The line about "lies, damn lies, and statistics" is commonly attributed to Mark Twain, although Twain went out of his way to attribute it to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Nevertheless, the Disraeli/Twain truism has been demonstrated by minds large and small, and hearts pure and purely evil, countless times over the years.
It's currently enjoying an extended run at the Legislature in Phoenix, having been brought back by populist demand.
The statewide Republican mantra in the 2008 elections, when Arizona bucked the national trend, was not "change you can believe in," but "more of the same; let the Dems take the blame." The previous budget (passed in 2008) was a mess, having been hammered out by a popular Democratic governor and a Republican Senate leader who was angling for a run at a congressional seat. It was almost criminally overly optimistic and would have been out of balance even without the economic downturn. Still, it was passed by the House and the Senate, both of which had solid Republican majorities. So the cries of "we're just fixing somebody else's mess" ring hollow.
They gathered from the hinterlands and the suburban enclaves to take up their holy mission of slashing and burning and sticking it to the teachers' union whenever possible. They definitely had some work to do while taking on an ocean of red ink, but they weren't just legislators; they were True Believers. And so they decided to tackle the problem not with one hand tied behind their backs, but with that hand hacked off lest they get the urge to use it.
Yes, these people were going to tackle the worst budget shortfall in state history without ever ... EVER ... using the dreaded "T" word.
I've spoken with a few of Southern Arizona's new lions—Frank Antenori, Al Melvin and Vic Williams—and they sound eerily similar. "You can't raise taxes in a bad economy," they'll tell you. Well, I beg to differ; you can if you have to. I don't think God will get mad if you do. Neither will Ronald Reagan, and despite what some of the legislators think, those two aren't one and the same.
The average person out there with a job is doing OK—maybe not great, but OK. They realize that they can't be spending like a drunken sailor for a while, or maybe not ever again, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. And they realize that paying taxes is a small burden that one bears in exchange for living in our society. I'm betting that a vast majority of them would be willing to pay more in taxes for at least a year or two to keep the state's roads from falling into disrepair or its schools from decaying.
However, saddled with their unproductive no-tax-is-a-good-tax stance, the legislators left themselves no choice but to try to perform budget surgery with a macuahuitl (that's that big-ass Aztec club with the pieces of obsidian in it). When it was mostly done, they went around congratulating themselves on how they had mostly spared education. The number they kept throwing out was 3 percent, as in, "That amounts to only a 3 percent cut in education spending." Without having to spend an hour going over the numbers, let's just say that the 3 percent figure is in the category of "lies, damn lies, statistics, and damn statistics."
Even if that 3 percent figure were accurate, it wouldn't be spread evenly throughout the system. University administrators will drop entire programs instead of telling all departments to make cuts by the same percentage. Furthermore, with public-school administrators asked to make cuts in their districts, it's unlikely that they'll start at the top, leading instead to cuts in teaching positions, librarians and support staff. Arizona's kids need more teachers; keeping the number static would be a setback, and cutting teachers would be disastrous.
In a couple of weeks, teachers all over the state will be getting layoff notices. School districts are going to lose people that they may never get back. And the teacher union-hating legislators can chortle like Snidely Whiplash.
Two recent developments should go a long way toward exposing this Legislature's character (or lack thereof). There may be as much as a billion dollars in federal stimulus money available to Arizona education, but at least part of it will require the Legislature to back off of the universities.
The second thing is the State Supreme Court unanimously striking down the vile, let's-use-handicapped-kids-to-get-our-foot-in-the-door voucher program that never should have been passed in the first place. Already, some legislators are showing signs of taking their eyes off the budget ball and veering off into some misguided effort to change the state's Constitution to allow this right-winger wet dream to become law.
Vouchers are bad, and they're not just 3 percent bad. They're unconstitutionally bad.
It looks like this gang of legislators may be able to boast that they balanced the budget without raising taxes, but at what grievous short- and long-term cost to the people they are supposed to be serving?