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Top 10 things to watch in Arizona politics in 2015

campaign finance money flag capitolWith the new year upon us, there are a host of issues state leaders likely will face in 2015. Here are 10 things to watch for in Arizona politics and government for the coming year.

School finance:
The Arizona Supreme Court already has ruled state lawmakers acted illegally beginning in 2010 when they ignored a 2000 voter-approved requirement to boost state aid to schools each year to account for inflation. That leaves only two things to be decided: How much they owe – and can the Legislature ignore the courts.

As to the first, a trial judge said just recomputing the aid formula to where it should have been requires an immediate $317 million infusion this fiscal year. That increases to $336 million next year and goes from there.

Lawmakers have appealed, arguing they can’t afford it and the courts can’t order it. And if nothing else, they say the reset should be just $87 million because they gave some larger-than-inflation increases in earlier years.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper is still looking at a separate demand for $1 billion in what was not paid to schools in the past.

Budget:
Even without the reset, Arizona already is predicted to end this fiscal year June 30 about $189 million in the red.

That’s the easy part for lawmakers, what with more than $450 million in the state’s “rainy day” fund. More problematic is an anticipated $667 million deficit for the coming year – and more if the school funding ruling goes against them.

The problem is due to two prongs of the same issue.

First, the recovery that outgoing Gov. Jan Brewer and Republican lawmakers were predicting just didn’t happen, at least not in Arizona.

At last count total state employment was still more than 50,000 below where it was at its pre-recession peak. And five months into this fiscal year, revenues were running $90 million below the forecast used to put together the spending plan.

The other side of the equation is that tax cuts approved by lawmakers in 2011 and 2012 are starting to kick in. These may get a new look after Brewer, in last interview with Capitol Media Services, said postponing them might be a good idea.
Incoming Gov. Doug Ducey has yet to offer any specific solutions.

Medicaid expansion:
In 2013 a coalition of Democrats and a handful of Republicans pushed through expansion of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, swelling the rolls by about 300,000 to more than 1.4 million in the acute care program – and 1.6 million including long-term care and those receiving partial services.

Brewer sold the idea as a financial plus, saying the federal Affordable Care Act would pick up much of the cost and the balance would come from a levy on hospitals. They went along, figuring the price tag was less than what they would gain in having fewer patients show up without insurance.

Only thing is, Republican legislators are challenging the levy, saying it actually is a tax. And the Arizona Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for any tax, something this plan did not get.

The Arizona Supreme Court will decide today if the lawmakers even have standing to sue. And if the legislators win this round, then courts will have to decide that question of is it a tax; if they lose then the challenge disappears.

A ruling in favor of the dissident lawmakers would kill the levy, resulting in either the state having to pick up hundreds of millions of dollars in costs or halting coverage for hundreds of thousands of Arizonans.

And all that presumes that federal courts do not void the entire Affordable Care Act.

Sentencing reform:
At last report Arizona had more than 42,000 people locked up, with the Department of Corrections listing average per capita operating costs of more than $65 a day. The agency’s total budget now tops $1 billion a year.

Some lawmakers from the majority Republican Party have offered up suggestions for repealing or altering the current laws which limit the ability of judges to decide sentences. There also have been various proposals for alternatives to incarceration like intensive probation.

Those GOP voices have until now been overruled by others within their own party. But the current budget situation could force legislators to revisit the issue.

County prosecutors already are preparing for a fight, complete with a report they say proves that virtually everyone now behind bars belongs there.

Campaign finance:
Attorneys for the state are appealing the ruling of a federal judge who voided laws which govern who has to register as a political committee before collecting and spending money to influence elections.

Unless overturned, that kills requirements for reporting expenses for or against upcoming ballot measures, meaning millions could be spent without voters knowing who is trying to influence them.

Less clear is the impact on candidate races.

While the ruling kills the reporting requirements in one section of the state election code, there are some parallel mandates in a separate voter-approved section which created the Citizens Clean Elections Act. Those appear to be undisturbed by the federal court order.

Along the same lines, outgoing Attorney General Tom Horne continues to fight an order by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk that he violated campaign finance laws in his successful 2010 race. Horne’s first appeal to a Maricopa County Superior Court judge went against him.

Redistricting:
The U.S. Supreme Court is looking at two other issues with election implications.

First, the justices will hear arguments March 2 on whether voters had the right in 2000 to decide that congressional maps must be drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission.

Attorneys for the Legislature contend the U.S. Constitution gives that power exclusively to them. But a panel of three judges concluded voters, as the ultimate lawmakers, had the right to delegate that power to the commission.

A win by the Republican-controlled Legislature gives them a chance to redraw the lines for 2016.

The court is looking at a separate claim that the commission acted illegally in creating 30 legislative districts of unequal size, ostensibly to give Democrats a better chance of getting elected. Attorneys for the commission acknowledge the population differences but say that was done to comply with federal laws which prohibit diluting minority voting strength.
If challengers win, the commission has to recraft legislative maps for 2016.

Driver’s licenses:
Arizonans accepted into the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program gained a key victory when a federal appeals court ordered that they be provided licenses to drive, at least for the time being. The court said there was reason to believe that they would prevail in their claim that Gov. Jan Brewer acted illegally in declaring they did not meet the requirements of a 1996 law allowing licenses to be issued solely to those whose presence in the country is “authorized by federal law.”

But there has yet to be a trial on the actual merits. And the state goes back to court Jan. 7 in an effort to prove that the “dreamers” are not “authorized” – and that the right to decide who gets licensed is strictly a question for the state.

The situation only gets more complicated now that the Obama administration has expanded its deferred action programs to cover perhaps 5 million nationwide.

Diane Douglas:
She won the race in November for state superintendent of public instruction. But even before the results were formalized a group was formed to push for her recall.

Foes are focusing largely on the fact that Douglas campaigned largely on her promise to kill the Common Core academic standards that Arizona adopted four years earlier and already are being implemented.

Douglas, however, has sought to calm the situation, even saying in an interview with Capitol Media Services she has no plans to simply kill the national standards. Instead, she has promised to use them as a starting point to create more Arizona-centric standards.

Signature gathering cannot even start until July. And then those who want her ouster have just 120 days to gather more than 376,000 valid signatures to force a special election.

Religious freedom:
Lawmakers approved a measure last year designed to expand the ability of business owners to cite their own “sincerely held religious beliefs” as a reason to refuse to provide service to others. It was vetoed after heavy lobbying by the business community and civil rights groups, with Gov. Jan Brewer saying it was a solution in search of a problem.

Since that time a federal judge has said gays can legally marry in Arizona, with their weddings on equal footing with those of opposite-sex couples.

That raises the issue cited by supporters of last year’s SB 1062 who said that businesses should not be forced to provide services for gay nuptials. It was just such a ruling against a photographer in New Mexico that led to legislation here.

Backers of providing protection to businesses say such laws are not only necessary but legally defensible. They cite the Hobby Lobby ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court which concluded that privately held businesses need not provide contraceptive coverage as part of their insurance for employees.

Revenge porn:
Lawmakers passed a far-reaching measure last session to make it a crime to publish naked pictures of someone else without that person’s permission. That includes posting on the Internet.

Proponents said they were trying to stamp out “revenge porn,” where a picture taken with consent during a relationship ends up being used as a weapon after an acrimonious breakup. But the legislation drew concern from book publishers and civil rights groups who sued, saying such a restriction is overly broad and illegal.

Challengers have agreed to put the lawsuit on hold to give lawmakers a chance to narrow the scope of the statute. But it remains to be seen whether it is possible to craft something to deal with the problem that satisfies the concerns raised.

Other issues likely to gain attention this year include:
– Debating whether to impose new restrictions on abortion.
– Fixing unintended problems with a revamp in the state’s tax on contracting.
– Enacting a recreational marijuana law and taxing it instead of letting the issue go to the 2016 ballot.
– Deciding whether it should be illegal to text while driving.
– Expanding where individuals can carry their weapons into public buildings.
– Moving toward a flat – or flatter – state income tax and indexing tax brackets.
– Debating whether there should be regulation of leases on solar panels by homeowners.
– Reviewing the state’s water use and possible contingencies should drought conditions continue.
– Using a new voter-approved constitutional amendment to challenge federal laws or regulations.
– Litigating whether Arizona will have the drugs it needs – and court permission – for executions.
– Expanding a voucher-like system to let more students use state funds to attend private and parochial schools.
– Easing restrictions on “craft” breweries and their rights to sell directly to the public.

2 comments

  1. The most logical and cost-effective way to address the budget shortfall — at least in part — would be to reduce the sentences of those currently in prison for non-violent offenses and make them eligible for release after serving 65% of their sentence (instead of the current requirement to serve 85%), to make all in-coming non-violent offenders eligible for release at 65% of the imposed sentence, to shorten all prison sentences, except those presently imposed as mandatory flat-time sentences, by 10%, and to make more defendants eligible for probation, including intensive probation. Also, the Dept. of Corrections should make their disciplinary system more fair so that prisoners do not lose earned release credit days in such an arbitrary manner (the punishment for certain infractions results in forfeiture of earned release credit days and extends the amount of time the prisoner must spend in prison). Laws should be considered for the release of elderly and severely handicapped or infirm prisoners. Judges should be allowed to impose concurrent sentences without interference from prosecutors when they feel that such sentencing is warranted. And so on. These actions, taken cumulatively, would reduce the cost of our gargantuan prison industrial complex without compromise to public safety. Other states have already taken some of these actions without endangering the community. None of this will happen in Arizona. Why? Because there are too many people all the way up and down the line in the criminal justice system who benefit from large numbers of defendants being processed through the courts, being jailed, being imprisoned, being on community supervision and parole — some of them for life — and being required to pay for counseling and treatment programs of dubious value in order to support that particular cottage industry, too. Arizona legislators don’t have the will or the guts to do what is almost obvious. Instead, they would rather stand on the weak and failing rhetoric which has sustained them through countless elections — the “tough on crime” mentality. Sad, but true.

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