PHOENIX, ARIZ. — WHEN Canadian, Mexican, and US officials signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Arizona Gov. Fife Symington was there to bask in the sunlight of great expectations. The Republican governor has been looking for good news anywhere he can find it.
The state's decade-long real estate boom ended as Arizona became perhaps the hardest hit state in the savings and loan scandal of 1989. It suffers national scorn and serious loss of tourism and convention income because two public referendums to honor Martin Luther King's birthday as a state holiday have failed. And the actions of impeached former Gov. Evan Mecham still stain the state's image.
But on the positive side there are signs that Arizona is coming out of recession earlier than other states, reaping the benefits of businesses and residents exiting the chaotic climate of neighboring California.
In addition, the state has taken the lead in attracting defense companies in need of making the transition to civilian operations. And positive expectations about the future of NAFTA have generated the signing of billions in export deals that are producing tens of thousands of new jobs.
Of NAFTA, Governor Symington said, "There is much good about it for Arizona, and very little bad or ugly. We have identified about 20,000 added jobs in the export trade alone.... Some families in retail trades like clothing are very concerned. But I say the best defense is a good offense."
Changing trade patterns are matched by shifting state political winds that could deliver Symington a Republican Senate at the same time it delivers the state's electoral votes to Democratic Presidential nominee Bill Clinton. Symington says there is a first-time-ever cultural/political divide in operation during the current election: young vs. old voters.
"Bill Clinton has an inherited advantage there[with young voters]...but there is a dichotomy between what is happening in this state and who we are leaning toward for president. There will not be a coattail effect for Democrats. The state itself will move in Bush's direction."
Symington said the state's keen interest in state bureaucracy reformation and continued fiscal conservatism, prompted by 12 years of Republican presidents, is clear. Ballot initiatives include Symington's own push to streamline the bureaucracy and a third appeal to honor Martin Luther King, this time by combining Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays into a single President's Day and creating a Martin Luther King Jr/Civil Rights Day. Symington supports it, but says he is concerned it will not pass.
He is certain that the fiscal streamlining will move forward, however. "We are going to have a tremendous turnover in the legislature [both] because people are tired of serving in a citizen legislature for virtually no pay [and] a whole bunch of new people are interested in coming into state government. People are concerned about employment because it has been rough here the last few years."
Arizona's economy, Symington said, is in a period of transition - as the urban areas grow, agriculture and mining lose power and "traditional political constituencies are shoved aside."
Symington said he plans to help the economy through more tax decreases and cutting up to 2,000 state jobs. The cuts are accomplished through a process audit of state agencies, which targets unnecessary positions. In the department of Public Safety, he explained, 140 positions in middle management were targeted for elimination, a move that will save $15 million per year. Overall, Symington said, the state is in a position to save $150 million - an amount equal to its normal yearly growth.
Symington also discussed his ability to see these changes through given the specter of a large savings and loan lawsuit pending against him due to a previous position on the board of a savings and loan that allegedly went bankrupt holding a loan to one of his companies.
Acknowledging the damage it did his approval ratings, Symington said, "Initially it was really tough, because the Resolution Trust Corporation was just outrageous in its behavior. But my poll ratings have since rebounded...because I think the people understand that RTC has been very careless in the way they have researched their cases. I think that are facing a day of reckoning because Congress continues to refuse to fund them."