Victoria Steele walked into the Arizona Senate before the sun rose Friday, wearing a purple, white and green suffragette sash over her dark pantsuit and holding the most important piece of legislation she plans to run next year.
David Farnsworth was just a few seconds behind her, a stack of his own bills in hand. The two state senators — one a liberal feminist from Tucson, the other a self-described constitutional conservative from Mesa — sat chatting, waiting for the sun to rise and Senate staff to arrive so they could file the first bills of the 2020 legislative session.
Friday was the first day Arizona lawmakers could introduce bills for the 2020 session, and lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol Mall used the day to lay the groundwork for what will be high-profile fights during the coming months: everything from ratifying the federal Equal Rights Amendment to regulating the title lending industry to returning local control to cities ravaged by the short-term rental marketplace.
Steele woke up at 4 a.m. and drove to the Capitol to introduce this year’s attempt to make history by becoming the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The Congressional deadline to approve the amendment, which states simply that equal rights may not be denied or abridged on the basis of sex, passed without ratification four decades ago.
But feminists in recent years have rallied around the amendment, with Nevada and Illinois becoming the 36th and 37th states to ratify it. Supporters expect Virginia, which just elected a Democratic majority in both chambers, to become the 38th state next spring.
Against that backdrop, Steele is pushing again for Arizona to join the cause. Even if Arizona won’t go down in history as the 38th state to ratify the ERA, Steele said approving it is important both in case the ERA runs into legal challenges and to preserve Arizona’s historical reputation as a leader in women’s equality. The state gave women the right to vote eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, has had more female governors than any other state and has one of the highest shares of women in the Legislature.
“Even if they (Virginia) do it first, we do not want Arizona to be on the historical short list of states that never ratified,” she said. “We can show the women and girls of Arizona that we care about them.”
Republican Sens. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Heather Carter, Kate Brophy McGee and Tyler Pace signed on to bills to ratify the ERA last year, but supporters will have to convince at least two House Republicans to vote for the resolution and persuade influential committee chairmen to give it a hearing.
Farnsworth, meanwhile, jumped into a brewing fight between the title loan industry and its critics with several bills that would add more regulations to the industry. One would prohibit title lenders, who offer short-term loans at typically high interest rates with a car as collateral, from making these loans to people who don’t actually own their car outright.
Two others are differently worded attempts to cap annual interest rates for title loans at 36 percent. Both provisions are included in the Arizona Fair Lending Act, a 2020 ballot initiative supported by the same advocates who fought to stop payday lending in the state.
A competing ballot initiative supported by the title loan industry would overturn almost all laws that limit annual interest rates and prohibit state and local governments from enacting new ones. Farnsworth’s wading into this fight with a series of bills to add more regulations to the title loan industry.
Another measure Farnsworth filed this morning would require the Department of Child Safety to provide a monthly report to state leaders listing the dates children go missing from state custody, those children’s ages and a description of how they went missing.
It’s the culmination of months of meetings with critics of the department, who described an epidemic of missing children.
“My largest priority is to require DCS to give more detail on these reports regarding missing children,” Farnsworth said.
On the House side, Reps. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, and Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, fired the opening salvo with a bill to repeal a controversial 2016 law that prohibits municipal or county governments from regulating or banning short-term rental companies like Airbnb.
That law was pitched as something that could facilitate local economic growth, but critics and some city governments say that the unchecked spread of short-term rentals has driven up housing costs and reduced the amount of long-term rental inventory on the market.
“A large majority (of the rentals) are not grandma renting out a second bedroom,” Blanc said. “They’ve been converted into unregulated motels.”
Blanc and Lieberman said they’re confident the repeal effort can get bipartisan support, as the bill doesn’t add any extra regulation.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, was one of the few legislators of either party who opposed the 2016 law. He said he’s glad Blanc and Lieberman are taking a whack at a repeal, but he’s not so optimistic that they convince both the Legislature and the governor to essentially concede that, three years ago, they supported legislation that has harmed the state.
“Minds don’t change that quickly,” he said. “People are reluctant to admit mistakes.”
For Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, the first bill of the year was a rerun of marijuana legislation he tried to pass last year that was killed by Senate Democrats. His would allow the Department of Health Services to inspect any nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary during its normal business hours, without providing advance notice of an inspection.
Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Act, approved by voters in 2010, put the Department of Health Services in charge of operating the program and inspecting dispensaries and their “infusion kitchens,” where marijuana edibles are produced. But because of the advance notice clause, Department officials have been unable to inspect those kitchens.
Any attempt to modify a voter-approved initiative takes a three-fourths majority in both legislative chambers and can only be done to further the intent of the law. Before re-introducing the bill, Borrelli told the Arizona Capitol Times he expects it to pass now that the public knows more about how inspections work.
“Hopefully the Democrats understand what the bill is now,” he said. “I guess Senator Borelli was a visionary.”
Arren Kimbel-Sannit contributed to the reporting of this story.