Arizona voters will get to decide next year whether the state should levy a new $20 fine on each criminal conviction in order to pay an extra $250,000 to the families of police officers, firefighters, EMTs and corrections officers killed on the job because of a criminal act.
The voter referral that received final approval in the state Legislature this week will add to the considerable sum the families of fallen officers already receive from the federal government, state pension plan and individual agencies that provide life insurance to their members. And it will increase the amount those convicted of criminal offenses already pay in surcharges and fees tacked on top of any fine or penalties a judge may impose as part of a sentence.
The measure also boosts criminal penalties for assaulting a first responder.
Advocates who testified in support of the measure they dubbed the “Back the Blue Act” said it was needed to help recruit new police officers and show that the public supports first responders.
“We have reached a point where it is essentially impossible for us to recruit the numbers of officers necessary to provide for basic public safety needs,” Sam Stone, chief of staff to Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, told a Senate committee that considered the measure. “And it is now incumbent on our elected officials at every level to take the steps necessary to demonstrate first and foremost to our officers and potential applicants, that they are wanted and needed, welcomed in our cities and towns and counties.”
Stone is a candidate to replace DiCiccio in next week’s city runoff election.
Even those opposed to the voter referral said they supported the additional cash benefit. But they thought it was unfair to add to the already-large amount of fees and surcharges added to the fines of people convicted of criminal offenses, most of which are misdemeanors like drunken driving.
Instead, they suggested pulling the estimated $2 million a year in new fees expected to be raised from the general fund, which currently has an estimated $1.8 billion surplus.
“I have always supported death benefits for our workers,” Democratic state Sen. Lela Alston said during the recent Senate vote.
“I do have a problem with this bill, and that is that it creates another fine that is disproportionate to certain members of our population,” she said. “And it would be a preferable option to me if we were to pay that the death benefit directly out of the general fund to the family of the firefighter or police officer who was killed and not do any more fines in our legal system.”
The measure was approved by the Senate with only Republican support on Feb. 28; it passed the House on Tuesday with the backing of all 31 Republicans and 16 of 28 Democrats.
The referral was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and other groups that are against excessive penalties. Hugo Polanco, an ACLU lobbyist, testified against the voter referral in a Senate committee and quoted extensively from former Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s floor speech from last June.
During that speech, Ugenti-Rita lambasted the nearly identical proposal as it failed on the last day of the legislative session.
“Let me tell you what this is about. This is about the people who are behind it just making money — this is an initiative,” said Ugenti-Rita, who ran in the Republican primary for secretary of state last year and left the Legislature in January. She said giving added benefits to a family after an officer dies in the line of duty will not restore morale.
“This is being sold on something that won’t provide … the public with what it wants, which is, you know, our first responders to be accountable, to do their job and of course, to be celebrated for their hard work,” she said.
“But everybody’s a hard worker,” Ugenti-Rita continued. “I mean, honestly, the trash man and woman, the construction people, daycare people, parents, we’re all busting our butts and we don’t get an initiative on the ballot to set up a fund that we can draw from when something happens to us. It’s not equitable.”
Last year’s measure levied extra fees on both criminal convictions and on civil infractions like traffic tickets, which Ugenti-Rita singled out for her ire.
This year’s measure only tacks the extra $20 fee onto criminal convictions.
The state already adds extra fees and surcharges to convictions that can more than double the amount of the underlying fine in many cases.
The state collected nearly $76 million in extra fees and surcharges in 2018, according to the most recent report from the Legislature’s budget analysts. The extra payments required under laws passed by the Legislature or enacted directly by voters go toward funding police, victim services, various health funds and even the state’s Clean Elections fund, which provides public financing for candidates that don’t take special interest donations, among a myriad of other uses.
Families of law enforcement officers, firefighters, corrections officers and other first responders like emergency medical technicians who are killed in the line of duty already receive a payment of more than $422,000 under a federal program that also provides tuition support for survivors.
The state pension system also pays the surviving spouse of officers, firefighters and corrections officers enrolled in the system their loved-one’s full salaries for life. They also get health benefits in many cases, and employers generally provide a basic life insurance benefit that employees can boost by paying premiums.
Republican Sen. David Gowan, who sponsored SCR1006, noted than about four first responders die each year in Arizona as a result of a criminal act.
“That $250,000 can go a long way to helping our families of those victims of crime, certainly when there are police officers and first responders who have sworn to defend and protect us,” said the Sierra Vista senator.
The Legislature will be allowed to spend money for police officer training and equipment, or to boost benefits for injured first responders, if the fund that collects the new $20 fees rises over $2 million.
The measure does not need Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ signature to be placed on the ballot.