Our view: Waiting for state lawmakers to finish the task of taking a bite out of the budget deficit done by themselves is leading state government to ruin.
So it has come to this: Gov. Jan Brewer called the Legislature back to session last week to take a serious bite out of the budget deficit, and lawmakers went home after reducing it by about 10 percent.
"This idea that we are here a week before Christmas and still don't have a budget is terribly irresponsible," Rep. Lucy Mason, R-Prescott, said as the session got under way Thursday. "If not now, when are we going to get a budget done? When?"
Well, it might not be until after the state treasurer issues IOUs instead of checks or a bankruptcy judge intervenes. There are simply not enough leaders at the state Capitol ready to make the incredibly tough decisions to address the fact that Arizona is spending $10.1 billion a year but is bringing in only $6.4 billion in revenues. The current budget deficit stands at about half of that gap, but only because of federal stimulus dollars that soon will run out and the planned, one-time sale of state prisons.
University of Arizona economist Marshall Vest recently illustrated the challenge for lawmakers:
"The bottom line is, you could lay off every state employee and not begin to balance the budget," Vest wrote. "You could entirely eliminate funding for higher education and not come close. Ditto for welfare programs such as food stamps, TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families), the disabled, unemployment insurance, assisted living, and programs for children such as child abuse, child care, and foster care."
This is why Brewer has been so committed to a temporary sales tax increase, as raising a $1 billion a year would push the budget rock much further along. She hoped lawmakers were finally ready to approve a special election that would include the sales tax increase along with another ballot measure to suspend voter spending mandates so lawmakers would have more flexibility in setting funding priorities.
Nope. Lawmakers went to the Capitol, they collected their paychecks and they left again - after adopting $144 million in new budget cuts to state agencies and grabbing about $50 million out of a series of specialty funds.
On the Perspective page today, Tom Jenney outlines a comprehensive list of alternatives that lawmakers could pursue to permanently reduce spending and to bring in cash without tax increases. Some are radical, others are complex, a few would require cooperation from outsiders such as Congress. Any of them demand a serious commitment to move past partisanship and to focus on solutions. Such commitment obviously doesn't exist within the legislative halls.
At this point, even bad choices would be better than no choices at all, if they can forestall a looming wave of payment defaults that could disrupt everything from public safety to business development to winter snow removal.
So perhaps lawmakers should show some faith in the people of Arizona. If it's the wrong time to raise taxes, trust the voters to say so and to send a message to get the job done some other way.
Because waiting for lawmakers to get the task done by themselves is leading state government to ruin.
(Editor's note: This post was updated with a correction Dec. 23 to reflect Marshall Vest is affiliated with the University of Arizona, not Arizona State University).