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Guest opinion

Prop. 401: Good government for whom?

Proposition 401 is marching toward Election Day with a battalion of special interests


In politics, the phrase "good government" is a notorious harbinger of suspicion. Legislative maneuvers sold under this banner naturally beg the question "good for whom?" The answer, all too often, is some deep-pocketed clique with a purposefully opaque agenda.

This year's Proposition 401, a City of Tucson ballot referendum that bundles four major modifications to the City Charter, is marching toward Election Day with a battalion of special interests that includes unions, chambers of commerce, business networking groups and political elements within both major parties.

"Fix city government now!" scream the campaign's billboards and direct mail, offering voters familiar October boilerplate of "streamlined bureaucracy," "increased accountability" and so on. The idea is for the voter to think (but not too hard) "yeah, I'm for all those things," vote 'yes', and skip all the fine print.

Lots of money is being dumped into Tucson's latest good government scheme, but Prop. 401 will still probably fail, and for the right reasons.

Because practically every voter's default position on ballot propositions is 'no', confusing bundles like 401 are reliable losers. Money can buy ads and PR, but not even Jim Click's money can confer coherence on incoherent raw material.

Prop 401 does some interesting things, and one can speculate intelligently about who supports it and why. But in terms of persuading voters of what their votes will accomplish, Prop. 401 is relying mostly on lies.

No one wants to say exactly what the broken thing is that needs fixing, or put into non-rhetorical terms what 401's changes really amount to. Instead, they're absurdly asserting that Prop. 401 creates a "full-time council," that it "cuts bureaucracy," and various other buzzword-based nonsense. Tellingly, they're not saying much about what 401 really does.

Startlingly, Prop. 401 mandates the funding of an enormous, 155% pay raise for the Tucson City Council, which would bump their presently meager salaries of $24,000 per year to a cushy $62,000. (This is what all the "full-time" baloney is designed to hide.) The massive salary increases would help pave the way for the kind of city leadership the region's major corporations would prefer, and they'd have an easier time getting their allies elected to the council. But conventional wisdom holds that a 155% raise for politicians in any economy is insane, to say nothing of the wrecked economy we're living in.

The other three provisions in Prop. 401 are less jaw-dropping, but hardly belong in a package together. Prop. 401 would alter the Mayor's voting rights, essentially making him a seventh council member—an untested move with all kinds of strange potential parliamentary implications. It would give the powerful City Manager even more power, and would also, thanks to the Mayor's new role, make the Manager even more difficult to fire. Finally, to sweeten this most peculiar pie, Prop 401 aims to save some money by wiping out the city's "staggered" election cycle adopted by voters in 1960. Tucson would go back to electing all six (or wait, would it now be seven?) council members all at once, every four years.

Indeed, city government has many problems that need fixing. Thanks to a severe, recession-driven decline in revenue, our budget has a $50 million hole in it. If you drive around town regularly, you might think Tucson's streets have fifty million holes in them too, and you might be right. (If it was anyone's job to count them, he's been laid off by now.)

We don't have enough cops on our streets either, and the stories you're hearing about overpaid department heads don't tell you the part about how it would make a negligible difference in the budget if we fired them all tomorrow. If you think that city government is broken, you've almost nailed it: what city government really is, is broke.

Prop. 401 is a wasteful underestimation of voters' intelligence, and a brazen example of political opportunism at its most cynical. A "yes" vote rewards cheating, manipulation and efforts to confuse the unsuspecting. So please join me in voting "no" on Prop. 401. If you want to see anything fixed anytime soon, vote "yes" on 400 instead.

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