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Issues that shaped 2009

Beset by fiscal crisis, legislative gridlock and political infighting, 2009 wasn’t the best of years for Arizona.

The year opened with the state facing a massive budget crisis, and it ended with state leaders still searching for a solution. Jan Brewer was sworn in as governor to great Republican fanfare, only to have much of the party turn against her as she touted a tax hike as the only way to balance the budget.

As Arizonans warily await the new year, here’s a look back at the top 10 issues that shaped 2009.

Money problems
The housing bubble took Arizona to new economic heights, and its spectacular crash sent the state spiraling into the poorhouse. During a year in which nearly every state in the U.S. faced budget deficits, Arizona stood out from the pack. About $1 billion in cuts were required to balance the fiscal 2009 budget in late January, and that was the easy part. More daunting was the multibillion-dollar deficit forecast for fiscal 2010.

Republicans blamed Napolitano for bloating the budget beyond Arizona’s means with years of increased spending, while Democrats accused Republicans of undercutting state revenue with nearly 20 years of tax cuts. As the budget crisis dragged on without resolution, the state was forced to borrow externally for the first time since the Great Depression, taking out a $700 million line of credit from Bank of America, in addition to nearly $500 million the state borrowed against internal funds. That line of credit was used up within a couple weeks.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the federal stimulus, provided some relief, but not nearly enough to fully balance the budget. With voter and federal mandates limiting lawmakers’ ability to balance the budget solely through cuts, people started getting creative. One plan, a $735 million sale-leaseback plan for state buildings such as the House and Senate, even earned Arizona a segment on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Napolitano out, Brewer in
After six years at the helm of state government, Gov. Janet Napolitano stepped down in January to become President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security chief. Taking her place was Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer.

Democrats, who have lacked legislative control for most of the past 40 years, mourned the loss their leader and ceded total control of the state to the GOP for the first time since 2002. A former lawmaker and Maricopa County supervisor, Brewer had held office for 26 years and had been a rock-solid conservative for every one of them.

Republicans crowed that the budget crisis could be resolved in a proper manner and that progress was imminent on issues such as gun rights and abortion. They also expected to turn the page on the constant battles with the Ninth Floor under Napolitano.

Following Brewer’s Jan. 21 inauguration speech, Rep. David Stevens said the House, Senate and Governor’s Office would be able to “get the right things done” now that all three were controlled by Republicans, and Rep. John Kavanagh said, “I think this is clearly going to be a bright, new beginning for Arizona.”

Jan’s plan
Conservatives’ jubilation over their newfound control of state government evaporated on March 4, when Brewer addressed a joint session of the Legislature with her long-awaited five-point budget plan.

The plan was sparse on details, but one stood out like a sore thumb – a temporary tax increase that Brewer said would raise $1 billion a year. Two lawmakers walked out of the speech the second the words “tax increase” passed the governor’s lips, and those who stayed were hardly more receptive.

Lacking the two-thirds vote needed to past the tax hike outright in the Legislature, Brewer pushed for a ballot referral that would let the voters decide. By the time Brewer finally unveiled her full budget plan in early June, including a stipulation that the tax hike should be for a 1-cent sales tax, few lawmakers from either party seemed inclined to give Brewer what she sought.

Legislative leadership came on board, but not before the governor sued them in the Arizona Supreme Court over their refusal to send budget bills to her desk. The state narrowly averted a government shutdown, but a series of vetoes and special sessions left Arizona in fiscal limbo as the budget crisis remained unresolved through the end of the year. A last-ditch effort to push the sales tax and an overhaul of the Voter Protection Act, which Brewer said was needed to free up voter-mandate funds for critical services, failed in December when Brewer called a fifth special session.

Burns’ gamble
Newly minted Senate President Bob Burns had a novel idea to motivate lawmakers into action on the budget – put the rest of their agenda on hold.

“I may just have to use some of the tools that I have available to make my point,” Burns said when he announced his strategy.

Declaring that the Senate would not hear any bills until a budget was passed, Burns let hundreds of bills languish while senators battled Brewer and each other. By the times Burns relented, with about a month left in the regular session, there just wasn’t enough time for the Senate to hear all its bills, plus the ones passed by the House. Nor was the House able to deal fully with the flood of bills that came out of the Senate in late June.

As lawmakers scrambled to pass a budget and get their last legislative priorities finished before sine die, a number of bills got lost in the shuffle, including legislation on clean elections and illegal immigration. Incidentally, Burns announced that his moratorium strategy would not be employed again in 2010.

Primary troubles
Brewer’s tax plan made her persona non grata in conservative circles, and potential challengers started jockeying for position in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. Many believed Brewer was so damaged by conservative opposition that she wouldn’t even seek a full term in 2010.

By the time she announced her election plans in November, a handful of primary opponents were waiting in the wings, encouraged by Brewer’s intraparty opposition and miserable polling numbers. Paradise Valley Mayor Vernon Parker promised a fresh, conservative face. Former Arizona GOP Chairman John Munger opened his campaign with the endorsement of former Gov. Fife Symington. And state Treasurer Dean Martin, who is viewed by many as the strongest potential challenger, may jump into the race in January.

With so many primary challengers attacking her from the right, Brewer’s best hope may be for her opponents to split to the conservative vote to the point that none of them can muster enough support to win. And even if she pulls through in the primary, Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard will be waiting in the general, eager to find success in his third run for governor.

Newspapers in decline
Print media across the United States had been struggling for years, as cable news and then the Internet cut further and further into readership and profits. But 2009 was the year the bottom fell out of Arizona’s newspaper industry.

Shortly before the year began, the ~East Valley Tribune~ laid off a significant portion of its staff, including its entire Capitol press contingent, and severely downsized its operations. In November, the paper announced it would shut down at the end of the year. Weeks later, Thirteenth Street Media, publisher of the ~Explorer~, a Tucson weekly, announced that it would buy the paper. The ~Tucson Citizen~, the Old Pueblo’s afternoon daily which had been in business since 1859, closed its doors in May, putting an end to the oldest continually published newspaper in Arizona. And ~The Arizona Republic~ and ~Arizona Daily Star~ continued to downsize their staffs as revenues declined.

Adding insult to injury, Senate President Bob Burns closed the press room in the Senate, forcing the Capitol press corps to relocate down the street to the Arizona League of Cities and Towns building.

Chaos at the county
For all state government’s problems in 2009, it may seem like a well oiled machine compared to Maricopa County.

The dispute, pitting Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas against just about everyone else in county government, began in December 2008, when Thomas charged Supervisor Don Stapley with violating financial disclosure laws. The Board of Supervisors pushed back by dropping Thomas as its legal counsel and Thomas transferred the Stapley case to Yavapai County, which dropped the charges. Another Stapley arrest by Arpaio’s deputies fanned the flames, as did the board’s refusal to allow Thomas to hire independent counsel to investigate the case.

The crisis flared into a full-scale war in December, when Thomas and Arpaio filed a lawsuit alleging that the Board of Supervisors, a handful of Superior Court judges and two private practice attorneys had willfully obstructed their investigation into the $340 million court building under construction, followed just days later by the indictment of Stapley and fellow Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. Adding to the discord was a decision by Judge Gary Donahoe to cite a Maricopa County detention officer with contempt of court for taking a document from a public defender’s files. Rather than issue a court-ordered apology, the officer spent several days in jail.

Challenging authority
In January, a handful of House Republicans, led by Rep. Sam Crump, refused to vote for budget legislation unless it included a sweep of $25.5 million obligated to the 21st Century Fund, a pool of money used for bioscience and technology grants. House Speaker Kirk Adams stripped Crump of his House Government Committee chairmanship, and then reinstated him a few days later.

But the real fireworks were in the Senate, where those who opposed Senate President Bob Burns on budget issues lost leadership positions and committee chairs. In July, Burns removed Sen. Thayer Verschoor as president pro tempore, and removed Sen. Pam Gorman from the Rules Committee. Gorman, one of just three Senate Republicans who did not support a leadership-backed budget package in August, later resigned as Senate whip. In December, Burns dissolved the Retirement and Rural Development Committee chaired by Sen. Ron Gould, another budget holdout.

Arizona gets bluer
Despite its long history as a solidly red state, Democrats have made inroads. Their days of writing off the state to Republicans may be over. When the U.S. House of Representatives swore in its new members in January, Democrats held the majority in Arizona’s congressional delegation for the first time since the 1960s. Three of those five Democrats – Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell – have received massive infusions of campaign cash from congressional colleagues, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, indicating that the national Democratic establishment is looking to keep its newfound power in Arizona.

The state also got a little extra attention from the White House. President Barack Obama visited Arizona three times during his first year in office. Vice President Joe Biden also dropped in, plugging the stimulus act during a November speech in Phoenix.

Democratic gains notwithstanding, the GOP wasn’t exactly on the defensive in Arizona. The Legislature convened in January with an expanded Republican majority and replaced Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano with Republican Jan Brewer. And in November’s municipal elections, Nina Trasoff became the first Democratic incumbent to lose a Tucson City Council election since 1977 when she was unseated by Republican Steve Kozachik.

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