In what has become a mysterious political struggle, state senators on Thursday debated on how long to allow the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind to operate before it must return to the Legislature for approval to continue as a state agency.
A last-minute change in the Senate that may be reversed in the House put the school on course to continue for four years instead of the standard eight given to most state agencies in good standing.
Most of the Senate wants the school to continue for the standard eight years but opposition from a few Republicans nearly brought the continuation down to two years. Four was the compromise that Democrats supported under protest.
After three hours of debate, the Senate finally passed Rep. Beverly Pingerelli’s bill, House Bill 2456, with the four-year amendment from Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, who said before the 27-1 vote he prefers the eight-year continuation. Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, voted against the bill.
Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said on the floor that he also has an issue with just four years.
“I think this should have been eight years,” he said. With Bennett, Gowan and the Democrats united in agreement that eight years is preferrable to anything less, the Senate had more than enough votes to make that change, but it didn’t happen.
State agencies are subject to a sunset review and the Legislature may continue their existence for up to 10 years. Bills to continue agencies usually smoothly pass through the Legislature and are signed by the governor.
There are exceptions, though, like when an agency has a history of trouble and controversy. Last year, some lawmakers tried to hold the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry to a three-year sunset review.
The department had a long history of failing to provide adequate health care to prisoners, a botched execution and a host of troubles surrounding executions.
The sunset review bill that former Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law gave the department eight years until it’s renewal but requires the state Auditor General to conduct annual reviews of the department on an assortment of areas.
But the school hasn’t been plagued with troubles.
Six weeks ago, the school became concerned when their continuation bill stalled in the Senate Government Committee without a hearing.
The bill had previously passed in the House without opposition, and the committee of reference recommended an eight-year continuation.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, used a procedural tactic to revive the continuation bill in the Education Committee and Bennett agreed to hold a hearing for it, but then the Government Committee, led by Sen. Jake Hoffman, Queen Creek, decided to hold a hearing on the original bill.
The bill was amended in the Government Committee to two years and in the Education Committee down to five years in one long confusing day where deaf and blind students, parents and teachers rushed around the Legislature, cried, and pleaded with lawmakers to allow their school to continue longer.
It appeared on the Senate floor Thursday with yet another amendment to continue the school for four years.
Democrats asked repeatedly why the school is getting a different treatment from dozens of other agencies when it seemingly had not done anything wrong. Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, noted that the most damaging finding in the latest Auditor General’s report on the school was self-reported and they worked to resolve it.
Sen. Eva Burch, D-Mesa, said teachers are refusing to sign contracts because of the political controversy surrounding the school.
“Teachers are being lost as we speak because of what we’re doing in here right now,” Burch said.
Hoffman said that shorter continuations are the best way for lawmakers to serve the agency because stricter guidance leads to higher standards.
“In furtherance of that mission, we want to provide the deaf and blind children with the best possible education,” he said.
Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, was the only other lawmaker to say that short continuations mean better oversight. He said everyone expects the school, which has been in operation since before Arizona was a state, to continue for a very long time.
Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said it is appalling to suggest the school needs more oversight.
“It is simply appallingly curious. It really begs the question of what other motives are going on?” Epstein asked.
Hoffman refused to answer Epstein’s question about whether he has met with the school.
School Superintendent Annette Reichman said that Hoffman never spoke to her.
The floor debate got heated.
Sens. Catherine Miranda and Raquel Teran, both Phoenix Democrats, were reprimanded for referring to a rumor that’s been circulating around the Legislature for the past several weeks, that all this difficulty around the school continuation is because Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, has a “vendetta” against the school for opposing one of her bills, which failed.
Wadsack filed a bill that would have required the school to accept students who aren’t deaf or blind but have other disabilities.
Miranda made the accusation and was silenced by Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who was running the floor debate. Wadsack left the room during Miranda’s comments.
“We don’t have direct evidence of that, but yes that is our perception, that that’s accurate, that it’s true,” Reichman said of the rumor.
Wadsack declined to comment. She also wouldn’t answer a question from Epstein on the floor.
Marsh and Miranda criticized the body for not providing adequate accommodations for deaf and blind people in committee or on the floor. There is a livestream available of the proceedings with closed captioning, but no interpreters. Miranda asked whether the Senate is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Tensions also ran high when Democrats accused Republicans of ableism. Sundareshan, and Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, both referred to the process that way and were chastised for impugning the motives of other members, but Reichman said that’s exactly how she sees it too.
Mendez tried to amend the bill to go to 10 years, but the amendment failed on party lines. He voted ‘no’ in protest, making the final vote 27-1.
Mendez noted that the Senate recently voted 21-7 to continue the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control without any similar pushback. The bill’s opposition came from the same group opposing the eight-year school continuation
A bill from Rep. Lupe Diaz, R-Benson, to continue the Arizona State Parks Board for eight years also passed the Senate on Thursday, but there was no debate. That bill passed 21-6 with Hoffman, Wadsack and four other Republicans opposed.
The last hope for eight-year continuation proponents is that the bill is altered one final time in a conference committee and restored to an eight-year bill. Bill sponsor Pingerelli said she still supports an eight-year continuation, and she’s looking at the best options.