A rare bipartisan budget may deliver for Arizona, but it's not the best we could do

Opinion: If Arizona's budget was nonpartisan instead of bipartisan, it wouldn't have wasted so much cash on talking points and money that can't be spent.

Robert Robb
Arizona Republic

The recently enacted state budget has been praised for its bipartisan provenance.

And, with respect to additional funding for K-12 education, bipartisanship delivered.

The budget uses some of the gargantuan surplus to increase school funding in the range of what voters approved in Proposition 208, before it was eviscerated by the Legislature and nullified by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Credit is due to Republican Sen. Paul Boyer who withstood intense GOP pressure and refused to support a budget that didn’t honor what voters approved in Proposition 208.

And to legislative Democrats who didn’t maximize the leverage given them by the way Gov. Doug Ducey and GOP legislative leaders mismanaged the budget process. They agreed to a budget that also included most GOP priorities just before the lights went out in state government.

However, bipartisan governance isn’t the same as nonpartisan governance, which is the direction in which Arizona should be headed.

This is no way to decide how to spend $18 billion

Here are some illustrations from this budget melodrama of how nonpartisan governance could be different, and superior, to even bipartisan governance.

The budget process, from start to near finish, was a partisan GOP endeavor. Despite it being obvious for some time that a Republican-only budget was highly unlikely, there were no meaningful, reflective budget deliberations that included Democrats. The bipartisan budget was a last-minute, hastily cobbled together, ramshackle construction. It ain’t the way to decide how to spend $18 billion in taxpayer money.

A bipartisan outcome is still the product of a partisan scrum. The teams line up and engage in political feints and maneuvers. The partisanship is never really set aside. Bipartisanship is the last resort, when all the partisan gambits produce naught, and the political price of inaction is greater than the political price of bipartisanship for both sides.

Schools get a ton of cash but can't spend it

In nonpartisan governance, a substantial increase in K-12 funding in the range of what voters approved in Proposition 208 would have been a given from the start of the legislative session.

It wasn’t because a handful of Republican legislators wouldn’t vote for a budget that included it, and until the final bell was about to ring, Ducey and GOP legislative leaders were working on a partisan budget, making various attempts to pressure or cajole Boyer to capitulate.

While the increase in K-12 funding in the bipartisan budget was laudable, there was an unimaginable omission. The funds exceed what is permitted to be spent under the state onstitution’s aggregate expenditure limit.

The Legislature can suspend the limit for a budget year and can submit a permanent increase in it to voters. The bipartisan budget did neither. 

So, schools districts have all this additional money. But there’s at least a chance that if they spend it, they will have to pay it back near the end of the fiscal year next June.

There are reports that a side agreement was reached for Ducey to call a special session to deal with the expenditure limit problem. It never would have arisen in nonpartisan governance.

In nonpartisan governance, there would never be a decision to substantially increase education funding without also authorizing its expenditure. Only a partisan scrum could produce that result.

GOP gets an expensive border talking point

The budget includes more than half a billion dollars for border security, including state funded fencing.

The Republican base is aflame over border disorder and illegal immigration. It’s why every GOP candidate for U.S. Senate and governor sound as though they are applying for head of the border patrol rather than the position for which they are running.

While this massive expenditure gives Ducey and Republican legislators a talking point for their base, it won’t make any noticeable difference in border disorder or the incidence of illegal immigration. Perhaps there will be a marginal increase in drug interdiction, but that will be it. Only federal action can actually reduce border disorder and the incidence of illegal immigration.

Democrats agreed to keep the border security funding in the budget because the glue of the partisan scrum was that everyone got funding for what they most wanted.

In true nonpartisan governance, half a billion dollars wouldn’t be wasted like this. Political talking points would have to come with a considerably cheaper price tag.

This is why Arizona needs a top-2 primary

Arizona has a highly partisan governing system, as do most states. This will be on display in the August primaries, in which the overwhelming majority of the Legislature will be effectively selected by the partisan bases of both parties. Those partisans will also narrow the choices of who gets to be governor and U.S. senator.

There will always be political parties. Those who share political views and objectives will want to organize together to improve their odds.

However, political parties don’t have to have an official role in the election process, much less be given the duopoly on power the two major political parties currently possess. And in a state in which a third of the electorate declines to register with any political party, such a duopoly is clearly a misfit.

A truly nonpartisan top-two primary system is a reform that’s ripe for Arizona.

The state budget, flawed as it is, is the best bipartisanship can produce. And rarely even that.

The state deserves consistently better. 

Reach Robb on Twitter: @rjrobb.