Ted Simons: When it comes to balancing the state budget lawmakers don't have as many options as they'd like. That's because a large part of the budget, especially health care and education, is off limits and voter protected. In other words, that spending was approved directly by voters, which means lawmakers can't touch it without a 3/4 vote of the legislature. It's a safeguard that voters added to the state constitution back in 1998 when they approved Prop 105, the Voter Protection Act. But some state lawmakers now want to do away with the act to help balance the budget. Here to talk about it is the assistant leader of the house Democrats, Representative Krysten Sinema of Phoenix, and Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Thank you both for joining us tonight on "Horizon."
Ted Simons: Why not ask voters to reconsider the Voter Protection Act?
Krysten Sinema: Voters were very specific when they passed the act by a wide margin. The legislature had repeatedly overturned the will of the voters. They were very angry. Every time they would pass something, the legislature would ignore it. So the act sets some clear standards and makes spending priorities for us to follow. A perfect example is Prop 301, passed by the voters in 2000. The legislature wasn't investing in education. The voters said, look, you have to spend money on education. They passed a law and mandated the money to spend it for that. The voters aren't going to want to change that.
Ted Simons: Why should we ask them again?
John Kavanagh: Times change, conditions change.I have to take issue with Representative Sinema, there's nothing wrong with going back to 4 the voters and saying, circumstances have changed and we want you to reevaluate this. Would you apply that also to the Protect Marriage amendment if some new group tried to overturn the marriage between a man and a woman, would you oppose that measure to go back to the ballot, because voters have already spoken about it.
Krysten Sinema: Actually I did tell them this year not to go back to the ballot.
John Kavanagh: Then I take back any suggestions that you're inconsistent.
Ted Simons: The idea that is when voters first voted this through, if they knew an economic crisis was going to hit the country and state, maybe they would allow for a relaxation. Is that not valid?
Krysten Sinema: I think there's some question whether whether or not the voters are interested in us asking them to solve this problem. Most voters believe the legislature has created this problem and that we have a constitutional duty amongst ourselves to solve the problem. The truth is we know there's not enough money to pay for everything we have an obligation to pay for. We, the legislature, have a duty to solve the problem, not to ask the voters to fix it for us.
John Kavanagh: Before I go down this road, let me contradict one thing Representative Sinema said. She said it was overwhelmingly passed. It was passed by 52% of the voters. Add to that the fact that in most elections only about 40% of the people even go to the polls. 52% of 40%, we're talking about a little over 20% of the voters putting these handcuffs on the legislature that don't let us revisit these measures in dire times and tweak them.
Ted Simons: You mentioned handcuffs on the legislature, yet the legislature knew these moneys were there and protected, can't touch them, got to work around them. Yet the legislature is still in the problem they are facing right now. Why should voters come in and, according to some, bail out lawmakers when they should have handled it themselves?
John Kavanagh: Many reasons. Part of the problem is the Prop 105 protections. One of the biggest money items under Prop 105 is the Prop 204, the expansion of access. The voters were deceived by that proposition. I have the wording here. If we didn't have to expand coverage to people, up to 100% of poverty, we would save over $400 million. This is what it said, A yes vote will provide funding for the Arizona initiative, increasing health care coverage availability at the federal poverty level and funding previously authorized to health and nutrition preventative programs, using the tobacco legislation settlement money. The larger bill said if the tobacco settlement doesn't cover it, it's the appropriations. The tobacco settlement only covers about a quarter of the expense. The voters were duped. Why can't we go back and say, 6 this expenditure is not what you thought.
Krysten Sinema: Well, I may not agree with everything that the voters do in Arizona, but I would never presume to say they didn't know what they were voting for or they weren't smart enough to figure it out. Whether or not I agreed with it, they knew what they were doing and far be it from me to imply that they didn't. One of the concerns we have around Prop 204, we hear a lot of folks saying we shouldn't have to fund this health care initiative. The voters actually passed this not once, but twice. They passed it in 1996 and again in the year 2000. They have made their voices very clear. They want us to fund health care for low-income and working families.
John Kavanagh: The measure says only tobacco lawsuit money will be used to pay for this benefit. Hidden in the text, not told to the voters, what the tobacco settlement doesn't cover the general fund must. They didn't have the information. This is clear evidence that they were duped and they should be allowed to revisit it with all the facts, especially in these times. Dedicating this much money to that is taking away from other priorities.
Ted Simons: Do you want voters to do away with the act? Do you want a three-year suspension? How much should they change it?
John Kavanagh: The first issue is to free up money that's currently protected to help us through this bad fiscal situation. The second issue is long-term reform so some of the problems that occurred in the past won't occur again. We can really address both.
Ted Simons: That's fine. My question still stands. Completely axed or relaxed for a certain period of time, suspended?
John Kavanagh: I want both. I think we need access to temporary suspension of some money there to help us bridge this gap. Then I think we have to give the legislature a little more power to tweak these things when problems come up. The way it stands, once the voters pass this we can only change with it a 3/4 vote, which basically lets the tail wag the dog of the legislature. The purpose of the act is overly vague, and an election takes two years.
Ted Simons: There are a lot of things that need a 3/4 vote in the legislature. Before we get to that, what about a three-year suspension?
Krysten Sinema: I think it's important to know that the majority of initiatives passed have been initiatives where the voters said, we want to spend money on education or early childhood or we want to spend money on health care. And then the voters actually identified a new funding source to pay for those things. This isn't our money. This is taxpayer dollars that don't belong to the legislature. So we're saying we want to take 8 that money and use it for other things. I don't think that's fair and the voters will not accept it.
John Kavanagh: That is not what we're asking. A bill that I propose would allow us to take only 50% of the fund each year for three years, and we would have to use the money for the same purpose that the voters approved. So you have over $300 million in the early childhood fund. First Things First, which was supposed to be used for early childhood development issues. We would like that sitting, because they are trying to build an endowment, we could definitely use that money to pay for early childhood health care and education and other issues. The same purpose, we're not switching it to something different.
Krysten Sinema: I think that's a really interesting proposition. For instance, Prop 301, the one that says we will have more money for teachers, and if we're going to take the money and promise them the same things, why bother taking it? We should leave it where it is, where the voters asked it for to go and where the voters intended it to go.
John Kavanagh: You don't mind us taking First Things First and using it for preschool education and health care?
Krysten Sinema: If the voters approved those dollars and said, I want it used for those things, it's already being used for those things. First Things First has disbursed a large number of funds already. Why would we take money from one area and say we're going give it 9 to the same area if it's going to that area already?
John Kavanagh: First Things First has a massive account of over $360 million. They have been criticized for spending it on virtually nothing, handbooks on parenting. They have done a few minor things. $360 million we could use for the same purpose that could help us avoid deeper cuts in other programs or bigger tax increases.
Ted Simons: Let me go back to the idea of relaxing and revamping voter protection. How about the idea, from now on, the VPA doesn't stand, from everything in the past, knowing what the voters said, it's not messed with.
John Kavanagh: Anything passed in the past, maybe voters should be allowed to revisit these things. Another possibility could be for those things in the past that don't have dedicated funding sources, maybe it goes back to the voters and they have to identify a funding source.
Ted Simons: My question would be, it seems right now there are two choices. I know there are more, but the two seem obvious. Decimate education and social services, education for children, whatever, or go back and maybe revisit some of these things where the money lays around.
Krysten Sinema: Those are false choices.
Ted Simons: If it helps to not decimate the other areas so much, is it not wise to go back and reconsider.
Krysten Sinema: It may be, but that's not the situation. 10 The money we have in these protected funds covers three major things. K-12 education, health care, and early childhood programs. If we take those dollars away and say we're going to spend them on the same things, something's not right there. Or as the case may be, the legislature may intend to take them away and spend them on other things, and that is not fair to the voters.
Ted Simons: Last question to you: Is that fair, if the money is taken from where voters want it to go and spent somewhere else?
John Kavanagh: The bill I have says it has to be spent for similar purposes. We only have control of 1/3 of the general fund. These initiatives, referendums were meant for policy issues, smoking in restaurants, marriage of a man and woman. They weren't meant for complicated fiscal issues where you have to have deep background and deep research. You have elected representatives who have time to delve into these issues. The use of these initiatives can have disastrous effects and we see that right now.
Krysten Sinema: Voters have made it clear they don't trust the legislature, for good reason. They have not been spending in the areas they care about. The voters are not going to all of a sudden trust the legislature with their precious dollars.
Ted Simons: Thank you both, great discussion, thanks for being here.