Senate President Steve Pierce has a reputation for being a straight-shooter, and in this interview, it shows.
He’ll tell you what he knows, and if he doesn’t know something, well, he’ll say he doesn’t know it.
Many say this style stems from Pierce’s ranching background. Yes, the new Senate president is a bona fide cowboy, and like many rancher-lawmakers before him, his approach is to find the problem, see if it can be fixed and then fix it.
Of course, things aren’t always that clear at the state Capitol, where policymakers often don’t even agree what the problem is.
Still, there is a lot of hope that Pierce will ably lead the Senate. He’s more fortunate than his predecessors since he’s presiding at a time when the state is getting a little bit more revenue. This means instead of debating whether to defund transplant services, the debate will be what to do with the “surplus” cash.
The Arizona Education Association is leading a lawsuit against the state over lawmakers’ decision to increase the contribution rate by state employees to their retirement system. I’m curious to know if you reached a deal with the AEA to reverse that policy, which made you decide to go ahead and make that announcement that you’d be reverting to the old 50-50 split.
No. I hadn’t spoken to them about it.
What made you decide to change the rate back?
This has nothing to do with the pension reforms that we did. This was about a way to balance (the budget). Forty million was needed to be in the budget to balance the budget last year… Now, it was actually a tax on a limited number of people that were paying into it. And now, it’s just a way to make it even again.
It was more about fairness.
So what some say is the certainty that the state would lose that lawsuit had nothing to do with the change?
No. It’s possible that we lose the suit, but no, that was secondary.
Secondary — so it was partly a reason?
No, that was like “and besides.”
OK. I guess more significantly, and please correct me if I’m wrong, it looks like that decision is a break from your longstanding position not to use extra money or cash surplus or however you want to call it to restore programs or spend it on anything other than debt reduction and saving it for later.
I don’t see it’s related.
I was going to ask if it means this opens it up to (budget restorations)…
We may get at least $400 million above what we budgeted for in the current fiscal year… Where will that surplus go?
It’s already spent.
It’s already spent. It has to go towards debt reduction. We have $1 billion in education rollovers. We have $1.5 billion in money that we borrowed. Anything we get in — we have to pay that money back somewhere. We have to start paying it off.
Do you have any specific program or agency whose budget was cut that you want to see restored?
I don’t think so. I think we’ve done a lot of things — reforms and reductions in the size of government and I think all of them have been good so far.
Some of the county officials cried foul in the last budget go-round because the state had asked them to fork out some money and help the state pay for the cost of its operations. Is it safe to assume you won’t be asking them to do the same thing in this budget go-round?
I think the governor has already told them that she was not counting that in her budget. It was the prisoner shift. That was not in the budget this time. And I think she told them that she was not going to ask the five counties that had to contribute before to do it in the next budget.
I understand the counties would want the Legislature to reverse the prisoner shift and not do that. I think it starts in January of 2013. Are you amenable to their proposal?
I think what we did was a good reform. But I think the way it is, if the state can’t afford something, it’s wrong to push it off and make the counties pay for it. The federal government is doing that to the state. They’re saying, ‘You have to do this, and we’re not giving you the money for it.’ And it’s not right for the state to say to the counties: ‘You have to do this, but we don’t have the money for it.’ We should live within our means.
How do you think the friction, if you will, (between the governor and the Legislature) will impact your relationship with the governor in this upcoming session?
I think we have a great relationship. I think we’re going to have a good relationship. I look forward to working with her. We’re not going to agree on everything but generally speaking, we’re going to be just fine.
You’re confident of that?
Yes. I can get along with anybody. You didn’t write that down, either.
I got it on the recorder.
I’m curious. Do you acknowledge that, certainly while the Legislature and the executive are separate branches, Governor Brewer is more or less the political head, the leader of the Republican Party in Arizona?
Do I agree? Absolutely.