Legislative Outrages

Phoenix Magazine – April 2017

Mike O’Neil

The legislature is entertaining proposals to deter riots, promote parental school choice, implement local control of the universities, lower college tuition, and ensure kids get recess.  All terrific things, right? Not so fast, let’s take a closer look

  1. Thwarting Democracy. The Citizen Initiative process has been an integral part of the Arizona Constitution since statehood. An avalanche of bills has been proposed to kill the initiative process. The details HB2404 and others really don’t matter because the stated rationales are completely specious: their sole purpose is to keep the public from deciding key issues by insuring that they never achieve ballot status. To this end, there are current proposals to bar initiative petition passers from being paid by the signature (without any such provision for legislators’ own petitions), requiring a minimum number of signatures in each of the state’s 30 legislative districts (a prohibitive logistical nightmare), restricting funding for initiative campaigns, creating such onerous burdens on petition passers that no one will take such a job, limiting who can pass petitions, and requiring expensive bond postings. And, in case these don’t work, there is even a proposal to repeal the Voter Protection Act (passed by initiative when the legislature outright repealed legally-passed citizen initiative it did not like).
  2. Siphoning money from public schools. The Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program was designed to help children with special needs who were not being well served by their local school districts. It gives parents the use of funds that would have gone to local school districts. Three thousand kids are now enrolled in this program so the current impact on public schools is modest. SB 1431 would allow ANY parent in the state to employ this option. This expansion could significantly impact a public school funding. Most children in the program left high-performing public schools in wealthy districts.  Not hard to figure out why.  With private school tuition averaging $15,000, these $5,000 grants help the relatively well-off who already have their kids in private schools aren’t of much use to families unable to make up the difference. Reverse Robin Hood.
  1. Adding Boards of Regents. HB 2359 would split the Board of Regents into separate provincial governing bodies, one for each university. The sponsors say the change would provide more local control and better cost controls. The recent case of the once-proposed ASU medical school is instructive. The sole state-run medical school has been at the University of Arizona. Starting a medical school is an extremely expensive undertaking. ASU argued that the Phoenix area should have a medical school run by them. An ASU-only board would likely have supported the proposition and, given the metropolitan area’s political clout, may well have prevailed.  The Board of Regents, with a statewide purview, observed that this made no sense. The result: the U of A moved many of its clinical programs (the 3rd and 4th year of medical school) to Phoenix.  The Phoenix area got the medical capacity and the state saved the massive cost of a duplicate operation in Phoenix.  Win-win.
  2. Cap tuition increases at the state universities (SB1061). Most would agree that lower tuition is a good thing. But this same legislature cut state funding per capita by 56% since 2008, more than any other state according to the national Center on Budget and Policy. Think that might have something to do with recent tuition increases?
  3. Kill Refugee Program. Senate Bill 1468 would suspendArizona’s participation in the refugee resettlement program. Refugees from all countries constitute less than 7/100th of 1% of the state’s population each year and NO state funds. Given the “extreme vetting” at the federal level and the absence of any problem ever, what problem is this intended to fix?
  4. Make recess mandatory (HB 2082). Recess is a sound practice, but does this really need a statewide mandate? Especially from a legislature that ostensibly abhors government regulations?
  5. Stifling Free Speech. SB 1142 would make those who planned a peaceful protest liable for prosecution on felony racketeering charges if anyone at the protest engaged in a violent act (even a counter-protestor!).  It appeared more aimed at deterring protest than preventing violence, against which there are already laws. After passing the Senate, there was public outrage—and unfavorable national press–and it looks like the bill is dead.  Free speech lives. For now.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.