Finance

Wild West Budgeting

It's like one of those thrillers where one thing blows up after another. Trying to patch big holes in the state budget earlier this year,...
by | March 31, 2009

It's like one of those thrillers where one thing blows up after another.

Trying to patch big holes in the state budget earlier this year, Arizona legislators thought they could squeeze some precious money out of local governments and trust funds. They demanded that cities, counties and special districts send the state more than $65 million.

"They came up with a really peculiar, creative way to try to get around our constitution," says state Treasurer Dean Martin. "They basically appropriated themselves money out of local governments." David Berman, a senior research fellow at Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy, puts it a little more colorfully. "It was really a holdup more than anything else," he says. "It wasn't so much of a takeover as going back to the Wild West."

It turned out the legislature hadn't quite gotten around the constitution after all. In February, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a complaint against the state brought by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, sparing the league's members $18.3 million in payments.

The league's successful suit has spawned others, one brought by a coalition of water and power districts and another by agricultural interests. But the most contentious fight is in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located. The legislature had demanded that Maricopa and one other county fork over $27 million. To raise that money, the state gave the counties power to take money out of special-revenue funds. Maricopa supervisors decided they could withdraw up to $15 million from law enforcement accounts. That led the Maricopa county attorney and sheriff to file suit against the supervisors last month.

This was not only the latest shot in the legal war triggered by the legislative raid. It also may have been the last straw when it comes to the contentious relations among Maricopa's elected officials. Sheriff Joe Arpaio was already mad at some of the supervisors for supporting then-Governor Janet Napolitano's decision last year to cut off funds for his hard-line immigration enforcement tactics. "One thing you don't do is try to take away my money," Arpaio said last spring. "I still have a gun and a badge."

In December, Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas filed a 118-count indictment against Supervisor Don Stapley, alleging improper disclosure of real-estate deals. The Phoenix New Times warned its readers that "Stapley is the victim of a serious vendetta," but then in January, Arpaio and Thomas also filed suit against the board's use of outside counsel in civil matters.

Now that they're suing the supervisors yet again over another matter, Stapley says, "It's a civil war within the county."

Note: This version corrects the attribution of a quote from David Berman that was incorrect in the print version.

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