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When the Legislature worked

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Rogue Columnist

When the Legislature worked

  • The old Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.
    aidaneus/FlickrThe old Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.

You know the Arizona Legislature. It's the bunch that reduces education funding for some of the worst-funded schools in the nation, savagely cuts money to universities, has its hands in the hustles of the Charter School Racket and Private Prison Racket. The worthy solons who sold off pieces of the Capitol.

It is the birthplace of SB 1070, the Jim Crow anti-immigrant (really voter suppression) law. This is only one of its creations that helped make Arizona seem one of the craziest and most bigoted states. Anything forward looking, the majority opposes. Tax cuts? You bet. It is the Kookocracy.

But there was a time when Arizona had one of the most respected legislatures in the nation. Yes.

In fact, there were at least two sustained periods in the state's history when the Legislature worked.

This is no small thing because the Legislature is by far the most powerful branch of government in the state. Constitutionally, the governor was barely more than a figurehead — a status that has improved in recent years, but not by much. In other words, Arizona moves ahead, or backwards, depending on the Legislature.

The golden age of the Legislature ran from 1966 to 1986. Here, the most important figure was Burton Barr (1917-1997), the Republican majority leader of the House of Representatives.

Barr, a decorated combat veteran from World War II and a successful Phoenix businessman (selling fixtures to grocery stores), was elected to the House in 1964 as the Supreme Court was deciding the so-called one man-one vote case. This put an end to the old system where each county, regardless of population, had two senators. Not only did it see Arizona gradually shift from a Democratic to Republican state, but it gave political power to the cities, especially Phoenix and Tucson.

Barr was no ideologue. He was interested in crafting laws that would modernize both the Legislature and the state. Although Republicans had a comfortable majority in the House, they ran a spectrum from John Birchers to more pragmatic legislators such as Stan Turley, who served as House speaker and president of the state Senate, and Betty Adams Rockwell.

Instead, Barr wanted results. He was the consummate deal-maker. One of his nicknames, from admirers and detractors, was "Mister Magic." As Alfredo Gutierrez recalls, Barr "was tough, relentless, and hated to lose." At the same time, his integrity was strong and he spurned both ideology and hate. He didn't hold grudges, even in his notable love-hate relationship with Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who had the ability to turn the usually genial Barr into an angry adversary.

Many of Barr's accomplishments — from urban freeways to environmental protection, the Groundwater Management Act, and AHCCCS — came from working with Democrats.

He was a mentor to many legislators, including Democratic House leader Art Hamilton and, most famously, Alfredo Gutierrez, the Democratic leader of the Senate. In the forthcoming book Burton Barr: Political Leadership and the Transformation of Arizona by Philip VanderMeer, Gutierrez offers a telling anecdote:

At the end of my first session as majority leader of the Senate, we encountered each other as we crossed the mall headed to each other's house; he was bouncing across the mall barking orders at staff who were running to keep up with him, when he saw me. His eyes sparkled, his eyebrows arched, he smiled and shouted out in passing, "They hate you, don't they," referring to my caucus. "Get used to it, kid, they're gonna hate you at the end of every session...if you're good."

Barr's skill at legislation and reputation as a compromiser made him enemies in his own caucus, especially among right-wingers who were rising in power. Among them: future Gov. Jane Hull. This played a pivotal role in Barr being defeated in the 1986 Republican primary by Evan Mecham. To be sure, Barr also ran a poor campaign. But the achievements of the Legislature under his leadership are undeniable.

History is written by the victors, so the Barr era is seen as a triumph over the dark ages that came before it. But this isn't quite true.

The Legislature of the 1950s worked, too, for a growing but still low-population state (1950 population 747,587). Both houses were firmly controlled by Democrats, although most were conservatives ("Pintos") reflecting the Arizona's background as both a Western but also Southern state.

Here the key figure was Sen. Harold Giss of Yuma (1906-1972), the most powerful lawmaker before Barr. Giss was the father of the state parks system, shepherded through successive highway bills, and provided state support for the fight against California for Colorado River water. Giss is badly in need of a biographer.

It is true that rural senators had outsized sway. Also that the Legislature did the bidding of the major industries: copper, railroads, agriculture, and cattle ranching. Nevertheless, in the 1950s it accomplished much — especially lacking the modern institutional tools and staff support that Barr inaugurated.

Since 1986, the Legislature has been capable of moments of sanity. There was "Sue Nation," Carolyn Allen, and other pragmatists. Even in the 2000s, the body managed grudging support for university research, the Phoenix Convention Center, and T-Gen.

But the compromisers and deal-makers for the public good have largely gone away, replaced by ever more extreme ideologues of the right. Dogma is king, made possible by uncompetitive one-party rule.

Also, when Barr and Giss held sway Arizona enjoyed a consensus. It wanted to grow, attract quality industry, gain water security, keep federal dollars flowing, maintain its existing economic pillars, and improve the state's infrastructure. Although newcomers were growing, the state had a deep local economy with businessmen/stewards. Phoenix, which Barr represented, was unquestionably the largest city and most powerful political entity.

In those days, this was not incompatible with conservatism. The culture wars, Tea Party, climate change and its deniers, hyper-sprawl, and the notion that light rail is a "socialist" plot (but, WBIYB) were far in the future. So were the stark priorities, needs, and values dividing cities and suburbs.

Today's atmosphere, with a broken Republican party, would not allow a Burt Barr into politics, much less the pinnacle of power.

So the Legislature has worked before for a common good. This history would suggest it can again. But not without fundamental change.

This piece originally appeared on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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