People who watched television news this weekend might be confused into thinking that Monday’s “emergency” meeting of Governor’s Office policy advisers is significant – as if some sort of budget solution will emerge now that the governor has gotten serious.
Those of us who spend more time at the Capitol know it’s a publicity stunt. It’s the kind of PR move initiated by people who know more about lobbying and campaigning than they do about actually communicating with the public and the media.
Tack on the word “emergency,” and it looks as if something is finally going to shake loose after more than a year of budget problems and months of deadlock on how to close the deficit. And, of course, television reporters who spend about five hours per year covering the Capitol will jump on board and exclaim to hundreds of thousands of at-home viewers that the governor is rushing to action now that the Legislature has failed to close a $1.6 billion deficit.
These TV reporters will stand in front of the cameras with stern looks on their faces as if they understand how dire a situation this really is, but the fact is that they know far more about chasing ambulances than they do about state government. (On Saturday, one television station reported a statement from House Minority Leader David Lujan, pronouncing his last name as Loo-jen.)
Those of us who spend 10-12 hours per day at the Capitol are much more suspicious about the notion that the governor’s emergency meeting will produce anything other than sound bites to aid her election campaign. And, if we’re wrong, then why hasn’t she taken a more active role in the legislative process so far? Why has she waited until now – halfway through the fiscal year – to call an emergency meeting?
The longer it takes to come up with a solution, the tougher it is to balance the state budget. We’re six months into fiscal 2010, so we have only six months to cut spending from a budget that is already half-spent. The roughly $8 billion state pie that was available for adjustments in July has been eaten away to about $4 billion.
For 11 months now, the governor’s spokespeople have said as little as possible about the governor’s plans to solve the budget problems. In fact, when the Capitol press corps asks questions about the budget, Brewer’s communications office says pithy things like “She’s in the process of talking to legislative leaders now to come up with solutions that will be something lawmakers and the public can support.” Asked for more details, they decline comment. It’s happened hundreds of times during Brewer’s time in office.
We ask for time with the governor, and we are told she’s too busy to talk to the media. So we follow her to luncheons and other public appearances, and listen to the same speeches over and over, just so we can ask two or three quick questions as the governor is herded into an awaiting car by her staff.
And now they’ve called a dog-and-pony show – and opened it to the media – to give an impression that the governor has a plan and that she’s ready to make things happen. Make no mistake, there will be lots of media at the meeting. It will be packed with video cameras and people with recorders and notebooks, ready to capture every sound bite. Our reporters will be there too.
But you will have to forgive me for being skeptical. The only plan we’ve seen from the governor so far is a proposal to raise sales taxes, a plan that, by the way, lacks the necessary support from the Legislature. And, even if lawmakers pass a referendum and allow voters to have a say, it might fail at the ballot anyway. And if it does pass, it’s only going to fill about one-third of the fiscal 2011 deficit – it’s far too late for a sales tax increase to rescue the fiscal 2010 budget.
The bottom line: Gov. Brewer is in a weak spot politically. She can’t seem to rally support among members of her own party for the one thing that she continues to ask for over and over. And she’s facing an election in which she is not considered the favorite. She’s tried to be tough with the Legislature – taking them to court on one occasion, vetoing budget bills on another – and she’s even tried to play nice with them by agreeing to spending cuts that she had opposed on prior occasions. Nothing has worked.
So, now we have an emergency meeting of her cabinet members. Look for lots of bluster, little substance and probably a lot of backlash from lawmakers after it’s all over. But there is a bright side for Brewer: The television media doesn’t know enough about politics to pick up on it, and the staged drama will probably be on every evening newscast in the state. Good for election campaigns, bad for the people of Arizona.