Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ)
January 7, 2007

Author: Jon Talton, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 4

The most unpredictable Legislature in years, thanks to a narrower Republican majority, returns to address the same old Arizona challenges. The result may not be business as usual.

It's easy to predict what won't happen: big increases in education funding, a global warming strategy with teeth, a powerful new Commerce Department charged with pursuing world-class economic development, or restrictions on water-wasting sprawl. All needed; won't happen.

Some themes will be, in the words of Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again.

More tax cuts will be proposed, even though Arizona already has one of the lowest tax burdens in the nation. Business interests will push to speed up a property-tax reduction approved two years ago.

The Flores English-language learner lawsuit is still hanging over the state, with stiff court-mandated education funding a possibility. And continuation of all-day kindergarten will likely be another battle between conservatives and Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Yet hovering over the Capitol are several realities, chief among them:
Arizona has become the fastest-growing state in the country. Schools, transportation and health care are all groaning under the burden of rapid population increases.

Meanwhile, Arizona remains poorly positioned to compete in the global economy, from its heavy dependence on the housing industry to its continuing ranking in the shameful basement of public school performance.

Another reality: Despite rising needs, money may be tighter this year as tax revenues react to the slowdown in housing.

Intriguing issues

Some of the unpredictable and intriguing issues include:

* Investment in the state's growing biomedical sector. Legislators will be asked for funds for Science Foundation Arizona, TGen and the University of Arizona medical school in Phoenix.

This is one of the greatest opportunities of 2007. Arizona has made a fast start but needs continued and consistent funding to keep the momentum going.

Far from being a narrow "biotech" gamble, the state's "meds and eds"
strategy has the potential to deliver cures, therapies and high-paying jobs to many Arizonans.

* Transportation. Napolitano is said to be preparing a bold transportation plan. The need is statewide, and Republicans such as Thayer Verschoor and Andy Biggs seem to be open to expediting road projects.

It may be too much to ask that they look beyond roads. Even Nashville and Albuquerque now have commuter rail -- but not the nation's fifth-largest city. An opportunity also exists to restart train service between Phoenix and Tucson.

* Schools. Napolitano and conservatives may tangle over funding school construction. The governor is said to favor more bonding capability, while conservatives want to pay as they go with appropriations.

Lack of a settlement of the Flores lawsuit affects about 200,000 students, most stuck in underfunded schools.

This is a future underclass for the state and a horrible waste of human capital. Some courage and creative thinking might not only address Flores but also create a fairer school funding formula.

* Health care. Some legislators are intrigued by the Massachusetts health plan that used market forces to extend care to the uninsured.

Last session, the Democratic House leader, Rep. Phil Lopes, proposed another version of universal care that went nowhere.

This year, with more Democrats and some new Republicans, some kind of health plan could emerge.

* Universities. Demand for university education continues to rise, and funds continue to be short. Although ASU aspires to be less dependent on appropriations, the university and its cousins will need more money from the Legislature. Continuing the expansion of the downtown Phoenix ASU campus is one example.

Meanwhile, the community college expenditure scandal may kill enthusiasm (rightly, in my mind) for granting four-year degrees there.

The focus should be on building up real universities and recruiting new ones to the state.

Speaker Jim Weiers

Perhaps the most intriguing lawmaker this year is House Speaker Jim Weiers.

Among legislative Republicans, Weiers has become among the most sophisticated on issues of competitiveness and the global economy. He accompanied ASU President Michael Crow to Singapore last year.

If Weiers could lead a synthesis between conservatism and the strategies needed to build a competitive economy, some impressive gains could be made.
(At the same time, he'll be leading a smaller majority, so more compromise with Democrats will be needed.)

Other conservatives in the Legislature have also gradually come to back competitiveness measures, most recently $35 million for Science Foundation Arizona.

Perhaps Arizona is moving slowly to a point where these issues are less partisan.

After all, there is no objective reason why Arizona can't maintain a relatively low tax burden and make investments to improve the economy and quality of life for Arizonans. No reason why Arizona can't push for government that is relatively small but hugely effective.

None of this heralds the end of ideological disputes or messy legislative sausage-making. But this session may yield more surprises than usual and even some happy ones.

Reach Talton at jon.talton@arizonarepublic.com.

CAPTION: If House Speaker Jim Weiers can lead a synthesis between conservatism and the strategies needed to build a competitive economy, some impressive gains will be made.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Viewpoints
Page: V1

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Record Number: pho162128812