Best and Worst of Legislature

Posted on September 28, 2003 | Type: | Author: Satya Thallam
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"If you give a mouse a cookie," a popular children's book says, "he'll want a glass of milk."

Simply put, this is standard behavior for legislators: Afforded an inch of responsibility by voters, they soon seize a foot of authority.

In the Goldwater Institute's 2003 Legislative Report Card, we find that freedom fared poorly in the hands of the latest legislature, with both chambers scoring less than 50 percent. Based on an analysis of 191 votes in the areas of education, constitutional government, regulation and fiscal policy, the report card shows that the 46th Legislature has demonstrated a weak commitment to the principles of limited government, individual liberty and individual responsibility.

To be sure, the Legislature undertakes some very important tasks that are necessary for a well-functioning state. The key is stopping there. Ill-advised legislative actions during the spring session, included increasing the state's budget during a recession, failing to pass a spending limit and to expand school choice, slapping dozens of unnecessary and harmful regulations on Arizona businesses and citizens and committing future legislatures and taxpayers to spending tens of millions of dollars a year.

Despite this generally dour picture, there were a few notable exceptions. An eminent domain bill scaled back the power of local governments to take private property. Legislators also relaxed certification requirements for school personnel and sent to the ballot a referendum requiring voter-approved spending initiatives to identify revenue sources sufficient to cover costs.

Several legislators proved to be strong allies in the struggle to reduce government's growth.

The five highest-scoring senators and their scores were Thayer Verschoor (R-Gilbert, A-), Jack Harper (R-Deer Valley, A-), Dean Martin (R-Phoenix, B+), Marilyn Jarrett (R-Mesa, B+) and Bob Burns (R-Peoria, B).

The top five representatives were Eddie Farnsworth (R-Gilbert, A-), Russell Pearce (R-Mesa, B+), Karen Johnson (R-Mesa, B+), Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert, B) and Randy Graf (R-Green Valley, B).

The five lowest-scoring senators were Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson, F), Harry Mitchell (D-Tempe, F), Bill Brotherton (D-Phoenix, F+), Toni Hellon (R-Tucson, F+) and Richard Miranda (D-Phoenix, F+).

The seven lowest-scoring representatives were David Bradley D-Tucson, F-), Phil Lopes (D-Tucson, F-), Meg Burton-Cahill (D-Tempe, F-), Ken Clark (D-Phoenix, F-), Jack Jackson, Jr. (D-Window Rock, F-), John Loredo (D-Phoenix, F-) and Tom Prezelski (D-Tucson, F-).

Scores tended to break down along party lines, with the Republican majority generally scoring higher than the Democratic minority. The average score for Senate Republicans was 18 percentage points higher than that for Senate Democrats, and the average for House Republicans was 23 percentage points higher than that for House Democrats.

However, there were a few outliers. Republican Sens. Toni Hellon (Tucson, F+), Slade Mead (Phoenix, D-), Linda Binder (Lake Havasu, D) and Carolyn Allen (Scottsdale, D+) scored below the overall mean for the Senate, while Republican Reps. Pete Hershberger (Tucson, F), James Carruthers (Yuma, F+), Tom O'Halleran (Sedona, D-), Steve Huffman (Tucson, D-), Deb Gullett (Phoenix, D) and Bill Wagner III (Bullhead City, D) scored below the overall mean for the House.

This whole business of grading legislators may motivate one to claim that lawmakers, accountable to constituents through election, do what voters demand. But with abysmal voter turnout, incumbency rates well above 90 percent and aggressive lobbying by special interests, it is rare that elected representatives represent their constituents' interests.

Indeed, with close to a thousand bills introduced each session, it is practically impossible for constituents to keep track of what legislators are doing.

Moreover, legislators have a fundamental obligation to uphold our constitutional freedoms. As the late Sen. Barry Goldwater remarked: "If I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' 'interests,' I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can."

But there is hope. A few changes in membership could alter the Legislature's course. Arizonans who favor a limited government can elect legislators who, when given a cookie, will not demand a glass of milk.

--Satya Thallam is fiscal policy analyst at the Goldwater Institute.

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