheuvront, a state lawmaker since 1994, he was unable to retain his seat due to term limits. Which we will talk about here as far as recommendations. Good to see you both.
Deb Gullet: Thank you.
Ted Simons: The Arizona town hall, let's start with just what exactly it is.
Deb Gullet: Town hall is an organization that brings people together from all across the state. Republicans, democrats, college students, senior citizens, elected officials, business people. People with dis-print backgrounds and interests to gather together over the course of the weekend. And we were at the Grand Canyon in November, where it was cold, but fantastic. To talk about a subject and the subject of this past town hall was government reform, and thinking about as Arizona moves into the next century, we celebrate our 100th anniversary, what can we do to make government work better?
Ted Simons: The idea of going into the next century, looking back to the past century, it seems like a lot of things, whether it's the initiative process, these sorts of things, that have been hallmarks of Arizona, for quite a while, getting the once over twice here. Correct?
Ken Cheuvront: Somebody doesn't like what is passed, they try to find every mechanism possible to overturn it. I think what we've seen is different groups have used the initiative system to try to pass legislation that can get through the system -- through the legislature. So the legislature tries to change the rules and then you get another initiative. So I think what's happened is you have a broken system that I think the Arizona town hall saw needs to be fixed.
Ted Simons: And town hall, let's go through some of the rubrics. Starting with the role of government and the idea of government being a foundation that allows for the greater good. Is that skewed somewhat right now? What did the town hall see there?
Deb Gullet No, I think the town hall agreed that's what government is all about for the greater good of the citizens, to protect the citizens, the public safety of the citizens. So, no, I thought that the town hall did a good job of articulating that we need to rely on government for some things, but we can't rely on government for all things, but there are some things perhaps could work better, and you talked about the initiative and referendum idea, and that was an important idea that they talked about. We had 10 ballot propositions on the ballot this year. Arizona is a state that makes it really easy to put things on the ballot. We had 10 of them, but only three of them, three of the constitutional amendments passed. So I think although some people say the legislature punts ideas to the ballot, or special interests use the ballot initiative to get their way, voters had their own say about some of these issues.
Ted Simons: The idea, though, of direct democracy, is something that Arizonans again, hold pretty dear. Are we ever going to monkey with that?
Ken Cheuvront: I think the initiative and referendum is very important. The challenges or one of the out comes of the town hall is that we should make the ability to get a referendum through the legislature maybe especially fits a constitutional amendment change, to bring the bar higher, make it so, maybe have two legislative sessions you have to pass it and require two-thirds vote as they do in other states. I think Deb is correct, the electorate is able to differentiate good from bad, but many times when you have a couple million dollars, it's sometimes hard to get through the fog to find out exactly what the initiative does.
Ted Simons: Some other things as far as the role of government is concerned, the idea of looking again at Arizona's tax code. Good idea?
Ken Cheuvront: Very good. It's something I've been proposing for almost eight years, that we have to broaden the base, you know, and I think it can be revenue neutral, lower the rate, but we have taxes set up for agrarian based economy, and we've gone past that, we're now a Service-based economy, and the Services just are not tax appropriately. So we have a small base that pay as large amount of taxes.
Ted Simons: Looking again at the Arizona tax code and broadening the base, or looking again for other reasons?
Deb Gullet: Let me say in this case, I think that this is a clear example of elections have consequences. And in this past election, we had a very conservative governor elected, we had more Republicans that you can shake a stick at elected to the house and senate who are very conservative, and they were elected just a couple short months ago on mostly a premise that they want to balance the budget without raising taxes. So I think that tax reform in this legislative session is going to be very difficult.
Ken Cheuvront: But the challenge is you can do reform without raising taxes. You can make a stable system of being able to generate revenue year after year. They're not willing to do that even. And that's the challenge.
Ted Simons: Another challenge is, according to the town hall, is to refocus priorities to education and economic development. Can that be done in this current political and economic climate?
Deb Gulett: Let's talk about the economic Development ideas. One of the recommendations of the town hall is that we should give statutory authority to the Arizona commerce authority, which was created by executive order by the governor. And it's one of the first things that have come out of discussions on the budget. That president Russell Pearce, and the governor have agreed they're going to move forward to constitute statutorily the adds commerce authority. Two of the other recommendations might make Ken light his hair on fire. One of them is to amend the gift clause so we could have tax increment financing, a tool that's used in many states to help with economic development as well as, what did they call it, the fund, the deal closing fund, which could also be -- we could have that with a constitutional amendment.
Ted Simons: Your hair is not quite a fire.
Ken Cheuvront: No. You know, I consider myself fiscally prudent, and many times you're picking winners and losers. What I've seen when we've had these tax credits, we've had these giveaways, special interests who happen to have a well-paid lobbyist at hand are most likely going to get these, you know, these benefits or these tax giveaways or whatever you want to call them. That part I don't agree with. I agree with what the governor is doing with eliminating department of commerce and putting together an entity with individuals who should know what is going to make the economy grow.
Ted Simons: What about the debt limit? Town hall recommends looking at that again. What do you think?
Ken Cheuvront: I think it's a nonissue. We bypass it with gimmicks all the time. I'm not sure that's something that needs to be addressed.
Deb Gulett: You get a mortgage for your house, and you can pay your house off on time, but yet we pay cash for our schools because the state can't have debt for big capital campaigns. So it adds to the whole appearance of smoke and mirrors with the budget. So I think if we had a realistic debt limit that was real, that it would be important to have.
Ted Simons: How about a realistic school funding system? You mentioned funding for schools and education, these sorts of things, I'm still looking for someone who completely understands the nuances. It's amazing --
Deb Gulett: nobody does.
Ted Simons: Time to change that?
Deb Gullet: You know, we've got to get out of this budget crisis right now. The budget is so overwhelming, it may be as a byproduct of a billion plus deficit they'll have to look at, how we fund our schools. And if that happened as a byproduct of the economic crisis that we're in, I think that makes good sense.
Ken Cheuvront: I think one of the challenges, once we pass students first and we took on the cost of building and construction, we took without a dedicated source of revenue, that was a huge hit to the general fund. And I think what we need to do is have a dedicated that this money goes directly into education and we don't backfill 40 someplace else.
Ted Simons: Let's get to the aforementioned term limits. Is that an idea whose time has passed?
Ken Cheuvront: I think it's a great idea, but it's -- the public will never pass it. I think more realistically is to change from eight-year terms to maybe -- eight years, one can be in that office, to maybe 12 years. And that might be more practical.
Ted Simons: Is that more viable do you think?
Deb Gulett: I don't think changing term limit assist viable. When we tried it, I was involved in Justice O'Conner's efforts to improve government, and term limits is one of the issues we looked at. For the same reasons that town hall articulated, that we have churning in the legislature, we throw good people out every eight years because of an arbitrary limit that increases the influence of lobbyists. But it's really -- the voters like it, and the voters don't much like politicians. So in this climate that we want to throw all the bums out, I think making a change to let them stay longer is problematic.
Ted Simons: The town hall also mentioned that the judicial branch was the best structured of the three branches. And seemed to come out the best as far as this examination is concerned. But merit selection is controversial as anything right now and has been for a while, again, is it good enough to keep? Does it need changing, reforming? What's going on?
Deb Gulett: I think it is, again, my Justice O'Connor bias showing, but she's championed this idea all around the country of. It is fabulous, but there are places in Arizona where we elect regular judges and we elect all of our J.P.s, and I think that we're a populous state. People like to elect their officials, and I think that expanding merit selection would be unlikely in this legislative session.
Ted Simons: What do you think?
Ken Cheuvront: I think merit selection is outstanding. I think we have outstanding judges on the Supreme Court level and in the superior court of Maricopa County, Pinal, it's only controversial within a small segment of a very conservative far right. I think that most mainstream people agree that we should have people being selected for judges who have the capabilities and the education and the merit to be there.
Ted Simons: The idea of revenue sharing and cooperation between state and municipalities, between the state and the federal government, just cooperation in general, it sounds like that was a focus here as well. On the town hall.
Ken Cheuvront: Yes. I think the problem with revenue sharing, we need to get rid of it. We need to have the cities have their own source of revenue without being blackmailed or having to go through the legislature to get it, because every year there's a fight. And at some point we just need to cut the strings and let the cities get their own revenue and not have it go through the state.
Ted Simons: Interesting.
Deb Gulett: The other challenge, you want to do what you can to keep the state from putting state responsibilities on the cities and counties. There was a lot of controversy over the prisoners and having the counties take a greater share of that. So there were lots of representatives of local government at the town hall who were vigorous in their opposition to unfunded mandate from the state.
Ted Simons: Last question, we could go on forever, because -- repealing clean elections, there's all sorts of ideas, lieutenant governor idea, it's still floating around, but the bottom line is, lots of ideas here, lots of innovation reform, etc. How viable is all this?
Deb Gulett: You're asking a cynic. We've had two initiatives to reform government on the ballot this year, one of them, prop 112, the initiative reform, passed unanimously out of the house and the senate, even Ken Cheuvront voted for it, thank you very much. We had no opposition whatsoever, not a peep of opposition, everybody loved the idea, and that was the one that had the recount. And we lost by 194 votes. And part of the challenges, there's no constituency for good government. So it's not like a special interest initiative that somebody wants to make fix the unions or send a message on Obamacare, there's no natural group out there just clamoring to support good government, and without a campaign, it is exceedingly difficult to pass any of these ideas.
Ted Simons: Real quickly, that comes back to another thing in the report, regarding citizen participation in government, getting folks involved, getting more knowledge and information out there. With that in mind, are these just ideas that gather dust on the shelf? What's going to happen here?
Ken Cheuvront: In order for these to pass you need somebody with big pockets that are going to help fund and finance a campaign to educate the population, let them know what's going on. That's the challenge. I don't think it will go through the legislature, at least in the next two years.
Ted Simons: All right. We'll stop it there. Thank you both for joining us.