Monday, May 12, 2003

It's Moo-ey That Matters

I'm back to the regular stuff after last week's effort at channeling my "Inner Shecky."

Here's a brief guide to what you can get in the newspaper and what you can't. I get to refer to autistic kids and juvenile probation officers getting screwed or shafted. No problem with offensive language there. However, I can't mention the name and newspaper of the reporter who uncovered the Open Space Reserve Program, Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic. If you want to read her article that disclosed this dubious little piece of pork-on-the-hoof, it's here.

The Budget Battle

East Valley Tribune, May 11, 2003

The GOP legislative leadership recently announced their revised budget plan, and once again premature babies, kids, and working parents got screwed. Families with autistic kids still get whacked, and juvenile probation officers would have already-outrageous caseloads increase even more.

We got the usual Republican rigmarole about tough times and tough choices, but once again, the Legislature showed its rather unique set of priorities. Health care and education might seem important to some people, but to GOP legislators, it’s far more important to help hobby ranchers.

What really counts with these guys is cows, not kids.

The latest proof is the Open Space Reserve Program. It’s alt-fuels for cows; call it “alt-fools.” It’s yet more evidence that when Arizona Republicans talk environmental, it’s just cover for giving their buddies public money.

Under this sweetheart deal, the Legislature grabbed 10 percent of the funds to preserve state trust lands voters approved in the Growing Smarter initiative. The money goes to ranchers required to reduce the cattle they graze on leased federal land.

This little boondoggle has several obvious conceptual problems. First, the 1998 initiative got sold to voters as a way to protect state trust land from development. Nobody ever mentioned cash grants to ranchers or preserving federal land. Even if the Legislature’s bait-and-switch is somehow legal (it probably violates the Voter Protection Act), it still stinks.

Second, the only ranchers eligible are those whose leased land is in such bad shape that the feds required herd reductions. If a rancher wants to set an example or voluntarily retire land from grazing, that doesn’t count. The program rewards -- with cash on the barrelhead -- bad land management.

Third, Arizona doesn’t have any program to reduce the number of cattle on state trust land. That’s way too forward-thinking for a hide-bound Legislature that still treats ACGA (the Arizona Cattle Growers Association) as more important than ASU. So paying ranchers this way does nothing for state trust land.

Arizona is groaning under the cost of uncompensated and unfulfilled federal responsibilities. Our hospitals and municipalities are bearing huge costs from the federal government shirking its obligations along the border. So what does the Arizona Legislature do about that? Use state tax money to help preserve federal land. That’ll sure show ‘em in Washington.

But the real outrage lies in the list of recipients of this money. Several dazzlingly wealthy hobby ranchers got state checks to help “preserve” their vacation spreads. Shopping center developers and cosmetics manufacturers pocketed grants of $50,000 or more. Auto dealer Hal Earnhardt corralled some $90,000 for his ranch -- and friends, that ain’t no bull!

Wait, there’s more! GOP House Speaker Jake Flake’s cousin also got $90,000. Was Speaker Flake embarrassed about a relative going on the ranching dole? “Boy, I’d be surprised if it was only one cousin,” Flake said. I guess that means he wasn’t embarrassed.

Aren’t you glad our tax dollars are helping the Earnhardt family preserve their way of (vacation) life? And no wonder Rep. Jeff Flake wants to cut federal spending. His family gets state pork.

Worse, the Growing Smarter money comes from the General Fund, to protect the education trust fund. If we weren’t paying these “ranchers,” that money would stay in the Permanent Fund and be available for school funding. We’re laying off teachers so we can pay hobby ranchers.

Ranching -- it’s how real Americans enjoy guilt-free welfare!

The Legislature could fix this outrage easily -- by ending it. Instead, they’ll mutter about expectations and stewardship, and do little. If only they would apply the same "creativity" they brought to shafting autistic kids.

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