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What the Devil won't tell you

Prop. 124: A short take on a bad idea and a good ballot measure

Pension referendum can end bad memory from a party that ended long ago

I swear to God, I'm going to keep this short. Just a few paragraphs. That's it.

Ever had a great idea certain to make you great money that only blew up later? Proposition 124, ladies and gentleman, is the constitutional equivalent of removing the beer goggles that led to an unfortunate face tattoo devoted to a one-night stand during a raging party in 1998.

One of the great ironies of Arizona politics is how we are governed by state lawmakers who swear a particular devotion to the letter of the Constitution — just not the particular Constitution governing them. No. They treat that document as farcical whimsy. Independent redistricting? Screw it. College nearly as free as possible? Suckers. Keeping school funding up with inflation? Let's see the judge enforce it.

Prop. 124 is the result of another lawsuit the Legislature lost, ignoring another provision of the state Constitution ... but on this one, you almost have to cut them some slack.

In 1998, the markets were booming and Arizona's public safety workers pension system was piling up double-digit returns. That gravy train would last forever, right? So voters agreed to change the state Constitution to take half of the annual windfall above a 9-percent return and use it to pay for a cost-of-living increase for existing pensioners — sucking it out of the fund forever.

But the move stopped pension fund managers from using good-time gains to keep the pension system funded during inevitable market "corrections" and "crashes." In 1998, the economy was so strong that a president facing impeachment enjoyed a job approval in the mid-60s and the right direction/wrong track numbers were similarly high. The state's pension systems were funded at 100 percent.

Enter the dotcom bubble bursting, the 9/11 nosedive, the Enron crash and the absolute implosion of markets in 2009. The pension system can now cover just 50 percent of future liabilities. Red alert. General quarters. OMG. Even when the market rises and good years make rain, the pension fund is unable to make up for the days when it shrivels like a raisin.

Well, during the 2011 bust, the Legislature decided to just ignore the operative constitutional amendment for a pension solution. They got sued (again), lost (again) and found themselves in a fix (again).

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Facing pension future governed more by the Coriolis effect than sound financial principle, the public safety unions and the state brokered a compromise last year, which was approved in January with broad bipartisan support. The Leg, the police and fire unions, and the League of Arizona Cities and Towns all agreed to rid us of this troublesome restriction. But they can't do it alone.

That's where you come in, voter. The Legislature — thank God — can't change the Constitution without voter approval. This is why Arizonans are not required to carry squad automatic weapons and are not forbidden from taking Social Security. On this issue, though, lawmakers had the right instincts (like a wayward eel shimmying through the oceans until they accidentally happen upon the mating waters of the Sargasso Sea).

Prop 124 involves a few changes and the easiest to explain is capping the cost-of-living adjustments to 2 percent. So that's why your voter guide reads:

A "yes" vote would allow the state legislature to adjust the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System to exchange the permanent benefit increase structure for a compounding annual cost of living adjustment.

A "no" vote would keep the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System the same."

What you need to know but Satan dare not speak, apparently, is that Prop 124 allows the state pension fund managers to use good years to shore up the pension fund rather than take it to give pensioners a boost in benefits. The current system forces the pension fund to gulp down the bad years without being fed by the good years.

We can straighten up this mess with a "yes" on Prop. 124. It's a rare proposition that no one seems to have found a reason to oppose. Then we can take a dermatologist's laser to the tattooed name of that mullet-headed Tae Bow instructor we macked on after 11th shot of Cuervo during the halftime of Super Bowl XXXII.

No one says "macked" anymore, huh? Call it another relic of the 1990s.

See? Short.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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