As Janet Napolitano leaves Arizona for greener pastures in D.C., we should acknowledge that in many respects she was an innovative governor who changed the culture of her office. But not in a good way — most of the precedents she established need to be reversed as soon as possible.
Her predecessors generally recognized the need for responsible management of the budget. A “balanced budget” meant that appropriations had to be matched with appropriate revenue streams, even if revenues were down. In the case of rising revenues, Fife Symington’s administration responded in the 1990s with tax cuts, establishment of the rainy day fund and moderate spending growth.
Napolitano’s reaction to both lean and fat budget years (she experienced both) was basically the same: spend, spend and spend some more. The result, when the explosive growth in baseline budgets met today’s inevitable decline in revenues, is Arizona’s huge budget deficit which is highest in the nation (per capita). We’ll work our way out of it, but it won’t be pretty and it didn’t need to happen.
Napolitano also earned the dubious distinction of being the first Arizona governor to introduce debt to balance general fund budgets. Previously, this option wasn’t seriously considered. After all, debt for operating expenses was wildly imprudent and unconstitutional to boot. The assumption of earlier governors that taxes must be raised to pay for excess appropriations was a pretty effective curb on spending.
All that changed, hopefully not forever, when the governor insisted on debt financing for budget items normally paid for with cash. Bad idea.
Check out the horrifying spectacle in Washington to see what can happen when politicians’ desire to maintain popularity is untethered from fiscal accountability.
Arizona’s debt load is miniscule compared to the federal government’s, partly because the governor did get significant blowback from legislative Republicans on the issue. Meanwhile, the governor got to brag that she fully funded everything and even initiated full-day kindergarten, subsidies to favored businesses and other goodies, all without raising taxes!
But state government, unlike the feds, can’t control the money supply or influence rates. For Arizona, just like you and me, debt must be repaid.
Debt service will be an albatross around the neck of the adults who will be straining to balance the budget for years to come.
Napolitano also put her own stamp on legislative relations. Governors typically employ staff to work with the Legislature on pending legislation. Even when the governor and Legislature are of different parties, mutual persuasion and searching for common ground are the respectful way to govern.
Napolitano, though, repeatedly claimed that she didn’t comment on legislation until it “hit her desk.” Although this self-serving “policy” was often honored in the breech, it fomented a needlessly confrontational relationship between the branches of government. The low point was in 2005, when the governor, after the Legislature adjourned, vetoed items she had agreed to accept in earlier negotiations. Such boorish behavior, unheard of even in political circles, naturally undermined trust and cooperation.
The result of this imperial style was government by veto. Napolitano set all-time records for vetoes and often seemed to be looking for ways to pad her totals. She was photographed with a big grin, proudly holding her veto stamp. It may have made great political theater, but it was lousy governance. Vetoes may occasionally be necessary, but they are a poor substitute for good communication and at least trying to work together.
Napolitano was so hugely popular with the major media that she was largely excused for such antics as intimidating (through an aide) a state commission into illegally changing “Squaw Peak” to “Piestewa Peak.”
She was allowed to hijack money meant for other projects to fund her pet project, the Western States Climate Initiative. She got by with claiming credit for the positive effects of tax cuts she had fought against. Even though she paid little price politically, it’s still important for future governors to understand that they must live by the same laws and rules as the rest of us.
Incoming governor Jan Brewer should move aggressively and conspicuously to restore sound practices to the office. We don’t want the legacy of the past six years to become the Arizona way.