In one episode of Fox's under-appreciated early 1990s western comedy "The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr." the heroes teamed up with a sheriff to pursue a group of bad guys into a local mine. The bad guys gave the good guys the slip, and then closed entrance to the mine with dynamite. The sheriff, who just happened to look and dress like a 1972-version of Elvis Presley, declared in a Tupelo drawl, "We're caught in a trap! Can't walk out!"
Arizona legislators today find themselves caught in a trap that they won't easily be able to walk out of. Former Governor Napolitano led the legislature to pass a series of truly reckless budgets, driving state spending up at a rate far faster than state income growth. As real estate bubble revenue came pouring in, Arizona lawmakers made long term spending commitments with short term revenue sources.
The trap? Republicans, who now occupy the ninth floor and have legislative majorities, have been put in a position of either rolling this spending back to match revenues, or increasing taxes to preserve Napolitano's reckless legacy. The beauty of the trap for Napolitano: she can watch the Republicans step on these bear traps from the safe distance of Washington D.C.
The use of the plural in describing traps is deliberate. The Republicans have already enraged the state spending lobbies by fixing the badly imbalanced Napolitano budget from last year. The question is, having stepped on that trap, will they panic and stumble onto the next trap, which would be to raise taxes. This would incur the wrath of those who prefer low taxes and a smaller government, i.e. their base and the majority of Arizonans who put them into office.
In short, there are no easy options, but some options are even worse than others. In fiscal year 2004, the state General Fund was $6.5 billion. In 2007, it was $10.2 billion. The party was fun while it lasted, but our revenue is coming in at 2004 levels, so we need to get our spending back to 2004 levels too.
Napolitano's domination of Arizona Republicans will be complete if she forces them, from thousands of miles away, to raise taxes in order to preserve her vision of bigger government.
Dr. Matthew Ladner is vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute.