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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Koch Brothers Help Shape Arizona Politics

The Koch brothers are bankrolling the assault on unions in Wisconsin, as detailed in the New York Times and elsewhere.  The billionaire brothers David and Charles, who own the oil and consumer-products conglomerate Koch Industries, are also major players in Arizona – through campaign contributions by the Koch Political Action Committee and underwriting the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity institute, which has an influential Arizona chapter that is closely allied with the state’s tea partiers.

Among the state’s congressional delegation who have received KOCHPAC support in the last three election cycles are Senators John Kyl and John McCain and U.S. Representatives Jeff Flake, Trent Franks, and David Schweikert, and John Shadegg (retired 2010). In the 2010 electoral campaign, KOCHPAC backed the failed bid of Tea Party Republican Jesse Kelly against incumbent Gabrielle Giffords, as well as Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, who replaced Shadegg.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Running on Empty in Arizona

Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce

“That is what we ran on,” said State Senate President Russell Pearce, hailing the approval by both houses of the Arizona state legislature of what Republicans are calling the “Jobs Bill.” Gov. Jan Brewer signed the business tax-cutting bill on Feb. 17, just four days after it was introduced in the state legislature.

Arizona, whose housing-driven economy has been stagnating since 2007, badly needs new jobs, but the bill doesn’t deliver jobs only tax cuts for corporations and business owners. The state’s Republican leadership – which controls all branches and aspects of government – had hoped to pass the bill (SB1001/HB2001) last year but withdrew the tax-cut proposal after deciding that it wouldn’t sit well politically to be cutting corporate taxes while at the same time increasing sales taxes in their last-minute attempt to balance the budget.

Despite the massive budget deficit facing Arizona – estimated to be as much as a third of the already slashed annual state budget – tax cuts for business proved to be the fiscal priority for the new legislature. No surprise, because, as Pearce boasted, that is what the Republicans promised the Arizona electorate.

Since 1992 the Arizona legislature has cut taxes almost every year in 42 separate bills. Yet the new Jobs Bill is being hailed by House Speaker Kirk Adams as “an historic bill [that] represents the largest tax cut in Arizona history.

The title of the bill, approved in this special budget-slashing legislative session called to order by Governor Jan Brewer, is not as appealing as Jobs Bill. It’s the “Arizona commerce authority; business incentives” bill. According to the Joint Legislative Budget Council, the bill makes “several changes to Individual and Corporate Income Taxes and Property Taxes and creates the Arizona Commerce Authority.”

Despite having the nation’s largest structural budget deficit, the Republicans passed this bill whose estimated cost, according to the legislative council, will be $38.2 million in FY 2012, growing to $538 million in FY 2018.”

According to Pearce, this bill, described by its supporters as a “pro-growth tax reform,” will “bring jobs to our state and re-establishes Arizona as a national economic leader.”

In addition to gradually cutting the corporate tax rate from 6.49% to 4.9%, the so-called Jobs Bill will create the Arizona Commerce Authority, a new unaccountable government agency that will hand out lottery money to businesses with investment plans. According to the bill, the commerce authority will be “exempt from state general accounting and finance practices.”

The bill “puts our state in a very competitive position for job creation,” said Pearce, who authored the senate bill. “While other states are raising taxes and doing everything they can to force businesses out of their state, Arizona is putting out the welcome mat.”

But there is, of course, no guarantee that businesses will come. According to the budget council, the bill by lowering the cost of doing business “may generate more tax revenue dollars for the state.” Yet there have been no studies to demonstrate that the incentives will attract more investment at a time when people and businesses are fleeing the state. Last year was the first time in fifty years that Arizona lost population – driven away by SB 1070 and the collapse of what former (and ousted) Arizona Republic columnist Jon Talton calls the “Real Estate Industrial Complex.”

Gov. Brewer signs "Jobs Bill" Feb. 17/Arizona Republic
Economic consultant Elliott Pollack, an influential proponent of this complex, authored a report (that was commissioned by House Speaker Adams) that provided the economic rationale for the jobs bill. Pollack, who runs a real estate consultancy in Scottsdale as well as a pro-corporate think tank called ArizonaEconomy.com, recommended an array of businesses incentives to boost profits, selling it as a trickle-down strategy to create jobs.

 Opposing the jobs bill when it was first introduced last year, Dana Wolfe Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance (part of the 50-member Arizona Budget Coalition), said: “Both voters and businesses expect our state to provide the assets we need for a strong economy — assets like roads, parks, health care, and a world-class education system. But twenty years of tax cuts have left us short on these assets and contributed to the deficit we suffer from now. More of the same tax cuts will only make Arizona less competitive.”

Like Pearce in the Senate, Adams in the House is promoting the bill as an anti-government measure. “With passage of the Jobs Bill, we are putting our confidence in the private sector and hard-working Arizonans rather than in government. As our federal government has demonstrated, spending more on government doesn’t create jobs,” said Adams. 

“We have not seen such an aggressive reform of our tax policy or efforts to spur the creation of jobs in at least two generations," asserted Adams. "With this bill we are lighting up in big bold neon letters for all the world to see: ‘Arizona is open for business.’”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Arizona's Tea Party Politics

Billboard in Tombstone, Arizona/Tom Barry

Arizona’s state politics are especially predictable – and bizarre. The predictability comes from the longtime domination by leading figures from the mining, agribusiness, and housing development sectors and their often radically conservative, often libertarian leanings – in the Barry Goldwater tradition.

Democrats do count on strong constituencies in the Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Nogales, which can propel the party to occasional victories in statewide elections, such as Napolitano’s narrow victory in the 2002 gubernatorial election. The Republicans (of the most reactionary type) have, however, usually maintained tight control over the state legislature, which is constitutionally the strongest branch of government in Arizona.

Napolitano’s 2002 narrow election victory did point to rising political potential for the Democratic Party as the base of Latinos and college-educated continues to grow. But Arizona Democrats have never acted from a position of strength and enthusiastically joined the bipartisan consensus around tax-cutting and unfunded spending mandates over the past couple of decades. Clearly, Arizona must reverse course to state and local government, but still the Democrats are timid about the taxing option, referring instead to need for a more palatable “long-term tax reform.” Rather than proposing structural tax reforms, Arizona Democrats prefer to focus on the more widely appealing idea of terminating hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate tax loopholes, including for liposuction treatments and spa country club memberships.

In traditional political categories, the Democratic Party forms the political center in Arizona. From there, it’s all to the far right. The political agendas of the Republicans and tea partiers are too extreme to be labeled conservative. Fortunately, the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity provides a more telling label, as it does to describe the politics of its allies:”Patriotic/Free-Market/Conservative/Libertarian/Constitutionalist.”
Outside the electoral -politics arena but an important although be no means extreme part of the entire political spectrum are the array of citizen action organizations with a humanitarian mission, including such innovative and dedicated groups as Border Action Network, No More Deaths, Arizona Interfaith, Just Coffee, Repeal Coalition, Humane Borders, and Sierra Club Borderlands Protection.

On the right there is a tight circle of policy advocacy institutes – including Goldwater Institute, Arizona Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, Arizona Federation of Taxpayers -- that provide the words and numbers for the Republican movers and shakers.

Although concerns about the state’s stability and security dominate Arizona politics, the elephant in the tea party room is environmental sustainability. Arizona’s model of housing and population-driven development in the middle of a desert with unbearable (without air conditioning) is, to say the least, not sustainable. 
While Governor Brewer and State Senator Russell Pearce led the charge in the policy arena to secure Arizona against immigration and other perceived border threats, three county sheriffs were energizing the anti-immigrant and border security backlash in Arizona. 

They are what Barbara Simpson, the self-described “Babe in the Bunker” commentator of the right-wing WorldNetDaily called “the trinity of heroes,” namely Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, and Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Phoenix, "The Rebirth of American Culture," Say Tea Party Patriots

Talk about a cultural war. The Tea Party Patriots are holding their American Policy Summit in Phoenix this month (Feb. 25-26) – calling Phoenix the “rebirth place of American culture." We certainly can’t complain that they aren't clearly defining the battle lines of the cultural war.

The tea partiers say holding the summit in Phoenix represents “our opportunity to support the citizens of Arizona in their current political battles that carry so many national implications." Arizona is taking border security and immigration enforcement into its own hands, most notably with its Support Our Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070).

The summit will bring together the border hawks, cultural traditionalists, and anti-government libertarians – a remix of the three pillars of American conservatism – with sessions on Security, including ballot security, border security, and immigration enforcement; Culture, including American culture, constitutional studies, and gun rights, and Economics, including fair taxation and government waste. It will be an historic gathering, says the Tea Party Patriots: “Years from now, if someone says, ‘I was in Phoenix,’ you’ll know what they’re talking about.”

Showdown in Cochise County

Chief Cochise

 A high desert carved by washes and draws, by the canyons and gulches that descend from snow-covered crest of the Chiricahua Mountains.  Crimson-topped stalks of ocotillo rising above boundless mesquite, creosote bush, and alkali brush.  


This is Arizona’s southeastern corner, a vast swatch of borderland – larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined – that was settled by Anglo ranchers and miners in the late 1880s and now constitutes the heart of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional district. 

The Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts reach north, mindless of borders, and merge in Western lands that are the spoils of war. Towns on either side of the line are twins, each with the same Spanish name. It’s where the continent divides and joins to accommodate men and nations – a territory won (and lost) by wars, and contested now by the new border-security wars.

Cochise County is a place a where death, conflict, and separation are celebrated.  It’s a borderland of our movie-history imagination that echoes with stories of outlaws and tin-starred lawmen of heroic proportions.  In the streets of old county seat of Tombstone, the famous gunfight at OK Corral between feuding gangs of deputized ruffians and rustlers are daily reenacted to fascinated crowds of tourists.

During the bitterly fought electoral campaign that pitted incumbent Giffords against Tea Party candidate and anti-immigrant ideologue Jesse Kelly, an anti-Giffords protester brought a gun to congresswomen’s one of the congresswomen’s “Congress on Your Corner” meetings in the border town of Douglas, during which police were alerted that he inadvertently dropped the concealed gun from his pants.

Candidate Kelly, who counted on the enthusiastic  support  of the state’s trifecta of radical sheriffs – Arpaio, Babeu, and Cochise County’s own Sheriff Larry Dever – charged that Giffords was soft on immigration (for not supporting SB1070)  and insufficiently committed to border security . Typical of the aggressive tone of campaign, Kelly sponsored an anti-Giffords event that rallied supporters with the promotion: “Get on Target for Victory. Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords from Office. Shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly.”

Commenting on the violent tone of the Kelly campaign, Giffords told the Arizona Republic:  "When you represent a district that includes the home of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, 'the Town Too Tough to Die,' nothing's a surprise out in Cochise County."

But it’s not the county’s Wild West gun-slinging legends – lawless sheriffs like Wyatt Earp, Ft. Huahuca’s “Indian fighters,” General Pershing’s 1916-17 forays into Mexico, or the glory days of the Southern Pacific or Bisbee copper mine – that have the strongest hold on the collective imagination of Cochise County residents. Rather, the victims and the vanquished that are the most fondly recalled.

The legendary resistance of Chief Cochise (“Cheis”) is honored at Cochise Memorial Stronghold Park in the Dragoon Mountains near where he signed a peace treaty in 1872 after battling Mexican and U.S. troops since the 1840s. Cochise, who died on a military reservation, was a chief of the Chokonen-Chiricahua Apaches of northern Mexico and what is now southeastern Arizona.

After decades of eluding capture and bedeviling the U.S. Army, the Chiricahua Apache Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886 near Skeleton Canyon of the Chiricahua Mountains, where a monument commemorates his fortitude and endurance.  Geronimo died in an Oklahoma army prisoner-of-war camp in 1906, confessing to his nephew on his deathbed that he deeply regretted his decision surrender in Arizona and to lay down his weapons – all of which were of U.S. army issue.

Sharing 82 miles of border with Mexico, Cochise County has only recently become a leading front in the new border security offensive. As the Border Patrol has since the mid-1990s tightened controls along the traditional corridors of illegal border crossing and smuggling, illegal flows of people and goods have shifted to more inaccessible stretches of the border including Cochise County. 

Wyatt Earp statue in Tombstone/Tom Barry
But it’s not the large numbers of apprehensions of immigrants and drugs seizures that put Cochise County on the national map in the past several years. Rather, it’s been the coalition between local ranchers and anti-immigrant vigilantes, the new star power of Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, and the as yet unsolved March killing of rancher Rob Krentz and his dog, allegedly by an illegal immigrant who was thought to have fled back into Mexico.

Cochise County sheriffs live in our imaginations thanks to a continuing stream of television series, movies, and detective novels, including the TV series “Sheriffs of Cochise County,” the film “Broken Arrow,” and the current series of detective novels by J.D. Jance.

Typically wearing blue jeans and a cowboy hat, Dever, 58, doesn’t situate himself in the unholy tradition of the quick-on-the-trigger Tombstone sheriffs of Tombstone. Rather, he appeals to moral imperatives of the U.S. Constitution and Winston Churchill’s courage of conviction. Serving as the county’s elected sheriff since 1996 (after 20 years as a deputy), Dever includes his favorite quote from “Sir Winston Churchill” as part of his department’s mission statement: "It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required."

I first met Dever at the May 2010 meeting of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition and Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition. Since then Dever has risen to new local, state, and national prominence in large part because of his outspoken support of SB 1070 and his role as cofounder with Sheriff Paul Babeu of BorderSheriffs.com, which is outspoken in criticism of the Obama’s administration’s immigration and border policies.

Dever, who serves as chairman of the Southwest Border Sheriffs Coalition,  insists that local law enforcement must be involved in border control – “at least until federal government decides to do its job.” “So, if not me, who?” asks Dever, echoing Churchill. “Don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “Border Patrol does a lot of good. But it is not serious about the security of the border – and neither is the Obama administration.”

“That’s why we have to take it into our hands,” he explained, “and we won’t be bullied by the federal government or the ACLU or the United Nations. We won’t stop demanding that the border be secured.”

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Border Security and Texas Budget Crisis

Operation Border Star Map


Texas is facing a mammoth budget deficit – as much as $27 billion in the 2012-13 biennial budget. But there is little that can be easily cut.  Texas, according to the Dallas Morning News, ranks dead last in the per-capita state spending.

All state services, especially education and health, face massive budget cuts. On the existential chopping block are entire state agencies, community colleges, and, if some Republican politicians have their way, the state’s Medicaid program.  

But the state’s border-security program, which didn’t exist prior to fiscal year 2008, is being treated gently by state legislators. Republican state senators have even proposed a half-million dollar increase in the existing $111-million two-year budget for border-security operations.  The House had previously proposed cutting $34.4 million from the border-security budget, which the Legislative Budget Board said was primarily due to the “discontinuation of federal stimulus funding” and the reduced need for major purchases, like helicopters for the Texas Rangers.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steven Ogden said that there could be no backing away from the commitment to the state’s security. Noting the increase funding for border security operations, Ogden said: "That was a conscious decision that the first responsibility of government is to provide for the security of the people."

Politics and ideology figure largely into law-making in Austin. Faced with an unprecedented shortfall between expected revenues and expenses, Republican state senators started the legislative season by passing -- in a 19-11 party-line vote -- a thinly disguised anti-immigrant bill to require enhanced identification voter-identification requirements. While Republicans assert that voter fraud is widespread, the minority Democrats contended that the proposed requirements constitute an unfair burden on the poor, the elderly, and nonwhite citizens.

The Republican leadership in Texas, in contrast to Arizona Republicans, has steered away from explicitly anti-immigrant laws and law-enforcement measures. Instead, Perry and other Republican politicians have tapped latent anti-immigrant sentiment through initiatives that stress upholding the rule of law and protecting Texans.

Over the past five years Gov. Rick Perry has lambasted the federal government for not enforcing immigration law and not securing the Texas border. Perry’s criticism of Washington’s border control efforts and promotion of his own commitment to “secure the border for Texans” were central themes of his election campaigns in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial contests.  

Called Operation Border Star, Gov. Perry’s border-security operations have been funded largely with criminal-justice assistance grants from the Justice Department, including an infusion of stimulus funding in 2009-2010 from the Obama administration’s recovery act. For the past four years, Perry has also succeeded in winning state budget support for Border Star.

Despite the hundreds of millions dollars spent for state-initiated border-security operations, neither the governor nor Steve McCraw, the state’s homeland security and public safety director, have provided documentation of the impact of Border Star. The Department of Public Safety has denied public-records requests for the department’s border security plan and for the monthly progress reports from its border security operations. 

Perry calls Border Star the “Texas model of border security.” But Texans are hard put to describe what exactly this model is – other than pronouncements about Texas standing in where the federal government has failed.  One reason that it is so difficult to grasp the Texas model is that it has been largely outsourced to a Washington Beltway security consulting firm called Abrams Learning & Information Systems.  For the past several years, ALIS has been contracted by DPS to, among other things, formulate the state’s border security strategy and operate its Border Security Operations Center.

Texas Republicans have been the leading border security hawks both in the state and in Texas. Sen. John Cornyn has provided key earmark funding to support the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, and last month stepped up his demand for federal funding for local border security initiatives. “This is a real national challenge. It is not just a local problem, which is the way Washington traditionally looks at the border,” Cornyn said in a January 5 speech in Brownsville. “This is a federal responsibility. … I will demand my colleagues in Congress step up to support our local leaders.”

But Texas Democrats, eager not to look like border security wimps, have not mounted any effective opposition to Perry’s border security initiatives. Parsing the budget and security issues, State Sen. Eddie Lucero, Jr. (D-Brownsville), said, “As we undergo what looks likely to be a very painful budget process, I think we can all agree that the integrity of the border and the importance of trade with Mexico are too vital to endure the impacts of budget cuts.”

Regarding the state’s border security budget, Lucy Nashed, the governor’s spokeswoman, said: “The governor continues to see the value of funding border security operations in Texas. That is a big priority of his to make sure, in the absence of federal resources that we are not getting, that we continue to protect Texans on the border.”

The Texas model of border security has since 2004 been dependent on federal funding, both from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. The governor’s office channeled $39.5 million in stimulus funding from DOJ to Border Star.

With the drop-off in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the gaping holes in the Texas state budget will no longer be plugged by the windfall in stimulus grants. The state already faced this in the last biennial budget as the initial rush of stimulus funding in 2009 fell off in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

In the last biennial budget (2010-11), the state suffered a 39% decrease in federal funding. Nonetheless, Texas received $72.5 billion from Washington – out of the total budget of $182 million. The state’s Legislative Budget Board is projecting an additional 32% decrease in the coming 2012-13 biennium – down to $50.6 billion.

It’s little wonder that Texas is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis. It has depended largely on federal spending and sales tax revenue to underwrite its budget. Gov. Perry boasts of the business and investment friendly climate of Texas.

That’s no idle boast. Texas is one of the few states without a personal income tax. Nor does Texas have a corporate income tax. The tax burden from state and local taxes in Texas is $3,580 – about 8.4% of average income. Forty two states have higher tax burdens than Texas.

Texans face a bleak future. The governor and the Republican leadership have forsworn not to raise taxes to cover the budget abyss. So they are set to drastically cut medical and educational services, perhaps even opting out of Medicaid.

Texas Republicans have other priorities – brandishing their border security blunderbuss and Tea Party anti-tax, anti-Washington credentials.