Plans for a Republican-crafted budget blew up Thursday when a second GOP lawmaker said she won’t vote for a spending plan unless and until the state gives victims of childhood sexual abuse more time to sue their attackers.
Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said providing legal relief to victims is too important to allow business as usual.
“Sometimes there are issues that transcend everything else we do down at the Capitol,” she told Capitol Media Services. “It’s time for Arizona to improve its state statutes to help child victims of sexual abuse.”
What makes Carter’s declaration crucial is that there are only 17 Republicans in the 30-member Senate. And in aligning with Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, who already has said he is a holdout, that leaves Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, without a working GOP majority.
In fact, Fann already was having trouble keeping the troops in line: Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, has threatened to withhold her vote from the budget unless the state repeals a $32-a-vehicle licensing fee.
Fann told Capitol Media Services she’s not ready to panic.
“This is all part of the process,” she said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve heard people say, ‘I’m a “no” on the budget unless I get what I want.’ ”
And Fann said she has no problem with the general concept of what Boyer wants.
“Obviously we would like to make sure that victims really should have that opportunity to be able to confront their abusers,” she said.
“I’ve read the report where it says that sometimes they don’t realize what happened to them until they were 40 years old,” Fann said. “I get all that.”
But the Senate president said she believes that his proposal, as it stands, could create new “victims,” including business owners who end up being sued decades later for acts that may – or may not – have been committed by employees who are long gone.
Carter, however, said she’s not buying that.
“Arizona would not be the first state to do this,” she said, saying other states have greatly expanded the time for child sex abuse victims to bring civil claims.
And Carter said this isn’t just about seeking damages for prior victims. She said there are situations where the same person has remained in a position of trust – and in a position with access to children.
“Real cases were brought forth,” Carter said. “And real children who were being molested could be protected by removing that perpetrator from that situation.”
The fight is over current Arizona law which says child victims of sexual assault or abuse have two years after they turn 18 to file a civil suit.
Boyer, citing the studies about some children not realizing they were victims until decades later, seeks two key changes to the law.
First, he wants to extend the statute of limitations to seven years instead of two. More significant, he wants that clock to start running when someone knows or should have known he or she has been a victim, rather than the person’s 18th birthday.
Second, he wants to allow those for whom the statute of limitations already has run to have a two-year “window” to file new claims.
Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed to give the bill a hearing only if the bill was altered to conform to stricter time limits. When Boyer balked, Farnsworth killed the hearing.
Technically speaking, the time for hearing legislation in committee is passed. But Carter said she’s sure that something can be worked out, especially with Senate leadership needing the support of at least 16 of its members for the budget – or having to go to Democrats for votes, which means adding spending that some GOP lawmakers may find unacceptable.
“Everything is possible while we’re still in session,” she said. “There’s nothing stopping us from updating our statutes this year, while we are still in session.”
Fann also said that there already is a window of sorts in the law.
She said there is no statute of limitations on criminal charges of child abuse. That permits prosecutors to bring charges at whatever point in the future they believe they have a case.
And Fann said the way the law now reads permits victims to file civil suits within two years of any criminal charges being brought, whether or not the person is convicted of the criminal charges.
The Senate president also suggested that Boyer was not being reasonable.
“We’ve been trying for a month now to work with him to come up with a compromise that would do what he needs to do but make sure we don’t create a lot of unintended consequences,” she said. “But it’s difficult when some members say, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ ”