As Arizona celebrates its one hundred years of being a state, I think it might be important to see where the state’s politics are now, and where they might be going as we look out towards the next one hundred years. I don’t just mean the shift to extreme conservative politics, which is definitely a factor not to be overlooked, but here I want to look more at overall change the way politics happens on the state level here in Arizona.
Last fall I went to a panel discussion hosted by Zócalo Public Square in Scottsdale about Arizona’s position on the national stage (you can watch the full video here), where there were several references to Arizona as the 21st century’s antebellum Kansas or Civil Rights Alabama. That is, that Arizona is sitting at the epicenter of a change in the political system either from the anti-immigrant discourse that is being created or from the state-versus-federal narrative that is being woven here. The talk itself was titled “Is Arizona the Front Line of American Politics?”
The event went far beyond the effect on national politics of immigration in Arizona. Arizona has been at the forefront of quite a few different issues, be it immigration, gun control, or education. ASU is still in the midst of privatizing the law school and ethnic studies programs are being forcibly removed from classrooms. It’s not weird to see people with guns on their hips at the grocery store or sitting at McDonald’s. Recent laws allowing concealed weapons without a permit were of huge debate at the talk since Tom Zoellner, the author of A Safeway in Arizona, a book about the impact of the attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords, was one of the panel speakers.
One thing that has been a fact for a long time in Arizona regarding the limits to laws (I don’t know about other states, on the frontier or elsewhere), is that the police no longer have a say. Both in regards to SB 1070 and to numerous gun laws in Arizona, the law makers no longer defer to law enforcement. Before, police would weigh in on whether or not concealed rifles would be safe in the city – now nobody seems to care what the police think. Zoellner argued that this was partially because other border states in the Southwest were much older and had more matured political institutions, allowing Arizona to come to the fore on new ground for lawmaking. It’s an interesting idea that Arizona is a younger and more reckless state. It’s one explanation for why Arizona has served as a sort of test lab for new ideas, more so than most state governments. But what makes that possible?
At the same panel, Former House Minority Leader Art Hamilton argued that term limits left a legislature with no institutional memory or respect, and that “nobody takes care of the house” anymore. It’s an argument with which I’ve always agreed – rules in institutions like legislatures are open to abuse if there is no order, which is what we’re seeing in Arizona. From a joint report on term limits in Arizona [pdf] released in 2005:
Some observers suggested, however, that term limits have led to an increase in the number of dumb or frivolous bills being introduced and have prompted more people to introduce legislation they know nothing about just to make some sort of record and/or to please some interest group. With a weakening of leadership and the committee system, some observers saw also bills being passed with less vetting.
The emergence of a large group of newcomers more anxious than ever to get involved and make a mark for themselves has generated pressures for a more inclusive policymaking process, This has been especially marked in regard to the making of the budget, the most important thing the legislature does on a regular basis. While these changes may be viewed by many as generally positive, on a broader level, constant turnover in members and leaders, were linked by observers with more general chaos, more emotional decision making and more unpredictability as to results. The departure of several old-times has been accompanied by a loss of institutional memory regarding legislative norms, procedures, and protocol. Conversely, the increase in the number of inexperienced legislators has produced a body where more legislators are uncertain about how to do their jobs and are relatively uninformed about the issues facing the state.
On top of that, Arizona allows people to run for office once they have lived in the state for three years. This could compound the problem of legislators being uninformed about issues regarding the state in particular, and open the state up to imported politicians. While I agree with both of these points, and it seems that they definitely have something to do with the problems in Arizona’s state politics, I found that Arizona’s rules are comparable in the region.
California and Texas have almost identical eligibility and term limit laws, and yet Arizona stands out as the state constantly in the news for bills that challenge the status quo and sanity. Looking at these rules as flaws is a place to start, but I have yet to find what really is the answer to Arizona’s peculiar position in national politics. What sets Arizona’s government apart from other states’? Regardless of the answer (which I’m still looking for), I think it’s clear that Arizona is at the front line for national politics.