The Tucson Citizen recently reported that the impending budget deficit for the next fiscal year could exceed $1 billion. Much of that deficit will arise from hundreds of millions of dollars in budgeting gimmicks used to balance the books this year, such as the "rollover" of debt-an accounting maneuver that involves delaying payment of obligations incurred in one fiscal year into the next fiscal year. But the state did not just stumble into the current crisis.
Today's floundering in financial quicksand is the direct result of the shell game that was first embraced in Board of Regents of University of Arizona v. Sullivan back in 1935. In that case a fictional distinction was drawn between the state and its subdivisions in order to reconcile deficit spending by the University of Arizona with the state Constitution's balanced budget requirement. In his lone dissent, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Lockwood warned of the consequences of the decision, expressing hope that "the court will realize that it has been unwittingly following the ignis fatuus of temporary expediency and will return to sound principles before the state becomes hopelessly ingulfed [sic] in a morass of debt."
"Ignis fatuus" is a Latin phrase referring to the "phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy ground at night, possibly caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by rotting organic matter." Seventy-three years after Lockwood's dissent, the phrase still aptly describes the state's financial practices.
Only by returning to the sound principles of a genuinely balanced budget can the state avoid sinking permanently into a morass of debt. But that requires the judiciary to find the courage to reconsider and enforce the original meaning of the state Constitution's balanced budget requirement.
Nick Dranias is the constitutional policy director at the Goldwater Institute.
Arizona Constitution: Balanced Budget Requirement
Arizona Capitol Times: State budget digs deeper hole next year