Former Arizona State Senator Karen Johnson
July 14, 2012
One of Ronald Reagan's mottos was "Trust but verify." He usually used it in the context of his negotiations with the Soviet Union, but it's also a good practice when dealing with political candidates. In every state this summer, candidates are shoving each other around, trying to get elected to Congress and the U.S. Senate. What happens in these elections affects all of us. The congressmen elected in Connecticut this November will affect people in California. The Congressional delegation from New Mexico will ultimately affect the people of North Carolina. Residents of each congressional district need to be very careful about whom they elect. If we're going to have any chance at all to overturn the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare or achieve other crucial political goals, we'd better sift through the media spin, weed out the lies, and elect dependable, trustworthy Congressmen, something we have not done very successfully for a long time. This may be our last chance.
In my own state, the sorting-out process is in full swing. Republican candidate Kirk Adams, the former Speaker of the Arizona House, is running for Congress from Arizona's 5th congressional district. A bland, first-time candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, Adams has few major achievements in his short (five-year) political career, but he claims credit for writing Arizona's celebrated 2011 state budget. That was the first state budget to be balanced in many years, and it brought the state back from the edge of bankruptcy during the plummeting days of the recession. On his campaign website, Adams states that he "negotiated and authored the first structurally balanced budget in at least five years." A stellar achievement to be sure.
But, despite Adams' claim, there are those who dispute his authorship. How can anyone know? How does a person "trust but verify"?
Well, first of all, there ARE people who know the truth. The author of the budget knows, of course (whomever he might be). State capitol insiders, such as staff, lobbyists, media, other legislators ... they all know. But unless you happen to be acquainted with one of these insiders, you don't know who to ask. Don't count on the media to reveal the truth. Heaven forbid they should ever give credit to a conservative.
State budgets are extremely complicated documents that are typically hundreds of pages long. Crafting a budget involves knowledge of thousands of federal and state laws and regulations. Budgets are written behind closed doors, with the assistance of numerous anonymous staff economists and financial experts. It requires a lot of expertise. It's not a job for an amateur. So, how could an average citizen figure out who wrote a particular budget?
First, one must examine the four people most responsible for crafting the budget: the two Chairmen of the Senate and House Appropriations Committees, plus the Senate President and the Speaker of the House. In most cases, one of those four candidates will be the primary author of a state budget. So, which of the four was the most qualified to write the Arizona budget in 2011?
The Senate President was Russell Pearce (R-18), Arizona's elder statesman and favorite son for more reasons than you can count. The Speaker of the House was Kirk Adams (R-19), who worked in his parents' insurance business. The Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman was Andy Biggs (R-22), a thoughtful, articulate author and retired attorney whose subtle wit often gently deflates his more pompous colleagues without them even realizing they have been poked. The House Appropriations Chairman was John Kavanagh (R- 8), a scrappy, former law enforcement officer from New York City with an endearing New Yawk accent, who served with the New York Port Authority at the time of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Next, keep in mind that legislators learn to write state budgets through their experience on the Appropriations Committee, especially chairmanship of the committee. The ability to write a state budget is developed through on-the-job training. Here are the qualifications of Arizona's 2011 budget team, in order of their experience on the Appropriations Committee:
• Russell Pearce had been a member of the Appropriations Committee for 10 years, including 8 years as Chairman, and one year as Vice Chair.
• Andy Biggs was about to begin his 9th year on the Appropriations Committee, including 2 years as Vice Chairman. In 2011, he advanced to Senate Chairman.
• John Kavanagh had four years on the Appropriations Committee, including two years as the House Chairman.
• Kirk Adams had two years of experience on the Appropriations Committee, with no experience as either the Chairman or Vice Chairman.
See any problem here? Okay, so, big deal. Two years, four years, eight years, 10 years. A budget is a budget, right? Doesn't Adams' two years on the Appropriations Committee count for anything? Sure. Two years counts for something. It counts as a start. In the world of state budgeting, two years is about how long it takes to get your feet wet. Two years makes you a Freshman, compared to the Senior level of at least two of the other three team members. If you do a good job, two years generally qualifies you for, uh, maybe two more. It doesn't qualify you to write the state budget. With a mere two years as a member of the Appropriations committee, and with no experience as Chairman, Adams was by far the least knowledgeable, least qualified member of the 2011 budget team.
Other factors add doubt to Adams' claim that he wrote the budget. Only 38 years old compared to Pearce's 64 years, Kavanagh's 61 years, and Biggs' 53 years, Adams was simply the "kid," compared to his colleagues. He couldn't help being younger, of course, but older does usually mean wiser, more mature, more street-smart. Why would his older, smarter, more experienced colleagues ask their junior associate to write the budget?
In addition, Adams' overall legislative experience was thin, thinner even than would be expected for someone who had served almost 5 years in the legislature. Not counting his membership on the Rules Committee, which usually doesn't deal with substantive issues on bills, Adams actually had only two years worth of solid committee assignments after nearly five years in the House of Representatives. This is an unusually skimpy record. At the five-year point, most legislators have had five years worth of committee assignments, compared to Adams' two. A relatively young legislator with little committee experience, including minimal experience on the Appropriations Committee, he was an unlikely if not impossible candidate to author the state budget, the most important document produced by the state legislature each year, especially in a year when state solvency was hanging in the balance.
With so little experience, why, one might ask, was Adams ever elected Speaker of the House? The answer lies in the unpopularity of the man who preceded him. The prior Speaker was heavy-handed and controlling, and the House members had grown increasingly distrustful of him.
He was so unpopular by the end of 2008, even among members of his own Party, that the other Representatives would have elected a popsicle just to be rid of him. Adams was an unusual candidate for Speaker because of his youth and inexperience but, even then, he had his eyes on a seat in Congress someday, and he wasn't quiet about it. Being Speaker would beef up his resume and serve as a stepping stone to Washington. So he made back-room deals and dangled House Chairmanships in front of his colleagues in exchange for their votes for Speaker.
Adams' rise to the Speakership was simple. When he offered himself as an alternative to an unpopular leader and offered to reward his colleagues for their support, the House members gladly elected him. No one thought they were electing some sort of Boy Wonder. They were simply UN-electing their current unpopular leader and, in some cases, acquiring coveted committee chairmanships and other perks in the process. Through the sheer dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time, Adams fell into the job as Speaker of the House sans legislative experience, sans longevity, and sans any record of accomplishment. But he had fewer enemies than the outgoing Speaker and he was willing to do whatever it took to gain his colleagues' support, even buying their loyalty with promises of rewards, so he won more votes. Hello, Mr. Speaker.
Finally, consider one last aspect to the mystery of who wrote the 2011 budget. Adams demonstrated little real support for the legislative budget through most of the 2011 legislative session. He knew that getting the governor to go along with a trim budget would be a challenge. He didn't want the legislative session that year to stretch out any longer than necessary, which would be the case if the legislature got bogged down in a budget battle with the governor. Never mind that the economy was in the tank and the state teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Adams had more important things to do. He was getting ready to launch his Congressional campaign, and he couldn't do that if he was stuck at the legislature day after day. He wanted to pass a budget any budget so he ce could hurry up and resign from office and get on with his Congressional race. He didn't need the legislature anymore. It had served its purpose in his life. He was ready to move on to bigger and better things. His opponents were already out on the stump, and Adams was losing time.
So Adams went along with the governor's attempts to increase spending, because he figured the governor would prevail in the end anyway, and he didn't want to waste time defending the budget offered by the legislature. In light of that dismissive attitude toward the budget, is it conceivable that Adams actually wrote it? Not hardly. If it is unlikely that Adams would be able to persuade the other three to allow him to write the budget in the first place, it is even more ludicrous to think that he would have shown so little support for a budget that he himself had written.
So, let's ask the question again: "Who wrote the acclaimed 2011 Arizona state budget?"
And the answer is: Senator Andy Biggs did. That isn't a secret in the halls of the Arizona state capitol. Appropriations Chairman Biggs was assigned by Senate President Pearce to write the budget before the 2011 session even began, and he had a draft ready to go on January 1st. Rep. Kirk Adams had nothing to do with it.
Pearce and Biggs were overwhelmingly the senior statesmen of the state budget effort that year. With a combined total of 18+ years of Appropriations Committee experience between them, no legislator knew more about Arizona's fiscal issues than they did. Meanwhile, Kavanagh was an up-and-comer. Brainy, articulate, and tough, Kavanagh supported the Biggs budget from the start and added strength to the team. The three of them were a powerhouse that scared the pants off the hangers-on who had become accustomed to getting generous government funding for their pet projects under Arizona's former Democratic Governor, Janet Napolitano, who had been a notorious big spender. Compared to those three, Kirk Adams could best be described as the weak link. He had little to offer in the way of crafting the state budget. Support would have been nice, but he failed to provide even that. Adams did not and could not author the 2011 state budget. He has never authored ANY Arizona state budget. Not even close. Except maybe in his dreams.
If Adams had simply claimed to be a member of the budget team that passed the first balanced budget in five years, he would have at least been technically accurate. But that's not what he said. He said that he "negotiated and authored" the budget. A vast and important difference. If a candidate is fudging the facts already before he's even elected, what's he gonna do when he gets to Washington where nobody can keep an eye on him? I don't have to tell you the answer to that.
Adams is a case study on the corrupting allure of power. He entered elective office for one reason only: so that he could someday be elected to Congress. In pursuing that ambition, he put his goal for higher office first and relegated the best interests of his constituents to last place, if they mattered much at all. During his time in the state legislature, his votes on controversial issues were carefully calculated to craft a safe image for himself that would further his ambitions, not to protect the rights of the constituents whom he represented.
He sought power for what it would do for HIM, not for what he could do with that power to improve society. He let ambition steer him into deal-making, compromise, and manipulation to get what he wanted. That is a recipe for disaster. No one would call him a bad man [yet], but one can certainly say that he is headed down the wrong highway. After listening to Adams speak at a public meeting, a good friend once commented, "It's all about HIM, isn't it."
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Many of the candidates running for Congress this year will be current or former state legislators. Look at your state's legislative website and examine the candidates' committee assignments. Committee work tells you a lot about a person's legislative experience and expertise. Verify the grand claims of your local candidates. Are their campaign claims based on real experience, or are the claims unreasonable? If they seem unreasonable, start asking questions. Adams leans on his title as Speaker of the House to give credibility to the claims he makes. But his title is an empty label, his record is thin, and his achievements are average to small. The information on Congressional candidates is lurking out there in cyberspace. In this most important election year, trust but verify. Better yet, don't trust UNTIL you verify. The composition of the 2013 Congress depends on it.
© 2012 Karen Johnson - All Rights Reserved
Karen Johnson served in the Arizona legislature for 12 years, from 1997 through 2004 (AZ House of Representatives) and 2005 - 2008 (AZ Senate). Her all-time favorite committee assignment was chairing the Federal Mandates and States' Rights Committee. During her service in the legislature, she supported the Second Amendment, individual, property and of course states rights, as well as the Right to Life, and she still does. Karen and her husband, Jerry, have 11 children and 35 grandchildren. She believes strongly in the doctrine of liberty and does not desire to be tethered to ANY particular party.