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The big rush, and diminished transparency

The big rush, and diminished transparency

Nobody likes working ’round the clock. And nobody will say publicly that it’s a good idea to pass a budget at 4 a.m.

But it happens. And I get why it happens – sort of, at least.

Lawmakers have put in a lot of hours trying to get their minds around a huge, complex budget problem. They spent months working toward a consensus. They held hearings, grilled department heads, conferred with tax experts, etc. Then they pressed on toward an agreement that attempts to fill a $3.2 billion deficit and, in the meantime, everyone was trying to understand how to best position the state regarding the receipt and use of federal stimulus money.

There were substantial reasons that led to the delay so far in terms of coming to a budget agreement. Big deficit. Serious disagreements over taxes. And Election Day 2010.

For the first five months of session, the Senate wasn’t making any progress on non-budget bills, but at least I sort of understood the order of things, the logic in it all. The budget was a huge, hairy beast that needed to be a priority – and for some, it made sense to make it their sole priority.

But during the last week in May, something changed; there was an urgency among lawmakers to pass a budget quickly. A few days later, on June 1, Gov. Jan Brewer finally offered her competing budget plan, and it became clear why the hurry. But the reasons for the rush, however obvious, became less logical and started to seem more like the politics Arizonans have seen in the past several years of state budget negotiations. Only this time, it wasn’t a Democratic governor keeping legislative Republicans at bay – it was the GOP’s own governor.

The result of that confrontation was the passage of a legislative budget only three days after Brewer’s was released. It went quickly, after months of slow-pacing the process. So quickly, in fact, that lawmakers worked from Wednesday morning on June 3 until Thursday morning on June 4 to pass a budget that almost nobody really thought was the best plan for the state.

What was once a deliberate process sped up considerably, perhaps too quickly. Many lawmakers don’t like the budget they voted for, but legislative leaders were trying to send a message to Brewer that they weren’t going to do it her way. And they needed to show that they had enough like-minded colleagues in tow.

Through all of this, though, one negative side-effect has emerged: It’s not good for the state, its residents or democracy in general when lawmakers hold the first floor debate and vote on the fiscal 2010 budget in the middle of the night.

What gets lost is openness in government, public participation and the idea that scrutiny and criticism from all sides makes for better policy. Those virtues go out the window when 10 budget bills are voted upon at 4 a.m. while residents sleep, after most Democrat lawmakers have gone home and in front of a diminished Capitol press corps.

I get that there was only a month left to finish budget work before the fiscal deadline. Lawmakers had to pull the trigger at some point. But now, here we are, a week later, and we’re stalemated with all three branches of government involved.

Here’s a novel concept: Maybe the negotiations should have been handled ahead of time, rather than the governor’s release of a budget that she knew lawmakers wouldn’t like, the Legislature’s decision to pass a budget in the dead of night that they could have guessed the governor wouldn’t sign and the ensuing legal battle that has now involved the state Supreme Court. 

There is a risk to the process of democratic government when issues that will affect millions of Arizonans are debated and decided in the dead of night and in front of a half-full chamber of lawmakers. And now the whole process is going to get murkier to most voters, now that the court has a chance to weigh in.

This isn’t exactly the kind of government transparency that I, for one, had in mind when the session started.

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