Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and her allies in the state legislature are seeking to use millions of dollars intended for struggling homeowners to pay for prison construction and tax cuts instead, echoing a policy put in place earlier this year in Wisconsin by Governor Scott Walker.
Remember the $26 billion foreclosure settlement, the one agreed upon by the five biggest banks and 49 state Attorneys General? As one of the hardest hit states, Arizona is getting $1.6 billion, as well as an additional $97.7 million to be overseen by the office of Attorney General Tom Horne, to be used for “housing counselors, legal aid, hotlines, and to help stressed homeowners with their payments.”
Two main things to understand about these funds: they are wildly insufficient given the scale of the problem, but all the same they are extremely crucial. In March, Arizona had the highest foreclosure rate in the country, according to RealtyTrac, with 9,497 foreclosures. If any state needs all the help it can get when it comes to homeowner education, assistance, and relief, it’s Arizona.
Even so, Governor Brewer and Republican state legislators want to siphon $50 million from those funds to “relieve pressure on the budget.” So in other words, use money intended to help homeowners for…other things.
Lawmakers say the money amounts to a pricey outreach and education fund. It won’t hurt to take half of it, House Speaker Andy Tobin said.
“We’re using the funds to relieve the pressure on the budget,” said Tobin, R-Paulden. Those stresses range from a push to replace welfare dollars lost to federal budget cuts to prison construction, he said.
How is this justified? You can thank a loophole in the settlement language, which says the funds can be used “to compensate the state for costs resulting from the alleged unlawful conduct of the defendants.” Arizona lawmakers like House Speaker Tobin are claiming that since foreclosure fraud hurt homeowners, which in turn hurt tax revenues and by extension the state budget, they can use the money for whatever they damn well please.
They can make this logical jump without acknowledging a.) that the big banks committed any actual fraud, or b.) that maybe Gov. Brewer’s $538 million tax handouts to businesses has anything to do with budget problems.
In February, Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen decided to use $25.6 million of Wisconsin’s share of the foreclosure fraud settlement to plug holes in his state budget. For justification, he used the very same loophole in the settlement language:
“Just like communities and individuals have been affected, the foreclosure crisis has had an effect on the state of Wisconsin, in terms of unemployment. . . . This will offset that damage done to the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said.
A week later, Missouri followed suit, taking $40 million from their share for the state’s general fund. Ohio decided to allocate $75 million meant for homeowner assistance to actually demolish vacant homes. South Carolina legislators insidiously pushed for using $31 million of settlement funds for corporate tax breaks.
Of all the horrific policies that have come out of the offices of governors like Walker in the past two years, this is one of the worst – and the most under-reported. With Walker and Brewer giving out huge tax handouts to businesses, cutting services and education, and then dipping into foreclosure fraud assistance to pay for their bad decisions, they are no different than a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. Robbery in multiple steps is still robbery, even if you’re a governor.
On Tuesday, however, two Republican leaders in the Senate told the Arizona Guardian (sub. req.) they don’t have enough votes to keep the bill alive.
“Senate President Steve Pierce and Senate Whip Frank Antenori expressed serious doubt that there were enough Republicans in the upper chamber willing to pass a bill ending collective bargaining,” the Guardian reported. Antenori described the bill’s chances as “questionable.”
Even Gov. Brewer, no stranger to controversy, is keeping the collective bargaining bill at an arm’s length. “All I can tell you definitively,” said Gov. Brewer’s spokesman Matthew Benson, “is that…there was no coordination with the governor or her office in the development of those bills.” Benson also said that if the bills reach the Governor’s desk that she would “weigh them on the merits.”
That’s political speak for “please don’t write in the paper that these bills were my idea.”
As Dave Dayen writes at Firedoglake, this is the departure from the pattern of 2011. In Wisconsin, it’s been well-documented that Republicans pulled out all the stops to ram through their anti-union “budget repair” bill. In Ohio, which has a much stronger labor presence than Arizona, Senate Bill 5 was passed the same way. And of course, in Indiana last month, Speaker Bosma and Gov. Daniels risked enormous Super Bowl protests to push through a ban on fair share clauses.
We’re remaining vigilant on this issue: even though Arizona GOP doesn’t seem fully behind the collective bargaining ban, that bill has already been passed out of committee, and could get a full vote any day.
Besides, two other anti-worker bills will see a vote today: one would prohibit the government from paying an employee for union activities, while the other would prohibit automatic deduction for union dues which help pay for basic representation. Arizona already has a ban on fair share clauses for all workers.
Until we hear official commitments to keep basic rights for public workers from legislators on both sides of the aisle, there’s no reason to assume these attacks on workers won’t continue. But the apparent lack of interest in the war on workers (in a state that has never backed down from useless, punitive, ALEC-inspired laws) is a heartening, if small, sign of hope.
Last week, while many of us were focusing on Indiana’s “right to work” fight and the Super Bowl, the Arizona legislature introduced four virulently anti-worker bills. They are as follows:
SB 1484 would require public employees to “obtain authorization for any third party payroll deductions.”
SB 1485 would prohibit any public sector collective bargaining. This goes much farther than Scott Walker’s law in Wisconsin. This means no bargaining at all for teachers, nurses, firefighters, or police officers. It also preempts any local laws allowing for collective bargaining.
SB 1486 also outlaws public sector collective bargaining and prohibits a public employer from compensating an employee for “third party or union activities.”
SB 1487 again outlaws payroll deduction for all public sector union dues.
Translation: the Arizona legislature wants to make sure that all public workers are stripped of anything remotely resembling union representation. Arizona is already a “right-to-work” state, but these four bills make all pertinent union functions illegal. Filing a grievance would become nearly impossible. Contract negotiations would be completely one-sided.
Just like the case of Issue 2 in Ohio, this bill would keep public safety workers from bargaining for the parts of their jobs that keep them alive. Nurses couldn’t bargain for adequate staffing levels. Firefighters couldn’t bargain for the right equipment.
And if the legislature decides that the good bullet proof vests cost too much, and that they’d rather spring for the bargain basement bullet proof vests, because hey, times are tight, Arizona’s police officers would just have to accept that.
This is what these bills do. They take the decisions of the workers themselves and put them in the hands of politicians. In other states, the professionals that make up the public sector unions can band together and say “when it comes to keeping ourselves alive, we know best.” But with these Arizona bills, that voice is gone – made completely illegal.
These four bills do nothing to create jobs in Arizona. These four bills do nothing to address the homeowners on the brink of foreclosure. These four bills do nothing to invest in Arizona’s students, its children, or its future.
Our friends at AFSCME have launched a new website, “Razing Arizona,” to tell Arizona lawmakers to reject these bills. Please sign, share, and help spread the word. This is warfare against the middle class, and we can’t let them win.