Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described the states as “laboratories for democracy.” Policies enacted at the state level can offer insight into their likely efficacy on the federal level.
Kirk Adams, the former Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, has authored legislation that pulled the state’s budget from billions in shortfalls into the black. He led the way in reforming the pension system for state employees — beginning with himself: he voluntarily opted out of the system in a symbolic gesture for reform. Adams was also instrumental in the passage of landmark immigration enforcement legislation.
Adams sat down with Scribe for an exclusive interview, in which he conservative reforms in his state, the need to secure the southern border, and the proper role of compromise in the electoral process, among other issues.
Heritage will host Adams at noon today for a discussion of the upcoming oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona over landmark immigration legislation passed during his tenure as Speaker.
What do you consider to be your top accomplishments as speaker?
It’s really three things. We reduced state spending by $3.4 billion, a 30% reduction. When I became speaker in January 2009, I ran against the incumbent speaker, a Republican, beat him, and we had a $3.4 billion deficit. Today we have a $700 million surplus. I authored and passed the largest tax cut in state history. We’re now adding jobs. We added 45,000 jobs in Arizona last year, the first job growth we’ve seen in five years.
Now you contrast those two things with the Democratic model in California, just to the west of Arizona. When we came in with this deficit, California was at 30% deficit-to-revenues. We were at 29% — virtually equal. Today, we have a surplus, we’re adding jobs, we passed a tax cut. California, on the other hand, still has billions of dollars in deficits, they’re bleeding businesses — we’re picking up a lot of California businesses because we lowered our taxes to be even more competitive. And I think when you look at the tale of two states like that, you see a conservative model, and you see a liberal model, and you can see the difference in the two.
And the third thing, I would say, is I took on public pension reform as well. And in Arizona, where I wrote that bill, we included all public sector employees, including police and fire, including elected officials. The pension system that was most beneficial for its recipients was the elected officials’ pension system — the classic “fox guarding the henhouse.” So we eliminated early retirement, which was after only five years, for elected officials.
I voluntarily opted out of the state pension system. I served in the state legislature for five years. After five years, I could have begun to collect a state pension on the taxpayers’ dime. Over the course of my expected lifetime, it would have been $250,000 that I gave up voluntarily. And I did that to set the example that we need to fix this pension system. And I also did it because when I ran for office I didn’t know there was such thing as a pension system for elected officials.
We hear a lot of talk about gridlock in Washington these days. You led the charge for landmark conservative reforms. Did that require you to reach across the aisle, or was opposition too entrenched?
I’ll be honest, when you’re talking about cutting government spending and cutting taxes and taking on government unions, you don’t have an opportunity to build bridges with Democrats. You just have to beat them, and that’s what we did. Compromise is something that has a role in the political process, obviously, but not if it’s not moving you towards real solutions.
I’ll give you an example. Arizona was in fiscal free-fall. When we got into this in January 2009, there were a lot of doubts about whether we could ever get out of it. Our deficit — $3.4 billion with eight-and-a-half billion in revenue — that just seemed insurmountable. Nobody thought we had the political will to cut $3.4 billion. Well, we found a way to do it.
But, in that process, during the worst fiscal crisis in state history, in the midst of the worst national economic crisis since the great depression, the Democrats in the Arizona state legislature not one time voted to cut a single penny of spending. So you can’t compromise with that position.
Same thing on the tax cut. We actually lowered the corporate income tax rate by 35% — in a recession. When I introduced that bill, I was told “you can’t cut business taxes in a recession.” So I traveled the state talking about how economics works. Nobody gets a job until somebody first has capital to invest. Capital goes where capital is welcome. When you have confiscatory tax rates, capital is going to go elsewhere. That’s a law of nature. That’s a law of economics. You can’t suspend those laws.
What are the stakes of this debate, in Arizona and elsewhere?
You hear this a lot, but I think the country is at a true crossroads. I think we have four to six years to start turning the corner, otherwise we reach a point of no return, both socially and politically.
You’re not going to fix the problems at the federal level in three years. Maybe it takes five, maybe it takes 10, but the point is you have to start changing the trajectory. If our debt accumulation keeps going up like this, we have no hope. If we flatten that curve out, year three, year four, seven, eight, if that thing starts trending down, then we have real hope and we have a brighter future.
You were also instrumental in the passage of the Arizona immigration law commonly known as SB1070. That earned Arizona the ire of the Obama Justice Department. What do you make of their intense opposition to the law?
There were two key moments, I thought, that were the most revealing. The president said that this would allow police officers to arrest people — families — on their way to get an ice cream cone, a blatant disregard for the truth. It created an image of SB1070 that was nothing like the bill itself. The second moment was when Attorney General Eric Holder said he hadn’t even read the bill. It’s an 11-page bill. He’s the attorney general of the United States. This is not the health care bill. It’s an 11-page bill. …
The regret that I have with 1070 is that we did not anticipate the media firestorm that would be created from it. It was like the Super Bowl. I mean, I could walk out of my office and speak to Anderson Cooper and Larry King and the Fox guys and the MSNBC guys. They were camped out on our lawns. We just didn’t anticipate the symbol that it became, and therefore there was about a week lag where we were outdone in explaining the true nature of SB1070.
All that being said, I think it’s also important to note that SB1070 hasn’t solved the problem. And in that sense, even some of its most enthusiastic supporters have oversold the measure. The truth is we will never get a handle on this problem in Arizona or anywhere in the country unless the federal government genuinely secures the southern border. To me, that’s the lynchpin. Everything else that you want to debate about that happens after that.
The controversy over Operation Fast and Furious is, of course, an important issue for Arizona. Are you satisfied with Congress’s investigative efforts? With the Justice Department’s cooperation in the investigation?
I think Congressman [Darrell] Issa is trying to get to the bottom of a lot of this, and I know that the Arizona delegation, in particular the Arizona House delegation, has been strong in trying to get answers on this. But no, the DOJ has not been forthcoming.
This is something that infuriates Arizonans. We know these border patrol agents. They live and they work in our state. They’re part of our communities. And to have the federal government providing weapons to professional drug and human smuggling cartels that are used against our people is infuriating. And it’s just another indication, we think, of a federal government that has never been really serious about what has to be done in the border region.