What do you want to know?
Let's talk about the leadership. Did Speaker of the House Jim Weiers kick ass and take names this year?
After getting punked by Senate President Tim Bee last year, Jim Weiers promised his caucus that things would be different this year, with House leadership being more proactive on the budget. Instead, Weiers dithered and almost forced a government shutdown, forcing Bee to once again take charge and save his party (and the state) from total embarrassment.
Did Bee's master plan of serving as the supreme leader in the Senate help him raise money and his profile for his race against Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords?
The 2008 session was one big headache for the mild-mannered Tucson Republican. Billed as the first Southern Arizona Senate president in more than 30 years, Bee was able to reach across the aisle to get things done for Pima County. Still, he managed to become a punching bag for the Arizona Democratic Party every time he went to Washington, D.C., for a fundraiser, and he pissed off Christian right scold Cathy Herrod when he delayed a vote to put a constitutional ban on gay marriage on the ballot until the very end of the session.
How did Bee manage to get that budget passed and avoid a government shutdown?
By working with Democrats and Gov. Janet Napolitano instead of his own caucus. About one week before the end of the session, Bee came up with a budget so heavy on accounting tricks that only four Republicans in the Senate--including Bee himself--were willing to vote for it to get to the 16 votes necessary for passage.
How much influence did the House GOP leadership have on the budget?
Next to none. When he heard that Bee had a budget plan that had enough votes to get out of the Senate, Weiers introduced something he called a bipartisan plan, even though he had no Democratic votes and couldn't even find enough support in his own caucus to get the necessary 31 votes required for passage. In the end, Weiers got steamrolled by Napolitano and the Democrats, who pushed their budget plan through with the help of four House Republicans who helped their package get the minimum 31 votes.
Which Republicans voted for the budget bill?
In the Senate, it was Bee; Carolyn Allen of Scottsdale; Jay Tibshraeny of Chandler; and Tom O'Halleran of Sedona. In the House, it was Pete Hershberger of Southern Arizona, who is now engaged in a GOP primary against Republican Al Melvin for the Senate seat in Legislative District 26; Jennifer Burns, who is not seeking re-election to her Legislative District 25 seat; Lucy Mason of Prescott; and Michelle Reagan of Scottsdale.
Why all this focus on the boring budget fight?
The session was all about money. There were the usual fights over environmental protection, gun rights, education policy and abortion restrictions, but the main focus was on figuring out how to make up budget shortfalls that totaled more than $3 billion, thanks mostly to the subprime economy and voter-protected mandates that control government spending in education and health care.
So how did they balance the budget?
They did it in two big chunks: They took care of $1.2 billion back in April, when they passed a plan to solve the fiscal year '08 budget. They plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in that process, draining $487 million out of the rainy-day fund, making some cuts, putting off some bills and sweeping hundreds of millions of dollars from various funds ...
Wait. What do you mean by "sweeping hundreds of millions of dollars from various funds"?
There are a whole bunch of state accounts supported by fees that come from users. For example, boat-license fees go into a lake-protection fund, and fees on criminals go into a fund to help crime victims. Those accounts frequently run surpluses that lawmakers can grab for the general fund in hard times. It's called a "fund sweep."
Anyway, as we were saying, when it came time to balance the '09 budget, most of the easy tricks had already been done. Lawmakers had to use every bit of accounting abracadabra left in the book.
The final $9.9 billion budget for fiscal year '09--which began on July 1--cuts about $343.2 million in state spending; borrows $527 million for school construction (which, though the magic of accounting, includes construction from previous years); puts off taking care of $66.3 million in repairs to existing schools; delays paying $330 million in bills for schools until next year ...
Hold on. Putting off the bills until next year? How does that work?
It's called the K-12 rollover up at the Capitol. Essentially, the state waits until July 1, 2009, to pay some bills for schools. It's kind of like paying your rent a few days late, because you won't have enough money to cover the check until payday.
Anyway, the budget also shifts $106 million in gas taxes that normally pay for highway construction to cover paychecks for the state troopers at the Department of Public Safety and uses a few other tricks to balance things out.
I'm Speed Racer. Can I still zip down Interstate 10 going 90 without Johnny Law ever zapping me with his radar gun?
Easy there, lead foot. In order to balance the budget, Napolitano is putting 50 fixed photo-radar cameras on highways, along with 50 mobile vans. They hope to bring in $90 million a year from speeding tickets. Since they're expected to be handing out so many of the tickets, they agreed to let drivers off the hook a bit by not assigning points to licenses. Republican wiseacre Ron Gould, a senator from Lake Havasu, offered a budget amendment to officially name these new cameras "JanetCam."
Were there any more of those fund sweeps you mentioned earlier?
Yeah, they swiped another $317 million or so from various accounts, including $20 million more from the state's rainy-day fund. Some examples: The Juvenile Delinquent Reduction Fund gave up $5.5 million; the Clean Water Revolving Fund gave up $10.7 million; and the Board of Cosmetology Fund gave up $1.8 million.
How big of a hit did the universities take?
The big three--the UA, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University--will have to split $50 million in cuts. On the positive side, lawmakers agreed to let them borrow a billion dollars to build the Phoenix med school and to do other construction and maintenance on the three campuses. That money will come from bonds that will eventually have to be paid back.
A billion dollars? How are they going to be able to repay that?
Napolitano and the lawmakers who supported the plan are betting that the necessary money will come from future lottery proceeds.
What about the community colleges? They saw a cut of $20 million from their building funds. What costs got shifted to local government?
A bunch. The state shifted nearly $46 million in health-care programs onto the counties. The budget is also balanced on the backs of local police departments, because the DPS is jacking up the fees to use the state crime lab to bring in an extra $7.8 million.
What happened to the CPS reform package that was sponsored in the wake of the deaths of three children who were under CPS supervision?
Lawmakers passed a half-dozen bills designed to reform CPS and open public records. The bills, which were sponsored by Reps. Jonathan Paton and Kirk Adams, included provisions that make it easier for the public to review CPS case files in cases where there has been a fatality or near-fatality; open up state-employee disciplinary records; require CPS to follow court orders; require greater cooperation between law enforcement and CPS caseworkers; and open more court hearings to the public.
So if I'm a CPS caseworker who decides to date an abusive dad, I won't be able to keep it a secret anymore?
It's going to be a lot harder if one of your co-workers rats you out to the press, and we go making public-records requests.
You know what this state needs to help the economy bounce back? A big rock 'n' roll theme park in Eloy. Are we getting one of those?
Lawmakers passed a plan that creates a special taxing district that will be allowed to sell up to $750 million in low-interest bonds to finance the construction of the Decades rock theme park at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Interstate 8.
I'm a Roman Caesar kind of guy. Do I finally get to watch gladiatorial mixed-martial-arts bouts in Arizona, or am I stuck with sissy slapping fights like Rage in the Cage?
You'll get to see the same ass-whooping as they do elsewhere in the USA in no time, Julius. The Legislature lifted the ban on leagues such as the UFC, imposed by killjoy John McCain some years ago. When Jamie "The Worm" Varner was testifying in support of the bill during the session, Rep. Olivia Cajero Bedford of Southern Arizona asked if she could feel his muscles. (Varner was happy to oblige her.)
What happened on the environmental front?
A big package to lower the state's carbon footprint by calling for greater energy efficiency in schools fell apart. Lawmakers did agree to extend some tax breaks for solar-power outfits, and established a license for off-road vehicles, with the proceeds going to repair the damage caused by off-road vehicles.
The Legislature also tried to pass a law that would prohibit Napolitano from carrying out her executive order calling for higher fuel standards in Arizona, but--as you would expect--she vetoed the law.
I find it too much trouble to attend a safety class in order to obtain a concealed-weapons permit. Did lawmakers do anything for me?
They tried. They passed laws that would have reduced the penalty for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, created a lifetime concealed-weapons permit, and allowed you to carry a gun concealed anywhere in your car--even if you don't have a concealed-weapons permit. But Napolitano vetoed those bills, along with another bill that would have allowed anyone who feels threatened to show off a gun to a would-be attacker.
A bill that would have allowed citizens with concealed-weapons permits to carry firearms on college and K-12 campuses died in the Legislature.
I'm poor, and I've got some bad teeth. Is the state going to help me?
Not anymore. Lawmakers eliminated $1.7 million in preventive adult dental services.
I'm thinking about proposing to my girlfriend. Did the Legislature do anything to discourage me?
Better pop the question soon: Court filing fees are going up. A marriage license will go from $50 to $72. If your marriage is crumbling, you might want to file for divorce soon, too. The fee for that is climbing from $91 to $131. Just filing a lawsuit, when you figure in various surcharges, will climb from $185 to $236.
If your marriage is in trouble, don't expect much help from the state, which saved $1.2 million by eliminating a marriage and communications skills program.
What if I'm gay and want to propose to my boyfriend?
Go to California. Gay marriage remains illegal in Arizona, and the Legislature wants to make it even illegaler. In the final moments of the session, the Senate found 16 votes to put a proposition on the ballot that would insert a ban on gay marriage into the Arizona Constitution.
I'm a railroad baron. Can I still take your land for pennies on the dollar and put a 6-mile switching yard on top of it?
Yes, but it's gonna cost you a buttload more money because of reforms requiring you to do studies and hold public hearings. You'll probably skip all of that anyway and go straight to court--which is still gonna cost you a buttload of money.
I like to bake brownies for local fundraisers. Do I need a permit?
Lawmakers passed a law ensuring that county health departments can't stop you from selling your wares at bake sales.
My boyfriend always complains when I text-message while I drive. He says there ought to be a law against it; I say if you're a really careful driver, it's OK to text-message. What do lawmakers think?
The majority of legislators agreed with you. Several efforts to ban texting while driving died this year.
I'm an unscrupulous employer who doesn't look too closely at the paperwork that my Spanish-speaking employees fill out. Am I in trouble?
State lawmakers did tweak the new employer-sanctions law to clarify that it applies to people hired after Jan. 1 of this year, and made other adjustments, but we'd advise you to check with your attorney for legal advice rather than checking with us.
Ultimately, the changes to the law might not mean very much, because voters may approve even more changes if they support the Stop Illegal Hiring initiative on the November ballot. That business-backed proposition provides more defenses for employers.
I'm worried that the federal government's REAL ID Act will be the first step toward some kind of national ID card that I'll have to carry at all times and eventually have inserted on a microchip into my buttocks. Did the Legislature do anything to protect my ass?
Lawmakers passed a bill that will prohibit the state from complying with the REAL ID Act, which could pose a problem, because Arizona driver's licenses might not be acceptable identification to get on a plane in the future. When she signed the bill, Napolitano said she wanted lawmakers to consider her alternative, a 3-in-1 ID that would meet the federal requirements.
I'm a high school student who still hasn't been able to pass the AIMS test. Will I be able to get a diploma?
If you keep your grades up, they can help augment your AIMS score, thanks to a new law. But the boost will decline in upcoming years, so you'd better hit the books.
I was feeling down the other day and was thinking about getting a boob job to cheer myself up, but the surgeon I talked to suggested that there might be sales taxes on my implants. Is that true?
Lawmakers were worried that Department of Revenue officials were taxing cosmetic breast implants. Lawmakers passed a new law clarifying that breast implants were not subject to sales taxes, whether the procedure was reconstructive or cosmetic. So go ahead and treat yourself to those new girls!