Allies of former senator Russell Pearce secured a critical step in pushing for legislation that creates the framework for reimbursing officials who face recall elections.
The proposal could pave the way for Pearce to get a reimbursement of more than $260,000 — the amount his campaign spent defending him last year, when he was ousted from the Senate in a recall election.
The legislation, which was adopted in a conference committee this afternoon, still needs the approval of both the House and the Senate.
It’s unclear whether it has the support to pass.
In any case, it will likely split the Republican caucus, some of whom indicated they oppose the proposal since Pearce didn’t spend his own money during the recall election.
It has also drawn harsh criticism from Pearce’s foes.
But his allies argue that legislators are constitutionally bound to make the reimbursement, and the Arizona Constitution mandates the Legislature to create the framework for reimbursing recalled officers.
The passion from both sides was clearly on display during the committee hearing this afternoon, which attracted lawmakers and onlookers.
Sen. Steve Smith, a Pearce ally who chaired the meeting, threw political organizer Randy Parraz and at least two others out of the room after the activists spoke uninvited.
Parraz and his group, Citizens for a Better Arizona, spearheaded the recall effort against Pearce last year.
After the hearing, Parraz asked why Pearce, when he was still Senate President, and Biggs didn’t address the constitutional provision on reimbursement last year.
“A year later after he loses, now his Tea Party folks come in here and at the end of the legislative session at a late afternoon (hearing), they shut down public comment and don’t let people come forward,” Parraz said.
“It’s a dog-and-pony show. It’s all about Russell Pearce,” he added.
At one point during the hearing, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, described the incessant questioning from Rep. Martin Quezada as “political grandstanding.”
When Quezada said he wanted staff to answer whether issuing a check to Pearce later would violate the “gift clause” in the state Constitution, Farnsworth retorted that under the state Constitution, reasonable expenses can be paid and this is a provision that’s apart from the “gift clause.”
“So please explain to us how this would violate gift clause,” Farnsworth said.
The amendment doesn’t actually reimburse Pearce nor does it provide for any amount to reimburse the ousted Republican.
The amendment says a reimbursement will be made after the recalled official submits an itemized account of campaign expenses, which must be submitted within two years after the recall election.
But the Legislature – or other governing bodies in the case of officials who aren’t state officers – still must approve the expenses submitted by the recalled official.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs said all the language does is “create the potentiality” to reimburse a recalled official. It doesn’t guarantee a reimbursement, he said.
“There’s no money in here,” Biggs said, saying all the proposal does is to satisfy the constitutional requirement to create the framework for reimbursing officers.
The Arizona Constitution requires the Legislature to enact laws to govern recalls, “including provision for payment by the public treasury of the reasonable special election campaign expenses of such officer.”
Earlier, House Speaker Pro Tem Steve Montenegro circulated a letter calling for Pearce’s reimbursement.
“There’s a lot of legislators that have raised the issue,” the Litchfield Park Republican said. “Some members have spoken out, and it’s our constitutional duty.”
But some aren’t sure Pearce deserves to be reimbursed, since none of the money he spent in the recall election was actually his.
“If it came out of Russell’s personal pocket – you know, he and his wife took out a second mortgage (or) something like that – then the conversation is open. But a refund of campaign contributions from groups across the country, from lobbyists and things like that? Absolutely not,” said Sen. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican.
Crandall often butted heads with Pearce when the two served together in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Rather than challenge Pearce this year, Crandall announced that he will move to a neighboring district.
Even Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, one of Pearce’s ideological allies, said he’s not “keen on giving away taxpayer money.”
“I’m not going to vote for it,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times this week. “It’s taxpayer money. I don’t give taxpayer money away to anybody. I don’t want to give taxpayer money to half of the things that we give now.”
Pearce is running again for the Senate this year in the new Legislative District 25. His opponent in the Republican primary is Bob Worsley, the founder of SkyMall.
Until 1973, state law included provisions to reimburse recalled officials: maximums of $500 for statewide officers, $200 for legislators and $150 for municipal officers. However, that law was repealed as part of a sweeping overhaul of the state’s initiative, referendum and recall statutes.
In the historic 2011 recall election, Pearce spent $260,302 attempting to retain the Senate seat he had been elected to a year earlier. None of the money was his: Of the $261,000 he raised, more than $180,000 came from individual contributors and another $81,000 came from political action committees.
He was defeated by Republican Jerry Lewis, who spent $84,979. The election was the first time in state history a legislator was successfully recalled.