SOMETIMES IT SEEMS the Arizona Legislature is being dragged -- snarling, kicking and screaming -- into the new millennium.
Pity poor Bill Berlat.
And, for that matter, the rest of his pals on the state Game and Fish Commission, who seem to be discovering that democracy has its place.
Even in Arizona.
For despite their bullying, good ol' boy ways, an onerous referendum that would straitjacket citizens' ability to influence wildlife policy faces a hornet's nest of opposition in both the state House and Senate. Aimed for the November ballot, the referendum would ask voters to give up much of their power by requiring a two-thirds, or 67 percent, approval margin for any future wildlife initiatives to become law.
In the best of times, in the most progressive of places, that bar would be very tough to hurdle. In Arizona, under the tutelage of Gov. Jane Hull and her anti-environmental cabal, it becomes damn near impossible.
That's why Berlat et al. have pulled out the stops for this one. Introduced by House Speaker Jeff Groscost in early February, the measure whizzed through on a 36-23 vote, only to get stalled in the Senate Commerce, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee by Chairman John Wettaw.
"I don't like a bill to pass with 51 percent, and then require a two-thirds (public) vote to change anything," Wettaw says. "That means the second vote (by the public) would be worthless. That's it -- I don't like these things."
Realizing they weren't likely to pummel Wettaw's democratic inclinations, the measure's supporters tried a different tactic: attaching it to another bill in the House. By slick parliamentary maneuvering, the legislation could again land in the Senate, bypass Wettaw's committee, and quickly go to a floor vote.
But motivations behind the referendum are as shady as steps taken to pass it. In a February 12 column in The Arizona Daily Star, Berlat argued that currently, by a simple majority, the public "can enact laws requiring the use of wildlife management practices that are not generally accepted by wildlife management professionals."
The column, co-authored by Brad Kerby, chairman of a group ingeniously called Arizonans for Wildlife Conservation, argued that out-of-staters could come in with big bucks, and hoodwink unwitting citizens into passing silly wildlife measures: "They use the initiative process, emotion and non-biologically supportable 'facts' in attempts to mislead an otherwise uninformed public.... These groups are well-funded.... The result is that the interest group with the most money wins."
In 1994, groups pushing the successful trapping ban initiative raised $211,347, compared to $237,271 gathered by trapping proponents. In this case, apparently, money only mumbled.
But Berlat is hardly so reserved. To push his initiative, he's taken to strong-arm tactics that have only further outraged his opponents in the Legislature. Among them is District 13 Rep. Kathleen Dunbar.
Chastising Dunbar by e-mail, Berlat said that "It is hard for me to believe that the anti-hunters and the animal rights extremists have had such an overwhelming influence on you that you would abandon the interests of the sportsmen and women of this state...If you only knew of the resource [sic], energy, manpower and financial waste caused your Game & Fish department when these ridiculous initiatives are proposed, you might have taken a different view."
Berlat then alluded to Dunbar's rumored plans to seek a Senate seat, saying, "You obviously feel that the extremist vote will be more valuable than the sportsmen's. You may be in for a surprise. It is hard to get sportsman [sic] mobilized, but when they are they can be a voting force to deal with -- and they will be."
So much for the objectivity of at least one Game and Fish commissioner.
Dunbar calls the e-mail "very insulting, very, very ugly. I'm horrified by this." Beyond the vicious online assault, she says the initiative measure is "just bad policy, bad legislation. You are taking away future rights of voters."
Meanwhile, other questionable practices are running amok in the statehouse, as the Game and Fish Commission -- which gave unanimous support to the measure -- is attempting to exert its will. Sparking ethical questions, Suzanne Gilstrap is a chief lobbyist for the referendum. She just happens to be the wife of Commission Chairman Hays Gilstrap. The chairman denies any conflict of interest -- "We each do our own thing" -- but plenty of alarms have been raised by his wife's work on behalf of Arizonans for Wildlife Conservation.
Yep, its the very same group chaired by Berlat's buddy, Brad Kerby.
Still, it's hard to pin down exactly why proponents want this referendum so badly. As for Groscost, some observers say the speaker just sees it as a chance to skewer environmentalists, whom he's known to loathe. Beyond that, it could be part of a long-range scheme to enhance the big-stakes hunting industry. That's according to Jack Simon, legislative liaison for the Arizona Wildlife Federation, a group representing rank-and-file hunters.
Simon suggests the two-thirds or super-majority measure could come back to haunt typical sportsmen, many of whom he says oppose the referendum. Instead, he says it could benefit powerful ranching interests close to Gov. Hull, who would like to receive special allowances for big-game hunting on their property. Under this scenario, those ranchers and their legislative lackeys could pass such special-interest laws, which would then require a super-majority public vote to overturn.
Ultimately, "A bunch of us who have been involved in wildlife issues for many years see more of a threat to wildlife and sportsmen coming from the Legislature than from the so-called animal rights outfits," Simon says. "Cattle growers have a lot of influence, because a lot of lawmakers are ranchers themselves."
He says Brad Kerby is closely allied with that ranching contingent.
On the other hand, tying the pursuit of big-game hunting to the Game and Fish Commission is a breeze, since a majority of its five members -- Gilstrap, Berlat and Mike Golightly -- are members of the Safari Club International. The well-heeled group has been directly linked to numerous noxious hunting practices, from the trophy killings of endangered species to fish-in-a-barrel shootings of penned trophy animals. Locals might know the Safari Club as the folks behind Tucson's International Wildlife Museum on Gates Past Road.
According to Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States, having a game and fish commission dominated by Safari Club members is "like having a civil rights commission made up of white separatists. They are the most extreme of hunting groups."
When the Tucson Weekly noted the connection in a recent story ("Bruin Trouble," February 17), it apparently got blustering Bill Berlat's panties in a bunch. Contacted later concerning his less-than-subtle support of the two-thirds referendum, the commissioner responded by calling the Weekly reporter a "lying sack of shit.... As far as I'm concerned," he said, "write the shit that you want for that rag. If I met you personally, it would be a little more heated than this."
Unfortunately, he was far less ardent about citing specific "lies" -- before abruptly hanging up.
Given such sophisticated stewards of Arizona's wildlife, it's no wonder that Simon, Dunbar, Wettaw and others are a bit concerned.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Berlat's potty-mouth continues drawing fire: According to reports, super-majority opponent Rep. Steve Mays will offer an amendment to the measure requiring that the referendum itself require a two-thirds vote of the public to pass.
In other words, what's fair for goose-steppers like Berlat and his cronies is also fair for the gander. Or the elk, mountain lions, bears and bobcats, for that matter.