Amid charges of "legislative scalping" and racism, Arizona lawmakers have moved close to passing a bill that would create an all-Indian county.
The controversial measure stems from complaints by conservative white residents in Apache County in the northeast part of the state. The white residents contend that reservation Indians, who control the county board of supervisors 2 to 1, have approved bond issues adding taxes that the Indians do not have to pay.
The outvoted whites say that amounts to representation without taxation.
Legislation carving a new 15th county, virtually following Navajo reservation boundaries, has been passed by the Arizona House of Representatives, made it through a Senate committee last week, and appears likely to win the approval of the full Senate. The reservation, with a population of 86,000, covers 14,000 square miles, roughly the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Mitch Platt, a resident of St. Johns in Apache County, told a legislative committee that reservation Indians, who pay no property taxes, make up 75 percent of the county population. That means 25 percent of the residents pay the cost of county government, Platt said.
"It's as fundamental as the law of gravity that those who do not pay the bill will be somewhat extravagant and careless in the way those monies are spent," he said.
Arthur Lee, the one non-Indian member of the board of supervisors, complained: "The plain fact is that they Indian supervisors are imposing laws and setting tax rates that they're not subject to themselves."
State Rep. Ben Hanley, a Navajo from Window Rock who refers to the bill as "legislative scalping," charged that it would violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.
Hanley's colleague, Rep. Dan Peaches, also a Navajo from Window Rock, disputed the claim that non-reservation residents are being treated unfairly. He said the county's tax rate is one of the lowest in the state.
"If they're saying those who do not pay taxes are not entitled to hold public office, then I think that would require a change in the U.S. Constitution," Peaches said.
Hanley said he will ask Gov. Bruce Babbitt to veto the bill if it gets that far, and Ambrose Shepherd, chairman of the county board, warned that Babbitt had better exercise his veto if he hopes to secure Navajo support in his reelection campaign this year. Babbitt is a Democrat who is continually jousting with the Republican-controlled legislature, and some observers believe the GOP would like to send the bill to Babbitt merely to present him with a dilemma. Phoenix newspapers have urged the governor to sign the measure and set the stage for a court test. In any event, a revision of county boundaries would be subject to approval by the Justice Department which keeps a close watch on possible attempts to dilute minority voting strength.
The Justice Department recently rejected Arizona's attempt to draw new legislative boundaries because another Indian tribe, the San Carlos Apaches, was split among three districts. Democrats and Republicans since have agreed on a new map and are awaiting the Justice Department's final approval.