One of my ongoing frustrations with the way we talk about the current legislature is the rather lazy phrase “Wild West Legislature.” As if the fact that some of them seem to have an obsession with firearms means that they are just like the legislators in territorial days.
Actual history, is of course, more complicated. For example, our university system and the Board of Regents that governs it was established by the Thirteenth Territorial Legislature, one given the Wild West monikers of “Thieving Thirteenth” and “Bloody Thirteenth,” that ran from 1885-1887. A legislator from Tucson named Selim Franklin shamed the body into appropriating money for a publicly funded college in his town and a “normal school” in Tempe. Franklin served on the Board of Regents that governed the university in a few of its earliest years.
In another Wild West move, the money to buy the land for the University of Arizona was provided by the only local citizens with enough liquid capital: gamblers and saloon keepers.
So, the actual residents of the Wild West were, you know, thinking about the future and building something. Go figure.
Okay, a bit of a round about way to get what I really should be talking about:
Did you notice the Senate Appropriations Committee moved forward a proposal to abolish the Board of Regents?
The “Approps” hearing was nearly twelve hours long and featured debate (strong word for what actually happened) on a variety of controversial subjects. It wasn’t until near the end of the meeting that chairman Andy Biggs put forward two proposals: one to put a referendum on the ballot to dissolve the Board of Regents, and the other to replace ABOR with Boards of Trustees at each of the state universities.
Oddly, Biggs sells this proposal as a way to streamline our higher education system. How replacing one authority with several smaller bureaucracies would accomplish this is left a bit unclear. How much clarity you get from any discussion a little after 1:00 AM is always a problem, though.
What it does do, however, is set up a situation where the various universities will be in competition with one another. Yes, there is competition now, but having a Board of Regents responsible for the state has been a check on that. They’ve been a powerful, unified voice for higher education. And, in recent decades, they’ve understood their statewide mandate and established branch campuses in communities across the state.
What we’ll end up with should these bills pass is a “system” for higher education where several bodies are fighting with each other over scarce educational resources. Frankly, it doesn’t bode well for the future of either the University of Arizona (where Biggs attended law school) or Northern Arizona University as so much political power becomes more concentrated in Maricopa County. The cynic in me wonders if the intention is to give more power to the legislators as these new boards get played off of each other at budget time.
Whatever the true intentions here, the whole idea seems poorly thought out.