Words like crisis and pain describe the state budget. The revenue shortfall for this fiscal year, once thought to be as high as $600 million, now looks to be somewhere north of $800 million. Next year looks even worse.
But trouble can be the mother of opportunity. Lawmakers may, for the first time, have a realistic chance to reform one of the structural anomalies that caused the problem in the first place. Its time to fix the Voter Protection Act.
The Voter Protection Act, passed in the 1990s as an act of retribution, never made any sense as a tool for governing. It provides that any measure passed at the ballot box can never be amended by the Legislature unless the amendment furthers the purpose of the original initiative, and even then only with a three-fourths vote. So we have an ever-growing body of appropriations, taxes and laws which, practically speaking, can never be changed.
The VPA was itself an initiative sponsored by George Soros and his billionaire lefty buddies, piqued because the Legislature had amended their medical marijuana initiative. Before then, there had been frequent instances of legislators musing aloud about tinkering with previously passed ballot measures. But there were precious few instances of legislatures actually changing citizen initiatives.
Unfortunately, when the medical marijuana initiative passed, the Legislature made a fatal mistake. It passed some minor changes to the drug offense sentences in the initiative and, even worse, approved a provision which stated that the state law was subject to federal law, which prohibits medical marijuana usage. But it was legal nonsense. All Arizona laws are subservient to federal law under the U.S. Constitution, whether or not the Arizona Legislature says so.
But the damage had been done. The Soros group convinced Arizonans that the Legislature was defying its citizens. So was born the VPA, to teach legislators a lesson they would never forget.
But think about it. How many laws have been on the books for 50, 100 or more years and are still relevant, have never required updating and never needed to adapt to changing conditions or priorities? Not many. If there are laws so timeless and thoughtfully composed, it is highly unlikely they would have come through the initiative process. Ballot measures are crude instruments, not subject to debate or amendment once introduced. They are written by interest groups expressing their desires and must be voted up or down.
The practical problems that arise from having unchangeable laws become obvious as the Legislature struggles with the hole in the current budget. On the one hand, its hard to feel sorry for the lawmakers. Urged on by the governor, they have been on a multi-year sustained spending binge, gorging on government revenues which far exceed the private sector growth rate. Some, in and out of the Legislature, urged restraint but the merry spenders were undeterred. Now the surpluses are gone due to a national economic slowdown.
The best, most logical solution would be to cut spending. The state seemed to function well enough with the per capita spending in place before Gov. Janet Napolitano took office. Reducing spending back to that level would go a long way toward resolving the budget crisis.
But heres the problem. The Legislature, supposedly the appropriating body under our Constitution, really controls only one-third of the state budget. The rest is either mandated by the feds, is the result of a judicial fiat or is protected under the VPA. Practically speaking, we cant do much about the first two, but the VPA is a self-inflicted wound. The Legislature would be more able to avoid new taxes, new debt and accounting gimmicks to balance the budget if they were able to reprioritize spending, at least on a temporary basis. The VPA stands in the way of this fiscal commonsense.
Changing the Voter Protection Act can only be accomplished by a vote of the people and it wont help resolve the current budget crisis. But sometimes those who go through a harrowing experience are left with a resolve to keep it from happening again.
If the VPA cant be eliminated, surely reasonable minds could agree that a five or 10-year moratorium on amendments would be sufficient to protect citizens interests. We can act now to avoid painful crises in the future.
Tom Patterson is the Chairman of the Goldwater Institute, a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.