Adams vowed transparency, didn't deliver

The Arizona Republic
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Mary Jo Pitzl

Kirk Adams ran for House speaker on a platform of transparency and reform of the legislative process. The pitch worked: He ousted a veteran lawmaker last fall in a closed-door Republican caucus meeting.

But Adams' ability to enact his agenda has not worked as effectively - or as quickly. Living up to the promises in Adams' "Rebuilding Our Republican Majority" strategy handbook has proved difficult.

Major policy initiatives, such as a flat income tax, emerged from out of the blue. House leaders called crucial budget votes on short notice. Rank-and-file members grumbled that they didn't know what was going on.

The state budget overshadowed everything else during Adams' first session as leader of the 60-member House of Representatives. He wanted to reform the process; instead, the process pushed him along.

It was not what his 2 1/2 years in the statehouse led him to expect.

"I don't think anyone could have fully comprehended the enormity of the situation," Adams said. "It's like we were standing in a constantly changing terrain, with the ground moving under our feet."

Some think that shifting ground swallowed up the blue-covered document that catapulted the Mesa businessman into the House's top spot.

"The blue book is an indictment of the speaker," said lobbyist Kevin DeMenna, who helped Adams win the speaker's seat. "It clearly contrasts with what is happening."

But Adams has not generated as much criticism as his Senate counterpart for his role in the state's budget fiasco. In the end, Adams kept most of his Republican members on board and produced a budget that met Gov. Jan Brewer's demand for a sales-tax referral to voters.

The tax referral failed in the Senate. Brewer has since vetoed other parts of the budget, leaving the state with unfinished business and a deficit nearing $1 billion.

Adams' plans for the House were ambitious: create budget subcommittees; use outside consultants to size up potential savings in state agencies; let the Appropriations Committee create the budget in an open process, not in closed-door meetings of legislative leaders.

The list goes on and on. And it is all outlined in Adams' handbook.

DeMenna said the document reflects advice from legislative veterans, including some who remember budgets completed by April and routine Friday hearings by budget subcommittees. Both no longer occur.

"We were promised change, and for one reason or another, it didn't happen," DeMenna said.

Halfway through the legislative session, House members rebranded Adams' signature theme of "transparency" as "opaque transparency." That label still applies.

A pet Adams proposal to overhaul the state's tax system with a flat income tax popped up in the frenzied last days of the regular session. It never got a hearing.

Lawmakers complained that they had little time to review bills before voting. Some members even learned of the decision to close down the 51-day special session this summer through the media.

"Most people couldn't tell you what's going on," said Rep. Sam Crump, R-Anthem.

Adams said he has learned change can come slowly. "Don't set all your goals for one or two years," he said. "But you need to aim high."

He notes that many aspects of the budget process were highly visible. In January, the Legislature released a document outlining potential budget cuts and called an unusual joint session of the House and Senate to discuss it.

The Legislature held public hearings on the budget. It was voted on in the Appropriations Committee, something that did not happen in the previous two years, when a deal was hurried to the full House for an eleventh-hour vote.

The public had 26 days to review the budget when lawmakers approved it in early June but declined to send it to Brewer immediately.

That delay gave advocates time to flood the Governor's Office with pleas to either sign or veto the budget package.

"I can't imagine a more scrutinized budget than this one," Adams said, noting that it sparked reams of news coverage, numerous protests and floods of letters, phone calls and e-mails.

Although he did not achieve all his budget goals, Adams re-established Republican dominance on the budget.

The Legislature had come off several sessions in which former Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, swayed enough Republicans to team with Democrats to pass a balanced budget.

Adams set out to change that equation, putting the GOP in charge and ensuring they would not have to rely on Democrats' votes. He cited a Democratic lawmaker's taunt from 2008 as a motivation, quoting the legislator as saying, "I like being in the majority."

When the House passed a budget plan that met Brewer's criteria for a sales-tax referral, Adams produced the votes.

He kept 32 of the 35 GOP members on board, despite misgivings about voting for a tax increase.

To win support, leaders packaged it with $400 million in income-tax cuts.

Steve Voeller, whose Free Enterprise Club lobbies for income-tax reductions, praised Adams for championing the tax cuts.

"He's a true supply-sider," Voeller said. "I think it's in his DNA."

But Adams also showed flexibility.

Kevin McCarthy of the Arizona Tax Research Association said Adams' advocacy was admirable, but his quick reaction to the flat tax's negative reception showed a well-tuned political ear.

"I was more impressed with how quickly he realized what a non-starter it was," McCarthy said.

Although Adams said he will push ahead on his transparency goals, another issue will likely dominate his agenda next year.

"I do have regrets that we did not elevate the discussion on economic recovery to the same level as the budget crisis," he said. "I won't make that mistake again."

That means a renewed discussion on tax cuts, which Adams believes are vital to reviving the state's business climate.

Tax reduction at a time of billion-dollar budget deficits is out of the question to many, but Adams said the state needs to look ahead four or five years, when Arizona climbs out of the recession.

He is willing to keep pushing for Brewer's temporary tax hike as long as it is accompanied by tax cuts, and would recast his vote for the July 31 budget package that included the tax referral and $400 million in income-tax cuts - "in a heartbeat," he said.

That plan couldn't pass the Senate, but Adams said don't blame the tax cuts.

"The referral didn't fail because of the tax portion." he said. "The tax portion failed because of the referral."