The partnership that defined the end of the 2019 legislative session began May 7. Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, watched across the Senate floor as Sen. Paul Boyer’s microphone was silenced after he gave several impassioned speeches about childhood sexual abuse.
At the time, Boyer, R-Glendale, had already vowed to vote against any budget proposal unless the Legislature voted on his proposal to give survivors of childhood sexual abuse more opportunities to sue their abusers. Within days, Carter, R-Cave Creek, joined him.
“I knew that we were going to take this giant leap together and get this over the finish line,” Carter said.
The two freshmen senators didn’t just succeed in passing a new law that will give sexual abuse survivors more time to seek justice in civil courts, they also secured millions more than Republican leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey previously agreed to spend for school counselors, doctor training and housing assistance.
And Carter and Boyer, along with a handful of other Republican legislators who threatened to vote against budget bills unless their priorities were met, spooked GOP leaders who worried about the precedent their demands will set next year, as Republicans continue their tenuous hold on both chambers.
“What happens next year when every single person has a bill that they didn’t get passed and they say, ‘I’m not going to vote for the budget unless my bill gets passed?’” Senate President Karen Fann asked during an appearance May 9 on “Arizona Horizon” on KAET Channel 8. “You know full well there are some bills that should never get passed.”
Carter said her reasoning for standing with Boyer and refusing to vote on a budget was simple: protecting children from predators transcends everything else the Legislature does.
The new law, as signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on May 27, doesn’t directly protect current victims. Instead, it raises the age by which survivors must sue from 20 to 30, and it gives older survivors until December 31, 2020, to file suits.
Bridie Farrell, a former competitive speed skater who now advocates for survivors of sexual abuse, attended a ceremonial signing of the bill May 28.
“This law allows previous victims to open up the worst wounds of our lives, tell these awful stories that will hold these institutions accountable and have them practice the policies that they have in place to make it safer for the kids that are coming up,” said Farrell, who is not covered by the law because she was victimized in another state.
Older survivors will face a higher burden of proof and won’t be eligible to receive punitive damages, concessions made to appease conservative lawmakers like Fann and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who warned that the window would enable money-seeking plaintiffs and ambulance-chasing attorneys to go after innocent people and institutions with deep pockets.
That’s despite testimony from survivors who said all they wanted was an admission of abuse and to make sure their abusers weren’t able to continue hurting children. Delaware’s law enabled Greg Kelly, a 53-year-old survivor who joined Boyer in advocating for the bill, to sue the former judge who molested him in 1975, and Kelly said he learned as his 2009 case proceeded that other children had been harmed by the same man.
“My lawsuit was not about money,” Kelly said. “In fact, before the judge even filed an answer, I contacted his attorney and offered a settlement of $1 and an admission of abuse.”
Preserving the ability for older survivors to sue was critical, Carter said, because every piece of research she and Boyer saw indicates that most victims don’t come forward until they’re older. It often takes years to process abuse, and because most abusers are familiar figures like family members, teachers, coaches or priests, it can be difficult for survivors to come forward.
“We held firm that whatever we were going to do in Arizona would allow people of that age to come forward and share their story and pursue justice,” Carter said. “That’s important because many times the abuser is still in whatever community they were in when they abused the other person.”
Lezleigh Jaworski, a 33-year-old former competitive speed skater who lives in Phoenix, said she and her sisters were sexually abused by a family member. None of them spoke about it, even to each other, until after her younger sister came forward and was labeled a “problem child” and “liar” by other family members, Jaworski said.
“It was realizing that it was an ongoing thing that happened to my older sister, my younger sister, my cousin, and I probably wouldn’t have come forward if she didn’t,” Jaworski said.
Arizona’s new law gives survivors like Jaworski an opportunity — at least temporarily — to seek civil action against the people they say hurt them.
What it doesn’t do — at least not yet — is help older survivors who will realize their abuse after December 31, 2020. Creating a permanent window is a good next step, Boyer said.
“To me, that’s a no-brainer just because of the nature of these heinous crimes,” Boyer said.
Ducey plans to start a statewide task force to work on childhood sexual abuse issues. He said the group should be a “broad coalition” that will include Boyer and Carter. Boyer said he wants to make sure the group includes at least one survivor of sexual abuse, and that it should not include a representative from the insurance industry.
“The good news is that there’s enough time for the task force to do its work to come up with legislative proposals that we can look at next year, and that is well before the window expires,” Carter said.
Ducey signed the new law immediately after receiving it, and then staged a ceremonial signing event on May 28, surrounded by survivors, Boyer, Carter and legislative Democrats who fought for the bill.
“Arizona is taking a significant and critical first step,” Ducey said. “Today we strengthen our laws.”
He specifically thanked Boyer and Carter for standing firm on the issue, a sharp shift in tone from comments from Republican legislative leaders and some rank-and-file members who had spent weeks blaming the two for holding up the budget process.
“It really was the personal passion of Paul Boyer and that he was unrelenting,” Ducey said.
Some Republicans in the House were caught on a hot mic in a closed-door caucus meeting discussing plans to punish Carter and Boyer next session by refusing to hear any of their bills in committee, in an attempt to kill the legislation.
Boyer said Carter received the brunt of the criticism, and he credits her courage for passing the legislation. During the ceremonial bill signing, he handed Carter a copy of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” and said the chapter about her was missing.
Some “intransigent” Republicans still haven’t spoken to him, Boyer said, and neither senator knows whether they’ll receive party support in their re-election bids or keep their committee leadership roles. Carter chairs the Senate Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development and is the vice chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, while Boyer is the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
“Similar to the Beltway mentality, I think we’ve had a state Capitol mentality,” Boyer said. “If you actually talk to everyday citizens, they get this. If they would actually listen to their constituents, they’d realize, ‘Oh, my gosh. Why was I fighting this?’”
Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Snowflake Republican who reluctantly voted for the final bill, said she and other Republicans who had legitimate concerns about the bill felt like they were being blackmailed. Because of the bill, and because GOP leaders had to negotiate with Democrats and Carter, the budget ended up with more spending than it should have, Allen said.
“I see a lot of politics happening, and deals that were made to hold the majority caucus hostage over the budget,” Allen said.
Allen didn’t mention that Boyer’s bill had been held hostage. Farnsworth, who described himself as a “gatekeeper,” blocked Boyer’s first bill from being heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Farnsworth then testified against another version of the bill in the House Appropriations Committee, which granted a hearing but no vote.
After Boyer refused to vote for the budget, the House waived its rules to allow Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, to introduce his own statute of limitations bill – a watered-down version that increased the cutoff age to 30 but provided no window for older victims to sue. Boyer was not consulted on that bill, which never came up for a vote in the House after survivors rallied against it.
And up until the day before the Senate reached a compromise on the bill, Farnsworth and other opponents continued to block any kind of window. The final offer Boyer and Carter made was to give older survivors until December 31 of this year to sue; Farnsworth sent a message back that he would allow just until May 31 — a few days after the session eventually ended.
Carter and Boyer sought out Senate Democrats, who had been stymied in their own attempts to negotiate with majority leadership. The 13 Senate Democrats agreed to take on the two errant Republicans’ cause as their own, Senate Minority Leader David Bradley said.
“We all agreed to stick together through thick and thin on the issues that matter to all of us,” Bradley said.
In return, Carter and Boyer advocated for other priorities they shared with Senate Democrats.
The $11.8 billion spending deal that passed along party lines this week contains $20 million for school counselors: an increase of $5 million from what Ducey proposed and the same number Democrats included in their own budget.
It increased the one-time deposit to the state’s Housing Trust fund to $15 million — a far cry from the one-time deposit of $50 million and ongoing contribution of $40 million Senate Democrats asked for, but a significant increase to the $10 million originally proposed. And it allocates $1 million for gifted education, where the original budget deal would have allocated nothing.
Sen. Victoria Steele, a Tucson Democrat who joined every other Senate Democrat in voting against the budget, said working with Carter and Boyer helped Democrats take steps toward some of their budget goals even as they were sidelined.
“I think in the end we may get more, and that will be because we stood with two Republicans,” Steele said.