If your state's economy was built on growth to begin with, fueled primarily by the housing market, you're in a world of hurt today. That's the situation in Arizona, a state that, since WWII, has seen its population double every decade. Once a squarely Democratic state following its admittance to the Union in 1912, the worm started to turn in the early 1950s, as illustrated by the election of Barry Goldwater to the Phoenix City Council and the entrance and eventual domination of banks, developers, and speculators in state and local politics.
By the 1960s iconoclast Ed Abbey was already calling the out-of-control growth machine that ran Phoenix a disease that would eventually consume itself. Scanning the city's expanding built horizon, he wrote in Desert Solitaire, "Growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness." Imagine what he would say today.
But few were listening to Abbey; and the booster media, led by pro-growth mouthpieces like Arizona Republic publisher Eugene Pulliam (Dan Quayle's grandfather), celebrated every new barrier that Arizona broke through in bold headlines: Phoenix Now 10th Largest City! Arizona Reaches 2 Million! Few questioned the mantra that growth is always good.
Aw, Mongo Like Growth
And so housing -- easy, affordable housing in the manner of assembly-line Levittowns -- became one of the state's largest industries. The area pioneered "active retirement" in developments like Del Webb's Sun City, which opened its doors on New Years Day 1960 and couldn't handle the rush of buyers from Michigan and elsewhere hoping to escape their bleak winters. The state and its leaders, centered in the very male, very white Phoenix 40, never looked back: Build, build, build! And to help facilitate that growth, let's pass a slew of corporate-friendly policies and incentives designed to attract even more people and businesses because, you know, we aren't growing fast enough! Naturally, to get the water we need but don't have, we'll get the hated federal government to build dams and canals.
Speed bumps along the highway to this desert utopia, such as the S&L crisis of the 1980s, were quickly shuffled under the political rug, even though this was the land of Charlie Keating and his infamous "Five," and before long Arizona "rebounded" -- without learning a thing from the orgy of previous decades. Once again, the most heeded experts cited by universities, the media, think tanks, and city governments were housing analysts and economists. Housing permits are up 24% over last year! New home sales have doubled from a decade ago! Arizona's economy red hot! Phoenix is the 2nd fastest growing city in America! Rarely did the media make as much noise about Arizona's education rankings, its healthcare statistics, crime rates, or its air quality. Environmentalists bemoaned the "acre an hour" rape of the desert, not to mention the unsustainable nature of the economy's infrastructure, but their voices were muffled by the popping of Gilded Age champaign corks. The planner Ian McHarg may have been thinking of my state when he wrote in his 1969 masterpiece Design with Nature:
"We have but one explicit model of the world and that is built upon economics... Money is our measure, convenience is its cohort, the short term is its span, and the devil may take the hindmost is the morality."
Shit, Meet Fan
The happy carnival ride continued through the mid-2000s, and in fact 2005 and 2006 were banner years. As much as any region of the country during those heady days, this place was on steroids: housing prices doubled (or more) almost overnight, and it seemed everyone and their brother was buying and flipping homes. Historic bungalows in our neighborhood, which sold for $150,000 in the mid 1990s, were going for $500,000 or more a decade later -- and people were lined up to out-bid one another! Late-night TV was full of home hawkers who wore gold chains and drove Rolls Royces, and every weekend in Phoenix or Scottsdale you could attend a huge convention marketing another piece of the Ponzi.
The developer-owned Republican legislature took the money and stoked the dream, along with many city councils and chambers of commerce. Sitting in jail, Charlie Keating looked like a piker compared to the casino economy unfolding around us. With the skids greased by government, banks, the construction industry, realtors, and mortgage companies encouraged young couples earning $30,000 between the two of them to buy that new $300,000, 5-bedroom, 4-bath tract home in Del Vista Heights -- very little down, 0% interest the first year. The fellatio artists who comprised the corporate media celebrated that success story, rarely digging beneath the veneer. But then reality turned on its very big fan and shit started hitting it in 2007. That 0% ballooned to 12%, home values plummeted, jobs disappeared ... and you know the rest of the story. There were nearly 100,000 homes foreclosed on last year in the Phoenix area, and likely many times that number under water. Middle class houses in the West Valley that sold for $175,000 a few years ago are now listed for $30,000. And sitting empty. The state has historically experienced an economy built on booms and busts, whether it's mining, ranching, or lumbering -- leaving ghost towns in its exploitative wake -- and today Arizona is a poster child for the most recent bust.
Combine this housing shit storm with the corporate tax cuts that the oh-so-wise legislature started to enact a decade ago, and the result is an economy in free fall. The current fiscal year deficit is $3.2 billion (pdf), which amounts to 47% of 2011 revenues, and the forecast for 2012, Arizona's Centennial year, is no rosier. To help itself out of this economic cesspool, the state even sold its Capitol, legislative chambers, and other facilities to slum lords, and is leasing the space back. One wonders what Arizona will celebrate in 2012.
Dante Would Recognize This Circle
This downward spiral has resulted in a disastrous vicious cycle: Since the largest part of the state budget is for education and healthcare, those important niches have absorbed most of the cuts. Universities and community colleges are surviving on fumes; after sustaining $400 million in cuts since 2008, another $170 million in higher ed cuts this year will lead to more tuition spikes, meaning that soon only the "haves" will be sitting in the classrooms. Public schools have been hammered, to the point Arizona is ranked 49th or 50th in every significant education indicator. For example, Arizona's graduation rate is 59%, second from the bottom, and of that embarrassing total only half are college-ready. Just consider the social and economic tsunami about to engulf us. So what is our leaders' response to this educational crisis? Ethnic studies bans, that'll fix things!
The state's AHCCCS system, a Medicaid program that was once a model for the country, has become a national joke thanks to the organ transplant controversy; and that dismal story was followed this week by news that Arizona is ranked 49th in child healthcare. On top of that, state parks are being closed or turned over to local municipalities; libraries and museums are being shuttered; and many social services, such as mental health, will have to be absorbed by already-struggling nonprofit organizations.
Of course Arizona's other major industry, tourism, a billion-dollar juggernaut that most communities absolutely depend on, took a hard punch to the gut last year after SB 1070 was signed into law. Visitors stayed away in droves, while dozens of major conferences and conventions were cancelled. And even though most boycotts have been called off, socially conscious travelers still refuse to come here, and the immediate economic damage caused by the boycotts -- $90 million in Phoenix alone -- will not be recovered.
The Charge of the Dim Brigade
Onto this economic landscape rides the 50th Arizona legislature, led by Governor Jan Brewer and de facto Governor Russell Pearce, President of the Senate and, happily, subject of two recall drives. Attend a dozen meetings about the state's future and you'll hear pretty much the same thing at all of them: If Arizona is to dig itself out of this financial hell hole it must invest in education, building a knowledgeable citizenry to move us ahead; it must create a healthy quality of life that will attract high-value employers, not only the Big Boxes that blanket the landscape and pay shit wages; it must preserve and enhance the unique natural and cultural assets that attract millions of tourists; and it must address the state's pariah image unless it wants to become the dustbin of the nation. So let's see how they're doing after the first few weeks of the 2011 legislative session; let's see how they're tackling the very real challenges that face Arizonans. Here are a few bills that were introduced in the first days:
• SCR 1016 proposes a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution so any increase in the federal debt will require approval from a majority of states. Sponsored by Senator Sylvia Allen, who believes the earth is 6,000 years old (video), the bill was even too radical for the John Birch Society, which testified against it. The resolution was passed out of the Senate committee yesterday even though everybody knows it's an empty symbolic gesture that's going nowhere.
• HB 2077 requires all federal agencies to register with the sheriff whenever the Feds enter one of Arizona's counties. The bill has been referred to as the "Joe Arpaio Protection Act," so our Blowhard in Chief will know which federal agencies are in town investigating him.
• SB 1433 creates a committee that could nullify a federal regulation that they deem outside the jurisdiction of the federal government. In other words, if Arizona doesn't like the Feds' immigration policies (or abortion, or environmental protection, or Affirmative Action, or OSHA, or ...), we'll ignore them and create our own. Again, the bill is constitutionally DOA, but it's a healthy dish of red meat for the wingnut base. As Lawrence O'Donnell said tonight describing the bill, "We already have committees set up to do that: they're called courts."
• HB 2544 re-introduces the Birther Bill, which passed the House last year but was narrowly defeated in the Senate. With a new gaggle of crazy in the Senate this year, it's bound to pass. Before Arizona will place a candidate's name on the the ballot for President and VP, the candidates must produce an original long-form birth certificate that specifies the date and place of birth, the hospital, the name of the attending physician, and signatures from witnesses.
• SB 1201 allows people to carry firearms into government-run facilities and public events. The law would apply to the State Capitol, legislative chambers, state parks, university campuses, and city buses. While a recent survey shows even Arizonans support sensible gun laws, the legislature is running in the opposite direction, even proposing legislation that waters down Shannon's Law.
• HB 2167 designates synthetic marijuana a dangerous drug. I guess users were getting sick from eating too many synthetic Cheetos.
• HB 2416 requires abortion providers to offer patients an ultrasound image one hour before the operation, where the "heartbeat of the unborn child is audible." The image must also "portray the presence of external members and internal organs" as well as the "auscultation of fetal heart tone." One of the bill's sponsors, Linda Gray, blamed the shootings in Tucson on Roe v Wade.
• HB 2561 challenges the birthright clause of the 14th Amendment. Russell Pearce has been rhapsodizing about this for years and he used to be a lonely, wacky voice in the wilderness. Today he's leading a parade of lunatics who will likely pass this bill.
• SB 1236 appropriates funding so the state can offer "In God We Trust" license plates. Because that's been our problem all along, god doesn't like our cars.
• SB 1222 requires landlords to verify the citizenship status of tenants. Expect a crap-load of similar bills, such as Senator Pearce's legislation (pdf) requiring teachers to verify the citizenship of students, and other bills that require city and state employees to do likewise before providing service.
"This Is Absurd," Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix)
That list took about an hour to compile from the state's legislative website. I'm sure if I spent more time there -- not a pleasant thought on a Friday night -- I'd find piles of wonderful bills that are designed to fix Arizona's ailing economy, rebuild its decimated education system, shore up AHCCCS and other gutted healthcare programs, and repair the state's lame-ass image. That's what we elected them to do, and they appear to be hard at working doing just that. Or something.
Previous Governor Janet Napolitano was no flaming liberal, but she could keep the stupid in check with her veto pen. Two previous versions of SB 1070, for example, never made it passed her desk. Now, however, with Brewer and Pearce leading the charge, expect a deluge of immigration bills, citizenship challenges, abortion restrictions, more anti-GLBT laws, additional corporate tax breaks, and broader ethnic studies bans. A bill that requires all citizens to own a gun is in the works, another assault on Affirmative Action is planned, we'll see constant yammering about states' rights (including a repeal of "Obamacare"), and expect further cuts to education and healthcare, at the same time they increase funding significantly for private prisons.
Although Brewer, Pearce, and their hateful minions know their Sagebrush Rebellion is doomed in the courts, although Brewer is "very cognizant" Arizona will spend millions of dollars and countless hours fighting this losing battle with the Feds, as the very real problems in her state grow worse, the Governor said she is willing to take on this meaningless campaign. Deck chair to the right, please.
Last year in the wake of the negative publicity and tourism downtick caused by the "papers please" bill, Governor Brewer appointed a task force to re-brand the state's image. We heard lots of jokes like "Arizona - It's a Dry Hate," but one actual suggestion, I shit you not, was "Arizona - Experience the Freedom." Unless you happen to be brown. But as society and commonsense crumble around us, "Deck Chairs" needs to appear in the new slogan somewhere.