IT'S ALIVE!Run for your lives! The monstrous Legisaurus is prepared to emerge from hibernation next week with a great ideological roar and a belch of stinky gas.
First on the honey-do list for our many-headed monster: Dealing with a pesky federal court order that gives resentful lawmakers a couple of weeks to hammer out a plan to instruct kids who don't speak English. U.S. District Court Judge Raner Collins said last month he'd start fining the state a half-million dollars a day if a solution to this long-running lawsuit wasn't on his desk within 15 days of the start of the session. If the Legislature fails to cook something up before they adjourn, the fines rise to $2 million a day.
When we last checked in, the GOP caucus and Gov. Janet Napolitano were struggling through communication difficulties of their own. The GOP's English-learner plan, which spent about $42 million this year and put future funding into a grant program, was vetoed by Napolitano, who drafted a plan with a price tag that was going to rise to $185 million annually within a few years.
The good news: The state is flush with an anticipated surplus that's forecasted to climb to as much as a billion bucks, according to some press reports. While those numbers sound like they're straight out of fantasyland, the financial picture is certainly sunny: In the first five months of the fiscal year, the state is about $264.6 million ahead of projections, according to a report issued last week by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
The bad news: Finding a solution to Flores v. Arizona is hampered by the inconvenient fact that the GOP leadership and Napolitano are still estranged following the governor's post-session veto of a voucher-lite program that she had assured lawmakers she would sign. Napolitano said the GOP had tried to trick her by not having the program expire in five years, while Republicans say she had double-crossed them after saying the deal was A-OK.
However it all went down, there's a big ol' trust issue lingering as the session revs up this year. We asked one legislative insider if the relationship is still strained; he told us the question assumed there is a relationship.
With Napolitano up for re-election, it gets even more complicated, because GOP lawmakers are going to feel extra ornery and eager to embarrass the governor. It's a tactic that has worked so well in the past that Napolitano now enjoys extraordinarily high approval ratings while Republicans can't even find an A-list name to run against her. Just this week, The Arizona Republic gave her another front-page blowjob, informing readers that a recent survey by the paper showed that more than eight out of every 10 voters are confident in her leadership abilities--whatever that means.
These squabbles remind us of the classic Road Runner cartoons, with lawmakers playing the role of super-genius Wile E. Coyote. They set up their Acme political traps; they watch Napolitano slide right by 'em, and then they end up falling off a cliff. Beep! Beep!
One of the GOP's favorite tricks in recent years has been trying to embarrass Napolitano with anti-illegal immigration measures. Watch for Democrats to counter with additional language that penalizes businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Count on some conservative Republicans to swallow that bait, causing no end of heartburn to the suits at the Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, Napolitano will continue to point the finger at the Bush administration for failing to fulfill its duty to protect the border. Beep! Beep!
CASH ADVANCESpeaking of that big ol' surplus: Lawmakers and lobbyists have all sorts of ideas about how that money should be spent: all-day kindergarten, filling up the rainy-day fund, eliminating smoke-and-mirror budget tricks, paying down debt, investing in infrastructure and, of course, cutting taxes.
Where all that money will go is anybody's guess at this point, but we think it should be spent on a high-speed bullet train between here and Rocky Point.
Meanwhile, you can expect Rep. Russell Pearce to resurrect the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which is yet another effort to put the state on auto-pilot instead of allowing lawmakers to actually make decisions. TABOR would prevent the state budget from growing faster than the rate of inflation, as adjusted for population growth.
A similar restriction proved to be so disastrous in Colorado that voters suspended it last year, but you can be sure that won't dissuade Pearce from pushing his colleagues to put it on the November ballot for approval from voters.
TIF TIFFElsewhere on the financial front at the Legislature, our city leaders are planning on pushing lawmakers to extend the life of Rio Nuevo for another half-century or so. We're really looking forward to seeing that revitalized downtown, even if we'll have to do so on one of those days when the wet nurses at the assisted-living center are willing to take us toothless geezers out on a field trip to see the Zsa Zsas playing at Club Congress' 2050 New Year's Eve show.
City Manager Mike Hein hopes to persuade lawmakers to let him continue the tax-increment financing that's providing seed money for a variety of downtown revitalization projects, such as the remodel of the beloved Rialto and Fox theatres.
What, you ask, is tax-increment financing, and why does it need to continue? It boils down to this: The city has a 10-year period during which we'll be able to keep some sales-tax dollars that would have ordinarily been sent to the state, with the expectation that the money will be spent to create a stronger downtown sales-tax base that, in turn, will lead to more money for the state in the future.
Hein wants to extend the life of Rio Nuevo to provide the extra $100 million or so that will be needed to put Interstate 10 underground between Congress and 22nd streets. Whether Maricopa lawmakers will bite remains to be seen, but we're guessing it all depends on what they want from us this session.
FREAK SHOWWith all that action under the Big Top, the best sideshow promises to be Rep. David Burnell Smith's battle to hang on to his seat after he was kicked out of office for violating Clean Elections spending limits.
Smith is fighting for his political life in court, although he's lost every round so far. His latest argument: The case has to go on hold until after the session, because the Arizona Constitution prevents lawmakers from being the target of civil suits during the session.
Jessica Funkhouser of the Arizona Attorney General's Office had a cute response for the dailies: Smith isn't a sitting lawmaker; he's holding the seat illegally.
This will be a fun one for the courts to sort out.
CD8 UPDATENot much to report in Scramblewatch '06--our ongoing coverage of the race to replace retiring Congressman Jim Kolbe--although we do hear whispers that two Republican state lawmakers, Sen. Tim Bee and Rep. Steve Huffman, may be getting cold feet about jumping into the GOP primary.
SOUND OFFLongtime local fast-talker John C. Scott is moving his eponymous radio show to weekday afternoons starting next Monday, Jan. 9. John C. will now air from 3 to 5 p.m. on KJLL-AM 1330.
Meanwhile, former TW automatic-weapons editor Emil Franzi has taken his Inside Track radio show to a new home on the AM band. Franzi, along with trusty sidekick Tom Danehy, will debut at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 7, on KVOI-AM 690. Franzi will also be heard, sans Tom, Sunday mornings from 7 to 9 a.m.