Year in Review: 2011 was a tumultuous political year, starting with tragedy in Tucson
Published: December 31, 2011 at 11:49 am
The soap opera fans got Sen. Scott Bundgaard’s side-of-the-road scuffle, the conspiracy theorists had their hands full with the Independent Redistricting Commission, and those who delight in schadenfreude watched the fall of Senate President Russell Pearce.
Leadership in both the House and Senate played musical chairs, and tears were shed when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot in Tucson. Some lawmakers saw their policy wish-lists granted; while others watched their bills go down in flames by votes or vetoes.
Even for a state that has had its share of national headlines, 2011 was a year of constant theater. Here’s a reflection on some of the biggest stories of the past 12 months.
The New Year began in tragedy for Arizona, when a deranged gunman opened fire at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ meet-and-greet with constituents at a grocery store in Tucson. The shooter killed six, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, and wounded 13 others, including Giffords, who was shot point blank in the head.
Giffords, widely viewed as the Democrats’ biggest star after the Republican landslide of 2010, was suddenly forced to learn anew how to walk and speak as she struggled to recover from a severe brain injury.
As she struggled through a difficult recovery, Giffords became a hero to Democrats and Republicans alike.
Politicos wondered not only whether she would ever be able to serve again in Congress, but whether she would be able to live a healthy, functional life. Every piece of news about her progress sparked another round of prognostications about her political future. In August, she returned to Congress for the first and so far only time since the shooting to cast her vote on a contentious debt-ceiling deal. After Giffords’ first post-shooting interview in November, supporters were optimistic about her progress but concerned about the long road ahead.
The Jan. 8 shooting occurred just two days before the start of Arizona’s legislative session, which opened amid tributes, memorials, metal detectors and a massive police presence.
Following the heated rhetoric of the 2010 campaign season, which many Democrats initially blamed for inspiring the shooting — Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik called Arizona a “Mecca for hatred and bigotry” before it was learned that gunman Jared Loughner’s outburst was triggered by severe mental illness, not political ideology — many people called for a new era of civility in politics. But politicians soon settled into their normal partisan routine.
As 2012 begins, perhaps the biggest unanswered political question is whether Giffords will — or is even able to — run for a fourth term.
Republicans rode on a political tsunami to capture a supermajority in the Legislature in 2010, but the man who helped them secure it would lose his seat to a political newcomer a year later.
In an almost improbable turn of events, former Senate President Russell Pearce became the first sitting legislator in state history to face a recall and was then defeated in November.
Pearce’s fall can only be fully appreciated by what he accomplished as a lawmaker. The Mesa Republican authored major laws against illegal immigration, most notably Arizona’s SB1070, a controversial enforcement bill that was equally vilified and praised elsewhere.
Then a few days after the 2010 election, he rose to become Senate president.
That’s why many underestimated the recall drive against him. But the effort gained momentum, thanks in part to the organizing skills of its leader, labor activist Randy Parraz.
In May, Parraz’s Citizens for a Better Arizona submitted more than 18,000 signatures, of which 10,365 were eventually certified to be valid signatures of registered voters in Legislative District 18.
The group only needed 7,756 to force a recall, in which all registered voters, including independents, could cast a ballot.
A few candidates filed the paperwork, but in the end the election pitted Pearce against fellow Republican Jerry Lewis, a charter school executive and former stake president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Thus, the stage was set for a showdown.
But Lewis, though greatly outspent, was aided in part by missteps on the part of Pearce’s allies, such as their decision to help gather signatures for an unknown Hispanic woman allegedly to siphon off votes from Lewis.
Pearce might also have been hurt by his campaign’s decision to go negative, accusing Lewis, for example, of stealing donated items from homeless kids while serving as a school principal.
On Nov. 8, Lewis captured the seat, winning with a healthy 12-point margin, defeating a giant in state politics.
Arizona lawmakers who accepted free football tickets and junkets from the Fiesta Bowl over the years won’t have to hire criminal defense attorneys in 2012. But they will probably be busy reforming the state’s lobbying laws.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery on Dec. 21 announced he wasn’t going to file criminal charges against any of them because he had no way of proving criminal intent, bringing an eight-month investigation to a close.
But Montgomery’s investigation was looking into just one aspect of the Fiesta Bowl scandal. Attorney General Tom Horne is conducting his own investigation, and on Nov. 16, the office of the U.S. Attorney for Arizona indicted the bowl’s former chief operating officer, Natalie Wisneski, on allegations she solicited campaign contributions from bowl employees for federal, state and local candidates and then reimbursed them with bowl funds.
The Fiesta Bowl conducted an internal investigation and in March released the findings, which included revelations that lawmakers were treated to trips and lodging to out-of-state college football games and football tickets and they often didn’t report the gifts as required on financial disclosure forms. The investigation also found a scheme to reimburse employees for political contributions, a felony, and lavish spending by former Chief Executive Officer John Junker.
Montgomery investigated 28 current and former lawmakers, two other politicians, a lobbying firm and a lobbyist for eight months. He found that 18 of them had improperly filled out their disclosure forms, but Montgomery said he didn’t believe he could convict anyone of filing false or incomplete forms because the law requires he prove the politician did it “knowingly.” He called for reforms to the law, including either an outright ban on gifts or a reporting threshold so low that politicians, no matter which office, would be required to report almost everything.
Montgomery said his ideas were well received by legislative leaders.
Rep. Kimberly Yee, a Phoenix Republican, filed HB2033 the same day Montgomery announced his decision against charging anyone with a crime. The bill appropriates $500,000 from the general fund to the Secretary of State’s Office to develop databases for politicians and lobbyists to file their financial disclosures.
For the next decade, the state’s congressional and legislative maps will be a constant reminder of the all-out political war Republicans waged over the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
Republicans were wary of the IRC from its earliest days, when the two Democratic members and independent chairwoman rejected the attorney favored by the two GOP commissioners and followed up that decision by hiring a mapping consultant with deep ties to Democratic causes and candidates, including President Barack Obama.
But after allegations emerged that Chairwoman Colleen Mathis had violated open meeting laws, Republicans launched a frontal assault on the IRC. They accused the commission of violating constitutional criteria for redistricting and illegally considering incumbents’
residences, and accused Mathis of colluding with her Democratic colleagues against the two Republicans. Meetings often devolved into personal arguments between the commissioners and ended in a parade of angry conservatives who denounced the commission and its work.
The process hit rock bottom in November when Gov. Jan Brewer convened a special session of the Legislature and the Senate voted to remove Mathis from office. Mathis’ ouster, however, was only temporary. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Brewer and the Senate improperly removed Mathis and reinstated her as chairwoman. Weeks later, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge nixed an investigation begun by Attorney General Tom Horne into the alleged open meeting violations.
Republicans are expected to sue over the maps, and some lawmakers are contemplating ballot measures to alter the IRC. But the maps likely are here to stay.
Democrats, who prepared well for the process, gained little or nothing in the legislative map but now have three competitive congressional districts they can vie for every two years to go along with two rock- solid districts. And GOP leadership, whom many Republicans accused of falling asleep at the wheel and preparing poorly for the redistricting process, at least learned a lesson — it pays to plan ahead.
For a brief time, it seemed as though a perfect set of conditions finally arrived to pass legislation aimed at challenging the granting of automatic American citizenship to children of illegal immigrants.
At the helm of the Senate was Russell Pearce, architect of SB1070 and the state’s foremost advocate for anti-illegal immigration measures.
In addition, the Republican-led Legislature had a supermajority, which meant if people voted by party-line, it would be a slam dunk to pass the 14th Amendment legislation and four other get-tough immigration bills.
But supporters of the legislation misread the opposition in epic proportions.
The five immigration measures went down — soundly and thoroughly.
The story wasn’t only their defeat, but in the fact that with four of the five bills, nearly half of Republicans joined with Democrats in saying “no.”
In opposing the bills, Republicans drew a line over just how far they wanted Arizona to go in enacting state-level and enforcement-only immigration measures.
It was a stinging setback for Pearce and others, but it also wasn’t totally surprising.
There were early signs of Republican fracture. The birthright bills had a difficult time getting out of the committee level, failing in the Judiciary panel before getting the nod of the Appropriations Committee.
Meanwhile, the business community mobilized against the bills, and a letter by 60 CEOs and business leaders urging the Legislature to stop passing state-level immigration bills proved pivotal.
With Pearce gone and everybody’s focus on job creation, it is unlikely the measures, if introduced pretty much as-is, will prosper in the upcoming session.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is going to have to navigate 2012’s campaign season with the federal government on his back.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano delivered a one-two punch to the sheriff on Dec. 15 by leveling the accusation that racial bias is deeply rooted in his agency and taking away his immigration enforcement authority.
DOJ’s Civil Rights Division announced findings of a 3-year investigation, alleging that deputies racially profiled Latino drivers to make traffic stops and illegally arrested and detained Latinos during human smuggling and crime suppression sweeps. Detention officers in the jail also mistreated and discriminated against Latinos who didn’t speak English, the DOJ said.
Arpaio has until Jan. 4 to say whether he is going to cooperate in what amounts to a federal takeover of the Sheriff’s Office and then just two months to hammer out an agreement with the feds, who expect him to re-write his policies, re-train his deputies and be answerable to a court-hired monitor who will oversee compliance on a daily basis.
Arpaio’s other choice is to go to court.
No matter which option Arpaio, who has been in office since 1993, takes, he’ll be addressing it well into 2012 and beyond — if he wins another term — as Democrats and his critics will use the federal findings as ammunition against him.
Arpaio and other Republicans questioned the timing of the announcement, saying it was obviously a political ploy to hamper Arpaio’s re-election and distract from the one-year anniversary of the death of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, whose murder has been linked to the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal.
Arpaio assailed Napolitano for taking away his authority to enforce immigration law, which was used exclusively in jail intake screenings, where specially trained detention officers could determine a person’s immigration status. The screenings were used to place a federal hold on inmates and to hold illegal immigrants suspected of serious state crimes in jail without bond.
“Today, the federal government moved to do everything it can to put this agency out of the illegal immigration enforcement business,”
The feds have an abuse of power criminal investigation going as well, and there is no telling when the results of that one will come out.
It was risky to be in a leadership position in 2011, no matter which chamber or which party a lawmaker was in.
Domestic violence charges, congressional ambitions and a recall forced Republicans out of their majority leadership posts in both the House and Senate this year. In March, Sen. Scott Bundgaard, R-Peoria, was nudged out of his position as Senate majority leader after he was involved in an altercation with his then-girlfriend. Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, was chosen as his replacement.
The House saw a shuffling of leadership shortly after the session ended, when House Speaker Kirk Adams resigned his seat to run for Congress. Former House Majority Leader Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, was elected in his place.
The biggest shakeup for Republicans came in November, after Senate President Russell Pearce was successfully recalled, leaving his seat open. Although Biggs was pegged as a likely replacement, Majority Whip Steve Pierce was elected instead, putting two rural lawmakers in leadership positions at the Legislature.
With new leaders, the dominoes began to topple: In the House, Rep.
Steve Court, R-Mesa, was elected majority leader, while Rep. Debbie Lesko retained her post as majority whip. Biggs remained majority leader in the Senate, and Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, was appointed majority whip.
Even the Democrats played a bit of musical chairs during the session.
Minority Whip Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, resigned from his seat in March after butting heads with his party over absent days and some votes.
Rep. Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson, took his place.
It was nice while it lasted.
Finishing the legislative session in 100 days as promised, the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer appeared to be on the same page. The budget was passed by April 1, allowing the House and Senate to begin tying up loose ends and get their work finished before the end of April.
Some signs of discord began popping up before the session was over.
Vetoes of important Republican bills — among them a so-called “birther” bill, two firearms bills and a bill to privatize city services — caused some grumbling among lawmakers. A total of 29 bills were rejected by the Ninth Floor. Lawmakers complained that Brewer did not give them any warning that she had concerns about their bills, preferring to veto them than work with the sponsor to make amendments.
And it only continued downhill from there as Brewer pushed for a special session to extend unemployment aid by 20 weeks to some 15,000 Arizonans. Leadership in the House and Senate countered by suggesting the extension be coupled with a resurrected version of Invest Arizona, a vetoed bill aimed at spurring job creation. Brewer called the special session anyway, which adjourned without action after two days and prompted lawmakers to complain about being “thrown under the bus.”
Although they were able to cooperate during the special session to remove Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission chair Colleen Mathis, once Mathis was reinstated by the Arizona Supreme Court, Republicans began clamoring for another special session for a ballot measure aimed at the IRC. When Brewer refused, some lawmakers accused her of going back on her word.
Arizona Competitiveness Package (HB2001)
One of the flagship pieces of legislation this year, the Arizona Competitiveness Package, or so-called “jobs bill,” was a victory at the time of passage but some lawmakers soured on certain elements as the year went on. The final version was a compromise from a bill that then-House Speaker Kirk Adams introduced in 2010, but was met with resistance from the governor. At the time, Brewer was arguing for a temporary sales tax increase to fund education, and would not consider additional tax cuts before 2013 when the tax increase expires.
The 2011 bill included a package of phased-in cuts to the corporate income tax rate, but a compromise pushed the implementation of those cuts back to 2014 rather than immediately. That was enough to earn Brewer’s approval, but it caused some Republicans in the Legislature to balk.
There were other elements to give Republicans heartburn, including the newly created Arizona Commerce Authority, tasked with doling out money from the $25 million deal-closing fund that the law established.
Opposition only got stronger in August, when ACA CEO Don Cardon was awarded a compensation package that included $986,000 in state-funded salary and benefits over three years. Some legislators have suggested they may introduce legislation in the 2012 session to rein in the ACA’s power.
Pension reform (SB1609)
It was the final feather in Adams’ hat before he resigned from the
Legislature: a bill to overhaul the public pension system. When Adams first unveiled his plan, it sparked an outcry from union leaders over the drastic provisions. In the original bill, the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for retirees was eliminated, as was the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). Contribution rates for employees enrolled in the programs were raised quickly, as well. But the final version looked a lot more like what his colleague, Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, had proposed: COLA and DROP were preserved, although the formula was changed so it was tied to how well the system was funded, and contribution rate increases were phased in over five years.
The final version included many compromises proposed by public safety union officials, who were gratified to see the changes but unhappy with the process. Many argued that Adams had not included them in enough discussion involving the bill, particularly compared to the governor and Yarbrough. Even with the compromises, the new law is facing litigation from public employees’ unions, on the basis that the new law violates a provision in the Arizona Constitution that prohibits contractual benefits from being diminished.
Compromises and lawsuits aside, the law has been a frequent talking point of Adams’ as he hits the campaign trail in his run for Congress.
Gov. Jan Brewer and the Legislature spent much of 2011 fighting health care battles.
After slashing funding for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to help balance the deficit-wracked budget, Brewer and lawmakers faced two serious obstacles to their plan — the federal government and an inevitable lawsuit.
Brewer worried that the feds would deny a waiver Arizona sought so it could enact an enrollment freeze that would eventually shed about 100,000 people from the state’s Medicaid rolls while saving the state about $200 million. Even as she denounced President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and sued the federal government to overturn it, Brewer hoped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would free her from a restriction in the law that prohibited states from reducing coverage.
In the end, Arizona didn’t need the waiver, and federal approval for most of the AHCCCS plans went through without a hitch. But liberal advocacy groups carried out their threat to sue, arguing that the cuts violated a 2000 ballot measure that vastly expanded AHCCCS coverage.
The Arizona Supreme Court must still hear the case, but Brewer has prevailed in Superior Court and the Court of Appeals, and the case may end up setting important legal precedents.
While Democrats cried foul over the AHCCCS cuts, they ultimately got what they wanted on another high-profile health care issue. For months, Brewer had resisted calls to restore roughly $1 million in organ transplant funding that had been cut in 2010, which Democrats made into a marquee campaign issue during the gubernatorial race. But when Brewer signed the budget in April, she effectively restored the funding, which affected about 100 AHCCCS patients. The funding restoration came after the deaths of two patients who had been dropped from the transplant list.
In a year of rise and fall, few illustrated how quickly a star can lose his luster than Sen. Scott Bundgaard, a Peoria Republican who was once considered a potential congressional contender.
Smart and conservative, Bundgaard was chosen to become Senate majority leader shortly after the 2010 elections, a significant feat since he was technically a freshman even though he had served in the Legislature before.
But a bruising fight with his then-girlfriend on a Phoenix freeway in February would send his political career in a nosedive.
First, colleagues removed him as majority leader.
Then he faced an ethics inquiry, which is still pending.
Bundgaard maintained he was attacked by his ex-girlfriend, but her version of events hewed closer to the police report, which cited witnesses as saying he was the aggressor.
He avoided a court trial by accepting a plea deal with prosecutors.
Under the agreement, an assault charge was dropped and an endangerment charge would also be dismissed if he completed a year of counseling through a domestic-violence diversion program.
In August, the Senate Ethics Committee decided to investigate a complaint against him by Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who alleged that Bundgaard broke Senate rules by violating state law and by engaging in conduct that reflects poorly on the Senate.
Bundgaard is battling the ethics inquiry, arguing that committee members, including its chairman, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, already prejudged him and he therefore can’t get a fair trial.
In a last minute attempt to halt the investigation, he sued in December, seeking a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order.
The judge is expected to rule before the ethics trial on Jan. 5 whether the courts can step into a legislative hearing.
But even if Bungaard survives an ethics trial, the political damage has been done and the domestic-violence incident will surely be used in a campaign if he chooses to run for re-election.
For the fourth year in a row, lawmakers grappled with an incessant fiscal mess. But this time around, they eschewed familiar budget gimmicks, such as lease-purchase schemes, in favor of outright cuts.
All told, the Republican-led Capitol produced an $8.32 billion budget that reflected lawmakers’ fiscal conservatism, produced a lot of handwringing and invited lawsuits, any one of which could undo any semblance of balance in the budget.
Unwilling to consider an alternative funding mechanism, they authorized Gov. Jan Brewer to freeze enrollment for adults without dependent children in the state’s Medicaid program, a move that is estimated to shrink that population by about 100,000. A lawsuit is now pending against the state over these cuts.
As expected, K-12 education wasn’t spared. Lawmakers cut about $183 million from that budget. For Republicans, the reason was obvious:
It’s the biggest piece of the budget pie. Given the size of the deficit, cuts to education were inevitable, they said.
The university system also took a hit as the state reduced its subsidy by nearly $200 million.
Lawmakers also required local governments to fork out money and help the state pay for its operations. They even increased state employees’
share of their retirement contributions, something that Senate leaders said would be reversed.
The upcoming session should be less painful as the economy limps its way back to health. Economists have predicted a slow growth over the next few years, but at least the economy is growing.
— Reporters Luige del Puerto, Jeremy Duda, Caitlin Coakley Beckner and Gary Grado contributed to this report.