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Budget is far from lean; pork spending won

Senate President Tim Bee calls the new state budget “lean.” It may not be last year’s Mardi Gras spectacular, but relative to its size just a few years ago, the state budget has grown like Veruca Salt. Since 2000, spending has increased 94 percent.
Calling the budget lean is like calling a 300-pound hog svelte because it skipped a truffle.
There is definitely a piece or two of pork in this budget, like the $2 million earmark for a new welcome center in Yuma. According to Rep. Lynne Pancrazi, D-24, “The welcome center will provide travelers with information as they enter Arizona from California to go on a vacation or to move here.”
Unfortunately frittering away money on superfluous projects like this is just symptomatic of a deeper problem. Lawmakers spend too much time with their hands in the honey pot, and too little time dealing with the core concerns of the state: tax relief, education reform, and mushrooming entitlement programs.
When it came to reforming Arizona’s anti-competitive business tax structure, lawmakers sped up a previously enacted depreciation rate reduction, and called it a day.
Arizona levies one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the West. Our state is home to more than 50,000 companies that contributed almost $1 billion to the general fund last year. A rate reduction for these employers would have encouraged more job creation and greater economic growth.
Lawmakers said they couldn’t afford tax relief, but somehow found millions to subsidize a handful of select industries, most prominently “biotech.” It’s nice work if you can get it, but biotech provides less than 1 percent of jobs in Arizona. There’s not a shred of evidence that this spending will improve the state’s economy.
The facts notwithstanding, lawmakers earmarked $100 million for Science Foundation Arizona in part to “seed the next generation of high-technology companies.” In other words, taxpayers are subsidizing a handful of select companies. This is political favoritism, not an economic growth strategy.
Lawmakers also failed to address the state’s education needs. With a 30 percent dropout rate, Arizona is in a virtual state of emergency. The crowning achievement this session was the establishment of a “Joint Legislative Study Committee on K-12 School Funding and Best Practices.” Do we really need another study to report the obvious?
Arizona educators already know a thing or two about best practices. According to a prominent Newsweek ranking, Tucson’s BASIS charter school is one of the top three schools in the country — 100 percent of last year’s sophomores excelled on the AIMS exam and all of the school’s graduates were accepted into four-year colleges.
Arizona is home to some of the best model reforms in the county from charter schools to scholarship programs. Studies show children in charter schools learn more each year on average than children in traditional public schools, and scholarships give a lifeline to underserved children. Lawmakers need to eliminate the caps on these programs to expand access to all students.
After education, the state health care system is the second largest state expenditure. Instead of adopting reforms to reduce pressure on this program, lawmakers added more people to its swelling rolls.
Taxpayers already pay for more than half of all babies born in Arizona. What was once a program to help the very poor is quickly becoming a provider of first resort. Spending like this is neither charitable nor lean.
Lawmakers say their job isn’t easy, and that’s true. But leadership has never been about taking the easy way out. It’s about finding a way.
Darcy Olsen is president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute.

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