An air of unreality hangs over the state Capitol. Legislators, pundits and interest groups seem unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the size of the chasm in the budget that was created when years of foolish overspending by the Napolitano administration collided with declining revenues.
Mainstream news reports and commentary are focused exclusively on the purported devastation caused by the recently enacted revisions to the current year budget.
Education cuts endanger the future of the state! Don't balance the budget on the backs of the universities! Arizonans need free health insurance now more than ever! Waiting times for food stamps and drivers licenses will increase!
Every last dollar is vital, even though these budgets have grown 30 percent, adjusted for population and inflation, over the last five years. There is zero interest in economizing or finding less expensive ways to operate. The spending, once initiated, must go on no matter what.
But heres the bad news. The revisions to the 2009 budget totaled $1.9 billion, far less than the reductions that will be necessary to balance the 2010 budget, which is $2.5 to $3 billion out of whack. The heavy lifting is still to come.
Our children are taught to pick up after themselves and to clean up the messes they create. Yet were seeing the opposite with those who messed up our budget. Those who created the problem arent interested in helping with the cleanup. Too yucky for them. In fact, these perps piously criticize those more responsible members who are left with the thankless task of bringing the budget back in line.
You may remember that the votes of Sens. Carolyn Allen of Scottsdale and Jay Tibshraeny of Chandler had been key to passing the 2009 Napolitano budget in the first place. It was known from the start that the budget would require the recently enacted corrections. Yet Allen lectured that the education cuts werent very well thought out, labeling them a mistake.
Tibshraeny offered the insight that we have to be very careful about the extent of the (education) cuts. Both voted against the cuts. Neither offered suggestions to balance the budget they had voted for.
Their colleagues must be weary of their pontificating. Because K-12 education comprises 42 percent of the General Fund budget, its almost mathematically impossible to deal with a 30 percent revenue reduction without including the schools.
Legislators strained mightily to keep the reductions down to a manageable 3.2 percent, at least for this year. Next year is a different story.
Even some Republican leaders seemingly haven't grasped the extent of the problem. House Speaker Kirk Adams of Mesa became enraged when Rep. Sam Crump, R-Anthem, organized a group of house members to eliminate the 21st Century Fund, a subsidy for the biomedical industry, and temporarily revoked Crump's committee chairmanship.
Adams favors the subsidy because it promotes economic diversity.
Reasonable people may differ on whether the state should be picking winning and losing business sectors. But there is simply no way the subsidy can compete with the other spending priorities in next years pared down budget. Crump did Adams a favor, taking the hit from the influential business interests who favored the subsidy and giving the speaker some cover for doing what needed to be done anyway. The speaker must eventually grasp that many desirable spending options will be simply unaffordable in 2010.
What to do? The much anticipated federal subsidy to states isn't that helpful. Much of it cant be used for General Fund reductions but will instead grow programs that will require additional funding once the stimulus is gone.
Taxes aren't much of an answer either. Why take money out of the private sector, which is hurting as least as much as government? Its a surefire way to make certain the recession hangs around longer in Arizona.
Most of the needed budget cuts would be rollbacks of the overspending in recent years, such as the 43 percent increase in General Fund spending for higher education since 2004.
That may not make the cuts less painful, but theres really no other option.
The least voters should do is applaud, not criticize, those legislators courageous and honest enough to make the effort.
Tom Patterson is chairman of the Goldwater Institute and a former state senator.