Democratic Sen. Manny Alvarez swept his arm across the Marana Chamber of Commerce crowd last week to ask a rhetorical question.
"How many of you are in favor of a tax increase?" Alvarez asked the group of about 60 at the Oasis at Wild Horse Ranch.
Maybe one hand went up.
And of course no one is in favor of a tax increase.
"It's the wrong time to do it," Alvarez said of any tax increase. "What are we going to do next year? Close the schools out? Let the prisoners out?"
Close the schools out? No. Let the prisoners out? No.
The good senator from District 25 did not ask the important, corollary questions to his query of support for a tax increase. Such as these, offered as suggestions …
"Given the fact Arizona has a $ xxx billion budget shortfall (the number is elusive; it's at least $2 billion), what services are you willing to reduce, or do without?"
That's where the Democrats come up short in what Rep. Steve Farley calls the "soap opera" of the 2009 Arizona Legislature. The Democrats, who've been left out the conversations for nearly all of the new year, push hard to protect education and social services, as they should, and hurrah for them. But they make rare and relatively small suggestions on ways Arizona can reduce its spending.
The Republican alternative — cut, cut, and cut. It's not pretty, either. What's most frustrating is the nagging sense that politics pre-empts good governance.
Here's another question Alvarez might consider — "Nobody wants to raise taxes. But should we raise taxes?"
Tough question. But maybe the answer is "yes."
Democrats abhor a sales tax increase, and they won't support the temporary increase Gov. Jan Brewer wants to put on a November ballot. They say a sales tax increase would increase state dependency on that vehicle — true — and would cost the average middle-class family about $500 a year. That's not nothing.
Conversely, our most basic needs are not taxed. Groceries, being the best example. Gasoline is taxed, yet that's done on a per-gallon basis, rather than as a percentage of total cost. When the price of gas goes up, the tax does not.
Medium- and big-ticket items, dining out, lodging … all subject to any higher sales taxes. No one wants to pay them. But what's the alternative? The Democrats want to lower sales taxes, but expand them to cover services. That won't be an easy sell.
On these pages months ago, endorsement was given to the statewide property equalization tax for education. It generates something like $250 million a year. The Republicans want it gone. Yet it is relatively painless for nearly all of us.
We're wrong about all this, of course. We're all wet. We're idiots.
But the conversation needs to occur, and it must be done rationally, without biased judgment, with legitimate concern for Arizona's future and the well-being of its citizens. What are we willing to live without from government? What are we willing to pay if more is warranted?
Michael Racy, the political activist who moderated last week's Marana chamber conversation, said the 2009 (and still current) meeting of the Legislature is "truly unlike any other legislative session we've had in Arizona
"Hopefully, we'll never have another one like this one," Racy said. "My fear is next year's will be very similar to this one."
Bring your brains and ideas to the table.