Personal gain vs. public responsibility
After initially denying rumors that she planned to resign from the Arizona State Senate, Sen. Linda Lopez finally conceded that she’ll leave her post in January.
But rather than resign immediately, the Tucson Democrat has drawn criticism from her colleagues for staying at the Legislature to gain another year of service in order to pad her retirement benefits.
The decision puts Senate Democrats in a bind. Lopez, 65, will likely leave immediately before or at the outset of the 2014 legislative session, scheduled to begin on
Jan. 13, and will leave the minority caucus in the Senate down a vote for weeks as officials in Pima County work to appoint Lopez’s replacement.
Lopez dismissed arguments that the Legislature and her district would be better off if she resigned immediately and gave the Pima County Board of Supervisors enough to time appoint a new Legislative District 2 senator.
In fact, Lopez could have resigned in October, when she announced that she would step down as assistant minority leader in order to commit more time to her new position with the Easter Seals Blake Foundation.
Lopez told the Arizona Capitol Times she “pretty much thought” she would have to resign when she was hired by the foundation, but made up her mind after about two weeks on the job. Lopez began working as a director with the foundation on Nov. 4.
The decision to resign was made easier by a reshuffling of Senate Democratic leadership in October. Eight members of the minority caucus voted to oust Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, and make Sen. Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson, the new minority leader.
Lopez said she’s still bitter about Landrum Taylor’s ouster and shot back at the new Democratic leadership team, some of whom questioned Lopez’s decision to stay in office to boost her pension.
“That’s OK, they can be frustrated,” Lopez said. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for me.’’
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said it would be better if Lopez resigned now and gave the Senate a chance to begin the new session without a vacancy.
“I would hope that the vast majority of the members run for the Legislature definitely not for the salary or the retirement. We run because we want to serve, we want to create good public policy,” Gallardo said.
It’s unclear what benefit Lopez may accrue by waiting to resign until January. Pension benefits are accrued each pay period, meaning Lopez would see a minimal boost in her pension by waiting one extra month to retire, according to officials with the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, which handles retirement benefits for elected officials.
Lopez said she’s waiting for word from the Elected Officials Retirement Plan to determine the exact date she can retire after receiving credit for her 13th year of legislative service.
“I didn’t run for the salary or the retirement, but when you get to be 65 years old, you think about your future,” Lopez said. “So, yes, I want to be able to accrue as much as I can in retirement. But I never ran for the salary or the retirement, I ran for public service.”
OUTGOING – Jack Jackson, D-Window Rock
Jackson retired effective July 12 to accept a White House appointment as an adviser and liaison on Native American affairs for the U.S. State Department — the first such position within the federal agency. Jackson first served in the Arizona Legislature in 2003, when he was elected to the House of Representatives. After one term, he left, and then returned to the Capitol in 2011 as a state senator.
INCOMING – Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado
Begay was appointed to the Senate by the Apache County Board of Supervisors and was sworn into the office in August, when he immediately faced questions over his residency and qualifications to represent Legislative District 7. The Arizona Capitol Times reported on Begay’s long residency in Gilbert, as detailed in his work history and appointments to various state and local boards. A brief challenge to Begay’s appointment, made by Rep. Albert Hale, D-St. Michaels, was dropped when Hale opted against taking the case to court and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office declined to go to trial on his behalf.
OUTGOING – Rich Crandall, R-Mesa
Crandall took his time getting to retirement after announcing in March he’d leave the Senate, delaying his retirement for weeks, saying he needed to keep his medical benefits to maintain coverage for his children before insurance kicked in at his new job in Wyoming. Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, declared the seat vacant in August, effectively ending Crandall’s tenure at the Legislature and allowing him to fully move on to his new job as the director of the Wyoming Department of Education.
INCOMING – Dave Farnsworth, R-Mesa
Farnsworth was a late-comer to the race to be considered as an appointee to replace Crandall, but handily won the majority of votes from Maricopa County precinct committeemen in Legislative District 16. He was appointed by the County Board of Supervisors to the Senate in September, and sworn in a day later. The former Legislative District 4 representative hasn’t served at the Legislature since 1996, and promises to be a far more conservative lawmaker than Crandall, who was among the few GOP senators who voted in favor of Medicaid expansion and was often a thorn in the side of his fellow Republicans in the majority caucus.
OUTGOING – Linda Lopez, D-Tucson
Lopez exits on a low note from the Capitol, as her decision to step down as assistant minority leader created an opening for Senate Democrats to oust
Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, as minority leader. The maneuver made Lopez’s decision to resign entirely from the Senate easier, she said, as bitterness lingers among some in the minority caucus. The date of Lopez’s resignation is unclear, as she awaits word from officials with the Elected Officials Retirement Plan on when she’ll accrue her 13th year as an Arizona lawmaker.
INCOMING – To be determined
Once Lopez resigns, it’ll be up to the Pima County Board of Supervisors to determine who will take her place in the Senate. The board must appoint an advisory group to vet and nominate three candidates for office, from which the supervisors will choose one as the next senator for Legislative District 2. The process is likely to take at least two to three weeks, meaning Lopez’s seat will be vacant at the beginning of the 2014 legislative session.