BY TOM RAWLES | JULY 11, 2012
The single most pressing issue facing Arizona, because it touches so dramatically on all other issues, is the need to have the Arizona Legislature understand and accept the concept that policy decisions come first, that policy decisions drive budget decisions. Not the other way around.
Our schools are failing and our prisons are crammed. Is that the result of a policy decision or decisions made thoughtfully by our elected representatives? Of course not! But that is the reality in which Arizona finds itself. Why?
The simple answer is that Arizona has consistently put budget decisions first without looking at the underlying policy implications. We spend 88 percent of the state budget to medicate, educate and incarcerate. The medicate part (health care) is primarily driven by mandates from the federal government and the state can do little but tinker around the edges. The incarcerate part (prisons) is driven by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and each year the judges and prison officials merely submit the bill. So, is it any wonder that when the state faces financial difficulty the education budget is the only meaningful area available for pruning? By default, we have placed education last on the list of our priorities.
Is that really what we meant to do? Again, of course not! No responsible elected official, and certainly none who wants to be reelected, would ever admit that was their intent. So, why does it happen?
Answer: budget decisions are made first and policy implications simply follow. As our state revenue has grown over the past couple of years, the previous year’s budget is accepted as the baseline and the only discussions are about how much more we can spend. There is disagreement, argument and, finally, agreement on just how much “new” revenue there really is. And, there is disagreement, argument and, finally, agreement on how much of that “new” revenue should be included in the budget and spent.
But, no one does the difficult work, the laborious work, the painful work of looking at the underlying policy decisions inherent in the previous budget. No one is asking the questions about what has gone before and whether it is still necessary, productive, beneficial, or even appropriate. The bucket of last year’s money is taken as a given and the debate is only over how much to add.
This is no way to operate a state. The budget is the single most important thing the legislature does every year. Yet, the budget was passed in a day-and-a-half without public hearings or public input. A group of allegedly responsible men and women spent months deciding how to limit a woman’s constitutional right to choose and expand the number of public facilities into which someone could bring a gun, but they spent less than 36 hours on the budget. Whatever your feelings on these other issues, don’t you think the budget deserves at least as much of the legislature’s time and attention?
Getting back to the incarcerate part of the budget, don’t you think you would be better served if the legislature spent time asking hard questions about the elements that make up that part of the budget, like mandatory minimum sentences, the death penalty and the failed drug war? Have we really meant to choose spending $200 to $300 million each year on marijuana prohibition instead of funding all-day kindergarten? No one asks if we really want our schools to fail and physically crumble while keeping our prisons full. Has Arizona decided in a meaningful way that it wants to have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation while it ranks 47th to 49th in education funding?
This is not about whether we should or should not spend more on education any more than it is about whether we should end marijuana prohibition. This is about the urgent need to stop making blind budget decisions in a policy vacuum. The hard questions, like the ones mentioned above as well as many more, need to become part of the daily political dialogue.
Policy must drive budget.
Tom Rawles, J.D. is an Independent candidate for Arizona State Senate.