Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Great One-Sided Immigration Debate

Here's this week's column. I was paired up, under a "The Immigration Debate" header, with a column from Cong. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), entitled "Complex issue requires leaders like Kyl, McCain." You can feel the yawn. My suggested headline for my piece was "I'm Happy to Watch You and Him Fight," which I think captures it better than what actually ran (not being big on footwear jokes), but it didn't match the "other" side of the headline pairing. For the entire "Lack of Perspective" section, the Tribune didn't find anybody who actually opposed the bill for their roundup. We now know where the libertarians are shaking out on this one!

East Valley Tribune, May 27, 2007

Notice how Sen. Jon Kyl says one thing to get elected, but once in office, does something else -- and justifies his flip-flop by saying, well, it could have been worse?

In his first Senate election, he slammed his opponent (me -- like you didn’t remember) for daring to consider means-testing Social Security. Then once in office, he did nothing when George W. Bush wanted to impose means-testing-on-steroids.

This past fall, he slammed opponent Jim Pederson for proposing immigration reform that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. Kyl used much of his $15 million in TV ads to shout that nobody should support immigration reform that provided for amnesty for 12 million lawbreakers.

However, "nobody" meant "nobody until Kyl himself six months later," when he negotiated and co-sponsored a bill that provides a path to citizenship for those 12 million. Oh, there are lots of cumbersome and pointless payments, trips, and paperwork, but the result’s a path to citizenship for those currently here illegally that so outraged Candidate Kyl are in the legislation sponsored by his evil twin, Incumbent Kyl.

This is probably a good idea, but it’s one that he vigorously campaigned against to get reelected, only to switch gears after the election. And, he claims, people who voted for Candidate Kyl’s stand should be grateful to Incumbent Kyl, because if he hadn’t flip-flopped, the legislation, which includes a path to citizenship for those 12 million illegals, would have included a path to citizenship for those 12 million illegals. Got that?

Meanwhile, we’re discovering that almost anybody can discuss immigration policy with our senior senator, John McCain, R-National Media; all it takes is working knowledge of four-letter words. McCain’s never met a problem that he thinks can’t be solved by using military force, so he’s "F-bombing" anyone who disagrees with his immigration plan, including his colleague, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

But you don’t need me if you really want over-the-top attacks on our state’s U.S. Senators. You can get your fill of anti-Kyl-and-McCain rhetoric from an unlikely source, state GOP party chair Randy Pullen. As blogger Ted Prezelski noted, last month Pullen issued a press release attacking Democrats for not getting behind President Bush’s proposals for immigration and border control. This month, he’s attacking President Bush’s proposals for immigration and border control, negotiated by this state’s two GOP senators, in press releases and on cable TV.

Note to talk-show bookers: Why bother having a Democrat attack Republicans on TV when you can get a Republican to do it?

Actually, you might have to get a Republican to do the attacking; Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach on what legislation actually emerges, and meantime, we’re happy to hold GOP coats while they fight each other. Most Democrats sense that no immigration bill could be as big a fiasco as the Iraq war, so we’ll face our disasters one at a time, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of idle pundit chatter about what the immigration bill means for the 2008 presidential race. One common thought is that McCain will benefit if the immigration bill passes, and even if it loses, he’ll gain from having shown "leadership."

Pundits and people both love politicians who take brave stands against public opinion -- but only when they agree with that brave stand. If a politician ignores the polls to take a position with which they disagree, like by opposing the Iraq invasion in 2002, the politician is a kook (e.g., Al Gore, Howard Dean). So today you have the wonderfully ironic sight of pundits who support aggressive U.S. foreign policy on the grounds that we’ll promote democracy and democracies don’t start wars simultaneously saluting the "bravery" of politicians who support our doomed Iraq war despite large public majorities wanting a timetable for withdrawal. Democracy is great if the majority agrees with me.

Hey, don’t take my word for it, ask Randy Pullen, who believes that everybody needs to support President Bush -- except when Randy doesn’t agree with him.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Somebody, Please, Teach Jim Weiers How To Count

We're in the middle of the budget doldrums here in AZ; everybody could go home if the House just got to vote on the Senate budget, but the GOP House leadership wants to keep whipping their ideological hobbyhorses in hopes that maybe THIS time, the sawdust really will transform into horse flesh. We'd all be safer and happier if the legislators just went home because while they're sitting around waiting for the budget to appear again, those idle hands have increased opportunities for performing the devil's work. It's a supply-and-demand kind of thing.

This YouTube parody is worth 60 seconds of your time.

East Valley Tribune, May 20, 2007

The Speaker of the state House of Representatives absolutely needs only one skill: the ability to count to 31. So Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, really shouldn't have confirmed his lack of arithmetic skills last week.
The House GOP leadership rolled out their Republicans-only budget for a vote. Usually in a legislative body, leadership won't call a vote unless they know the result. Otherwise, they tell everybody in advance that the vote is uncertain for one of two possible reasons: the issue is purely a matter of individual legislators' consciences, or really doesn't matter.

But with big issues like the budget, the majority calls the vote only with a solid idea of the result. That's the whole point of having a whip organization and those leadership posts. Sometimes you proceed when you're a vote or two shy, hoping that momentum will bring a recalcitrant representative along. But good leaders never just roll the dice -- especially for the last big votes of the session.

Both lobbyists and legislators figured Weiers called the vote because he had the 31. "I assumed they were going to the floor because they had the votes," said Rep. Jennifer Burns, R-Tucson, one of the GOP moderate opposing the budget for failing to fund child care, health care, and Child Protective Services.

But doing his homework is apparently not Weiers's style. "You never know what's going to come up there," he said after six Republicans (3 from each end of the GOP ideological spectrum) joined all Democrats in defeating the leadership budget, 27-31. Maybe Weiers never knows, but most competent legislative leaders wouldn't be caught on the wrong side of a vote they called.
While Weiers has announced that the House GOP leadership will try again this week, all he did was confirm the opposition's strength. Meanwhile, in the Senate, as unlikely a political odd couple as you'll ever find, GOP leader Thayer Verschoor of Gilbert and Democratic leader Marsha Arzberger of Willcox, worked together on a bipartisan budget supported by strong majorities in both parties, fending off amendments by legislators of both parties to get the package approved.

That bipartisan cooperation contrasts with the Weiers approach in the House, where only Republican were allowed to participate in budget deliberations -- until earlier this month, when two Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, Pete Rios, D-Hayden and Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, voted for the budget in committee. Rios and Lopez claimed that they supported the bill because of their amendment to give state employees a bigger pay raise. However, the GOP offset the pay hike by cutting employee benefits by more. Thus, Rios and Lopez cut a deal to get less for state employees. With such negotiating savvy, I hope I can buy my next car from them.

With two possible Democratic votes, Weiers thought he might squeak by, but Rios and Lopez realized just how bad the deal was, and when the floor vote came, stood with all other House Democrats to vote no. Somehow, Democratic leader Phil Lopes of Tucson kept his caucus together, something Weiers couldn't do, proving that you can make fun of, but shouldn't underestimate, anyone who can tie a bow tie.

The Senate budget would pass the House in a flash, should Weiers allow it to reach the floor for a vote, and everybody could go home. But Weiers wants to keep trying, despite his failure last week. It's not clear there's a substantive reason at stake here; the difference between the Senate and House budgets is all of 0.03 percent. Weiers must want to try yet again to score political points off Gov. Napolitano, because it's not like there's an actual principle at stake here.

So here's your math question for the week: Which budget would you support: the bipartisan Senate plan, which Gov. Napolitano already has said she'd sign, or a budget pushed by somebody who can't count to 31? No need to show your work on this problem.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Private Property Rights" Means I Don't Have To Fulfill My Agreements

I said I loved writing about homeowner associations, people are so wonderfully dispassionate and analytical. Who knew that real property law could push so many buttons? It's like when the plot in Body Heat turned on [a mistaken interpretation of] the rule against perpetuities.

Next time you meet a libertarian, ask him (it's almost always a him) how that whole private-contracts-eliminating-the-need-for-government thing worked out in their friendly neighborhood HOA. My suggested headline was "Living in a Libertarian Paradise" but I got the bigger slot on the op-ed page so I needed a bigger headline.

SB 1330 passed the legislature last week, and goes to the governor. HOA managers (and people who actually do pay their assessments) are lobbying her to veto it, but this looks like a huge political loser, where the people who care really, really care a lot, despite being wrong on the merits, and the general public interest couldn't care less. But at least this debate lays bare what most people mean by "private property rights" is (1) I get to do what I want with my property and (2) you also get to do what I want (and nothing more) with your property.

East Valley Tribune, May 13, 2007

Nothing gets Tribune readers going like homeowner associations. A fairly sterile debate about lien priorities and homestead exemptions gets people all riled up.

It’s not as if Senate Bill 1330 will have much practical effect. Even if the statute changes, HOAs will make future buyers waive the exemption. And nobody seems concerned about the issue raised by the Twin Rivers case, whether HOAs can limit political speech; no, in Arizona, we only care whether HOAs can recover assessments and fines on sale of a property. It’s not the principle of the thing, it’s the money.

It’s also amazing that people who detest HOAs choose to live in communities with associations. My family has lived in three different houses in Arizona; one was a rental and we’ve owned two. None had a HOA. We wanted a short commute and a neighborhood that had actual trees instead of just being named after trees. There’s also the side benefit of not raising our children to think that in America, your neighbors must approve your choice of paint color for your house.

Our choice, however, is apparently merely a market niche, and the planned community lifestyle predominates here. But it’s not mandatory to live the HOA life, and isn’t it more than a touch ironic to watch all these libertarians screaming for government intervention to protect them from their freely-made economic decisions? Suddenly, people who want to leave health care entirely to the tender mercies of the market sing a radically different tune regarding HOA fines and assessments.

But the most amazing thing is how HOAs put the lie to two of the American public’s most cherished myths -- of the pointless inefficiency of government and of the great wisdom, insight, and goodness of the American people.

People complain that politicians are too partisan, that they refuse to put aside their ideology and party labels, and that if you just empowered some ordinary Americans, they’d just do what they thought was right and solve the nation’s problems. People also complain that government is nothing but rules and bureaucracy that get in the way of actually accomplishing things.

HOAs suffer from neither problem; they’re not partisan or ideological, and they don’t suffer from a surfeit of laws, rules, and bureaucracy. That was supposed to be a good thing. It’s the modern version of the old story of the local yeoman farmers electing one of their number to govern them with humility and homespun wisdom, doing what he (always a he) thinks is right. Who needs lots of rules and hearing requirements and bureaucracy, when you can trust your neighbor to do what he or she thinks is right?

But that’s not how it works in practice, is it? The problem with empowering individuals is that many handle that power about as wisely as, well, they drive. That’s the problem, folks -- you have to design a system that understands that power won’t be given to some idealized exemplar of American virtue, but to the dope driving the car in front of you.

I especially love the folks claiming that the solution to gun violence is for everybody to carry a weapon. You don’t trust your neighbors to impose a $100 fine or to interpret pool use rules fairly -- but trust them to make split-second life-and-death decisions? How nuts is that?

Face it, people: At least some of government’s inefficiency and lack of responsiveness comes from requirements like due process, open meetings, public records, judicial review, rulemaking, nondiscrimination, and public bidding, all of which limit individual initiative and creativity in the name of oversight and fairness. Bureaucracy is designed so that everybody gets treated the same, which you hate when you’re not being treated special -- but if you give people unfettered power to decide things as they think best, you shouldn’t be surprised if they decide, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, that you stink and should suffer accordingly.

HOAs are libertarianism in practice -- private contracts, no government meddling, living with the consequences of your choices. If you don’t like the results, then maybe you should rethink your ideology.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Libertarians Cry Out For Government Action!

I'm going to have to write about homeowner associations again; it's amazing the vehemence that it brings out in people, especially considering how in the 1990's these private institutions were going to end municipal government as we knew it, that local government was a dinosaur that soon would be extinct as the more fleet-footed, mammalian HOAs took over the governance ecosystem. Yes, we decided to empower private individuals to control their own community's destiny--and who could have predicted that the people getting that power would use it as well as, say, they can drive cars? I think next week's column is how we gave the power to homeowners to control their neighborhoods, and look how that's turned out; now we're going to have the very same people carry guns and we're going to be safer? Can't wait for that.

My suggested title was "HOAs: Threat or Menace?" but the editor didn't get that joke. And for those of you who know my father-in-law, you know that he's a man who really does need no introduction.

East Valley Tribune, May 6, 2007

Extracting the U.S. from Iraq is child’s play compared to a political debate raging in my world. On one side are my editorial overlords at the Tribune, scourge of homeowner associations everywhere. On the other side is a HOA finance committee member who happens to be my father-in-law. It’s not hard to guess where I come out.

Today’s issue involves whether HOA assessments should be limited by the homestead exemption. HOAs get their powers from recorded declarations, the all-powerful Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions incorporated into every deed to property in the subdivision, and which every purchaser is deemed to accept. Nobody has to buy property in an association, but if you do, you’ve agreed to be subject to the HOA. It’s a private arrangement, it's more efficient, government shouldn’t interfere -- all that libertarian right-to-contract stuff.

In 1996, the Arizona Legislature attempted to rein in HOAs by, among other changes, capping annual assessment increases -- but also confirmed that association liens weren’t subject to the homestead exemption, which prohibits the forced sale of a residence valued under $150,000. People can waive the homestead exemption, and many CC&Rs provided for such a waiver; the statute confirmed such waivers’ validity.

Subsequent legislatures restricted HOA lien foreclosures to assessments (plus collection charges and expenses) only; other liens couldn’t be foreclosed and only could get collected when the property got sold. But -- contrary to Tribune senior opinion writer Le Templar’s brief summary in last week’s column -- the series of amendments over the past decade makes clear that the original 1996 amendment wasn’t a broadening of HOA power, but rather just confirming what existed at the time, and the validity of those CC&Rs that people accepted when they purchased.

It’s the latest attempt to curb HOAs where Templar gets crosswise with my father-in-law. Templar believes that HOAs shouldn’t be able to enforce their liens, whether for assessments or otherwise, despite the homestead exemption; HOA liens shouldn’t be treated like taxes or mortgages, but rather like other non-favored creditors, and debtors shouldn’t have to give up their homes to pay delinquent assessments or fines. Templar supports SB1330, which would not just bar foreclosures, but also make any HOA lien unenforceable unless the homeowner’s equity exceeded $150,000 -- even at the sale of the property.

My father-in-law, however, argues that preventing HOAs from collecting on liens unless equity exceeds the homestead exemption shifts the burden for operating the association to those owners who pay their assessments on time. He sees the work the HOA does, paid for by the majority of owners, as creating property value -- value in which the non-payers want to share but not pay, even though they agreed to do it. To prevent what Templar sees as abuse would allow deadbeats to avoid their obligations -- and make those playing by the rules pay for their share and the deadbeats’ too.

Those of you without a relative in HOA leadership may come out differently on this issue, but what’s most interesting is that HOAs were once seen as the wave of the future; Edge City, Joel Garreau’s 1991 book, saw privatized organizations like HOAs inexorably taking over from strapped and increasingly incapable municipalities. But now we see so-called conservatives in Arizona using old-fashioned government to limit HOA powers -- and forcing HOAs to act more like governments, with open meeting and free speech requirements.

The HOA world now awaits the decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court, expected later this year, in the Twin Rivers case. An appellate court held that the state constitution’s free speech protections apply to HOAs, which have "a constitutional obligation not to abridge the individual exercise of such freedoms."

In Twin Rivers, the state ACLU chapter sued to overturn the HOA’s restrictions on political signs. In Arizona, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (R-Gilbert) is leading this latest charge to restrict HOAs. Fast Eddie and the ACLU, together at last, united by shared distrust of homeowner associations. Is this a great country, or what?
Letters, They Get Letters

Dueling letters to the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. First, the serve:

Jews should be at forefront of life issues
(April 13, 2007)


I am fascinated by the article regarding the recipient of Planned Parenthood's highest honor ("Planned Parenthood lauds Sam Coppersmith," Jewish News, March 30).

Family planning needn't involve the termination of life. There are numerous ways to plan one's family that don't involve killing a growing human fetus. Jews, of all people, should be in the forefront of life issues and the protection of both the innocent unborn and life at the opposite end of the spectrum. As a people, we have suffered at the hands of genocidal maniacs who felt that our lives were worthless and expendable.

Tevye, in "Fiddler on the Roof," said it very well: "To Life! L'Chaim!"

Karen Fischer

And the return:

Real Judaism vs. Broadway Judaism

(May 4, 2007)


If my mother had read the letter to the editor "Jews should be at forefront of life issues" (Jewish News, April 13), she'd have gone into full Jewish mother outrage that her kvelling over my Peggy Goldwater Award from Planned Parenthood was interrupted by some buttinski from Scottsdale. The nerve!

Well, my mom's long gone, so instead I'm outraged on Planned Parenthood’s behalf.

Claiming Planned Parenthood is only about abortion makes as much sense as claiming that all you need to know about Judaism is a song from a Broadway musical. Planned Parenthood is the largest sexual health and family planning organization in Arizona, serving more than 55,000 patients annually, and reaching thousands more through educational programming and advocacy work.

Planned Parenthood provides over $2.5 million in uncompensated health care in our state, with one out of four patients receiving free care. No organization does more than Planned Parenthood to prevent unintended pregnancies, through access to affordable or no-cost birth control and education programs that convey accurate information.

With all those extremists who claim that "family planning should be more than abortion," ever notice how they never actually do anything for family planning? Their real agenda is to prevent individual women from making their own moral decisions -- something real (as opposed to "Broadway") Judaism would find abhorrent.

Sam Coppersmith