Napolitano's Reign is Charmed--Thus Far

Posted on July 27, 2003 | Type: In the News
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Now that Janet Napolitano has had a chance to settle in and get through a legislative session, what have we learned about her as a governor and a politician?

The biggest surprise is the extent to which she has been a warrior for the cultural left.

The extraordinary political pressure she exerted to override rules, procedures and custom to get Squaw Peak renamed Piestewa Peak received the most attention. This was clearly as much about getting rid of the word "squaw," a politically correct cause resting on dubious etymology, as about appropriately honoring Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first female Native American to die in combat as a member of the U.S. military.

But even more revealing was Napolitano's line-item veto of state funding for abstinence education.

The money, $800,000, is less than pocket change in the state's $6.4 billion budget. Moreover, the veto violated one of Napolitano's budget principles: protecting state programs that bring in federal dollars. This state appropriation would have brought in an additional $1.2 million from the feds.

To justify her veto, Napolitano cited a Goldwater Institute study purportedly showing that the program was ineffective. Now, it might be good news if the governor was actually paying some attention to the work of the Goldwater Institute. But there's one rather large problem here: The study does not exist.

Now, such a veto could be justified on the libertarian grounds that such things just aren't the government's business. But in her very next line-item veto, Napolitano restored funding to substance-abuse education because of its alleged effectiveness.

In other words, Napolitano contends that government is unpersuasive to teenagers regarding stopping short of a full tumble, but supremely convincing regarding taking a toke or a sip.

Since none of this makes any sense, Napolitano appears to have gone out of her way to give the social right, which is deeply committed to abstinence programs, a political slap in the face.

Napolitano also vetoed legislation exempting religious employers from a state requirement that health insurance include contraceptives. So, while it's supposedly unconstitutional to place religious messages in public places such as Wesley Bolin Plaza, government can force church groups to subsidize behavior they regard as sinful. This church-and-state business just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Napolitano received some uncharacteristic media heat for her executive order forbidding discrimination based upon sexual orientation in state government. The media weren't upset by the policy or the fact that it was done through an executive order rather than legislation. Instead, reporters weren't buying the claim that Napolitano's crackerjack publicity operation somehow just forgot to notify them in advance.

Besides her surprising aggressiveness on cultural issues, Napolitano has been the prudent and cautious leader expected from her previous political career and campaign for governor.

Obviously, the budget was - and remains - the biggest issue in Napolitano's early governorship.

Thus far, she's been the champion of maintaining current services, and has received great credit for preventing deeper cuts proposed by some legislators. In fact, many of her core constituency groups see her as the budget heroine holding barbarian legislators at bay.

There's no question that Napolitano's potential veto and line-in-the-sand regarding education funding were important factors around which the 2004 budget was shaped. But the time is approaching when prudence, caution and a current-services budget isn't going to satisfy her core constituencies.

Napolitano ran partly on the theme that the policies of the 1990s severely underfunded important governmental functions. Both the Children's Action Alliance and the state AFL-CIO testified at the last meeting of her tax reform commission that the state needs to increase spending by a quarter to a third just to provide a minimally acceptable level of service.

Napolitano still flinches at the suggestion that she favors tax increases. But the quantum increase in state spending her supporters want, and that her critique of past policies implies, won't be funded out of natural growth in state revenues.

A day of reckoning is coming, perhaps as early as her 2005 budget proposal due in January. But until then, Napolitano is living a charmed political life. She's obviously bright, competent and comfortable with the office's power and pulpit. And she has benefited, thus far, from an extraordinarily protective media bubble.

But the real test will come as she tries to deliver on her promises, expressed and implied.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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