There's a general sense in governmental and political circles that, in recent years, state government has collected and spent a lot of money.
However, the extent to which this spending spree is unprecedented isn't widely understood or appreciated.
A recent study published by the Goldwater Institute provides the needed perspective ("A Comparison of State Spending Growth under Arizona Governors," available at goldwaterinstitute.org).
The study was written by someone whom at least I regard as authoritative: me.
I'm aware that opinion on that point will be divided. Nevertheless, the numbers speak for themselves.
During Gov. Janet Napolitano's first term, state General Fund spending increased by 54 percent. That's sharply above the average of the previous six gubernatorial terms, which was 40 percent.
In fact, Napolitano's rate of growth in state spending was exceeded only by Bruce Babbitt's first elected term, during which it hit 65 percent.
Babbitt's first term, however, was a period of high inflation (1978-1982). In fact, inflation then was more than three times as high as during Napolitano's first term.
The extent to which the recent spending spree is unprecedented is best illustrated in comparison to economic and demographic trends.
During Napolitano's first term, state General Fund spending increased 13 percentage points faster than state personal income. In the six previous gubernatorial terms, spending growth was largely limited to increases in personal income, exceeding it by an average of only 1 percentage point.
In fact, in four of the six previous gubernatorial terms, spending was held to or below personal income growth.
Spending under Napolitano increased 29 percentage points more than the combination of population growth and inflation, more than double the average of 11 percentage points for her predecessors, going back to Babbitt.
A variety of explanations have been offered for this spending spurt, none of which really holds up to scrutiny.
For example, the claim is often made that population growth and inflation aren't the appropriate benchmark, since some state programs grow faster than population. The most commonly cited programs are K-12 education, AHCCCS (Arizona's Medicaid program) and prisons.
However, growth in each of these populations during Napolitano's first term pretty much mirrored general population growth.
The three years prior to Napolitano's first budget were a period of stagnant revenue growth. However, spending increased during her first term far more than was necessary to catch up from these slow revenue years.
The state has a spending limit, adopted by voters in 1978. It covers more than the state's General Fund, but the General Fund makes up two-thirds of covered spending.
When Napolitano took over, covered spending constituted 5.38 percent of state personal income. Today, according to the latest figures produced by the legislative budget staff, it is 6.83 percent of state personal income.
State spending hasn't been that high as a percentage of personal income since 1989.
When Napolitano was elected, there was about $3 billion in unused spending capacity under the limit. Today, there's just $1.2 billion.
Of course, this is not just Napolitano's record. Although she was a consistent advocate for more spending, Republican legislators passed these budgets as well. In reality, Republican lawmakers haven't exercised much spending discipline either.
Government cannot for long expand faster than the ability of the people to pay for it without adverse economic consequences. Right now, next year's budget is being built on revenue projections that are below historical averages, suggesting that this unprecedented spending spree might get tamed a bit.
However, more than just low revenue projections are needed. A new commitment to spending discipline is required, as well as reducing the state spending limit to eliminate unused spending capacity.
The state has had its spending splurge. Now's the time to limit the future growth in state government spending to personal-income growth, as a measure of the people's ability to pay for it.