Few sights say more about the end of a political career than a politician vacating his office.
On Dec. 8, one of Arizona’s longest-serving lawmakers packed his belongings in cardboard boxes, descended the stairs of the Senate and loaded them onto his car.
But Senate President Bob Burns’ departure reveals something more.
It is a result of term-limit laws that have sucked institutional knowledge out of the Capitol by not allowing legislators to stay long enough to become experts in how the multiple aspects of government work.
Burns is a member of a fading club of legislators who came on the political scene before laws limited how long politicians can stay in office.
As a result, they accumulated a great deal of knowledge about how government works, particularly when it comes to budgeting. And Burns probably knows the state budget process better than anyone. These lawmakers could tell which ideas work and more importantly, which ones don’t. Some could recite how many acre-feet of water were being diverted from the Colorado River to quench the thirst of Arizona’s expanding population.
They also tended to be less confrontational, although some could be acerbic and blunt.
This year, the Senate saw the biggest exodus of members because of term limits. In all, 11 senators were termed-out; a few others decided to retire.
Also retiring is Rep. Jack Brown, a Democrat from St. Johns who has been a lawmaker since the 1960s.
But while some are leaving, others are returning.
Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, a Phoenix Democrat who first joined the Legislature as a House member in 1979, will be joining the House next year. Lela Alston, a Democrat from Phoenix who served in the Senate from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, won her House race and will be back in the Capitol.
Burns had pretty much finished moving his stuff out – his office was already bare except for a box or two – when he took a break to talk to the Arizona Capitol Times.
It was bright outside, probably in the mid-70s, a perfect day for biking. In fact, if you wonder how a 72-year old man could keep up with all-night budget negotiations it’s because Burns is an endurance athlete. He often pedals his recumbent bike for more than 20 miles a day.
Burns, who has served the Legislature for two decades, did leave a few items in the drawer of his desk: A stapler, some pens, scissors, paper clips and a rarely used memo pad. They were there when he inherited the office from the previous Senate president, he explained.
But he is also leaving behind something he prefers he didn’t have to – a state budget that is grossly out of balance.
“It’s kind of leaving a job that’s not completely finished,” he said. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to get back on track.”
Burns, who is largely known for his cool demeanor, can be really funny at times. That day, he took a memento out from a box from his years in office – a miniature of a pig with battery-operated wings. He said he used to hang the flying pig from the ceiling during Appropriations Committee hearings and it would go round and round.
“That’s when the budget gets fixed,” he said with a laugh.
Burns’ career has been a constant battle to rein in spending. He won some fights, and lost some.
He and other fiscal hawks successfully pushed down the state’s debt load in the 1990s only for it to balloon back in the next decade. He saw government feed its appetite for spending with an unsustainable level of revenue under former governor Janet Napolitano. In those same years Republicans also pushed for tax breaks that chipped away at the states’ revenue base.
All these budget decisions would come to haunt Arizona when the country’s economy tanked, exposing the state to its worst fiscal crisis in history.
It fell on Burns to lead his colleagues in the quest to find solutions to the state’s multi-billion dollar budget shortfall, and to say it was tough would be a gross understatement.
But if those who wielded power like Burns had a singular achievement in the last two years, it is that the doors of government offices have been kept mostly open. Programs and agencies were severely cut, but core government services are more or less intact.
Burns isn’t exactly happy with the budget solutions that have been adopted.
And who would be? Most of them were temporary fixes. Some, like borrowing, simply pushed painful decisions off into the future. Burns tried to put a lid on borrowing this year, but his proposal ultimately didn’t get through.
Still, the former G.E. and Honeywell programming analyst has had a very rich political career. As Senate president, he leaves the world of legislating on top of his field, and not very many can say that.
For now, at least, Burns signals he’s taking a break and taking it easy. When asked what he’s going to do next, his standard answer is to say he’s “running for the golf course.”
He’ll be spending more of his time in Sedona, where he and his wife have just finished constructing a house.
You’ll probably still see the outgoing Senate president trying to reach the top, though it’s likely he’ll be on his bike on the side of a hill.
-Luige del Puerto