Words like "crisis" and "pain" describe the state budget situation. 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, the Voter Protection Act (VPA).
The VPA 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 practical problems that arise from having unchangeable laws become obvious as the Legislature struggles with the hole in the current budget. The Legislature, 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 can't 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 won't help resolve the current budget crisis. If the VPA can't 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.
Dr. Tom Patterson is chairman of the Goldwater Institute, a former state legislator and emergency room physician. A longer version of this article originally appeared in the East Valley Tribune.
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