Abortion ruling could lead to stricter laws

This artist sketch depicts Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, standing while speaking to the Supreme Court, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington. Center for Reproductive Rights Litigation Director Julie Rikelman is seated right. Justices seated from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. (Dana Verkouteren via AP)

Supporters and opponents of legal abortion are bracing themselves for a court ruling next year that could give Arizona lawmakers far more power to regulate or ban abortion. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which goes against the standard set in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that generally prohibits states from banning abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy, about 24 weeks. 

The court is expected to rule in June. While opinions differ as to whether the justices will overturn Roe entirely or issue a more narrowly tailored ruling, observers on both sides of the issue expect a ruling that will give states more power to regulate abortion. 

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said. “As an attorney, I know to not ever predict what courts will do, but the likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court, at a minimum, will uphold Mississippi’s law … is very high. The question (is) whether the court will go so far as to turn the decision on abortion regulation up to the states.” 

The center, perhaps Arizona’s most influential socially conservative lobbying group, has worked on numerous abortion restrictions that have passed in Arizona over the years. Herrod hopes the court overrules both Roe and the 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that upheld and expanded on Roe. 

Cathi Herrod

“The U.S. Supreme Court should … render an opinion rooted in the Constitution, rooted in the text, not a political decision,” Herrod said. “Roe v. Wade is a political decision. The Supreme Court legalized abortion. That is a legislative function, not a judicial function.” 

Meanwhile, supporters of abortion rights are gearing up for what could be their most challenging legislative session yet. 

“Abortion, when done by a medical professional, is one of the safest procedures a person can have,” said Murphy Bannerman, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona. “That is why it is critical that we keep abortion legal so people are not putting themselves in dangerous situations.” 

Bannerman said she wouldn’t be surprised if someone introduces a bill in Arizona that would ban abortion after 15 weeks. 

“Last session we saw two … even more extreme abortion bans introduced,” Bannerman said, referring to a proposal from Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, that would have criminalized abortion as homicide, and a “heartbeat bill,” or a bill that bans abortion when a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That bill was sponsored by Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff.  

Blackman’s bill never got a hearing and Rogers’ bill died after passing out of committee on a party-line vote.  

“It’s completely plausible that a legislator will introduce an abortion ban and that given the makeup of our Legislature and our current governor it could pass,” Bannerman said. 

Bannerman said banning abortion in Arizona could lead women seeking abortions to travel to New Mexico or Mexico, or “resort to extreme methods” to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. 

Murphy Brannerman

“People might try and seek abortion care from those that are not actually medical professionals but are preying on people that are in a vulnerable state,” she said. “If you’re not trained, that can cause severe damage to the person’s health and potentially death.” 

Republicans hold a two-vote majority in both chambers of the Legislature, and the GOP caucus is largely united in opposing abortion. Any new restrictions will likely get a sympathetic hearing from Gov. Doug Ducey, who so far has signed every anti-abortion measure that has reached his desk and who joined onto an amicus brief earlier this year with other Republican governors calling on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. 

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said the ruling’s impact on legislation “depends entirely on what the ruling is.” Like Herrod and many of Toma’s Republican colleagues, he wants to see Roe overturned. 

“I think it should be up to individual states,” Toma said. “Setting aside the politics of it all, which is almost impossible of course given the subject, for me, Roe v. Wade was a constitutional stretch, big time.” 

Toma said he hopes the upcoming legislative session is over by June, when the Supreme Court’s ruling is expected, although even if it isn’t, he said June would likely be too late to introduce a bill. However, the Legislature doesn’t have to do anything to ban abortion if Roe is overturned. 

Arizona has a law on the books, passed by the 1901 Territorial Legislature, that punishes performing an abortion, unless it is necessary to save the mother’s life, with 2 to 5 years in prison.  

The Legislature tweaked it this year to remove a previous penalty of 1 to 5 years’ imprisonment for women who get abortions but left the penalties for doctors in place. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, Toma said lawmakers could let the old law take force again and wait until the 2022 session to make any changes. 

“If Roe v. Wade is overturned, our default law in Arizona is actually fairly strong,” Toma said. “Abortions are not legal. I’m not entirely sure there would be any need to do something right away. But if it’s some sort of narrow decision, maybe there is an opportunity to pass something … (mirroring) what has already passed and been found constitutional in other states.” 

Herrod said she would support the existing ban being enforced. 

“That’s a law that protects both the lives and safety of mothers as well as the lives of their unborn children,” she said. 

A couple of the Democrats running for attorney general have said they would refuse to prosecute women in such cases. 

“I will not ever prosecute a woman or her doctor for exercising her right to reproductive freedom,” Bob McWhirter, one of the candidates, said at a recent Democratic gathering in Tucson. “I will not do it. I don’t care what passes in the Legislature because I have no intention of being on the wrong side of history on this question.” 

Arizonans have mixed views on abortion, although a majority believe it should be legal. The most recent publicly available poll of Arizonans on the topic, conducted in September by the Phoenix firm OH Predictive Insights, found 40% of respondents think abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 47% think it should be legal under some circumstances and 13% think it should be always illegal. Sixty-two percent of those polled identified as pro-choice, 38% as pro-life.  

The poll, an online opt-in panel survey, asked about a recent law in Texas that effectively bans abortion after about six weeks and found 39% of Arizonans approved of it while 51% disapproved. 

The survey polled 882 registered voters September 7-12 and has a margin of error of of 3.3% 

The partisan splits in OH’s poll broadly followed the lines one would expect, with Democrats mostly in favor of legal abortion and Republicans more opposed, although with noticeable minorities of pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats.  

Forty-five percent of Republican respondents identified as pro-choice and 36% of them opposed Texas’ law, while 21% of the Democrats said they were pro-life and 23% approved of the Texas law. Independents were split but closer to the Democrats in their views, with 65% identifying as pro-choice and 52% opposed to the Texas law. 

Arizona Capitol Times Reporter Camryn Sanchez contributed. 

Arizona Legislature sends transportation tax proposal to voters

The longest legislative session in state history came to an end Monday after 204 days as lawmakers in both chambers succeeded in adjourning sine die shortly after 5 p.m., finally addressing a transportation tax extension they’d wrestled with for months. 

Both the House and Senate passed a bipartisan proposal asking Maricopa County voters to extend Proposition 400, a half-cent transportation sales tax that’s funded highways, roads and major transportation projects in the county for nearly 40 years.  

House members voted 43-14 to approve the measure, which Republican legislative leaders had been negotiating with Gov. Katie Hobbs for weeks since she vetoed a partisan Prop 400 attempt on July 6.  

During that time, the legislature hadn’t convened as a whole. 

Toma, House, Senate, per diem, Senate Democrats, longest session, sine die
House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria

“Elections have consequences to state the obvious. We have a split government situation. Anything that we do has to be negotiated between both parties and that’s what you saw here,” said Speaker of the House, Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “It was very similar to the budget.” 

Similar to the previous attempt, the measure prohibits Prop 400 tax revenue from being used for light rail expansion. But now the proposal keeps the question posed to voters for funding highways, roads and public transportation as one question instead of two questions – which Democrats and Hobbs opposed.  

Under the proposal, 40.5% of revenue will be allocated to freeways and state highways, 22.5% will go to arterials and streets and 37% is directed to public transportation.  

The final vote in the Senate was 19-7 with four members not present. Senators T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, and Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, were gone and did not vote. 

All House Democrats voted to pass the bill. Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez, D-Phoenix, said the legislature had a responsibility to continue some form of the tax that lawmakers first passed in 1984 due to the projected population growth of Maricopa County in the coming years. The tax is set to expire in 2025. The tax extension will last 20 years if voters approve.  

“It is imperative that we as a Legislature, as a governing body, respond to the infrastructure that is going to be needed,” Quinonez said.  

Maricopa Association of Governments Chair Kate Gallego said in a statement from MAG that the bill is a “win” for voters. Prior to the vote, several business leaders also signed a letter voicing their support of the plan.  

“While Maricopa County is the only county that requires legislative approval to take an initiative to the ballot, we were resolute in ensuring that we put forward a plan that had the unanimous support of 32 cities, towns, counties, and Native nations,” Gallego said in a statement provided by MAG. “Though the current bill does not provide us with the flexibility we originally sought, it allows us to wholly implement our planned multimodal projects, setting the foundation for a stronger, more accessible region.” 

The Republicans who voted against the proposal were mainly members of the Freedom Caucus. Many of them said during floor speeches they weren’t happy with the process that Republican leaders took to get the bill read Monday, nor were they happy for the funds directed to public transit.  

Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, said she was informed by leadership as of July 25 that the House wouldn’t be voting on Prop 400 when lawmakers convened on Monday. Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, also said members received a draft copy of the bill on Saturday and the bill was still being amended through Monday.  

“We allow public transit to send our roads hostage when we send it to the voters,” Heap said of keeping Prop 400 posed as one question for voters. 

Freedom Caucus Chair Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, commended Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, on negotiating a conservative bill, even though he couldn’t get behind it.  

Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek

“It’s yet another rolling of Katie Hobbs, it simply wasn’t conservative enough. I believe that voters deserve the opportunity to choose between whether they want to support transit as a standalone item or whether they don’t and whether they want to support freeways and roads or whether they don’t,” Hoffman said.  

Other Republicans said they supported the bill because of the guardrails that were negotiated to fund highways and roads. The bill prohibits tax funds from being used to reduce existing highway and street lane miles. 

“This plan will ultimately require voter approval and taxpayers will have the final say. In my view, this bill moves Legislative District 4 ahead,” said Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix.  

Rep. Selina Bliss, R-Prescott, said she voted to pass the bill because she didn’t want legislative districts like hers having to compete with Maricopa County for federal transportation tax dollars if the bill failed to pass.  

“Let’s get over ourselves, let’s get out of the way and let’s let Maricopa County voters decide for themselves what’s best for Maricopa County.”

Another piece of the bill is prohibiting any light rail project from being built around the Capitol in Phoenix from 17th Avenue one the east, Adams Street on the north, 18th Avenue on the west and Jefferson Street on the South.  

Toma acknowledged cities may get creative with expanding light rail by freeing up bus funding with Prop 400 revenue, and going forward with light rail projects as they choose. But no projects will be around the Capitol. 

In exchange for passing Prop 400, some Republicans anticipate Hobbs will sign a bill they sent to her earlier in the session that would repeal cities from implementing a rental tax for apartments. This was one of the major policy goals GOP leaders outlined before the session started and Toma said Hobbs signing the bill was part of his agreement with her.  

“We highly encouraged her to sign it if we sent her Prop 400, and she said she will,” Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said of the rental tax. 

Republican Senators Hoffman, Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, voted ‘no.’ Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, also voted ‘no.’ Gonzales expressed concern that light rail can’t be expanded under the bill and that there wasn’t enough dialogue.  

Mesnard said he was only a “not yet.” “I needed a little more time,” Mesnard said. “To the extent there’s any correlation between a signature on a rental tax bill and this, I obviously am glad about that if that happens.” 

Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said her caucus is glad to have a plan and that they’d been in communication with MAG about the proposal this past weekend. However, over the past several weeks, legislative Democrats were left out of meeting between the governor, House speaker and Senate president. 

“On the one hand the Maricopa Association of Governments is a very important and a key stakeholder in this, and a lot of the goals that MAG wanted to accomplish are the things Democrats wanted to accomplish. Would we like to have been in the room and involved more? Always,” Epstein said. 

Petersen argued that there have been years of dialogue on the bill and time for members to consider late changes. “I’m proud that we could accomplish this together in a bipartisan way,” Petersen said during the vote. He outlined the Republican friendly changes made to the bill including more legislative appointments to MAG and keeping light rail expansion from the Capitol. “This is a good product,” Petersen said. 


Bipartisan ‘political science experiment’ plays in Legislature

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, left, speaks with Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, during the opening of the Arizona Legislature at the state Capitol Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Phoenix. This year’s Legislature has seen an uptick in bipartisanship. PHOTO BY ROSS D. FRANKLIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, left, speaks with Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, during the opening of the Arizona Legislature at the state Capitol Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Phoenix. This year’s Legislature has seen an uptick in bipartisanship. PHOTO BY ROSS D. FRANKLIN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

On March 3, something very unusual happened in the Arizona House.

Usually, the Committee of the Whole, or full floor debate, follows a set script in both the House and Senate. Republicans move their bills and amendments. Democrats sometimes argue against them. A Republican chair declares that Republicans have the votes to pass or fail whatever they choose to pass or fail, even when there are clearly more Democrats in the room yelling “aye” or “nay.”

But on March 3, the roles were partially reversed. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, took the speaker’s dais as COW chair to oversee a calendar full of Democratic bills. Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers stumbled over a bill script that they hear hundreds of times each year but rarely get to say themselves. 

It was a symbol of an unexpected bipartisanship that has emerged in the state House and Senate, even as high-profile partisan fights over elections, abortion and Covid draw most attention. Of the roughly 730 bills that had passed either the House or Senate at the beginning of this week, at least 67 — slightly less than 10%t — were sponsored by Democrats.

Usually, legislative Democrats are lucky if it takes two hands to count the number of bills they get signed into law. 

Former lawmaker and longtime GOP political consultant Stan Barnes said he hasn’t seen anything like this number of Democratic bills survive since he was first elected in 1988. It’s like watching a political science experiment play out in real time, he said. 

Historically, GOP leaders would be more likely to be punished than rewarded by their caucus for working with Democrats, Barnes said. But after the 2020 election, which ended in one-vote Republican majorities in both chambers, demonstrating bipartisanship might help. 

“In past years, rank-and-file Republicans might say ‘What the heck, Mr. Speaker, why is a Democratic bill moving? We’re in the majority, they’re not,’” he said. “But I think in 2021, on the heels of a very divided partisan election, there’s room for extending an olive branch.” 

Advancing Democratic bills could also help Republican leaders down the line, when they have to pass the state’s budget. Both House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann understand that their Republican majorities are thin and potentially fragile, and they may need Democratic help to fulfill the Legislature’s sole constitutional obligation of passing a budget. 

Lela Alston
Lela Alston

Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, agreed that Republicans might be looking for Democratic support on a budget proposal. Four of Alston’s bills having to do with aging and foster care passed the Senate. 

“The majority might be thinking they will need Democratic votes to pass the budget, and they need some carrots,” she said. “It only takes one guy or one gal to hold out and say they’re not going to vote on the budget.” 

Any budget that would get Democratic support would lack the massive tax cuts Republican lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey want to pass this year. Multiple plans would result in tax cuts of more than $1 billion over the next few years, which Alston described as a “no-starter.” 

As far as her bills, Alston said she thinks her years of persistence finally paid off. One, which would double the $75 monthly stipend provided to relatives who take in children when their parents can’t care for them, passed the Senate 29-0 after years of effort.

“I’ve just been offering them for so many years that they finally caught on about what it is that I’m trying to do and the need,” Alston said. 

Other Democrats are used to seeing their bills pass — but only if they have a Republican sponsor. After Democrats pushed for years to allow consular IDs and repeal a 2006 voter-approved law that barred undocumented immigrants from receiving state aid and in-state tuition, that legislation finally passed the Senate this year — once Republican Paul Boyer of Glendale became the sponsor. 

Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, spent much of last year working on a bill to prevent fertility doctors from using their own sperm to impregnate women after learning from local media that a Tucson doctor had done that. Her bill passed the Senate, but under Republican Nancy Barto’s name after Barto copied the language. 

Another Steele bill, which would repeal rapists’ parental rights to their victims’ children, passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the House. She estimates that she manages to pass about one bill each year, but in many cases she ends up finding a Republican who will take on the bill, thinking of a Harry Truman quote about how a person can accomplish a lot without caring who gets the credit. 

“In the past, I have gotten a lot done by doing a lot of work on a bill, wrapping it up with a nice little bow and handing it to a Republican,” Steele said. 

Steele said it’s possible legislative Democrats have gotten better at figuring out how to appeal to Republicans to get their bills heard. But it’s still demoralizing to be a Democrat in the Arizona Legislature. 

“Maybe we’re getting better at trying to figure out what might make it across the finish line, what might get some Republicans to work for us,” she said. “The reality is day after day, hour after hour, we lose. We lose the vote because we have one less person.”

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, speaks at a Feb. 19, 2020, in Scottsdale. Toma, the House Majority Leader, said Republican and Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to try to work together and avoid the rancorous fights that characterized recent years. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, speaks at a Feb. 19, 2020, in Scottsdale. Toma, the House Majority Leader, said Republican and Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to try to work together and avoid the rancorous fights that characterized recent years. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

Across the mall, House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said Arizona’s purpling political hue has helped to foster more bipartisanship.

“One of the things we saw this past cycle was that voters, they sent legislators down here to the Capitol that … created a more purple state Legislature in the House and the Senate,” Bolding said. “We know that it’s been closer than it has been in a century. And my view is the bills that Democrats have been running are good policy for Arizona, and you have some chairmen looking at the policy and not the people that have been running the bills.”

But Bolding said it was too early to say whether there are any particular areas of public policy Democrats have been able to affect this session.

“Right now it’s a little too early to celebrate the passage of bills,” he said. “What we want to see is legislation that will ultimately be able to have to have a great impact for the people of Arizona.”

House Majority Leader Ben Toma said Republican and Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to try to work together and avoid the rancorous fights that characterized recent years. Asking Democratic lawmakers to serve as chairs of COW debates is a part of that, he said. 

So far, it seems to be working. While the House could barely make it a week in the past couple of years without at least one lawmaker accusing another of uncivil conduct — including one heated argument over whether Bowers impugned the full chamber by referring to himself as a “neanderthal” — the House has largely avoided those distractions this year. 

“There’s been a recognition in general that we are trying to be accommodating and respectful,” he said. “It’s a question of can this last to me, and I think it can, especially if the other side recognizes that we are acting in good faith.” 

As far as Toma can tell, committee chairs have chosen to hear bills based on policy, not the name or party attached to a measure. That organically results in more Democratic bills making it to the floor. 

“There hasn’t been any arm-twisting on our side to force chairs to hear bills or anything of that sort,” he said. “I think people are making decisions based on policy first and foremost.” 

Staff writer Nathan Brown contributed reporting.


Blackman prisoner release bill fails – again

This June 24, 2021, file photo shows, Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, right, and Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, talking during a vote on the Arizona budget at the Arizona Capitol. The Arizona House voted June 28 to allow some people convicted of certain crimes to earn time off their sentences for participating in work training, substance-abuse treatment or other prison programs, as Blackman worked for years on the legislation, but the Senate never put the measure to a vote.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
This June 24, 2021, file photo shows, Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, right, and Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, talking during a vote on the Arizona budget at the Arizona Capitol. The Arizona House voted June 28 to allow some people convicted of certain crimes to earn time off their sentences for participating in work training, substance-abuse treatment or other prison programs, as Blackman worked for years on the legislation, but the Senate never put the measure to a vote.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

There were plenty of issues taken up during the 171-day legislative session that ended June 30 that everyone knew would be contentious, even in January. However, leaders from both parties did see one major area of potential bipartisan cooperation – revamping the criminal code. 

“Criminal justice has always been a hot thing,” House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said. “I shouldn’t say always, it has been growing over time among many of our members. … It seems to resonate in our district meetings and elsewhere. It’s not just a one-party issue. We need to look at it that way.” 

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, agreed.  

And it did work out this way – kind of. The House Criminal Justice Reform Committee created this year, headed by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, perhaps the Legislature’s most vocal Republican advocate on the issue, took up a plethora of bills, many of which passed the House. Some became law. But others either stalled in that committee or passed the House only to die in the Senate. 

“We did do some good things this year,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “Blackman’s earned release credits (bill) – I truthfully kind of had hoped we would find a way to get that across the finish line as well, or some version of that.” 

The session ended on something of a high note and a low note for advocates. Gov. Doug Ducey did sign a long-sought measure to improve the treatment of pregnant inmates and ensure female prisoners are provided with enough feminine hygiene products.  

Ducey also signed SB1294 July 9. The bill allows people to petition for certain criminal records to be sealed and their rights restored – a “groundbreaking” move, according to criminal defense attorney Steven Scharboneau Jr., who has advocated for Arizona to move toward more options for expungement. Arizona did not allow any criminal records to be expunged before Proposition 207, which legalized recreational-use marijuana and took effect this year, instead offering a more symbolic “set-aside” option. The voter-approved initiative allows people to petition for expungement of certain marijuana-related offenses.  

The broader record-sealing legislation takes effect January 2023. 

“The idea that people deserve a second chance is becoming more and more universally accepted as true,” Scharboneau said. 

However, earned release credit expansion, which passed the House 50-8 two days before sine die, never got a Senate vote. Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said in a tweet the bill failed because a majority of Republicans there opposed it. 

“Defunding the police, lack of probation officers and the list of horrible offenses that allowed criminals back on the street was a bridge too far,” Fann wrote. 

Blackman said the claims in Fann’s tweet weren’t true, and that the bill not only had nothing to do with “defunding the police” but, by reducing the prison population, would have saved an estimated $680 million over 10 years that could have gone back into funding probation and job placement and drug training programs.  

“Every statement she made was inaccurate, because she got bad information, or she knew it was inaccurate and she said it anyway,” he said.  

Blackman said he reached out to Fann, who didn’t return a call from the Arizona Capitol Times, to discuss why the bill didn’t move forward, but she never got back to him  after a week. He asked her in a Facebook post to explain to him how the bill would have defunded the police. In an interview with the Capitol Times, Blackman criticized both her and Ducey, who he said has never met with him to discuss the issue over the three-and-a-half years he has been working on it. Blackman said Bowers is the only person in top leadership who has met with him about it.  

“He is the only one out of the three who has been truly supportive of criminal justice reform, not just through words but through action also,” Blackman said. 

The bill would have let certain drug offenders who completed the bill’s programming requirements earn five days of earned release credits for every six days served, and others would have been able to earn two days for every six days served. A long list of violent and more serious offenders would have been excluded from the opportunity to get earned release credits. 

Currently, certain drug offenders are eligible for earned release credits but others generally need to serve at least 85% of their sentences, due to a truth-in-sentencing law passed in 1993. An initial version of earned release credit expansion passed the House 47-11 in February, but it stalled in the Senate. In late March, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, revived it as a strike-everything amendment to another bill and subsequently engaged in months of negotiations with law enforcement and other stakeholders to try to craft something that addressed their concerns. 

The year was a mixed bag for Middle Ground Prison Reform Director Donna Leone Hamm. She applauded the passage of a civil asset forfeiture law that requires a conviction before someone’s property can be seized. The end of sentencing people for prior convictions when they are convicted of multiple charges stemming from a singular incident was also a win.  

“That is going to make a major difference in sentencing and in plea negotiations, so that will have an impact,” Hamm said. 

Hamm was surprised that the Legislature didn’t pass the earned released credits expansion, especially after seeing the language from the Second Chances, Rehabilitation and Public Safety Act, an initiative that missed the 2020 ballot after failing to clear signature review. 

“I thought that legislators would be anxious to try and pass a bill on their own rather than allowing the general public to decide what the criminal code would be because the citizens’ initiative proposed a much more liberal package of reforms,” Hamm said. “If that comes up again in 2024 and they still haven’t done anything in the Legislature, then I think they’re going to be very, very sorry.” 

Rebecca Fealk, policy program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, said it was confusing and concerning that earned release credits measure didn’t move at the end of session. 

“I do wonder if perhaps this more incremental approach is part of the reason that some of these things are stalling,” she said. “Arizona is so far behind that we really need to play catch up.” 

Fealk did say she was heartened by the passage of a bill to decriminalize fentanyl testing strips, sponsored by Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Paradise Valley. Marsh ran the bill in honor of her son, who died of an overdose last year. 

“Just being able to have a harm reduction approach to people who are struggling with substance use disorder is so important to actually addressing the root causes and issues,” Fealk said. 

Another positive, Fealk said, was HB2162, which will let some Class 6 felons have their offenses recorded as misdemeanors either upon sentencing or if they successfully completed probation. 

Blackman relaunches effort to release prisoners early

Walt Blackman

A 2020 legislative effort to expand early release opportunities for prisoners kicked off Monday morning with exhortations from advocates to think beyond incremental steps and warnings from the Arizona Department of Corrections that it doesn’t have the budget or staff to handle big changes.

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, was stymied in his attempts to pass legislation this session that would allow prisoners to earn more time off for good behavior. While his HB 2270 didn’t rate a committee hearing, he’s now leading an interim committee working on new legislation to give prisoners the ability to earn time off their sentences by completing programs aimed to keep them from reoffending.

“When a person comes into the system and becomes an inmate, they are our responsibility then,” Blackman said. “We have to make sure we are giving folks tools to succeed.”

Other states give prisoners two ways to earn time off their sentences, said Lauren Krisai, a senior analyst with the national Justice Action Network. They can earn “good time” for behaving and avoiding disciplinary actions and “earned time” for participating in programs like GED classes or anger management that are designed to help returning prisoners integrate into society.

“If you follow the rules, than you can get good time credits,” Krisai said. “For earned time, you have to do something proactively”

Arizona offers only good time, at a rate of one day for every six days served. Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill earlier this year that will allow some nonviolent drug offenders who have completed drug treatment programs to qualify for three days off for every seven served.

However, the Arizona Department of Corrections does not employ enough counselors or officers to provide the drug treatment programs required to earn additional time off sentences required by that new law, said Karen Hellman, the department’s division director for inmate programs and reentry.

She said it was “safe to say” the rehabilitation programs, which make up somewhere between 2% and 12% of the department’s $1.2 billion budget, would need more staff to implement any large-scale efforts to expand earned release programs.

“We do not have the capacity to treat everyone who needs it,” Hellman said.

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he wanted to see more information about the costs of implementing changes to the state’s earned-release programs. Blackman said he plans to ask Krisai and her colleagues at the Justice Action Network to model costs for Arizona.

While implementing new programs would likely have an initial cost, Krisai said states realize savings over time. She said Republican-led states including Oklahoma, Tennessee and Kansas have changed their sentencing laws to reduce time spent in prison without negative consequences.

“When you allow inmates to earn additional credits, that means they’re getting out earlier,” Krisai said. “That’s fewer dollars that are being spent on the prison or the prison bed that person was taking up.”

And providing treatment for inmates with early release as an incentive boosts morale in prisons, she said. Instead of waiting around to be released, they’re actively working on rehabilitation.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said he sees a need for incentives in the prison system. The corrections system is supposed to serve as a consequence to people who commit crimes, he said, but it also needs to work on rehabilitating inmates.

“We’re pretty good at the punishment part of it, perhaps a little too good,” Toma said. “We’re pretty good at the stick thing. Not too much about the carrots.”

Legislative efforts to change criminal justice laws repeatedly stall at the Capitol, where criminal justice advocates say prosecutors carry an outsize influence on lawmakers in the Republican majority. Blackman said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined an invitation to speak publicly to his committee Monday morning, but instead planned to meet privately with Blackman later in the day.

Montgomery is one of several finalists for a vacant Supreme Court seat, and Blackman said he’s spoken with several people interested in serving as county attorney should Montgomery be appointed to the Supreme Court who are interested in pursuing changes to sentencing laws.

“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I plan to do,” he said.

Caroline Isaacs, Tucson program director of the American Friends Service Committee, implored lawmakers to choose the path forward that will help the most people and make it politically feasible, rather than taking incremental steps just to say they’ve gotten something done.

“We have done incremental,” Isaacs said. “We have continued to do incremental, but there’s no question it is incumbent on us to do the most bold and wide-reaching reform that we can.”

Bowers, Fann retain leadership posts; Dems choose Bolding, Rios

From left are Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Republican lawmakers re-elected them to lead the legislative chambers in 2021.
From left are Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, and House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Republican lawmakers re-elected them to lead the legislative chambers in 2021.

Legislative Republican and Democratic caucuses met separately this and last week to select leadership following a topsy-turvy election that saw statewide Democrats succeed but the party’s legislative candidates flounder under the weight of expectation.

The GOP kept its top lawmakers in each chamber, with House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, retaining their positions. Bowers put down a challenge in the form of Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, the loudest in a cadre of Republicans who felt the current leadership to be aloof and too hesitant to push back against Gov. Doug Ducey, while Fann had no opponent.

Joining Bowers at the helm is Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who took the majority leader job over Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu, emerged as majority whip, taking the position from Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton. Rep. Travis Grantham, a Republican from Gilbert who often presided over contentious debates last session, will serve as speaker pro tempore.

“It is a humbling privilege to be asked by my colleagues to continue in their service as speaker of the House of Representatives,” Bowers said.

Nearly one-third of the caucus went for Finchem. But, as one Republican consultant pointed out on Twitter, Bowers’ pitch to lawmakers was likely helped by the election results, proving his ability to keep the fractious caucus together.

FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, speaks on the opening day of the legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Bolding was named to lead House Democrats as minority leader, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this Jan. 13, 2020, file photo, Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, speaks on the opening day of the legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Bolding was named to lead House Democrats as minority leader, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

On the Democratic side, only Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, remains from last session’s team, replacing Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, as minority leader.

“I am honored to be chosen to lead this caucus and to work with this incredible team,” said Bolding. “What we’ve seen over this election cycle is that this state is more purple than red or blue, and we look forward to working together to put forth policies to benefit all Arizonans. We will continue to be champions for working families, for equality, for a strong economy and a strong Democracy.”

Fernandez announced November 7 that she would not seek re-election as House minority leader, a decision that came only a few days before the caucus meeting that she had once hoped would propel her to the speakership.

Even prior to her caucus’ failure to take over the House, and the defeat of her seatmate, Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Buckeye, some in the Democratic caucus had lost their confidence in Fernandez. Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, assembled an opposition leadership team and a slick website under the “Unity Caucus” name, but lost to Bolding, the whip under Fernandez, for the minority leader job by just one vote – the third time the margin has been that thin in as many years.

Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, who ran as an assistant minority leader under the opposition leadership slate of Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, will instead serve as Bolding’s assistant leader. Rep. Domingo Degrazia, D-Tucson, will serve as whip. The caucus voted not to elect two co-whips this year, as they did last session.

“We had a spirited debate and vote, but our caucus has come together unified from this moment to protect working families of this state,” Longdon said in a statement.

Fann will keep almost her entire leadership team next year, as Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, will continue as majority leader and whip, respectively.

She also appointed Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, as president pro tempore, replacing retiring Sen. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert. As the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leach has spent the past two years in a de facto leadership role and is included in most meetings with Fann’s inner circle.

In this May 26, 2020, file photo, Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, speaks during a state Senate legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Democrats unanimously picked Rios to lead members of the minority party in the Senate on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this May 26, 2020, file photo, Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, speaks during a state Senate legislative session at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. Democrats unanimously picked Rios to lead members of the minority party in the Senate on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, elected a potentially historic slate consisting entirely of people of color. Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, was unopposed in her bid for minority leader, after potential challengers in Phoenix Democrats Sean Bowie and Lela Alston bowed out of contention.

Rios was the House minority leader in 2017-18, and has served in other leadership roles over the three decades she has spent on and off in the Legislature.

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, will reprise his role as assistant minority leader. Sens. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, and Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, will serve as co-whips.

“I’m so excited to be working with Martín as co-whip,” Steele said. “We make a great team, we work really well together and we complement each other.”

Steele, who is of Seneca/Mingo descent, said she was amazed after the vote by the racial demographics of the new Democratic leadership team — especially considering that next year’s Republican leaders are seven white men and one white woman. Rios, Contreras and Quezada are all Latino. And assuming Democrat Christine Marsh’s lead over Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee holds, four of the 14 members of the Senate Democratic caucus will be white while the remaining 10 are Latino or Native American.

The Senate Democratic team balances two of the chamber’s most outspoken progressive members, Steele and Quezada, with a duo in Rios and Contreras, who have shown a willingness to work with Republicans. In a tweet sharing the leadership announcement, Rios wrote that she was “honored and ready to work with Arizona Senate Democrats and Republicans.

“People will either try to peg me as too progressive if they’re trying to oppose me from the right,” Rios said before the vote. “People will try to peg me as too conservative if they’re trying to oppose me from the left. At the end of the day, I have represented districts ranging from south Phoenix, which is very blue, to Pinal County, which was a very conservative district, and I have a voting record that is often dead center right in the middle.”


Budget proposal killed in House committee

Two Republicans joined Democrats Wednesday to kill a scaled-down state budget proposal.  

Reps. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, and Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, joined all five Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee to kill 12 “continuation budget” bills on a series of 7-6 votes. 

The proposal, which was an extension of this year’s spending adjusted for inflation and growth, would have raised total spending from $12.36 billion to $12.98 billion. The idea, House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said on Monday, was to get something in place, then work out issues such as expanding empowerment scholarship accounts, spending more on water projects and an “accelerate and repeal” of last year’s income tax cuts. 

House Appropriations Chairwoman Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, acknowledged at Wednesday’s meeting that a continuation budget was no one’s first choice, but said it at least provided a path forward. 

“This is a protection for what our base is, and this is a protection of our budget that we’ve had in the past and our departments and agencies and everything that has services,” she said. 

Cobb blamed the egos of other lawmakers for its failure and said if they are still in session at the end of June without a deal, they could be voting on another continuation budget. 

“I feel like this is not helpful and this is where we started out, and I could see people digging in already,” she said. “And I had talks with several of you ahead of time about this … but because you didn’t get what you wanted you voted this way. That’s ego, and I felt that’s what kept us from moving this forward in this fashion.” 

However, Democrats and the handful of progressive lobbyists who testified said a continuation budget would do nothing to address issues such as homelessness, education funding and climate change. Instead, they said, lawmakers should put the $5.3 billion surplus to use. 

“We feel that this money could be used to make a real difference for our students and this budget as introduced does not take that opportunity,” said Brendan Foland, with the Arizona Education Association. 

Udall also said lawmakers should address the state’s problems, while Hoffman called for spending and tax cuts instead of a continuation budget that would likely be followed by additional spending bills. 

“Government is spending like crazy,” Hoffman said. “We have a $5.3 billion surplus. That doesn’t mean we’re doing a great job, that means we’re overtaxing the people we represent; we’re taking too much of their money. … I would love to have an actual skinny budget.” 

The way House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, sees it, passing a continuation budget was the best opportunity to keep spending down. 

“Let’s just say that there are some who wanted to cut spending and they had their chance today,” Bowers said after Wednesday’s vote. 

For now, it’s back to the drawing board. The House had been scheduled to meet Thursday morning, but with no budget to vote on, both the House and Senate adjourned for the week after their floor sessions Wednesday. However, even if the budget had made it out of committee, it was likely doomed, with some Republicans in both the House and Senate voicing opposition and Gov. Doug Ducey also against it. 

Democrats called on Republicans to work with them on a compromise instead of passing a budget with only Republican votes. 

“It’s time to get to work on a true bipartisan budget that addresses our state’s most pressing needs while we have the resources to act, and which includes the voices of all Arizona communities,” said House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen. 

Bowers said Wednesday’s vote, and the dissension in his own caucus, raises the chances of that. But is it possible to craft something that could get some Democrats while keeping enough Republicans to pass? 

“Hey, I’m not a magician,” Bowers said. “I’m just going to go to work.” 

Bowers also said he hopes Ducey calls a special session soon, a tool that could be used to deal with some issues individually. Some Republicans floated the idea a month ago of calling one on either taxes or water. 

“I hope they pull us in quick,” Bowers said. “I’d like to do something on the border as soon as possible.” 

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said after the vote that she has been dealing with similar divides in her caucus to what she saw in the House. She also raised the possibility of a bipartisan budget and said she has reached out to Democratic leadership for a list of their priorities. 

“Anything can happen,” Fann said. “You know it’s just one of those deals, we’re just trying to get a budget put together, and some of us would like it to be a nice bipartisan budget if we can get there. Right now, we’re sitting in the same position that we were last year, and it took us 171 days. And the position is, we have one member that is trying to dictate the whole thing.” 

Fann mentioned Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who has been calling for more tax and spending cuts, and Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who has a strained relationship with Fann and who has called for a grand bargain both raising education spending and expanding ESAs. Boyer has been working with Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix. 

“Those two have been working together the whole time,” Fann said. “You have a Republican and a Democrat working together against their caucuses too … they have their own third caucus.” 

Capitol Times Reporter Camryn Sanchez contributed. 

Budget talks stall, lawmakers consider scaled-down option

Deposit Photo

Legislative leadership is considering a “skinny budget” this year after struggling to get consensus on big projects. 

This would be a continuation of the baseline budget that the Legislature passed last year, meaning no funding would go into expensive new items that have been discussed like the border wall and an education package. 

“There are members that don’t want it. There are members that do want it. There are members that are hoping that we can get a regular budget done and they’re willing to continue a few conversations, but they’ve also expressed that if we can’t get it together, they don’t want to be here for another 171 days like last year,” Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said on Thursday. 

Karen Fann

The Senate GOP needs 16 votes to get a partisan budget through, but Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, is making that process difficult. He is not communicating with Fann and wants large investments into several projects. Rather than working with Boyer or the Democrats, Fann and Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, suggested that the chamber pass a condensed budget and go home early. 

Livingston addressed the Senate floor on Tuesday asking his colleagues to consider the idea in the name of mitigating inflation. Inflation isn’t the only driving factor behind this, however.  

For one thing, several lawmakers are in competitive races and want to get out to campaign for their upcoming primaries. 

Republicans seem to be doing very well in the early stages of campaigning, where Democrats couldn’t produce as many candidates as they did in 2020’s legislative races. This likely means a larger Republican majority next year. If the Senate passes a skinny budget now, a larger Republican body will have more money to play with next year. Fann said that’s another factor that has come up. 

Livingston said that because of the one person majorities in the House and Senate, each member thinks they can make demands, “Nobody is on the same page.”  Livingston wants members to respect the will of party leadership but says there’s no such consensus. “If you have consensus, you can do more things and more funding – that works too – but you have to have consensus.” 

Livingston commented on Boyer’s plan to create a new $900 million school funding project. 

“He doesn’t have 16 votes,” he said. “There’s no Senator that does, and that’s why you don’t do this by individuals.” 

Sean Bowie

Democrats including Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, and Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, predicted that the session will last into July. Bowie said that a holdup Republicans might have about an early sine die is that it gives the governor the power to call legislators back into a special session against their will. Another is that they might not have the votes to do it. Bowie for his part, doesn’t want to throw in the towel and pass a skinny budget. He is one of the only Democrats Republicans are willing to negotiate with and is willing to compromise on a big budget.  

Let’s all hold hands and go out on a high note,” he said. 

Some of the bills that Republicans still need to move out of the Legislature are the Prop 400 transportation tax extension, homelessness mitigation bills and legislation authorizing the expansion of I-10. 

For the past two weeks the Senate has not been able to vote on any partisan bills because various members have been absent. Boyer left the Senate floor on Monday and hasn’t been seen since, blocking the legislature from getting through their bill agendas or passing a Republican budget anytime soon. 

Gov. Doug Ducey’s spokesman CJ Karamargin suggested that a skinny budget wouldn’t be the governor’s favorite option, asking, “Do you think it’s likely that a skinny budget is even going to happen?” In January, Ducey spoke about investing $1 billion for a new water authority agency and other smaller items. 

Senate President Karen Fann brought up the possibility of a special session two weeks ago, but since then only Livingston has advocated for it in the Senate. Republican Senators Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, Paul Boyer R-Glendale and T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge are some of the members who have said they don’t want to end early.  

Democrats are also wary of passing a skinny budget in a year with such narrow margins where they could potentially get some small projects approved. Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Tempe, said that it would be a failure of Fann’s leadership. 

Ugenti-Rita argued that the “skinny budget” under consideration is a misrepresentation of what is a bloated baseline budget from last year.  

“There’s no way I’m going to vote that budget out without dealing with the $5 billion carry forward balance we have,” she said on Wednesday. “It’s our job to provide significant tax relief. … It would be irresponsible to leave that money on the table.”  

Senators aren’t the only legislators who feel this way, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, also said he opposes passing a “skinny budget.” 

“We don’t need to push our work off,” Cook said. “We don’t need to jump through hoops or try to out-maneuver during the budget cycle. What we need to do is sit down and get the work done and have what I call clean, open, honest conversations,” about the budget. 

David Cook

Cook said his budget priorities include paying down the state’s pension debt and a six-month suspension of the state’s 18-cents per gallon gas tax, which he said would give immediate relief to Arizonans struggling with rising prices. This idea has support in Arizona from both some federal and state lawmakers; U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly has introduced a bill to suspend the federal tax, and a few Arizona lawmakers, including Sens. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, and Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, have, like Cook, said they want to suspend the state’s. However, Ducey has said he opposes it. 

“There are a lot of things to address in the state’s budget this year that can be addressed and should be addressed, and I have faith in leadership at the Legislature and the governor to put together a comprehensive overall budget,” Cook said. “I am looking forward to reviewing whatever proposal they come up with. My personal priorities are in current legislative bills. My funding priorities are well known, and the continued reduction of state debt remains one of my top issues. And the idea of suspending the gas tax, under what I’ve suggested, would put $800 million into the people, small businesses and our economy over the next six months.” 

Some of the potential budget items that are too controversial for other Senators to get on board with include appropriating millions of dollars for a border wall, a flat tax cut, and a universal expansion of empowerment scholarship accounts, or ESAs. 

Bowie said he is willing to support a budget that includes ESA expansion, but not the border wall appropriation. Other than that, his demands have bipartisan support including a bill for earned income tax credits, which he is sponsoring, and the governor supports. 

The House Rules Committee voted on April 11 to allow for the introduction of budget bills whenever they are ready, but House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, and Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, didn’t say when they expect a budget to be introduced. It didn’t happen this week – the House adjourned for the week after its floor session Tuesday. House Republican spokesman Andrew Wilder said he doesn’t know what will happen when the House reconvenes on Monday; only a few mostly noncontroversial floor votes and a conference committee meeting have been scheduled so far. 

Toma didn’t return a call from the Capitol Times on Thursday, but he told the Arizona Republic earlier this week that there have been talks there of passing a baseline budget and addressing other issues such as tax cuts, empowerment scholarship accounts and water later. He also said any deal to increase public school funding would include ESA expansion for all students, with more for poorer students and the amounts students would get staggered based on family income. 

Fann said on Thursday that although Arizona has a relatively large pool of money to draw from, only a small amount of that is “ongoing funding” which many lawmakers want to use for their projects.  

“Our dilemma right now is we have a couple of our members that are asking for a lot of ongoing money that pretty well, between them and the governor, pretty well eats up all of the ongoing money, which leaves nothing left for anybody else,” she said. One time funding can be used for one-time fixes like highway infrastructure projects, but ongoing funding is needed to give raises to people like public safety officers, which some members want. Fann said there is about $1.3 billion in ongoing funding to parcel out and with everyone making demands, that’s relatively little. “We’ve got to be able to sit down and talk through this because everybody is going to want something,” she said. 

Capitol Times Reporters Nathan Brown and Nick Phillips contributed. 

Cities, towns seek transportation tax extension

This June 20, 2019, photo provided by the Arizona Department of Transportation shows department of transportation crews set a final bridge girder for Loop 202 South Mountain Freeway in Phoenix. The 22-mile freeway around much of the southern perimeter of metro Phoenix opened on December 21, 2019, and was funded by a half-cent sales tax that is set to expire in 2024. Legislation is in the works to authorize a public vote on whether Maricopa County voters want to extend the tax. PHOTO BY ROSS D. FRANKLIN/ASSOCIATE PRESS

Legislation is in the works to extend an extra half-cent sales tax that has funded major expansions of Maricopa County’s highways and public transportation systems over the past few decades. 

Maricopa County voters first approved the tax in 1985 and approved Proposition 400 in 2004, extending it for another 20 years.  

With the sunset date coming in 2024, the Maricopa Association of Governments is gearing up to push lawmakers in 2022 to authorize a public vote on whether Maricopa County voters want to extend the tax, said MAG Executive Director Eric Anderson. MAG is comprised of mayors from 27 cities and towns, and officeholders from three Indian nations, Maricopa County and parts of Pinal County.  

According to Arizona law, 56.2% of the money collected by the sales tax is used for freeways and state highways in Maricopa County, 10.5% goes to improving arterial streets and the remaining third is used for public transportation. 

It has been a major source of funding for major freeway projects. The original tax and the renewal helped to finance construction of state Route 51 and loops 101, 202 and 303, including the recently completed South Mountain Freeway extension of 202 – as well as helping to pay for the Phoenix area’s bus system and the light rail. The Prop. 400 annual report shows that revenue from the proposition increased every year since 2010. 

“It’s a significant source of funding,” Anderson said of the tax. “Right now, we’re collecting around $600 million a year. 

It is projected the tax will raise an additional $19 billion over the next 20 years if reauthorized, Anderson said. He said there are plans to use the money on “a variety of transportation projects” over the next 20 years, including improving and expanding both the highway system and arterial streets and public transportation and safety projects for bicyclists and pedestrians. 

One of these projects is a new highway in the Southwest Valley, being called state Route 30, which would roughly parallel I-10 for about five miles out to state Route 85 and hopefully relieve congestion on I-10.  

The money would also be used to expand bus service by improving existing routes and adding new ones. Anderson said there are plans for bus rapid transit, which he said is “kind of like light rail, but a bus in its own corridor. He noted that the Northwest Valley and East Valley are not well served now. 

“There really is a need pretty much in some of these outlying areas as they’ve grown,” he said. 

MAG has been laying the groundwork for this expansion, hiring WestGroup Research to poll about 1,000 likely voters on the issue early this year. According to their results, 64% of respondents supported extending the tax.  

MAG’s regional council plans to vote on its new long-range transportation plan on December 1, and the group is reaching out to legislative leaders and others now to make their case to extend the tax. Anderson said he hopes the proposal doesn’t run into serious opposition. 

“I think transportation, it used to be a bipartisan issue,” Anderson said. “I’ll leave that description for others these days. … Transportation improvements and expanding our capacity is key to improving our economic development here in the Valley.” 

Anderson said he has been talking to Gov. Doug Ducey’s staff about the renewal, but he isn’t sure yet what Ducey’s stance on it is.  

“I suspect – we’re extending the existing tax, we’re not raising the rate at all, and I expect they’ll be on board. But the political side of things, you just don’t know.” 

Although Ducey has pledged to never raise taxes, he did sign in 2018 an extension of Proposition 301, a 2000 voter-approved a sales tax dedicated to funding education in the state. 

Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said the goveror’s office does not comment on pending legislation.  

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said the proposal is being worked on through the House Transportation Committee. He said he hasn’t seen the final version yet. 

“The details matter in this case, and this details in particular are what are the changes to the current version,” Toma said. “That is going to matter quite a bit.” 

Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said there is enough money available to make an infrastructure-heavy bill with funding for rural projects.  

“I look forward to working on it and trying to get it across the finish line,” said Shope, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Transportation and Technology Committee.  

Shope said he thinks the committee’s chairman – Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa – will support the bill. Pace didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time, and neither did House Transportation Chairman Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West.  

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who is on the Transportation Committee, said he understands transportation is critical due to Arizona’s rapid growth, but he wants to know more about the proposed extension and the tax before deciding how he will vote. 

“I’d like to see the language,” he said. “I know we voted on it years ago, but it’s only (just) been brought to my attention.” 

Anderson said important economic development projects such as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing plant being built in Phoenix would not have happened without the money that has been spent on highways like Loop 303, which was funded by the tax. 

“I think most of our policymakers get that,” he said. 

Committee chairs seek balance between gatekeeper and ‘God’

The first major hurdle every piece of legislation faces in the House or Senate is a committee leader with the ability to unilaterally kill bills, and some chairs are more willing to do it than others.

While the vast majority of Democratic bills languish in committees, chairs typically let their Republican colleagues’ bills be heard. An Arizona Capitol Times review of data from Legislation On Line Arizona shows that a handful of committee chairs are difficult gatekeepers even for their GOP peers.

To some extent, that’s the job of a committee chair, Senate President Karen Fann said. As the Senate president and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, the Prescott Republican also has great leeway in keeping bills from getting votes on the Senate floor.

“This has gone on since day one and will go on for a long time as long as the system is the way it is,” Fann said. “As chairpersons of our committees, one of their responsibilities is in fact to not hear bad bills if they’re just plain bad bills.”

The risk, though, comes in making sure committee chairs don’t “play God” by deciding to kill bills because of their personal preferences, Fann said.

“There might be a perfectly good bill out there that 60, 70 percent of all the members think that it’s a really, really good bill and we’re all OK with it,” Fann said. “But when it comes to a committee where there’s a person who says, ‘Well no, I just personally don’t like it, I don’t care what the majority of the other people do,’ that’s wrong. That’s just totally wrong.”

Eddie Farnsworth
Eddie Farnsworth

The committee chairman who came under the most fire for holding bills that had support from a majority of lawmakers also proved to be the one with the third-highest kill rate for Republican bills. Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, killed 24 percent of the Republican bills referred to his Senate Judiciary Committee.

Farnsworth’s refusal to hear a bill written by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, to expand opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers contributed to a bitter showdown at the end of session as Boyer and Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, refused to vote for the GOP budget until they got a vote on their bills.

This year, Farnsworth also prevented a resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, supported by at least three Republican senators along with the entire Democratic caucus, from being heard in his committee. And he refused to hear a bill from Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, that would have prevented criminal defendants who have never before been sentenced from being charged as repeat offenders.

Toma and Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, succeeded in getting around Farnsworth by replacing one of Mesnard’s bills that had already cleared the Senate with the repeat offender legislation. An attempt to bring the ERA ratification to the floor failed.

Farnsworth did not return a message left with his assistant, and several phone numbers he has provided in response to Capitol Times questionnaires and on candidate filing forms with the Secretary of State’s Office have been disconnected. But earlier this year, he said he tried to kill Boyer’s statute of limitation bill because the founding fathers intended committee chairs to serve as gatekeepers.

“We are gatekeepers,” he said. “There are chairmen that hold bills.”

And in a 2011 interview with the Capitol Times upon his return to the House after two years away, Farnsworth said too many lawmakers were proud of the number of bills they got passed.

“The question for me is how many bills did I kill as a chairman?  In four years, I probably killed 500 bills,” he said. “I’m far prouder of being a gatekeeper of freedom than voting for a bill that tells people what to do. I’m very proud of my reputation.”

Boyer said he found Farnsworth’s refusal to hear his statute of limitations bill “frustrating,” though he acknowledged he probably frustrated plenty of members during his four years as chairman of the House Education Committee.

As a chairman, Boyer said he’d count votes on his committee ahead of time to avoid scheduling bills that wouldn’t pass, particularly if they were bills that would garner a lot of testimony or debate. And he said committee leaders’ personal opinions about bills shouldn’t determine whether they get heard.

For instance, Boyer had a bill this session to allow graduating high school students who have achieved a high level of proficiency in the fine arts to have a fine arts seal added to their diplomas. Rep. Michelle Udall, a Mesa Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, was not a fan of the bill, but the rest of her committee supported it so she heard it anyway.

“I think she was the only ‘no’ vote, to her credit,” Boyer said. “That was just a great illustration of a chairman doing their job.”

Anthony Kern
Anthony Kern

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, came under fire more than once this session for his role as the gatekeeper of the House Rules Committee. Bill after bill went there to die without explanation, and his colleagues noticed.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez made a point of calling attention to Democratic bills being held “hostage” in Rules on more than one occasion this year. She accused Kern of being vindictive toward her caucus’ bills, a charge Kern said impugned his motives and that prompted a defense from House Speaker Rusty Bowers who argued each chair was an extension of himself as speaker.

Nonetheless, after even some of Kern’s own Republican colleagues complained that he was negating some of their work on committees and overstepping, Kern began freeing dozens of bills in early March.

Kern did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he has gone on social media in the interim to note some of the casualties of Rules.

On June 14, he tweeted, “As Rules Chairman, I joined fellow House Republicans in making sure HB 2414 was held in committee. It would have made AZ part of an interstate agreement to decide presidential elections by popular vote alone. Founding Fathers had it right, every state matters!”

HB 2414 was sponsored by Tucson Democrat Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley and assigned only to House Rules in late April, when many bills were assigned to Rules strictly to comply with a requirement that all bills be assigned to at least one committee.

John Allen
John Allen

And Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, got more than he likely bargained for as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Before session kicked off, criminal justice reform measures were expected to go before the Sentencing and Recidivism Reform Committee Bowers had created for Prescott Republican David Stringer. As scandal unfolded around the now former representative, though, that committee was dissolved, leaving the Judiciary Committee to pick up where Stringer had left off.

Allen’s views then fell in line largely with Farnsworth’s, and bills aimed at restructuring aspects of the criminal justice system from fellow Republicans like Toma and Rep. Walt Blackman of Snowflake weren’t heard. In sum, 29 percent of the Republican-sponsored bills assigned to Allen’s committee never rated a hearing.

Like Udall, he did hear one bill despite his opposition and the impossibility of its adoption: freshman Democrat Rep. Raquel Terán’s HB2696, a bill she admitted had gone far beyond her original intent to repeal a law requiring a physician performing an abortion to use any means necessary to keep alive a fetus that is delivered alive.

Allen did not return a request for comment, but he explained his reasoning for doing at the time.

Realizing her mistake, Terán repeatedly asked Allen not to hear the bill after all. But he did not relent, and in the hearing held on the bill, he said this: “What we’ve talked about today shows the true nature of what some of the political conversations are,” he said, adding that the inclusion of House Democratic leaders as co-sponsors on the bill demonstrated how the issue is a core value of the Democratic party.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, did not grant hearings to nearly one-third of the Republican-sponsored bills assigned to her Senate Education Committee.

“If I’m not going to vote for it on the floor, I’m likely not going to hear it,” she said.  “I’ve had plenty of my bills held by chairmen, and I understand the process.”

Among the bills held in Senate Education were several of Allen’s own bills, which she said she realized needed more work. And in many cases, she said she talks with members ahead of time about issues with their bills and they agree that it’s not ready for a hearing.

“If I’m holding something, usually the member is not too upset that I’m doing it,” she said.

Members, particularly Democratic members, find that success often depends on what committee their bills are assigned to, said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, one of only eight Democrats who sponsored a bill that was signed into law this year. That bill, which deals with suicide prevention training in schools, was assigned to Allen’s committee and Bowie said she worked with him to get it out.

On the other hand, a bill he sponsored with Republican co-sponsors to ban conversion therapy landed in Farnsworth’s Judiciary Committee.

“Like a lot of bills that were introduced to that committee, it didn’t get a hearing,” Bowie said.

Consultant: data hard to find on ESA program

The first of several planned legislative hearings to study Arizona’s growing Empowerment Scholarship Account program ended Wednesday with many unanswered questions.  

The House ad hoc Study Committee on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Governance and Oversight heard a presentation from Phoenix-based economist and public policy consultant Alan Maguire, who was hired to investigate data related to the administration of the ESA program. 

Maguire said there are limitations with how the state collects ESA-related data related to ESA recipients and student tuition organization scholarships. He also said reporting differences in birth and death records and no information available for in-migration into the state and outmigration also have led to data limitations which could be helpful for ESA oversight.  

One of the main issues Maguire highlighted was the limited history of ESA recipients. In particular, he said it’s difficult to identify if a student attended a private school because of differing standards for getting information out of private organizations. 

“We have some idea of where these students are coming from, but only some idea,” Maguire said. 

Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, left, speaks with House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, during an ad-hoc committee on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. (Staff photo)

The committee was formed to fulfill an agreement legislative Republicans and Democrats made during the session to pass the state budget in exchange for greater oversight into the ESA program, projected by the Arizona Department of Education to cost taxpayers $900 million in 2024. 

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, said it was a problem that the state does not ask income-related data for families that have student voucher enrollments and information on prior school attendance.  

“When we don’t have that data, that is trouble for our state budget,” Gutierrez said. 

Maguire projected ESA voucher enrollment to slow down now that the school year has started and said the state officials needed to give more time to continue collecting data and see how the program compares to other large governmental programs like the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which saw a large boom in enrollment during early years. 

Another issue Maguire raised was duplicate student tuition organization scholarships being awarded to students, but privacy laws have led to issues in narrowing down details of the scholarships.  

“We know there’s some double counting in there,” Maguire said.  

After the hearing, Toma said other presentations from the Department of Education could help clarify a lot of missing information from Maguire’s presentation. He also said Maguire isn’t finished examining ESA-related data that would give a “fair” representation of the total cost and benefit of the ESA program to the state. 

While Gov. Katie Hobbs was offered a seat on the committee, Hobbs went on an overseas trip to Taiwan and South Korea and couldn’t attend. Hobbs spokesman Christian Slater told The Arizona Capitol Times Hobbs’ office pitched Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, to represent Hobbs on the committee but the House rejected her. 

“Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh is highly qualified for the ESA ad gov committee, but Republicans refused to allow her as the office designee,” Slater said. “Thus, the office requested to be removed from this ad hoc committee. Governor Hobbs is committed to protecting taxpayer dollars and stopping the unsustainable spending on private school tuition, but this ad hoc committee is not the right venue for finding bipartisan solutions.” 

Marsh criticized the decision to exclude her in a statement on Wednesday.  

“This ad hoc committee was designed to allow the Governor to appoint any designee of her choosing. Any indication that it was not is a false narrative crafted by House Republican Leadership to justify their decision to move the goalposts after an agreement we made,” Marsh said. “We had the chance to begin addressing this issue in a bipartisan and good-faith manner. However, the Republicans proved once again that politics outweigh policy for their caucus.” 

Toma said in a text to The Arizona Capitol Times that the committee’s intention was to have Hobbs’ representation come from the governor’s office, not the Senate.  

“The Governor was afforded on opportunity to participate or to choose a ‘designee’ which has always meant someone from her office, or at least the executive branch … Appointing [Marsh] would be effectively making an end run around the Senate President,” Toma said in a text. 



Crowd’s treatment of Ugenti-Rita heightens Senate discord

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, angrily speaks during the vote of her bill to trim the Permanent Early Voting List while Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who voted against the measure, killing it, listens. SCREEN CAPTURE ARIZONA LEGISLATURE
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, angrily speaks April 22, 2021, during the vote of her bill to trim the Permanent Early Voting List while Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who voted against the measure, killing it, listens. SCREEN CAPTURE ARIZONA LEGISLATURE

The unfriendly crowd Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita encountered at a Trump rally July 24 may prove problematic for her secretary of state run, but what happened after may complicate the 2022 legislative session.  

After leaving the stage, Ugenti-Rita ran into a teenage provocateur working for a right-wing website whose approach of journalism consists of yelling at elected officials and bureaucrats he dislikes. She answered his first question – she blocked some of Sen. Kelly Townsend’s election bills because they were “bad” — and tried to walk away as the man yelled more questions after her. 

Ugenti-Rita eventually told event security the man was harassing her, at which point they asked him to leave. Townsend encouraged him to return. 

“This shows (Townsend’s) erratic emotional behavior & sick personal vendetta against me and others masked as caring about election integrity,” Ugenti-Rita tweeted. “If she isn’t stopped someone is going to get hurt.”  

Her message continued as a direct appeal to Senate President Karen Fann: “This is the 2nd Senate member (Townsend) has encouraged violence against and you continue to ignore the situation. You must deal with her behavior immediately for the safety of the public, staff and members.”  

Simmering tensions between Townsend and Ugenti-Rita have already killed multiple bills supported by the remainder of their caucuses. Townsend insists it won’t happen next year – but she also wants Ugenti-Rita to resign.  

“I don’t care how well she’s done with election issues, or for how long she’s done it or how well she’s done it,” Townsend said. “If she is abusive in her position of power, then she needs to resign. We’ll find somebody that respects the community enough to not do that to them.” 

Conflict within the caucus isn’t limited to the pair of senators. Senate Republicans can’t afford to lose a single vote on any legislation that Democrats won’t support, and leaders have continued to alienate Sen. Paul Boyer, the Glendale Republican most likely to balk on some issues – particularly the Senate’s ongoing audit of 2020 election results. 

This week alone, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, went on a conservative talk show to complain that Boyer went “over to the dark side” and someone moved Boyer’s desk on the Senate floor to the Democratic side of the aisle. The desk-mover could be Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, who’s in charge of seating charts, but he didn’t return inquiries from Boyer or the Arizona Capitol Times. Fann and Ugenti-Rita also did not return phone calls.  

Longtime lobbyist Chuck Coughlin speculated that problems in the Senate Republican caucus may result in Fann’s ouster, or even a power-sharing agreement with Senate Democrats.  

“It’s the cannibalization of their own caucus,” he said. “I’m not clear that with these types of divisions going on and a one-seat majority that the leadership arrangement will persist.” 

The Senate stands in sharp contrast to the House, where Speaker Rusty Bowers has held a 31-member Republican caucus with a one-vote majority in check for the past three years. Bowers has had disputes in his own caucus, including threats to replace him as speaker and a failed recall attempt supported by some House Republicans, but the House’s conflicts have never boiled over in the same way. 

Coughlin attributes much of that success to Bowers’ even-keeled temperament. Like Coughlin’s former boss, Gov. Jan Brewer, and former President Ronald Reagan, the speaker seems to follow a rule of not publicly criticizing members of their own party.   

“Speaker Bowers has been around much longer, and his discipline with regard to internal disputes won’t allow those things to come out,” Coughlin said. “He’s a very grace-filled man. He’s a human punching bag, but he never reacts to that. And, (House Majority Leader Ben) Toma is same way.”  

Fann has been publicly critical of some of the senators in her caucus since shortly after she became president. During an end-of-session interview with the Arizona Capitol Times in 2019, Fann complained about a lack of “team spirit” from a group of new Republican senators who refused to vote for the budget plan she presented to them unless and until it included their priorities.  

“It’s very hurtful to think that you work very closely with people only to find out that their personal wishes are more important than that of the entire group,” she said.  

Prior to that, Ugenti-Rita said she asked Fann to let her preside over debate on some bills in committee of the whole, only to have Fann tell her that was a privilege reserved for “team players.”  

“I asked [Fann] specifically, and I was told that I’m not a team player and that I’m a smart girl and can figure it out,” Ugenti-Rita said in June 2019.  

Most of Fann’s comments have centered around Boyer, who began disappointing her before his first term in the Senate even began. He was one of several Republicans who voted for former House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, for Senate president, and in 2019 his crusade to secure expanded legal rights for survivors of childhood sex abuse delayed the state’s budget and led to a standdown where Boyer ultimately prevailed. 

In 2020, he joined two moderate Republicans who have since left the Senate in pushing for the Legislature to shut down during the height of the Covid pandemic. This year, he blocked Fann from arresting Maricopa County’s supervisors for contempt when they sought a court order affirming the Senate’s audit subpoenas and has become one of the most vocal Republican critics of the audit. 

Boyer said he won’t let conflicts within the Senate or pressure from outside change how he votes on legislation. If it’s a good policy, no matter who the sponsor is, he’ll vote for it, he said.  

“I’m not going to make my decision based on how I’m being treated,” he said. “I always looked at the argument. It doesn’t mean we’re going to go out for drinks after, but I don’t really do that anyways, so it’s not like I’m missing anything.” 

Democratic jobless plan emerges to dormant Legislature


A Democratic proposal to bolster the state’s unemployment benefit system is taking shape.

It’s the product of a consortium of lawmakers and left-leaning think-tanks who fear that the expiration of federal benefit supplements at the end of July could spell trouble for hundreds of thousands of out-of-work Arizonans.

The broad outline of the plan, which has yet to be finalized into legislative language, calls for additional weekly benefits, for an increase in the amount of money Arizonans can make working part-time before they lose their benefit payments and for loosened eligibility requirements.

Democrats broke into working groups immediately after the adjournment of the regular legislative session with unemployment insurance reform as a chief concern, hoping to bring the issue up in a special session that at that time seemed all-but guaranteed. In the pre-pandemic era, Arizona’s maximum weekly unemployment insurance benefit was among the lowest in the nation – $240.

The federal government has kicked in an additional $600 per week to help Americans who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic, more than tripling Arizona’s usual weekly benefit. But unless Congress acts to extend this supplement, that money will evaporate on July 25.

Dave Wells
Dave Wells

“The whole unemployment compensation system that Arizona has is completely out of whack,” said David Wells of the Grand Canyon Institute, which, along with the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, has been work-shopping the leading Democratic unemployment proposal.

The plan would increase the state’s unemployment insurance benefit cap to $490 a week, half the average weekly wage of covered workers, Wells estimates. This would bring Arizona’s benefit cap in line with most of the Western region, Republican and Democratic states alike.

In Texas, the maximum weekly benefit is $521; in Utah, $580; in New Mexico, $511. Legislators in Arizona last voted to increase the weekly maximum benefit in 2004, when they bumped it from $215 to $240 – or $960 a month.

Meanwhile, Wells said, it’s gotten more difficult for Arizonans to get on unemployment to begin with. Arizona’s income eligibility threshold – the amount of money a person had to make in the job they lost to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits – has risen to the nation’s highest.

Currently, the state says that you must have earned at least $4,680 in your highest-earning quarter in a base year to qualify for unemployment benefits, or more than $7,020 over a four-quarter period. Pandemic Unemployment Insurance from the CARES Act does allow some of those who would not typically meet this qualification to get benefits, though that’s not a permanent change.

The GCI calls for lowering that threshold to between $2,400 and $3,120 in that highest-earning quarter, essentially allowing a greater number of Arizonans who lose low-paying jobs or part-time work to access benefits.

This would still leave Arizona on the high end relative to neighboring states – in New Mexico, for example, the threshold is $1,993 in the highest earning quarter of the base year.

Separately, the plan also proposes the state increase its income disregard, especially important as more and more Arizonans go back to work, albeit perhaps not at the same hour or wage level as before, Wells said.

The disregard is how much money the state lets an Arizonan earn while on unemployment before it begins subtracting from their benefits. As an example: If one Arizonan earned $700 a week before the pandemic, received $240 per week in state unemployment benefits after being laid off, and is subsequently rehired at only part-time hours, receiving $420 per week, they would be effectively kicked off unemployment.

That’s because the state’s income disregard is set at $30 per week, meaning everything an employee earns above that is subtracted from their benefit payment.

“It’s a double whammy, a combination of a low benefit cap with a low income disregard,” Wells said.

Wells recommends that if the state can manage to increase its benefit cap, it should also set the income disregard at a quarter of the weekly benefit amount, a formula that most other states in the region use.

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

The governor could change that income disregard amount on his own, Wells said. In April, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp – a Republican – and state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler issued an emergency rule increasing the income disregard in that state from $55 to $300 a week, albeit temporarily, in an effort to encourage Georgians to begin returning to work. Lawmakers in Georgia passed a bill now awaiting Kemp’s signature giving Kemp flexibility to adjust that disregard on a permanent basis.

Arizona could foot the bill on these benefit expansions by increasing the amount that employers pay into the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund by about $100 per employee per year, Wells estimated. Currently, the state pays into that trust fund by taxing the first $7,000 of gross wages paid to a worker each calendar year – which Wells works out to be between $116 and $168 per employee per year, depending on the business.

At this stage, making any of these changes would be difficult without the Legislature in session, unless Ducey – who has resisted calls from lawmakers of both parties to convene a special session – decides to follow Kemp’s lead and issue a temporary rule.

Some legislators have expressed interest in going around Ducey and calling a special session themselves, a move that would require a bipartisan, two-thirds majority. Last week, Rep. Kelly Townsend, a Mesa Republican, began circulating a petition to that effect. By July 13, she had gathered signatures from 17 members of the House and six senators, all Republicans (though not all of the caucus itself).

Democrats, who have made repeated calls for special sessions to address unemployment, police reform and other areas, did not sign on to the letter.

Reginald Bolding
Reginald Bolding

“We definitely believe that we need to have a special session in which we address COVID-19 issues,” said Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen. “We need to make sure we’re thinking about the homeless community and unemployment. Also, we need a special session on police reform. Anything outside of that, we would consider that to be not the most pressing issues that are affecting the state of Arizona right now.”

Townsend, whose chief interest is reining in the authority of Ducey’s office, which some Republicans believe has gone too far in shutting down the state, doesn’t share those goals, Bolding said.

That said, Townsend and some of her colleagues have acknowledged that the expiration of the federal supplement – which currently bolsters the unemployment payments of around 400,000 Arizonans – could present problems.

Rep. Ben Toma, a Peoria Republican who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said he’d be open to having “conversations” about increasing unemployment benefits, provided Democrats demonstrate a “responsible way to pay for it.”

“I’ve never had a problem with having discussion and open conversation,” said Toma, who did not sign Townsend’s letter.

Still, a special session on any subject seems a long way off, with the opportunity dwindling the closer lawmakers get to the August primary.

“There hasn’t been a really strong appetite at the Legislature to do anything related to unemployment,” Wells said. “You don’t really pay attention until you’re in a recession.”

Democrats kill bill to fund school supplies


Democrats killed a bill March 11 that would have put money in the pockets of teachers.

Democrats and the Arizona Education Association said the proposal, which would have given each teacher in the state $200 to spend on school supplies, was not enough money and not a permanent solution to the state’s funding crisis.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said he thinks teachers are tired of fighting for crumbs.

Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas

“We didn’t walk out of our classrooms last year, which was incredibly hard for educators to do, we didn’t take that principled stand so someone would create a $200 grant reimbursement scheme. We took that stand so people in the state would understand that educators would take that greater risk to have fully-funded schools,” he said.

Under the bill, the Arizona Department of Education would have conducted a one‑year teacher school supplies pilot program.

A teacher who is employed by a school district or charter school and who provides classroom instruction for at least three hours during a regular school day would have received $200 to be used to purchase school supplies for use in the teacher’s classroom at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.

The bill would have appropriated $12 million from the state General Fund in fiscal-year 2020 to the department.

The bill first failed on a 27-30 vote March 4 and was brought back for another vote on March 11, when it failed 29-31.

Twenty-five Democrats voted ‘no’ during the bill’s second House vote while four voted ‘yes.’ Twenty-five Republicans voted ‘yes’ while six voted ‘no.’

“My understanding for the second time around is that we had the votes to get it passed,” Rep Ben Toma, R-Peoria, the bill’s sponsor, said. “What I didn’t expect was that the Democratic leadership and specifically the Democratic staff would actually actively pressure their members on the floor while the vote board was open to try to get them to switch their votes so they could kill it.”

Toma said his bill was an opportunity to get 100 percent of the money into teachers’ hands.

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

“It’s just confusing to me that the Democratic caucus who say they’re for teacher pay would deliberately withhold $200 from every teacher,” Toma said.   

Rep Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, introduced similar legislation last year that got bipartisan support and passed out of the House Education Committee, but it died without making it to the floor for a vote.

Rep Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, voted against Toma’s bill. She said she thinks the legislature owes teachers more than $200 dollars and there’s very little legislation to increase funding for public education.

“We’ve definitely underfunded them for the past 20 years as we continue to cut taxes. We continue to fund things like charter schools with no reform where they’re spending taxpayer dollars with very little transparency and accountability, so you know we do have a revenue problem,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said those topics will have to be addressed.

“But we need to increase the revenue in schools,” Fernandez said. “Looking at tax credits that we continue to give out so we can adequately fund public schools.”

Fernandez said she doesn’t think these topics will be addressed this session or next session.

Fernandez said she is thankful that the governor gave a raise to teachers but added that Arizona is still 46th in the country for education performance.

“That’s not good enough,” Fernandez said. “You can’t just keep giving [teachers] a little piece of the bread. You need to give them the whole loaf.”

Rep Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, switched her vote the second time after originally voting for the bill.

“It was a really difficult decision, because I want to make sure that we get money to teachers, and I know that this is a big problem,” Butler said.

Butler said the money should be kept in the General Fund to use it more broadly to help all of the K-12 needs.

“The educators who I talked to thought that this was just a Band-Aid for a very big problem of teachers having to spend money out of their own pockets. There was the feeling that this would make it seem like that was okay if we passed this bill,” Butler said.

Butler said she thinks what needs to happen is fully funding K-12 education.

Thomas said he would prefer per-pupil funding.

“It’s about new revenue streams, dedicated permanent funding coming into our schools, going into our classrooms and supporting our educators and our students,” Thomas said.


Dems claim bill gives churches immunity from lawsuits

church cross christians religion620

It’s promoted as a measure to ensure that no future governor shuts down religious services during an emergency.

But some legislators worry that the actual wording of the legislation would give churches and other religious organizations not only special privileges to operate during pandemics and other situations, but potentially immunize them from lawsuits over child abuse.

HB2648 would spell out in statute that religious services “are declared an essential service and are deemed necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public.” The bill already has cleared the House and now awaits a Senate floor vote.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who is sponsoring the measure, said it’s simply designed to put churches on even footing with other businesses.

“The spirit of the bill is essentially to say that if Costco and Walmart and any other private business is allowed to be open during a pandemic, then so should religious organizations,” he said.

It also would allow a religious organization to sue the state to not only get a declaration that it is entitled to continue to operate but also for monetary damages. Toma said that’s appropriate.

“If they are discriminated against, there should be financial consequences on any governments that infringe on their rights,” he said.

But the verbiage in the bill is raising questions about whether this is about more than giving churches the equal opportunity to stay open.

It starts with language designed to provide protection against “discriminatory action” by the government. More to the point is the definition of what that includes.

For example, it would bar state government from causing “any tax, penalty or payment to be assessed against a religions organization.” And it would prohibit imposition of any “monetary fine, fee, civil or criminal penalty, damages award or injunction against a religious organization.

That language alarmed Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe.

“There is currently a long-term, worldwide scandal about sexual abuse of children in religious organizations,” she said.

“And this has resulted in many fines, fees, penalties and criminal sanctions against religious organizations,” Hernandez continued. “And I am incredibly concerned that this bill’s prohibition would deny children victims any recompense for their abuse.”

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, also said this appears to be about far more than letting congregations meet during a pandemic.

“The expansive breath of this bill is astonishing,” he said. More to the point, he said it’s “completely unnecessary,” and not just because Gov. Doug Ducey has specifically exempted religious services from any restrictions in his emergency declaration.

Quezada cited a ruling last month by the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned a California ban on indoor church services as a method to fight the pandemic.

The court, however, upheld attendance limits based on the size of the facility. And the justices said that, given the way the Covid virus spreads, state could prohibit singing and chanting during services.

Toma’s bill would allow the state to require religious organizations to comply with “neutral health, safety or occupancy requirements” as long as they apply to other organizations that also provide essential services. But it does say that that the state cannot impose “a substantial burden on a religious service” absent showing it is “essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Sen. J.D. Mesnard R-Chandler, acknowledged that the measure does deal with more than just what happens during a declared emergency. But he said he does not read the bill as broadly as some of the foes.

“There is no immunity in this bill except for one thing: immunity from discrimination,” he said. Mesnard said it does not immunize religious organizations to go out and break any law.

“That would not be the government coming after you solely because you’re a religious entity, which is the meat of the bill,” he said.

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, openly questioned the need to cater to the church.

Peshlakai said she understands the stated goal is to protect religion in government. But she said that hardly appears necessary.

“I see nothing but the protection of the church in this state and in this country,” she said. By contrast, Peshlakai said Native Americans were not granted freedom of religion until President Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, overruling laws that had rendered some religions and sacred ceremonies illegal.

Yet all along, other non-Native American religions were given the freedom “to hurt people,” relating how her grandfather, in the name of converting Native Americans to Christianity, was forced to go to an Indian school.

“So I am very wary of giving that much immunity and that lack of responsibility to these religious essential services,” Peshlakai said.

No date has been set for the Senate to debate the issue.

Ducey agrees to forgo emergency powers to get vote on budget

Gov. Doug Ducey explains Thursday how any decision he makes on signing bills to impose new voting restrictions will be based on what he considers "good policy" and not based on opposition from the business leaders -- or the sports community. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
Gov. Doug Ducey explains Thursday how any decision he makes on signing bills to impose new voting restrictions will be based on what he considers “good policy” and not based on opposition from the business leaders — or the sports community. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Gov. Doug Ducey has agreed to give up the emergency powers he granted himself 15 months ago to get the last vote necessary for his tax cut plan for the wealthiest in the state.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, told Capitol Media Services Wednesday that the deal finally means that the governor will no longer have the unilateral ability to create new laws and regulations and suspend others, using the justification of the Covid pandemic. Ducey’s exercise of those powers has been a bone of contention of not just Townsend but many Republicans.

With that promise, Townsend became the 16th Senate vote for not just the permanent tax cuts of at least $1.3 billion — and potentially $1.8 billion — but also the $12.8 billion spending plan for the new fiscal year that begins in a week.

That moves the debate to the House, but not until Thursday. Its action had to be delayed because four GOP lawmakers are missing, leaving the chamber without a quorum after Democratic legislators refused to show up.

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, says he has the necessary 31 votes — all Republican — to enact the plan once all of his members are in place.

Aside from Townsend’s vote for the plan, Ducey did get something else. Lawmakers inserted some provisions into the budget to codify in state law some of the reasons the governor said he needed those powers in the first place.

That includes, for example, a prohibition on cities and counties issuing their own emergency orders requiring the use of face masks, closing a business or, as Pima County did, imposing a curfew.

Kelly Townsend
Kelly Townsend

“He needed this in here in order for him to feel good about rescinding the emergency order because he’s afraid of what Phoenix or Tucson are going to do,” Townsend said. “He’s basically saying ‘If I rescind the emergency order, then I need assurances that the cities can’t do all this other stuff.’ “

But there may be a delay: Townsend said she agreed to let Ducey defer ending his declaration until the state gets $450 million in Covid relief funds Arizona is owed from the federal government, funds the state may be entitled to only if it still has a declared emergency.

And, on the subject of gubernatorial emergencies, senators also approved a related proposal by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, that limits future declarations to no more than 120 days. Any extensions would have to be approved by the legislature, and only for 30 days at a time.

Now, once a governor declares an emergency it can last as long as he or she wants. Lawmakers can void the action with a simple majority vote. But that does no good if they are not at the Capitol, as it takes either a call by the governor or a two-thirds vote for a special session.

Townsend also got something else to become the necessary 16th Senate vote for the tax-cut and budget package: creation of a special legislative panel to review the results of the audit currently being conducted by the Senate of the 2020 election in Maricopa County.

The audit results are not due until at least August, long after the regular session is expected to be over. But Townsend said if this panel concludes changes are needed in state election laws, she expects Ducey to call a special legislative session later this year, enacting them in time to affect the 2022 election.

Townsend conceded she does not have an absolute commitment from the governor to issue such a call. But she said if he balked “it would not be politically expedient.”

“If he doesn’t do it, it’s a political time bomb,” she said.

And Townsend got something else in the budget: partial repeal of existing statutes that now allow the governor to order mandatory vaccinations of those with certain illnesses “or who are reasonably believed to have been exposed or may reasonably be expected to be exposed.” The change would allow people to opt out based on “personal beliefs.”

Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin declined to comment on the deal with Townsend.

The key bills in the budget package — there are 11 of them — all passed the Senate largely along party lines after the GOP majority rejected every change sought by Democrats.

Some proposal sought additional funding, like one by Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, to appropriate more dollars to raise teacher salaries statewide. She said current wages are still not enough to keep qualified people in the classroom.

Also rejected were plans to put more dollars into school repairs.

Democrats had no better luck beating back policy changes that Republicans included in the budget package, like imposing $5,000 fines on schools that allow the teaching of lessons that suggest that members of some races are responsible for actions taken by others of the same race.

“Why is your discomfort more important than my history?” asked Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale.

GOP lawmakers also approved expansion of who is eligible to get vouchers of state funds to send their children to private and parochial schools.

But the key debate was over the plan to permanently cut at least $1.3 billion in taxes — and potentially up to $1.8 billion — with those at the top of the income scale getting the biggest cut, not in just dollars but in percentage, of what they would otherwise owe.

Quezada told his GOP colleagues that they may live to regret their action.

“I’m going to get to vote ‘no’ on a budget that I believe is truly going to drive the nail in the coffin of the GOP dominance in the state of Arizona,” he said. “Once the people of Arizona realize what is actually in this budget, once they see this welfare-for-the-wealthy budget, they are not going to be happy.”

The plan would eventually move state income tax rates from the current four steps ranging from 2.59 to 4.5% to a flat 2.5% flat tax rate. It also would protect the wealthiest Arizonans from the full impact of  Proposition 208, a voter-approved 3.5% surcharge on earnings over $500,000 a year to help fund education.

“The overwhelming majority of Arizonans are barely getting enough to fill a tank of gas while the wealthiest of Arizonans are getting enough to buy a new car,” Quezada said of the plan.

“It is a short-sighted effort to make the wealthiest Arizonans richer,” said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.

But Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said it makes sense that people who earn more and have higher taxes will get a bigger break. And he rejected the idea that voters won’t like Republican policies, saying that 2020 was a “banner year” for Republican legislatures nationwide based on their plans to curb taxes.

That wasn’t exactly true in Arizona where Joe Biden outpolled Donald Trump, Democrat Mark Kelly defeated Republican Martha McSally for U.S. Senate, and Republicans found their margin in the state House and Senate cut to just one vote.

But Mesnard said that last result was due to what he said were “gerrymandered” districts crafted by the Independent Redistricting Commission.

Anyway, he said, the Republican-controlled legislature has a record of helping those at the bottom of the income scale.

Mesnard cited a 2019 law which provided for a standard deduction of $24,000 for married couples, meaning anyone making less than that owes absolutely no state income taxes. Prior to that the figure was $10,366.

He also said that, absent the changes in the law, Arizona would have the second-highest top tax bracket in the country at 8%, meaning the current 4.5% cap plus the 3.5% surcharge from Proposition 208. Only California would be higher.

“People vote with their feet,” Mesnard said, citing the state’s rapid population growth as proof of the popularity of having policies that cut taxes and limit regulations.

And Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said the complaints of the Democrats smacks of class warfare.

“It seems kind of unfair to be attacking success in a system where we are a meritocracy, where you are actually rewarded for your efforts and you can actually pass on your successes to enrich other folks,” he said.

The final budget does have a small victory for some motorists.

Ugenti-Rita got a clarification in the law to say that anyone whose vehicle registration expires on June 30 is not required to pay the $32 per vehicle registration fee.

That fee already is set to self-destruct on that date. But the Department of Transportation has taken the position that even those who were buying new registrations that would be effective July 1 also had to pay it.

Her amendment ensures that the approximately 166,000 vehicle owners who already paid the fee will get a refund.


Ducey draws line in sand on rainy-day fund


Calling an economic downturn “inevitable,” Gov. Doug Ducey is pushing back against demands by lawmakers from his own Republican Party to use an unexpected cash windfall to pay down debt.

The governor said Monday he is sticking to his demand that the extra $155 million being taken from Arizona taxpayers go into the state’s “rainy day” fund. He wants to get that account, currently in the $460 million range, brought up to an even $1 billion.

The amount in that fund has been virtually unchanged since Ducey became governor. It also is far below the statutory cap on what is formally known on the “budget stabilization fund” of 7 percent of general fund revenues, a figure that this year would translate out to more than $700 million.

What irks some GOP lawmakers is the fact that the $155 million isn’t money the state earned, at least not through the normal political process of debating and setting tax rates. Nor is it some sort of unearned income in the form of a court judgment, like the cash Arizona got in the settlement of a lawsuit with Volkswagen over vehicles that were spewing more pollution than allowed.

Instead it’s a bit of fallout from the changes in federal tax law that lowered rates for most Americans. But a byproduct of the state “conforming” its tax laws to those changes is that some Arizonans will be paying higher taxes.

Senate President Karen Fann said her lawmakers think the best course of action is to use the windfall to pay down debt. She figures that would reduce the state’s annual debt obligation by about $24 million a year, money Fann said could be better used to actually provide state services.

Ducey said the plan is unacceptable to him.

On one hand, the governor said the Arizona economy is booming.

“But it would be irresponsible to not plan ahead for a rainy day,” Ducey said.

“And the beauty of a rainy-day fund is it gives you options in the downturn or the crisis,” he continued. “You can only pay down debt once.”

And the governor said he views it through the eyes of a business executive, which he once was.

“This is the way any responsible chief executive would look at the situation in the private sector,” explained Ducey, the former executive of Cold Stone Creamery. “I should bring that same loving care to the public sector.”

The governor also brushed aside Fann’s contention that the state would be better served in the long run by using its newfound cash to actually fund state services instead of paying interest to some lender.

“We continue to pay down debt every day in this state,” he said.

That most notably includes the nearly $1 billion borrowed by selling off some state buildings – including the House and Senate – under a lease-purchase plan to get them back. But the debt still remains at about $750 million.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said there may be a middle ground.

“I’m not one of the members of the House or the Senate, for that matter, that is basically a ‘hell no’ on putting money in a rainy day fund. But it’s going to require some give on the governor’s part.” Toma said. “The only way I would support putting that money into the rainy day fund is if we got a big win on conformity reform.”

That means adjusting the state income tax system for future years to ensure the state does not continue to collect the unanticipated windfall from federal tax reform and the resultant hit on Arizona taxpayers.

“In the end, for me, what’s more important is what we do in perpetuity, if you will, to offset the additional increases,” he said.

Even with that $155 million, that still leaves the state far short of the $1 billion that Ducey wants for the rainy day fund.

“Will we have the votes in House and the Senate to do that?” Toma said. “That’s going to be a tough lift.”

Ducey goes partisan in 2020 State of the State Address

Gov. Doug Ducey makes his way through the Arizona House of Representatives on January 13 to the podium to deliver a speech on his priorities to a joint session of the Legislature. PHOTO BY ANDREW NICLA/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES
Gov. Doug Ducey makes his way through the Arizona House of Representatives on January 13 to the podium to deliver a speech on his priorities to a joint session of the Legislature. PHOTO BY ANDREW NICLA/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES

As Gov. Doug Ducey welcomed in a new decade with his address to the joint session of the Legislature on January 13, it became clear that he left the Era of Good Feelings behind in 2019.

Just over a year ago, Ducey’s State of the State Address delivered a simple message: “Bipartisanship is a word that gets tossed around a lot,” he said.

“So let me be clear on the approach I intend to take,” he continued. “I’m not here just to work with Republicans on Republican ideas. And bipartisanship doesn’t simply mean working with Democrats on Democratic ideas. I’m here as governor of all the people to work with all of you on good ideas.”

He welcomed a host of new faces from both parties to the chamber, expressed gratitude for the lifetime of service by former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat; and talked about bringing politicians and regular people from all walks of life together to address the viral spread of mass shootings on school campuses. He put front-and-center the need to come together on the opioid crisis, teacher pay and reduction of the prison population. He waxed effusive about key Democrats like Senate Minority Leader David Bradley.

There was a clear reason for such feelings of goodwill: With a water crisis looming, it was existentially important that lawmakers came together to pass the Drought Contingency Plan.

And while the ink has dried on the water plan, many of the issues that Ducey centered in last year’s State of the State speech have resurfaced in this year’s nascent legislative session: sex education, K-12 funding, criminal justice changes, infrastructure spending. However, he made it clear it’s a new day.

Things began on January 13 earnestly enough, with namedrops of Arizona icons like John McCain, Raul Castro and Sandra Day O’Connor. But by the speech’s 14th paragraph, the usually demure, business-forward Republican came out swinging.

“Let’s continue hacking away at the permanent bureaucracy and the ‘mother may I’ state,” he directed.

He took shots at liberal states like California and New York for their tax rates and their regulatory environments, took aim at the so-called “spending lobby” and, to rousing applause from his caucus, paid homage to the late President George H. W. Bush: “No new taxes; not this session, not next session; not here in this chamber, not at the ballot box, not on my watch,” Ducey said.

In short, if last year’s speech created an opening for togetherness, this year’s made it clear that the GOP is in charge, and that in the upcoming election cycle, it plans to keep it that way.

Lawmakers took note.

“It was a true, Republican, conservative speech,” said Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, on the House floor. Compared to last year’s, which he didn’t like, this was a speech that made him happy, he said.

Ducey didn’t hesitate to twist the knife where he saw Democratic governance going awry. He called out the city of Phoenix for its game of chicken with rideshare companies over increased airport fees and called upon a Republican Rep. T.J. Shope of Coolidge to carry a bill that would ask voters to make so-called sanctuary cities unconstitutional following the 2019 defeat of a sanctuary city initiative in Tucson, one of the state’s most progressive cities.

“If anyone needed a reminder … here in Arizona, we respect the rule of law,” he said.

Democrats, who for a brief moment last year convinced themselves that they liked the governor’s speech, were aghast, if not surprised.

“It’s the most partisan speech that I’ve seen the governor make,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe. “They’re doubling down on the extremist agenda.”

Campaign Season

It’s impossible to divorce this from the looming campaign season. Not only is Republican leadership under attack at the White House, Democrats in the state are bullish on their chances to swing the state House, where the Republican majority tiptoes on a razor’s edge.

The irony, said Democratic consultant Ben Scheel, is that on economic policy, Ducey was not actually at his most conservative. While he talked a lot about cutting taxes, the only concrete cut he announced was the elimination of state income taxes on veterans’ military pensions. He also implored insurance companies to cover mental health treatments, announced Project Rocket, a $43 million funding plan for underprivileged schools, and touted big infrastructure projects and the replenishment of HURF funds.

“Some of those budget items, I don’t think legislative Republicans are gonna go for,” Scheel said. “I think that he included more funding measures than usual.”

To compensate, Scheel claims, Ducey needed to allude to other conservative causes.

“We believe in the free market, the free exchange of ideas and the freedom to make your own way,” Ducey said in his speech. “We believe in life and the potential of every child, along with the dignity of every individual.”

This could also explain the governor’s proposal that for every one regulation that’s passed, three need to be rolled back — a literal one-up of an executive order signed by President Donald Trump stipulating that for every regulation enacted, two need to go.

What went unsaid in the speech, aside from infrastructure spending, were issues that could likely garner support from both parties, such as sentencing law changes favored by Reps. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, and Ben Toma, R-Peoria.

While Ducey did mention criminal justice, his two biggest announcements were the closure of a prison and the rebranding of the Arizona Department of Corrections as the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry.

Toma acknowledged that these weren’t quite the overtures to revamping sentencing laws that some might have hoped for, but placed blame on Democrats.

“Part of the frustration at least from me has been that the other side seems to talk about bipartisanship, but when push comes to shove and it’s time to vote, they seem to take this stance of resisting anything that’s pushed by Republicans,” he said.

And because Democrats weren’t willing to embrace the spirit of bipartisanship last year, Ducey had no reason to offer that same olive branch, he said. And if Ducey’s amped-up rhetoric can stave off a Democratic majority in the House, or even pick up some extra seats, then all the better.

“In terms of tone, I don’t know if trying to hold out an olive branch when it was snubbed last session is a winning policy,” Toma said.


Ducey talks disdain for new education tax, vows fast fix

 In this Dec. 2, 2020, file photo, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey answers a question during a news conference in Phoenix. A new voter-approved tax on high-earning Arizonans that will boost education spending is firmly in Gov. Doug Ducey's crosshairs, with the Republican vowing Friday, March 19, 2021, to see Proposition 208's new tax cancelled either through the courts or the GOP-controlled Legislature. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File)
In this Dec. 2, 2020, file photo, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey answers a question during a news conference in Phoenix. A new voter-approved tax on high-earning Arizonans that will boost education spending is firmly in Gov. Doug Ducey’s crosshairs, with the Republican vowing Friday, March 19, 2021, to see Proposition 208’s new tax cancelled either through the courts or the GOP-controlled Legislature. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File)

A new voter-approved tax on high-earning Arizonans that will boost education spending is firmly in Gov. Doug Ducey’s crosshairs, with the Republican vowing Friday to see Proposition 208’s new tax cancelled either through the courts or the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Ducey told the Valley Partnership business group that he’s been advising people who ask him about the new 3.5% surcharge on the wealthy’s income to wait to take their investments to other states because payments on the tax now in effect won’t be due until April 2022. Meanwhile, he’s working to make the measure die, and he laid out his two-pronged strategy for doing just that.

Business groups and the GOP-led Legislature are challenging the new tax, and Ducey noted that the state Supreme Court has fast-tracked that effort by accepting the case before it can be fully heard by a trial court. Ducey filed a friend of the court brief urging the court to act, and it will be heard on April 20. Ducey has appointed a majority of the justices.

If that effort fails, Ducey said he’s working with House and Senate leaders to come up with ways to neuter the new tax, which he said will make the state’s tax code uncompetitive.

“Prop 208 promised additional dollars to K-12 education. I had no problem with that at all,” Ducey said. “But what it also did is took our top tier tax rate from 4.5% to 8%. It was a 77% increase. That I have real issues with.”

There are multiple tracks the Legislature could take, but one that eliminates about a third of the estimated $827 million a year in new revenue has already passed the Senate. That measure, by GOP Sen. J.D. Mesnar d, creates a new tax code section just for small businesses, setting the top tax rate at 4.5% but avoiding the new 3.5% surcharge.

Arizona small business income is currently taxed on personal tax returns. The new tax voters approved in November imposes a 3.5% tax surcharge on income above $250,000 for individuals or above $500,000 for couples. Opponents backed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spent millions trying to persuade voters it would hurt small businesses.

Proponents said the tax’s effect is on owners’ income, but Mesnard argued at a February committee hearing that setting up the new small business tax is fair.

“I obviously during the campaigns heard consistently the surcharge is not aimed at small businesses, would not impact small businesses,” he told the Senate Finance Committee. “In many respect this just codifies that sentiment.”

Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said at a full Senate debate that Mesnard’s plan was “a direct attack on the will of the voters.”

“This is another reason exactly why voters don’t trust us,” Quezada said,. “They work their butts off to collect signatures, put a measure on the ballot that is going to fix a problem that we have failed to fix ourselves as legislators. They pass a proposition and we go and do something like this.”

Other paths to making the new tax less painful for the wealthy are contained in a state budget proposal now being negotiated where GOP lawmakers are considering a massive revamp of the tax code, at Ducey’s urging. His January budget proposal contains a $200 million per year tax cut that would rise to $600 million in three years. But with a budget surplus estimated to top $1 billion, Senate and House Republicans are looking way beyond that number.

Republican Rep. Ben Toma is leading efforts in the House to revamp the tax code. His proposal eliminates the current graduated tax brackets and replaces them with a flat 2.5% tax on all income levels. Under the current progressive tax structure, taxes start at 2.59% on the first $26,500 of income and rise to a maximum of 4.5% on income over $159,000.

The flat tax proposal means the wealthy would see the biggest cuts. Toma said there’s also talk of capping maximum tax with the Proposition 208 surcharge at 5% and using the general fund to make up the difference in the special fund created by the new initiative.

Half of the new tax on the wealthy will be used for raises for credentialed teachers, 25% to boosting wages for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other support staff, and the rest for teacher training, vocational education and other initiatives.

The initiative was an outgrowth from a 2018 teachers strike that highlighted low wages for educators and a slow rebound from budget cuts enacted during the Great Recession. The walkout secured higher wages for teachers, but many education interest groups said it fell short. A grassroots group then organized to pass the initiative.

Ducey said at Friday’s online meeting of Valley Partnership that he respects the initiative process and the will of the voters — then laid out his reasons for gutting the measure. And he said he backs more cash for K-12 schools even as he is working to eliminate the new tax.

“I think there’s a way to either fix this or in a way have the dollars available for K-12 education and keep our state competitive. One route is judicial, the other route is legislative,” he said. “And you should see resolution on this and clarity around this issue sometime in the coming months. But it will be this session.”

Ducey vetoes tax conformity bill

Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed a legislative plan Friday that would have cut individual income tax rates by $150 million to offset higher taxes Arizonans would have to pay the state due to changes to federal tax laws.

A clearly angry Ducey lashed out at lawmakers from his own Republican Party for refusing to go along with his plan to have the state collect extra cash from Arizona taxpayers by conforming state tax laws and allowable deductions with the changes made in the Internal Revenue Code as part of the federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act signed by President Trump in late 2017.

GOP lawmakers liked the conformity part, a move that simplifies filing for Arizona taxpayers. But unwilling to accept the commensurate boost in state tax collections, they sought to balance that out by cutting income tax rates across the board by 0.11 percentage point.

Ducey, in vetoing the plan, said that creates an “irresponsible measure that hastily changes Arizona’s tax laws without any reliable data to back it up.”

On one hand, Ducey said there’s “plenty of time” to consider the issue and find ways to simplify the state tax code — for 2019 and beyond.

But he also said that he’s determined to get his way on the 2018 taxes that are due April 15.

The governor pointed out that the state Department of Revenue already has prepared tax forms for 2018. Those forms conform with changes in federal law, providing the state with what some lawmakers say is that improper $150 million “windfall.”

“Let me be VERY CLEAR on this point: I will veto any budget that doesn’t align with these tax forms,” he said.

Ducey said he’s “open to negotiation” on taxes for 2019, the one that will be due in April 2020.

“But last year is settled,” he said.

But Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, told Capitol Media Services if the governor is sadly mistaken if he thinks GOP lawmakers who control both the House and Senate intend to approve any plan to hike taxes.

“I’m not going to vote for that, nor will I hear it in Ways and Means,” he said.

That’s also the position of Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and crafted the idea of the offset to ensure the state is not collecting more money.

“He wants what would amount to, on the individual income tax side of things, the largest tax increase in modern history, as far as I can tell,” Mesnard said of the governor.

And there’s something else.

Toma pointed out that those tax forms to which Ducey referred — the ones that are currently being distributed and Arizonans are asked to fill out — are based on state tax laws as the governor wishes them to be, but not as they actually read.

“DoR is going to be collecting taxes that they’re not allowed to collect, that they won’t have any statutory authority to collect,” he said.

“What is happening now is outside the scope of the law,” echoed Mesnard.

No one from the governor’s office would comment about the forms being distributed not reflecting the law.

What’s causing the problem is that, in general, Arizona allows its taxpayers the same deductions as permitted in federal law. So if interest paid in home mortgages can be deducted from someone’s federal taxable income — the amount against which taxes are computed — the same deduction is available when computing state taxable income.

Only thing is the new federal law eliminated or curbed many deductions. The trade-off, however, was a sharp increase in the federal standard deduction available to those who choose not to itemize.

But in Arizona, where the standard deduction remains unchanged, following suit as Ducey proposed means fewer deductions and, by extension, higher taxes owed.

Legislative budget staffers looked at the changes, including a $10,000 cap on deduction for state and local taxes paid and a repeal of a miscellaneous expenses deduction. All totaled they figured conforming with federal law would mean Arizonans, without the deductions, would end up paying $157 million in additional taxes.

So GOP lawmakers voted to conform to the changes in federal law, keeping tax filing simple for Arizonans as Ducey suggested, but offset those additional revenues by reducing tax rates across the board by 0.11 percentage points.

By definition, the highest dollar cuts would go to those who owe the most.

Projections by the Arizona Center for Economic Progress put the effect of a 0.11 percentage point reduction in state tax rates at $1,174 for the top 1 percent of Arizona wage earners, meaning those with income averaging $1.45 million. By contrast, it says the lowest 20 percent, those earning less than $23,688, would see their income taxes go down by about $9.

It is that offset sought by GOP lawmakers that made the legislation unacceptable to the governor as he wanted the extra cash to be deposited into the state’s “rainy-day” fund.

Bypassing Ducey appears to be off the table.

It takes a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate for an override. But the legislation Ducey vetoed passed the House on a 31-29 party-line veto; in the Senate, only Republican Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix was in opposition as it was approved there by a 16-14 margin.

“It really puts everybody between a rock and a hard place,” Toma said.

One option, he said, would be for Ducey to “buy votes” from the Democrats, all of whom want the state to collect the extra dollars. That likely would involve putting spending items in the budget attractive to the minority party.

But even then, Ducey would still need more Republicans than Brophy McGee to get his way. And Toma said that will throw a monkey wrench into other legislative priorities — and to finishing the session on schedule in late April.

“I think we should all be ready to be here through June,” he said.

Mesnard pointed out there’s another option, one that Ducey can’t veto: do nothing. That would maintain all the same deductions for 2018 that Arizonans were able to take in 2017, meaning no net increase in what Arizonans owe the state based on the latest changes in federal law.

But it could prove an administrative nightmare.

“If we end the session without conforming it won’t matter that the Department of Revenue has printed forms that assumed we did,” Mesnard said, and Arizonans used them to file their taxes by April 15. He said the agency will have to not just re-do the forms but issue notices to everyone who used the original form that they now either owe more money or perhaps are in line for a bigger refund than they originally thought.

There was no response from Ducey or his staffers to that possibility.

Ducey’s claim that it’s too late now to consider how best to conform the 2018 state tax code to federal changes is undermined by the fact that he has known about this for more than a year. In fact, Mesnard first broached the subject in January 2018 and the governor’s spokesman at the time declined to comment on what his boss wants to do.

During debate on the measure Thursday, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, chided Ducey for wanting to boost tax collections by another $150 million,

“We are faced today with an almost $1 billion government surplus,” he said. “We are looking at a bill here to say, out of that, $200 million of it should go back to hard-working Arizona families for the real investment that makes our economy go.”

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said it’s not right for the state to benefit from a tax cut at the federal level.

“We’ve got the opportunity now to make sure that we are not taking what the federal tax code put back into the pocket of taxpayers,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since publication on Feb. 1 to include statements from lawmakers and more comprehensive background information. 

Election measures keep moving along partisan lines

Voters arrive to vote at their polling station on Election Day, early, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Voters arrive to vote at their polling station on Election Day, early, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

With most headline-grabbing election measures dead, numerous others that pit arguments of voter integrity against voter suppression are working their way through the Legislature.

The basic contours of the debate aren’t new. For years, Democrats have generally supported making it easier to vote while Republicans have been more likely to focus on preventing illegal voting. 

However, this year’s session has the added dimension of coming just after a contentious presidential election that many Republicans say they believe was stolen by fraud. It was an election in which Arizona, for years considered a safe Republican state, narrowly gave its 11 electoral votes to the Democrat for the first time in decades.

Partisanship was apparent on March 10, when the House Government and Elections Committee voted 7-6 along party lines to advance SB1485, which would remove voters from the Permanent Early Voting List if they miss four elections in a row and then don’t respond to a mailed notice asking if they would like to remain on the list. 

The bill’s supporters characterized it as a simple housekeeping measure that would prevent at least some fraud. 

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he doesn’t know how much fraud there is, but referred to the “pyramid of crime” he teaches about in his criminal justice class, with the bottom being the total number of crimes committed and the top being crimes that are recorded in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.

“Crimes that we actually know are the tiny tip of a massive iceberg of criminal activity in this country, and I suspect the same is true of election fraud,” he said. “You just don’t get it all. So I don’t know what the number is, but it’s there.”

The bill’s opponents said it would disproportionately make things more difficult for people serving in the military or on missions, independent voters (who could be taken off the list after skipping two general elections), senior citizens, Latinos and Native Americans and could result in taking 143,000 people off the list. 

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said if the bill had been passed in 2019, it could have resulted in removing 50,000 Latinos who voted in 2020 from the list, more than enough to have changed the outcome given Joe Biden’s 12,000-vote victory in the state.

“This is not housekeeping,” she said. “This is the tip of a pyramid of a massive voter suppression campaign to make it harder for you to vote. … We’re seeing it in state legislatures across the country. And especially in a state like Arizona, it makes all the difference.”

As Salman said, Arizona is not the only state where Republican lawmakers are responding to concerns about fraud by pushing laws that critics say will make it harder to vote. Lawmakers in Georgia, the other longtime Republican state to narrowly flip to Biden, are considering bills to restrict ballot drop boxes, increase absentee voting restrictions and limit early voting, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last week. 

The Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive law and public policy institute, said a month ago that restrictive voting bills are being introduced this year at a far faster clip than last year, and Arizona is leading the way. As of early February, lawmakers in 33 states had introduced a total of more than 165 such bills, compared to 35 in 15 states the same time in 2020, and 19 of those 165 bills were in Arizona.

The debate was much the same March 3 and 4, when the House spent much of its time on election-related bills. Voting was along party lines to ban same-day voter registration and to bar counties from accepting private money to help fund elections, like the grants nine Arizona counties received last year from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which gets much of its funding from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. 

The next day, the House passed bills to let the attorney general issue subpoenas in voter fraud investigations, ban automatic vote-by-mail and voter registration and bar elections officials from modifying any voting deadlines set in statute.

“It’s bills like this that serve the purpose of continuing ‘the big lie,’” Salman said, using the term Democrats have embraced to describe claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

Salman said repeated lawsuits challenging the results of the election have failed, and audits of the vote have shown no irregularities, but that “if you repeat a lie over and over and over again, you get justices on the highest court of the land using (the lie) … to undermine the voting rights of particularly people of color in this country.”

While arguing against HB2811, which bans same-day registration, Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, similarly pointed to the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court just a couple days before in challenges to two Arizona laws that critics claim make it harder to vote. Under questioning from Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Arizona GOP lawyer Michael Carvin said striking down the laws would “put (Republicans) at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

“Keeping eligible voters (from voting) has nothing to do with integrity,” Terán said. “It just has to do with winning and holding onto power, whether you enjoy majority support or not.”

Same-day registration isn’t allowed in Arizona now, but HB2811 would cement this as law and make it a crime to register someone to vote on Election Day. Kavanagh, who heads the House’s Government and Elections Committee, which has heard most of the election-related bills, said one of the ways the Tammany Hall machine in 19th-century New York City stayed in power was using police to register people to vote and bring them to the polls. He raised the specter of same-day registration leading to similar corruption if it were to be allowed, and said people already have ample opportunity to register to vote.

“That’s exactly the type of corruption this same-day registration of voting can bring back, and we don’t need (that) anymore,” he said.

In November, Joe Biden became only the third Democrat to carry Arizona in a presidential election since World War II, and with Mark Kelly’s victory, Democrats ended up holding both of Arizona’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time since Barry Goldwater unseated Ernest McFarland in 1952.

Bills that would have let the Legislature appoint presidential electors or override the certification of the electoral vote were introduced this year and drew national attention but appear to be dead for the session. The battle over the 2020 results does continue to play out more explicitly in the Senate, which won a court case in late February to get access to Maricopa County’s ballots and has said it plans to conduct an audit of them. 

Meanwhile, bills to change election procedures are moving forward in both chambers of the Legislature. On March 8, the Senate voted 16-14 to pass a bill requiring more identification to vote early, during a contentious floor session in which Democrats said the measure would have a disparate impact on minority voting rights and Republicans recoiled at accusations of racism. Also pending in the Senate is SB1593, which would reduce the time people have to vote early and require ballots to be postmarked by the Thursday before Election Day.


Flat tax a legacy of GOP caucus


Perhaps the longest-lasting consequence of this year’s session will be the $1.8 billion in ongoing tax cuts lawmakers passed on party lines. 

Supporters of the reductions say they will improve Arizona’s economic competitiveness relative to lower-taxed neighboring states and, besides, the state can afford to do it now. 

When phased in, the cuts will largely negate the tax increase on businesses and the wealthy that voters approved as part of Proposition 208 last year, and phase in a 2.5% flat income tax rate over the next few years if certain revenue targets are reached 

“Obviously, I’m very happy with the fact that we got the tax reforms done, and the tax cut that was part of that, that was a huge win for Arizona,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, one of the main architects of the proposal. “It will really improve our competitiveness long-term. I still think, in spite of what the other side is saying, it’ll result in more revenue for the state long-term.” 

Although a handful of Republicans who worried about the effect of the tax cut on revenue sharing with cities and towns delayed the passage of the budget by a month, leadership ended up getting them on board by changing the phase-in and increasing revenue sharing. The proposal faced unanimous opposition from Democrats, who view it as going against the will of the voters who approved Proposition 208 and a giveaway that will disproportionately benefit wealthy Arizonans while doing little for the average person. 

David Lujan, one of the organizers of a ballot initiative effort to repeal the tax cuts, said, “Arizona has, we think, a lot of more important priorities like funding our public schools, funding health care for kids, infrastructure, that we should be focusing on before giving huge tax cuts to the rich.” 

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

The idea of flattening the income tax or getting rid of it altogether – something Gov. Doug Ducey ran on in 2014 – has been around for years. More recently, Toma has been interested in simplifying the state’s income tax structure since 2019, when he chaired House Ways and Means. 

So why did it finally happen this year? Some of that answer lies in the pandemic. Lawmakers passed a “skinny budget” last year that just continued to fund state operations before adjourning, leaving them with two years’ worth of revenues to make decisions about this year. 

“The short answer is we can do it responsibly,” Toma said. “We have the revenues to do it, and in some ways … the biggest driver was we had a stalled session last session due to Covid. 

If the initiative that Prop. 208 supporters are trying to hold either doesn’t get the 118,823 valid signatures it needs to make the ballot or doesn’t pass if it does, the only way the tax cuts can be undone would be a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, a very high hurdle even if Democrats do win the majority in the near future. Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, observed during a caucus meeting earlier this year that the GOP majority has been shrinking and lawmakers should enact a bold tax cut while they still can. 

The budget creates a two-tiered individual income tax rate structure of 2.55% and 2.98% for the 2022 tax year. If state revenues are at least $12.78 billion, the rates would fall to 2.53% and 2.75% in 2023. However, if revenues hit $12.98 billion, a 2.5% flat income tax rate would be in effect. 

A separate bill, SB1783, will create a new small business income tax, capped at 4.5%, which will keep taxes on businesses that choose to pay this tax lower than they would have been otherwise under Prop. 208 while the flat tax is phased in. The initiative, which passed with almost 52% of the vote, would have imposed a 3.5% income tax surcharge, on top of the previously existing 4.5% top rate, on taxable individual incomes over $250,000 and joint ones over $500,000 to raise money for teacher pay and other education-related needs. 

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

Ducey’s office has promoted it as a 13% income tax cut for the average taxpayer, who will save $340 a year. However, wealthier taxpayers will save much more. Under the 2.5% rate, average tax liability would decrease between $2 and $11 for people making up to $30,000. The group with the most filers, people making between $50,000 and $75,000, would see a decrease of $96.  

The tax cut gets a lot bigger the higher up the income scale you go. People making above $500,000 would pay, on average $12,133 less than they would have under the full effect of Prop. 208. For people making more than $1 million, those figures are $6,536 and $46,624, and for the slightly more than 1,000 taxpayers who make more than $5 million, the numbers would stand at $5,096 and $350,303. 

The disparity in who would benefit was the Democrats’ major argument against the tax cut. Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said he was excited to vote against it, predicting it would “drive the nail in the coffin” of GOP dominance in Arizona. 

“Once the people of Arizona realize what is actually in this budget, once they see this welfare for the wealthy budget, they are not going to be happy,” he said. 

Supporters said a more business-friendly tax structure will help everyone. Toma called the businesses that will benefit from SB1783 “the ones that make the jobs that create the economic conditions that lead to economic improvement for our state.” 

“Small businesses should be able to grow and reinvest in themselves without being forced to pay astronomical taxes,” SB1783 sponsor Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said after Ducey signed it. “Rather, government should get out of the way so that they can thrive.” 

Capitol Media Services contributed to this story.  

From luaus to private parties, fundraising persists despite COVID

Social season, though somewhat stymied by the coronavirus, has begun around the Capitol.

With the election drawing near, lawmakers are ramping up efforts to fundraise. For some, this means hosting or attending parties – even as the COVID-19 pandemic, though subdued in Arizona since its mid-summer peak, continues to kill dozens in the state each day.

Admittedly, the largely Republican group of lawmakers who are attending say they’re taking the necessary precautions – masks, temperature checks, and so on – and that none of the events are coming close to 50-person affairs. But still they seem to be alone in their embrace of the in-person soiree, as Democrats have generally avoided in-person campaigning of any kind.

“These are supporters in my area of town. I want them to meet these candidates, and I don’t think you can get a really good or fair take on someone in a Zoom meeting,” said Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who hosted a fundraiser on September 15 for several Republican incumbents and a candidate.

The month’s signature event is a luau-themed caucus-wide fundraiser that House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, is hosting next week. The “fun fun fun fundraiser,” as it’s dubbed in an invitation, is an opportunity for Republican lawmakers and lobbyists to mingle under the flickering light of a tiki torch and cut checks stained with pork fat, all while taking in a full-on Polynesian entertainment revue.

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

Through a spokesman, Bowers said that the venue will take proper precautions, that “appropriate” mask use is encouraged and that temperature checks will be administered. There’s also no buffet, the spokesman, Andrew Wilder, added. Regardless, he anticipates fewer than 50 attendees.

In general, these are smaller affairs.

“We used to have packed rooms, now people are donating online or just coming and going,” said Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who attended a fundraiser at the Arizona Rock Products Association offices on September 15.

Low attendance or no, fundraiser invitations are flying out the door and into mailboxes each day.

“Does the sun rise in the east?” quipped longtime lobbyist Barry Aarons,

The same sun, apparently, is not rising for Democrats.

“We aren’t even knocking on doors, just lit drops,” said Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson. “Let alone in-person fundraisers.”

It comes down to a fundamentally different understanding of the virus and the potential risks, said Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale, who chairs the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“We base our decision on science and they don’t,” he said.

Rusty Bowers
Rusty Bowers

While the COVID-19 virus has loosened its grip on Arizona, it’s far from in the past. On September 17, state health officials reported 1,753 new coronavirus cases and 38 additional deaths – the largest number of new cases since August, though this is in part due to the availability of more tests.

Toma rebuffed Democratic hand-wringing over the events. For one, he said he’s quite sure he has seen Democrats out and about at other goings on. Additionally, so long as the fundraisers are following public health guidelines, he said he doesn’t understand why some events would be kosher but others off-limits.

He said he believes that the events might even confer an advantage to Republicans in close races, or at least he hopes it will.

“I can’t speak for every donor, but I can say that it is human nature: What a person says isn’t nearly as important as how they say it,” he said.

Aarons, the lobbyist, said he sees no issue with attending fundraisers, so long as there’s no shutdown order in place.

“The governor said we could have meetings of 50 people or less,” he said.

As for Bower’s luau, Aarons is not planning on attending – though out of observance of the Sabbath, not out of fear of the virus.

“If I went, I would wear appropriate attire, but I would not get up and dance,” he said.

Gas tax hike dead, alternative fuel parity survives

Red and rusty gas can that says Gasoline on it, Isolated on White Background.

A Republican bill to increase the state gas tax ‒ a proposal that the sponsor conceded was unlikely to be popular from the beginning ‒ will go no further this legislative session.

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, sought a 25-cent increase over the next five fiscal years, which would have brought Arizona’s gas tax to 43 cents by Fiscal Year 2024; the original bill would have increased the tax by FY 2022 but was amended by Campbell to allow for the additional wiggle room. His House Bill 2536 was amended today in the House Ways and Means Committee to remove the tax hike entirely.

The amended bill passed 7-3.

But the sponsor has scored a win of sorts on his bill so far.

Campbell’s second goal, one far more palatable to his Republican colleagues, will continue in the legislative process: making alternative fuel users pay what he says is their fair share for using Arizona’s roadways.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, amended the bill to focus on bringing electric vehicles, hybrids and vehicles using alternative fuels into parity.

Toma’s amendment would tax natural gas at 12 cents per gallon, propane at 14 cents per gallon and diesel at 26 cents per gallon. Additionally, electric vehicles would be taxed $83 per year and hybrids $33 per year; Campbell had originally proposed to set those costs at $130 and $52 respectively in the first year and $198 and $80 by FY 2022.

Campbell told the committee he has taken a lot of flak for the proposal, especially having made it just a year after the Legislature adopted a highway safety fee that was $14 more than promised. But he insisted the tax increase and additional taxes he championed were needed to meet the state’s essential infrastructure needs.

And Toma’s amendment did not go far enough to do that, he said.

Campbell has previously told the Arizona Capitol Times that lawmakers are ducking for cover on taxes.

“I can’t get any Republicans to want to push this bill forward,” he said earlier this month. “They don’t want to take a tough vote on something that’s so important to Arizona. That’s my feeling.”

Good revenues belie looming budget uncertainty

 In this April 15, 2020, file photo, the blur of car lights zip past the Arizona Capitol as the dome is illuminated in blue as a symbol of support for Arizona's frontline medical workers and emergency responders battling the coronavirus in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this April 15, 2020, file photo, the blur of car lights zip past the Arizona Capitol as the dome is illuminated in blue as a symbol of support for Arizona’s frontline medical workers and emergency responders battling the coronavirus in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

With COVID-19 again on the rise in Arizona and the next legislative session looming, some in the Legislature are coming around to the idea of passing a so-called “skinny budget” that retains baseline spending levels from the previous fiscal year and ducking out early, just as lawmakers did last session.

Admittedly, legislative budget analysts announced last week that the state could end the 2022 fiscal year, which begins next July 1, with $800 million in the bank – positively peachy compared to original projections that had COVID-19 decimating state revenues. But House Appropriations Committee Chair Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said lawmakers should still hold back “on some of what we want to do,” adding that she’d be open to another skinny budget. 

While projections still look good, Cobb said the state needs to keep its belt tight and be honest about the budget, which could mean re-categorizing some one-time spending items – such as the School Facilities Board – as ongoing expenditures. And there might be room for some new spending, she said, such as rural broadband among other priorities. 

Still, as revenues continue to come in much higher than the gloomy June forecast, few seem keen on the idea of a baseline spending plan. 

“I would not be supportive of that,” said Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. “I don’t think most of my colleagues in the Senate would be either.”

And then there’s the question of to what degree the lingering pandemic and risks to health will affect normal business.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, the newly elected House majority leader, said his intention is to begin a full legislative session in January with the ability to work virtually if people are concerned about safety.

“If other people can work from home, so can we,” he said. 

The House has made several additions to combat COVID-19, including acrylic barriers on the floor, new hand sanitizer stations, air purifiers, temperature scanners and more.

But Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, has yet to announce any other protocol changes – such as a mask mandate, for example – though he is considering several proposals, according to his spokesman, Andrew Wilder.

Safety concerns aside, the thin margins in the House (and Senate, for that matter) mean that if just one Republican lawmaker is incapacitated, the partisan math changes dramatically. At that stage, either lawmakers make a rare demonstration of bipartisanship and pass a bevy of legislation with at least one Democratic vote, or, more likely, policymaking would grind to a halt. 

But the solution to this quandary is not to end the session early or pass an austerity budget, said Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. 

Friese said lawmakers have an obligation to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on public health and the economy, and that digital tools should enable them to do the people’s work safely. This means, he said, that all lawmakers need to get behind basic safety measures like wearing masks. 

“Here we are again with spiking cases, and yet we still have a lot of people in the Legislature who are deniers,” Friese said. “We need to move past that.”

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said there was “absolutely no truth” to the rumor that lawmakers were eying another skinny budget as a possibility. 

In fact, Fann got her caucus on board with the “skinny” budget last session, in part, by pledging to fast-track failed 2020 bills during the slow first couple of weeks of the 2021 session.

“We have lots of work to do this session,” she said via text. 

GOP divide spurs call to arms, doxing

In this file photo, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers speaks on a video-chat with a handful of members who planned to vote remotely before the start of an unusual session devoid of members of the public on March 19, 2020. On December 8, 2020, protesters gathered at his Mesa home after people unhappy with his decisions related to the 2020 election posted his home address on social media. (AP Photo/Bob Christie)
In this file photo, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers speaks on a video-chat with a handful of members who planned to vote remotely before the start of an unusual session devoid of members of the public on March 19, 2020. On December 8, 2020, protesters gathered at his Mesa home after people unhappy with his decisions related to the 2020 election posted his home address on social media. (AP Photo/Bob Christie)

Protesters rallied outside House Speaker Rusty Bowers’ home December 8 and a self-declared candidate for Arizona governor threatened to remove Gov. Doug Ducey through non-legal means this week as intraparty Republican conflict reached new heights of intimidation and innuendo.

The branch of the party that cannot and will not accept the results of the presidential election, led by state party chair Kelli Ward and a small group of GOP lawmakers has grown increasingly desperate as the number of available legal options to reverse Joe Biden’s victory continues to shrink. 

Arizona Republicans and the Trump campaign have brought eight lawsuits in state and federal court and lost seven so far, though Ward vowed to appeal one to the U.S. Supreme Court. Legislative attorneys shut down theories that lawmakers could appoint their own presidential electors, and Ducey, Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann have stonewalled requests to reopen the Legislature for a special session — though Fann authorized a special committee hearing on election fraud for December 11.

With slightly more than a month to go until Biden’s inauguration, elements of the Republican Party turned this week to suggesting that it was time for violence. On December 7, the state Republican Party fired off a pair of tweets advocating violence and encouraging supporters to die for President Donald Trump’s false conspiracy that the election was stolen from him. 

Throughout the week, the party’s official Twitter account continued its onslaught on Ducey and Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs. In one of its less aggressive tweets, the party shared a picture of the state’s top two officials from March with the caption “betrayed.” 

Kelly Townsend
Kelly Townsend

On December 5, a male nurse who previously accosted a female state senator and Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ appeared to threaten Ducey’s life during a rally at the Capitol. Bryan Masche, flanked on either side by men carrying rifles, said he put out a call to militia groups after he forced his way into the state House the previous week and was arrested on his way home. 

“Doug Ducey will be removed from office,” Masche said. “He will be gone, either through legal means, or, beyond that, it might come down to ‘Plan B.’ We know what it means. I don’t have to tell you what Plan B means. There are people here that know exactly what Plan B means.”

And Rep. Kelly Townsend, the Mesa Republican leading many of the calls to overturn election results, earned national attention for tweeting at Ducey a phrase from the Old Testament that was written by a mysterious hand on a Babylonian king’s wall to inform him that God found him wanting and his kingdom would fall. The biblical king was killed the night he saw that message, leading some to interpret Townsend’s message as a death threat against Ducey.


Townsend did not return phone calls for comment, but tweeted that her use of a biblical message was just intended to show that Ducey has not acted sufficiently by not calling the Legislature back into session. 

Other Republican lawmakers have privately condemned calls to arms, but largely stayed mum publicly. Ducey declined to call out his own party in a tweet he posted December 8, ostensibly responding to the calls to arms.

“The Republican Party is the party of the Constitution and the rule of law,” he tweeted. “We prioritize public safety, law & order, and we respect the law enforcement officers who keep us safe. We don’t burn stuff down. We build things up.” 

One exception to the anti-Ducey gang was Rep. T.J. Shope, the House speaker pro tem from Coolidge. He said he used up his monthly quota of curse words in responding to tweets from the state party.

Shope has been the only outspoken member of the Republican legislative caucus to repeatedly condemn the behavior coming from his peers. In separate tweets, he publicly called the doxing and protests of the House speaker “gross” and “crappy.” 

He told Arizona Capitol Times it’s “not acceptable” to do this to anyone, including to Hobbs, who faced her own doxing and home protests last month, or U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“You shouldn’t have to fear for your safety at your own home,” he said.

Protesters showed up outside Bowers’ Mesa home the evening of December 8, and they were rowdy enough that Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies responded. A Twitter user shared his address and a Republican Phoenix City Council candidate facing a run-off election shared his personal number encouraging people to call and text him. 

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

Incoming House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, was on the phone with Bowers during part of the demonstration outside the speaker’s home. He could hear cars honking in the background, he said. 

That level of protest crosses the line and is “un-American,” Toma said. 

“We don’t do this as Republicans,” he said. “It’s one thing to make your displeasure known to someone in their official capacity – showing up at the Capitol and protesting and whatnot. It’s quite another to try to terrorize their family at their home.”

Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, has been among the vocal lawmakers calling to overturn election results. He insists that Donald Trump won the election in Arizona, based on unproven anecdotes about voting machines changing Trump votes to Biden votes and residents who aren’t registered voters receiving multiple ballots. 

But Blackman said the protests outside Bowers’ house and the state party asking if people were willing to die to overturn election results went too far for him. Before being elected to the House in 2018, he served in the army for 21 years, including tours of duty in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“Being a soldier that’s deployed several times to real places where people die, I don’t use that word lightly,” Blackman said. “When people use that word like that, are they using it for showmanship or are they actually prepared to do that?” 

Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman

Bowers and Ducey are far from the first high-profile Arizona elected officials to receive threats and targeted harassment from people angry about the results of the presidential election. Protesters showed up outside Hobbs’ home in mid-November, after a user on Parler posted her home address and contact information for family members.

Ducey and lawmakers denounced threats made against Hobbs and her family, but argued that there was no connection between the people harassing her and the various unfounded election fraud theories trumpeted by many elected Republicans.

That week, Townsend had resurfaced a 2017 tweet in which Hobbs — then a Democratic state senator — complained about Trump’s refusal to condemn a neo-Nazi who struck and killed a woman with his car during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Separately, more than a dozen lawmakers signed an open letter demanding that Maricopa County redo its hand count audit of ballots because of “growing concerns expressed by voters about the integrity of the ballot counting process.”  

Sen. Paul Boyer, a Glendale Republican who signed that letter, said he doubted the letter had anything to do with harassment of Hobbs. 

“I mean, don’t you think that someone like that is going to do it regardless of whether or not we as a legislative body are asking for an interpretation of the statute that says 2% of precincts rather than voting centers?” he asked. “Someone like that who’s willing to be disgusting, and atrocious, and dox a public official, do they really need an excuse to do that?”

GOP lawmakers demand Ward allow audit of her election

Dr. Kelli Ward, chairperson of the Republican Party of Arizona, speaks to a gathering inside the Yuma GOP Headquarters, Monday Aug. 17, 2020, before introducing U.S. Congressman Paul A. Gosar.  (Randy Hoeft/Yuma Sun via AP)
Dr. Kelli Ward, chairperson of the Republican Party of Arizona, speaks to a gathering inside the Yuma GOP Headquarters, Monday Aug. 17, 2020, before introducing U.S. Congressman Paul A. Gosar. (Randy Hoeft/Yuma Sun via AP)

About a third of state Republican lawmakers are calling on newly re-elected state GOP Chair Kelli Ward to either agree to a recount of that vote or back off of her challenges to the presidential race.

In an email Wednesday to Ward, the 14 representatives and four senators said they have been involved in a two-month effort to bring “transparency and accountability in our election process.”

“This included ballot security and integrity, comprehensive audits, and paper trails that allow the average voter to know that their vote counted and that the election results as presented were accurate,” they wrote. That followed the certified election results that showed Joe Biden outpolling Donald Trump in Arizona by 10,457 votes.

At the same time, they noted, Ward won a new term as party chair by defeating Sergio Arellano, a southern Arizona businessman and unsuccessful 2018 congressional candidate, by 42 votes. She has refused his request for a recount, saying there was no procedure, process or rule that allows for that.

“And you certainly don’t allow a challenger who lost an election to demand something that they don’t have the right to, and we don’t have the responsibility for providing,” she said last month on KFYI.

The GOP lawmakers said that’s subverting what they’re trying to do.

“Now, our collective message is being undermined by your insistence that none of these standards should apply to your election as AZ GOP Chairman,” they wrote. “This inconsistency is simply not acceptable.

The lawmakers acknowledged that election of a party chief “pales in comparison” with a presidential election.

“But the principles that surround every election, no matter how big or small, must remain the same,” they wrote.

So they want Ward to either allow an immediate audit of her Jan. 23 election or remove herself from efforts to audit the Nov. 3 election “as you would be an unwelcome distraction and foil for the media to use to discredit our efforts to protect our state’s voters.”

Ward did not return a message seeking comment.

But the signers said the call is merited.

“I support transparency, free and fair elections in every corner of representation,” Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley told Capitol Media Services. Finchem has been at the forefront of arguments that the Arizona results were tainted and incorrect.

Sen. T.J. Shope of Coolidge said it’s a matter of “trying to be consistent.” And he said that’s not what’s happening here.

“I come at it as a guy that doesn’t believe the ‘stop the steal’ stuff,” he said, people who are convinced that Trump won Arizona.

“And here we have somebody who is essentially leading the charge and was former President Trump’s lead surrogate essentially in Arizona saying these things,” Shope said. “And when her election comes up under question, auditing or anything like that is not even on the table.”

Rep. Shawnna Bolick of Phoenix said after the January GOP meeting was over it was brought to her attention that there were missed ballots from one county between the first and second round of voting.

“An audit of the chairman’s election would bring transparency to the process,” she said. Bolick said it would be wise for the party to lead to ensure that the state committeemen who voted “have the confidence in the integrity of the chair’s election,” essentially echoing the reason many Republican lawmakers have argued the need for the state to conduct its own audit of the November vote.

“By conducting an audit we can identify the sources of any potential discrepancies and put this issue to rest,” Bolick said. “Our party needs to rebuild and this is causing further division when we need to focus on growing our party.”

Peoria Rep. Ben Toma agreed.

“We want transparency and an audit of the November election to ensure voter confidence and the same standard should apply to the GOP meeting,” he said.

Rep. Kevin Payne, also of Peoria, was more circumspect in response to a question about his decision to sign.

“The letter speaks  for itself,” he said.


Lawmakers who signed the email to Ward:



Paul Boyer, Glendale

Rick Gray, Sun City

Vince Leach, Tucson

T.J. Shope, Coolidge



Shawnna Bolick, Phoenix

Frank Carroll, Sun City West

Regina Cobb, Kingman

Timothy Dunn, Yuma

John Fillmore, Apache Junction

Mark Finchem, Oro Valley

Quang Nguyen, Prescott Valley

Becky Nutt, Clifton

Joanne Osborne, Goodyear

Kevin Payne, Peoria

Beverly Pingerelli, Peoria

Bret Roberts, Maricopa

Ben Toma, Peoria

Justin Wilmeth, Scottsdale

GOP lawmakers ready budget to send to Hobbs

budget Arizona

Legislative Republicans are gearing up to send a budget to Gov. Katie Hobbs soon, which will likely be met with a hasty veto.  

Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said on Monday Republican leadership was going to send a continuation of last year’s budget to keep the government from shutting down “very, very soon.” 

“As for what the governor is going to do, that’s up to her,” Toma said Monday.  

Staff at the governor’s office have indicated Hobbs will not entertain a continuation budget while Republicans have called Hobbs’ proposal “dead on arrival.” Josselyn Berry, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, took a shot at Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, for threatening to sue Hobbs over not promptly sending several new directors for Senate confirmation in a tweet. 

“We’ll be sure to keep an eye out on Twitter for this newest ‘budget,’” Berry said to the Capitol Times. 

Shortly after Hobbs’s staff unveiled the budget proposal to Republican leadership, Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, said Republicans are “prepared for war” with Hobbs.   

“The Republican legislature is not going to be an easy roll. We’re not just going to roll over and give her everything she wants. I don’t want to fight, but I’ll tell you what – I’m not afraid of one either,” Martinez said on Jan. 13.  

Republicans have objected to several items in Hobbs’ budget proposal including the repeal of universal empowered scholarship accounts and a $40 million proposal for tuition assistance to students living here illegally, among other items.  

The decision to send Hobbs a budget this early in the Legislative session is unprecedented. The House canceled its Rules Committee hearing on Monday but Toma said other House business will continue. 

“It was a relatively light rules agenda anyways so in that sense it’s not a very big difference,” Toma said. 

Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said on Tuesday he expects to see budget bills appointed to House Appropriations sometime before the end of the month. Livingston is the chairman of the committee and said members are currently in the process of creating the first drafts of the budget bills, which will then be sent to committee staff for review. 

Senate Pro Tempore T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, wrote in a text to the Capitol Times on Tuesday that he also expects to see budget bills next week.  

Chuck Coughlin, a GOP consultant and the president and CEO of HighGround Public Affairs, said he thought it was smart that Republicans would send a budget proposal to Hobbs this early since the caucus was not fully on board with the majority proposal from last session.  

Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, voted against a Republican skinny budget proposal when he was a state Representative in April 2022 during a House Appropriations hearing. Hoffman, the leader of the Arizona Freedom Caucus, said he preferred a budget that cut spending, and other Republicans felt a similar way. With only a one-member majority in both chambers in 2022, this led to Republican leadership seeking votes from Democrats on the budget in 2022.  

Coughlin said the early budget proposal was a strategy to get the Republican caucus unified on a budget and avoid a situation from last year.  

“You’ve got to give them their day on the floor and show it’s not going to work,” Coughlin said. “Then you can begin to have realistic discussion with your caucus about what another budget is going to look like,” he added. 

Longtime lobbyist Barry Aarons said he couldn’t remember a budget proposal being sent to the governor this early in a session, and said the move was an attempt to establish Republicans’ parameters and negotiate from there — likely up until June 30, he said.  

Aarons said it was possible Hobbs could call a special budget session sometime near the beginning of March like previous governors have.  

“The problem is once she signs a budget, if there’s any remote possibility that she would sign something like this, it’s game over. Then the Legislature can just dally around. They don’t have to worry about getting something done by June 30,” Aarons said. 

But there is value to the nearly guaranteed veto coming to the Republican budget from Hobbs, Coughlin said. 

“She’s going to send a veto letter,” Coughlin said. “Hopefully if that letter is written well, there’ll be a lot of information in there.” 


GOP leaders enter Hamadeh fray over vote count

As attorney general candidate Abe Hamadeh seeks to send his failed motion for a new trial directly to the Arizona Supreme Court, he’s met with stark opposition from the sitting attorney general and the secretary of state, and veiled support from the legislative leaders.

In an Aug. 16 filing, Hamadeh claims he seeks “to expeditiously count all valid votes and determine the constitutionally elected Attorney General with finality.” His attorneys decried the “dilatory conduct” of the trial court and implored the justices to expedite his appeal as “time is of the essence.”

Attorney General Kris Mayes claims the special action fails to meet the criteria as Hamadeh’s team has “an equally plain, speedy, and adequate remedy” in a standard appeal, and they fail to cite any “‘extremely unusual circumstances’ that could justify leapfrogging over the court of appeals.” Mayes, a Democrat, beat Republican Hamadeh by 280 votes in the 2022 election.

Sen. Warren Petersen

Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, and House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, claimed they take “no position on which candidate received the highest number of votes” in their amicus brief, but took issue with Mayes’ and Secretary of State Andrian Fontes’ “litigation tactics,” which the lawmakers’ attorney described as, “afflicted with a barrage of indignant fulminations and obstructive machinations.”

Mohave County Judge Lee Jantzen, a Republican, denied Hamadeh’s motion for a new trial on July 19, but failed to sign a final appealable order.

Hamadeh filed a standard appeal, noting the absence of an appealable judgment. But he then filed a special action and asked the Arizona Supreme Court justices to reverse the trial court’s decision.

Hamadeh’s attorneys, Jen Wright and Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, claimed in the special action filing that there are “hundreds, if not thousands, of uncounted votes, that once counted, will prove that Abraham Hamadeh – not Kris Mayes – is the constitutionally elected Attorney General for the State of Arizona.”

Both Mayes and Hamadeh agree on the need for a final order, but Mayes and Fontes claim Hamadeh does not meet the criteria to fast-track his appeal.

Toma, House, Senate, Prop 211, court filing, dark money
House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria

Alexis Danneman, Mayes’ attorney, picks at Hamadeh’s “litigation strategy,” noting a failure to expedite review of rulings “about which they now complain.” She writes Hamadeh and his legal team “have sat on their hands for the last eight months” and notes Mayes, not Hamadeh, asked the court for a final order.

Hamadeh’s attorneys argue they were hamstrung from the start and claim they were, “completely deprived of access to the evidence necessary to prove their case” in limited ballot inspection and discovery.

They also challenged the “conflicting and inconsistent interpretations” of election contest statutes.

In their amicus curiae brief, Petersen and Toma align the Legislature with Hamadeh. Their attorney Thomas Basile argued the election contest timelines in statute are “directory, not mandatory.” And they further contend the law governing ballot inspection is “supplementary not exclusive of other discovery.”

Basile notes the Legislature’s intent was, “to secure a robust fact-finding process,” and “(i)f left uncorrected, the trial court’s misconception of these statutes would effectively disable mechanisms the Legislature established to ensure a rigorous verification and vetting of the vote count when, as here, there are genuine and good faith questions concerning the accuracy of the final tabulation.”

The legislative leaders further took issue with the litigation tactics of Mayes and Fontes, which Basile writes “have obstructed any searching judicial examination of the election’s administration.” Basile further wrote Fontes’ “frenzied opposition to this prospect is perplexing,” and said his attorney Craig Morgan’s “rhetorical assault is gratuitous and abusive.”

Mayes asked the court for attorneys’ fees incurred in responding to the special action petition as she claims the attempt, on top of a separate standard appeal, unreasonably expands or delays proceedings.

She claims Hamadeh made at least two misrepresentations in claiming he requested final judgment from the Superior Court and a nonexistent stipulation from Mayes. Fontes asked for fees and sanctions on similar grounds.

Hamadeh characterized the two misrepresentations as an “unintentional error.” And he further argued his legal team did try to prompt a ruling by “nudging the court” in filing supplemental authority and requesting a scheduling contest.

The justices now take the matter under advisement and plan to issue a ruling without oral argument.


Governor, House, Senate: three political parties?

Arizona’s Legislature and Governor’s Office will go from mainstream Republican control to three separate ideologies.

Control of the Governor’s Office flipped to Democrat, control of the Senate shifted to Republican control that is more in line with former President Donald Trump and control of the House remains relatively the same for the upcoming session.

Republicans kept their majorities in the state House and Senate but did not gain any seats.

In the Legislature’s most recent session, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, and Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, controlled the branches of state government. The leaders are from the same sect of establishment Republicans with some middle-of the-road conservative views. Ducey, Bowers and Fann did not work to decertify the results of the 2020 election – although Fann permitted the 2020 Maricopa County election audit – and they support some social justice issues.

Warren Petersen

This year’s elections ousted several “moderate” Republicans in the primaries, including Bowers, in favor of opponents endorsed by Trump, who claims the 2020 election was stolen.

The Trump-endorsees did not perform as well in the general election in statewide races, but the Legislature has more “MAGA” Republicans than ever before. In the Senate, those same Republicans are now in charge. Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, was narrowly elected Senate president on Nov 10. Although Petersen has never said that the 2020 election was stolen, he also never said it was secure and was instrumental in pushing the Senate’s 2020 Maricopa County presidential election audit.

In the House, Petersen’s “running mate” Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, lost the speaker election to establishment Republican Rep. Ben Toma of Peoria.

“Chaplik would be the total MAGA guy,” said attorney Tom Ryan. “And the problem for Toma, the difference in style between him and Petersen is, he’s got a tough row to hoe, especially with some of the MAGA people that did get elected. So, the way I look at it, I think more appropriately is he’s going to be more handicapped than Warren Petersen. Petersen will keep this group together. Toma is gonna’ be herding cats.”

Toma, ESAs, vouchers, Save Our Schools Arizona, private schools, tuition, charter schools, public schools, AEA
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria

Toma and Bowers’ views are closely aligned, and the lawmakers are friendly. So much so that Bowers recused himself from running the House leadership election to avoid accusations of favoritism for Toma. Toma’s win suggests that the House will be run similarly to the past two years.

After House Republicans chose Toma as Speaker-elect, Toma said he doesn’t believe there is a significant difference in how conservative members of his caucus are and members are unified in their goals for the state.

Petersen and Chaplik tried to decertify Arizona’s 2020 election results. Petersen signed onto a resolution supporting “alternative” electors who declared that they were legitimate and worked with other Trump supporters to try to get the former president elected for a second term after he lost to Joe Biden. The actual Arizona electors cast their votes for Biden. Petersen was one of several Republicans who signed the resolution asking Congress to accept the alternative electoral votes instead of the legitimate ones.

Chaplik was not elected at the time, but he concurred on the alternative elector document.

Petersen and the other Republicans were unsuccessful in taking their claims to court.

How onboard Republicans are in unity remains to be seen. Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, said “get ready for shitshow round two” as she left the House Republicans leadership meeting.

Liz Harris

Another incoming Republican representative from Chandler, Liz Harris, recently said on a Cause of America podcast that she will refuse to vote on any bills until a new statewide election is held because she thinks Republicans should have performed better in legislative and statewide races. She also criticized Toma and said it wasn’t likely he would let election reform bills pass in the House.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, said of Harris’ threat, “They wouldn’t have 31 votes anymore. How many more bipartisan budgets do we have to pass before they realize that strategy?”

Harris holds a small lead for the second Legislative District 13 House seat over Republican Julie Willoughby and they are headed for a recount. Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, has secured the other seat, but Harris said she and Willoughby should be the district’s rightful winners.

Legislative District 4 Rep.-elect Matt Gress said there may be some institutional tension between the House and Senate, but that’s the point of having those two chambers.

“Republicans, we largely agree on a number of these pressing issues,” Gress said. “But I think it’s going to entail a lot of communication so that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.”

Candidates Kari Lake and Katie Hobbs fought a bitter race for control of the Governor’s Office. Both candidates were far away from Ducey in their ideologies.

Republican Lake was Trump-endorsed and campaigned against Democrats and establishment Republicans, famously stating that she would drive a “stake through the heart of the McCain machine.”

Hobbs, a Democrat and secretary of state, defends the results of the 2020 election and pulled through by about 17,000 votes out of 2.6 million cast.

The state’s three political units must find a way to work together next session. Hobbs’ priorities of codifying Roe v. Wade and abolishing the aggregate expenditure limit on public school spending will have to get past Petersen. But his priorities will have to pass Hobbs, too. It’s not clear what will or won’t get by Toma.

“Experience matters and really that’s it,” Toma said about the speaker’s working relationship with Gov.-elect Hobbs.

 (File photo)

Democrat Janet Napolitano served as governor of Arizona from 2003-2009 with a Republican Legislature. As governor, Napolitano broke the record for highest number of vetoed bills at 180.

Without Republicans like Bowers, Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, and Rep. Joanne Osborn, R-Goodyear, all of whom have shown a tendency towards being moderate or bipartisan, policy discussions could be much more discordant. There will also be dozens of new lawmakers joining the Legislature who could be anywhere on the spectrum of cooperative to obstinate when it comes to bipartisanship.

Boyer speculated: “I think that House and Senate Republicans are going to be in for a rude awakening because they’re just not used to coming into work” with a Democrat as governor.

Boyer did not run for re-election and was the only Republican who routinely stood in the way of the 2020 presidential election audit. He voted against arresting the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, shut down dozens of Republican election reform bills and worked with Bowie to pass a bipartisan budget in the last session.

Bowie often worked across the aisle and didn’t run for re-election either.

“Actually, I’m optimistic,” Bowie said of the upcoming session. “I think they could get quite a bit done. … Obviously, they might have fights on abortion or more controversial social issues, but most of the work that we do, like 85% of the bills we pass, are pretty non-controversial. So, I think there are some issues where you could see Governor Hobbs and the House and the Senate work together on meaningful policy.” He pointed to water, education and workforce development as bipartisan opportunities.

Matt Gress

Some Republicans, including Matt Gress, also said there’s room for bipartisan solutions to issues Arizonans are facing.

“We have some commonsense policies that I think both Republicans and Democrats should be able to get behind,” Gress said. “I personally want to work in a collaborative way, and I think it’ll just depend on the kind of tone that (Hobbs) wants to set.”

Bowie said he believes there are “still folks there that want to govern.”

“I think T.J. Shope is in that category,” he said. “I think Ken Bennett is in that category. I think David Gowan would be in that category. Not to say that they’re moderate in terms of policy, I just think they’re more moderate in terms of approach, and more pragmatic in terms of approach,” Bowie added.

By that metric, he draws a line between Toma and Petersen. “I think Toma is probably a little more pragmatic in terms of his approach, whereas Peterson is probably a little more ideological,” Bowie said. “I mean, they’re both conservative. But I think it’s more about how they approach the job. Do you want to get things done or do you want to obstruct?”

Boyer said that the difference between the Republican groups is not “establishment” versus “MAGA” because all the Republicans are conservatives. The biggest divisions are over election certification and personality.

“I really think it’s more of a style issue, where Chaplik’s more of a bomb thrower and Toma’s much more about getting things done,” Boyer said. He referred to an argument between Toma and Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek – an alternative elector who says he believes that Biden stole the 2020 election.

Hoffman attempted to push another abortion restricting bill on one of the last days of the session. Toma yelled at Hoffman and accused him of not following the process to introduce a new bill, not getting the votes needed to pass the bill, and not considering that the bill would potentially overlap with existing abortion laws. Toma also emphasized that he is pro-life.

“Toma was like, ‘I’ve done more pro-life legislation that you have.’ It’s just their style is a lot different,” Boyer said.

Consultants expect to see some leveraging on both sides next session.

Teresa Martinez

Hobbs has Democratic priorities like codifying the state’s 15-week abortion ban instead of the more restrictive 1864 near-total abortion ban. But to make that change, she’ll need to support of at least two Republicans. In exchange, the Republicans will likely ask for a conservative favor such as a tax cut.

Incoming Republican House Whip Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, said there’s plenty of room to work with Democrats to ensure the state’s business is taken care of.

“It’s not ‘Thunderdome’ for Pete’s sake, you know, where two men enter and one man leaves,” Martinez said. “We’re going to debate like adults.”

If the two (or three) parties refuse to make trades, then the Legislature is in for a long session that won’t produce any substantive policy.

“It’s not really ideology. It’s more about approach,” Bowie said. “Do you want to build bridges? Or do you just want to throw bombs?”


Governor’s budget ‘tantrum’ miffs lawmakers

budget Arizona

In starting Memorial Day weekend by vetoing every bill on his desk, Gov. Doug Ducey aimed to prod reluctant lawmakers to end their vacation and return to pass his tax cut and budget. 

Instead, as the clock ticks down to the end of the fiscal year and the ultimate deadline to pass a budget, lawmakers remain on recess, no closer to passing a budget than they were last week. But now, many of them are furious at the governor as well. 

“I would say it’s fair to say that people are frustrated, and I’m not sure that making them frustrated is going to be more helpful to getting the budget done,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “By definition, a budget requires the cooperation of 31.” 

Both the House and Senate are adjourned until June 10 after failing last week to reach a compromise that would guarantee every Republican would vote for the $12.8 billion spending plan crafted by Ducey and legislative leaders. Democrats universally oppose the budget because of a switch to a single income tax rate that would cost $3 billion over the next three years and $1.9 billion annually after that, and GOP leaders can’t afford to lose a single Republican in the House or Senate. 

In response, Ducey vetoed 22 bills in an attempt to force lawmakers to agree on a budget and announced he won’t sign any more bills until they do. His actions were widely panned by lawmakers from both parties, with some mourning bills they supported that may never become law now and others worrying that the vetoes will prolong the budget impasse. 

Toma said “all options are on the table,” including possibly trying to override some of Ducey’s vetoes or revive vetoed bills in another way, and he isn’t sure if Ducey’s actions will force lawmakers to reach a deal sooner. 

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

It’s possible the House will reconvene Monday, he said, but that’s made difficult because the House has to coordinate with the Senate and because multiple lawmakers are traveling. While legislators can vote via Zoom, they wouldn’t necessarily be able to take part if they were, for example, on an airplane during a vote. 

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, worried the vetoes could lead Republicans to embrace a compromise budget that is even worse from their point of view than the current proposal. 

“These (Republican) members are looking to push even more extreme policies than (are in) the current budget,” Bolding said. “Democrats have always been ready and willing to work, and that’s what we’ll keep doing.” 

Reps. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, and Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, both of whom have called for a leaner budget than the current proposal, singled out Ducey’s vetoes of bills banning certain types of diversity training for government employees and barring mailing ballots to voters who don’t request them.  

During an interview on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, Finchem hinted he might support an ongoing effort by some conservatives to recall Ducey, who he called a “petty dictator.”  

“This is like a man-child temper tantrum,” Finchem said. “…He vetoed a bill that would have prohibited the teaching of critical race theory to government employees. That is absolutely outrageous. Then we go on to a budget that’s got so much pork in it you’d think we’re going to a barbecue.” 

Finchem found an ally in former President Trump, who put out a statement making the same points. 

President Trump (AP photo)
President Trump (AP photo)

“Incredible to see that RINO Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona just vetoed a bill that would have outlawed Critical Race Theory training for State employees, and another that would have banned the mailing of ballots to citizens who never requested them,” Trump said. “He did this under the guise of passing a budget. For those of you who think Doug Ducey is good for Arizona, you are wrong.” 

Meanwhile, Democrats were particularly unhappy with Ducey’s veto of SB1526, which would have established new regulations mandating gentler treatment of pregnant women in prison and required the state to provide incarcerated women with ample feminine hygiene products. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona called it “shameful,” while Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, called it an “unjust decision.” 

Bill sponsor Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said the veto shows Ducey is focused on appeasing his base and rich pals, not addressing ongoing failures in the state’s correctional system. And he speculated that Ducey will only have a harder time passing a budget.  

“He’s doing more of a performance than he is governing, and his temper tantrum will only continue to divide his Republican colleagues,” Navarrete said.  

Also among the casualties of Ducey’s veto pen were two bills sponsored by Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, and passed with broad bipartisan support to regulate the new recreational marijuana industry. Friese said he was disappointed by Ducey’s vetoes and hoped the bills could be revived somehow before the end of the session. 

“It’s very important for us to regulate the new adult use industry, and of course we have that higher hurdle to regulate, but I think we achieved that,” Friese said. “The industry would be benefitted by these. The Arizona adult user would be benefitted by these bills. … There are certainly ways to get them back to the governor’s desk. I hope we can accomplish that.” 

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said the Senate appropriations chairman assured her one of her outstanding bills would be added to a budget bill. To buy Townsend’s vote on the budget, House and Senate leaders agreed to amend versions of many of her election bills into a single bill that passed the House last week, but Ducey’s announced moratorium puts the fate of her bill and others in question.   

Instead of trying to add language from vetoed bills to budget legislation, lawmakers should get the rules committee to authorize late introductions and run the bills again, said Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge. It’s the cleanest and least confrontational way to revive the bills, he said, and it’s what lawmakers did when Ducey and former Gov. Jan Brewer imposed bill moratoriums in previous years. 

Shope said he’s not offended by the governor’s vetoes and doesn’t think others should be. It’s just a negotiating tool, he said.  

 “Anybody who’s piping mad about it just really needs to take a deep breath and realize that it has happened before,” Shope said. “Maybe it hasn’t happened to them, or one of their bills, but it has happened and that’s the nature of the beast down there.” 


Hobbs, GOP lawmakers clash over new Prop 400 proposal

Gov. Katie Hobbs claims to have a deal backed by a majority of lawmakers from both parties to let Maricopa County voters decide whether to extend a half-cent sales tax for road and transit issues.

And now she wants the Republican-controlled Legislature to ratify it, saying failure to do so amounts to “holding our economy hostage.”

The only thing is, GOP leaders are planning to unveil their own proposal on Monday, one that divides up the $20 billion that the levy would raise in the next 20 years in a way different than what Hobbs wants. And while the details have yet to be revealed, House Speaker Ben Toma of Peoria told Capitol Media Services the governor’s plan, worked out with the Maricopa Association of Governments, is “inefficient.”

Hobbs, gubernatorial, election, Lake, debate, Clean Elections Commission, PBS, debate, Lake, Ask Me Anything, education, Chandler, election, gubernatorial, PBS, debate, interview, Lake, Mike Broomhead, gubernatorial, candidates, Ducey, border, abortion
Katie Hobbs

And Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, who has taken the lead among Senate Republicans in crafting a plan, said it is Hobbs and MAG, made up of local elected officials, who should accede to what the GOP wants.

“It’s unfortunate that Katie Hobbs isn’t willing to join legislative Republicans to ensure this important highway and funding source continues,” he said. “It’s becoming apparent that Hobbs isn’t interested in solving complex problems or negotiating issues in good faith, but rather just wants to play petulant political games.”

Kenn Weise, the mayor of Avondale who chairs MAG, said the group has made major changes to the plan they submitted last year in response to demands from Republican leaders, with a frustrating lack of success. He said Hobbs started taking the lead in negotiations with the Legislature in recent weeks.

“We have compromised on I don’t know how many different levels here, whether it’s 25-year tax down to 20 years, whether it’s fare box monitoring, whether it is lowering the transit number, whether it is removing flexibility” in how the funds can be moved around, Weise said.

“What she offers is the best and final, he said. “There’s nothing else.”

MAG also has jettisoned any effort to use any of the Proposition 400 extension dollars to extend the light rail system beyond what already is built or funded, which was one of the key bugaboos for some Republicans.

The situation threatens to become a game of political chicken.

Hobbs is signaling to GOP leaders that the only measure she will sign is that deal she made with MAG.

“I’m calling on those legislators to put their partisan politics aside and accept this compromise so that we can keep our economy growing,” the governor said in a prepared statement.

Warren Petersen

But Senate President Warren Petersen said the Republicans who control both the House and Senate have little interest in what Hobbs and MAG have to offer. More to the point, he said that deal won’t get a vote.

“We will put up the plan that is best for the citizens, not the best for bureaucrats,” the Gilbert Republican told Capitol Media Services.

That drew a sharp response from House Minority Leader Andres Cano.

“Clearly President Petersen is paying attention to a slim minority of his caucus that apparently wants to hold our regionally approved transportation plan hostage,” said the Tucson Democrat. He called the Republican leadership “tone deaf” to what political and business leaders have worked out with the governor and say they want.

Weise said the governor is right when she says there are plenty of votes in the Legislature to approve the MAG plan.

“I think Republicans are being disingenuous, the few that are holding this bill hostage, when they say they don’t have the votes,” Weise said. “If they put it to the full vote of the Senate and a full vote of the House, the plan would pass overwhelmingly.”

But it’s not that simple: Even if he is correct – which is an assumption – House rules specifically prohibit any measure from getting a vote without the speaker’s OK.

Toma, budget, transportation, light rail, housing
House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria

Toma said he remains willing to negotiate with Hobbs and MAG. But he said it is the governor and the regional planning agency, not the GOP, that is endangering a deal on the levy to finance the road and transit projects for the state’s largest county for the next two decades to spur economic development.

“Their take-it-or-leave it attitude is decidedly unproductive,” he said.

If neither side blinks, that leaves the future of the sales tax, first approved by voters in 1985 and extended for 20 years twice before, in limbo.

By law, Maricopa County needs legislative permission even to ask voters to extend the levy beyond its 2025 expiration date. No legislative approval means no vote and the tax goes away.

That creates a risk not only to Maricopa County projects but the chance that the state’s largest county, devoid of local tax revenues, would seek a bigger piece of the state and federal dollars that are now relied on heavily by other counties.

The heart of the fight comes down to how to divide up the cash.

What Hobbs insists is the done deal – the plan she worked out with MAG – devotes 40% of the $20 billion that would be raised over the next two decades to freeway construction. Another 22% would be earmarked for regional and arterial roads, with 38% for transit.

Not acceptable, said Toma.

“The governor has chosen to be an uncompromising conduit for an inefficient MAG proposal that does not have sufficient votes to succeed in the House,” he said.

What Republicans consider “efficient” is set to be unveiled Monday.

As recently as a week ago, Petersen was proposing just 33.5% for transit projects. That left 47.5% for freeways and 19% for local roads.

He said that is being changed but provided no details.

What has been a key sticking point is how much of the tax revenues raised from sales in Maricopa County should be devoted not just to buses but also operation of the light rail.

Even with no money to build more miles of track, GOP leaders are not willing to give their blessing to a levy that many believe taxes residents too much for the overall mass transit system, a system that doesn’t come close to paying its own way and that most people do not use.

It’s starts, said Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, with the fact that fares from riders cover just 7.5% of operating costs.

“When I heard that number, I was shocked,” said Farnsworth who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology. “We just need to get better.”

And there’s something else.

Many Republicans want language that precludes MAG from advancing what are called “road diets.”

These are efforts to encourage people to drive less by installing light rail, lanes reserved for buses and even putting in bicycle lanes. But Farnsworth said that’s not what he would consider merely incentivizing alternatives to cars.

“You make it miserable to drive by taking lanes out,” he said.

“A perfect example of that is downtown Mesa,” Farnsworth said, where the streets were planned to be extra wide, enough to turn a horse- or mule-drawn wagon around. Now, he said, light rail has it down to one lane in either direction.

“And I avoid Main Street like the plague,” he said.

But even if there are no new light rail lines, the issue is not moot.

Scottsdale, for example, is weighing a plan to have “bus rapid transit” on Scottsdale Road from Thunderbird Road all the way to Tempe and Chandler. In essence, it’s like light rail but without the rails: Remove a travel lane and dedicate it just the buses.

Weise said MAG agreed to concessions, spelling out that if cities want to put in bus or bike lanes, they can’t apply to his organization for the funding.

And he said the agreement that MAG and Hobbs is advancing prevents his agency from shifting dollars among the pots of money set aside for freeways, major roads and transit services.

“The concern that the Senate has was they didn’t want to lose road miles, so they didn’t want funds being transferred from freeways to transit.

But he said it leaves in place about $2 billion earmarked for regional programs that could be used for various yet-to-be-defined projects. Weise said, though, there is language that sets some guardrails on how those dollars could be spent.

“There’s nothing untoward, there’s nothing sneaky,” he said, “It’s just a transportation and economic development plan.”





House approves bill to ban abortions for genetic reasons

Medical Concept: Black Chalkboard with Abortion. Medical Concept - Abortion Handwritten on Black Chalkboard. Top View Composition with Chalkboard and Red Stethoscope. 3D Rendering.

After more than two hours of impassioned and at times acrimonious debate, the House voted 31-29 along party lines Thursday to advance a bill that would put several new restrictions on abortion in Arizona. 

SB1457 will, among other provisions, ban abortions performed due to a non-fatal genetic abnormality and ban the mailing of abortion drugs. It also contains “personhood” language, declaring an unborn child has “all rights, privileges and immunities available to other persons, citizens and residents of this state, subject only to the Constitution of the United States and decisional interpretations thereof by the United States Supreme Court.” Cathi Herrod, president of the influential socially conservative group the Center for Arizona Policy and a backer of the bill, watched from the gallery as lawmakers debated. 

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, said the provision prohibiting mailing abortion-inducing drugs would prevent needed medication from being delivered to women having a miscarriage. This led Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, to object that Butler’s comments weren’t related to the bill. 

“There is nothing in that part that says anything about a miscarriage,” Cobb said. “It says they cannot give the abortion pill.” 

House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, ruled in Cobb’s favor. The Democrats objected, but the House upheld Grantham’s ruling on a party-line vote. 

“Nothing the member said was out of line,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe. “It was germane. She believes that this will be the effect of the legislation.” 

Regina Cobb
Regina Cobb

Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, then “called the question,” which meant that, after brief debate where one person on each side could speak for three minutes, the House voted along party lines to advance the bill out of the House’s Committee of the Whole and onto the third reading calendar for a final vote. 

Democrats accused the Republicans of trying to limit debate on the bill, bringing up shades of last week when they made similar complaints about committee chairmen limiting both testimony and comment from Democratilawmakers on several controversial bills that advanced on party-line votes. 

“I protest the process that we just went through today while we were debating 1457,” said Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson. “I protest that our debate was shut down. We had yet even to begin debate on the bill as amended. I protest that I was not able to make my point and explain to my constituency why I opposed 1457.” 

The bill will have to return to the Senate now to see if the chamber agrees to an amendment Cobb, who said in March that she was opposed to the bill in its form then, proposed. Cobb’s amendment would allow abortion in cases of life-threatening genetic abnormalities, as well as making it a Class 6 – instead of a Class 3 felony – to perform an abortion due a genetic abnormality, race or sex. This reduces the penalty in current law for a race- or sex-based abortion, while adding the criminalization of ones performed due to non-fatal genetic abnormalities. The bill will go to Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk if the Senate concurs with the House’s changes. 

Both supporters and opponents of the bill spoke at length as the House cast its final votes, with each side at times breaking into loud applause in support of someone’s point. Democrats said the bill would unacceptably intrude on the doctor-patient relationship. Rep. Melody Hernandez, D-Tempe, said she felt fear, not joy, when she got pregnant, because she was barely scraping by, didn’t have health insurance, and had recently been sexually assaulted and didn’t know if the rapist was the father. 

Melody Hernandez
Melody Hernandez

“We don’t seek (abortions) because we hate children, we seek them because we are scared to bring them into this world,” Hernandez said. She added that some people say “all lives matter,” but the Legislature has debated whether people should have to wear masks during a pandemic and don’t want to adequately fund public schools. 

“It is very clear that only some lives matter and they tend not to be Latinas like me who grew up in poverty and without health care,” she said. “Give us the resources to live with dignity and then maybe, maybe I would feel blessed to be pregnant in this world.” 

Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, said when a woman gets pregnant there are two patients – the woman and the unborn child – and that she believes it is reasonable, and even “quite generous,” that a doctor who intentionally kills one of those patients should only face a class 6 felony. 

“I have not been blessed to have children yet, but I cannot imagine anything more selfish than terminating a life out of convenience,” she said. “We have far too many women who are literally fighting for the right to kill their own kids. That’s outrageous to me. I believe as women we are capable of being responsible with our bodies without terminating the life of another person.” 

S1457 is one of two major bills to restrict abortion working its way through the legislative process. On Wednesday the Senate Appropriations Committee voted along party lines to advance HB2140, which would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. However, this bill would still need to pass the full Senate before making it to the House, and Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, expressed concern about the bill’s language during the committee hearing and suggested it would need some changes for her to support it. Either bill would almost surely result in a court challenge were it to pass. 

House Dems torpedo GOP efforts to pass budget

Efforts to enact a new $12.8 billion budget and tax cuts sputtered Tuesday as House Democrats refused to come to the floor, leaving the Republican-controlled chamber short of a quorum.

The maneuver came on the heels of Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, saying he had finally lined up all 31 House Republicans to support the modified plan.

Only thing is, four GOP lawmakers are absent. And while House rules allow them to vote remotely, Toma said the Arizona Constitution mandates that there be 31 people physically in the building to get a quorum in the 60-member chamber.

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, is not suggesting that Democrats have the votes to block the plan.

But he told Capitol Media Services that Republicans presented some new amendments just 90 minutes before the session. And Bolding said that didn’t give Democrats enough time to fully understand what the majority was trying to push through at the last minute — and without sufficient public oversight.

That maneuver also hobbled any attempt by Democrats to research those-last minute changes and offer objections or alterations of their own.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, claimed that the maneuver puts operations of the state at risk.

While the new budget year doesn’t start until July 1, the current payroll period ends this week for checks that would be produced next week. But he claimed that if there’s no budget in place by the end of this week, that could mean that state employees won’t be paid for what they do next week.

And that, he said, leads to ripple effects as government would have to be shut down.

“So if you’re planning on a July 4th weekend at a state park of your choice, that won’t be available,” he said.

Also gone, said Bowers, would be funding for schools that open in July, revenues for cities and counties and even the ability of people to visit inmates in state prisons.

And what of essential services, like public safety — and keeping the prisons secure? C.J. Karamargin, press aide to Gov. Doug Ducey, brushed aside the question of what plans, finances and legal options — if any — the state’s chief executive has to deal with such a contingency.

“We’re confident there will be a budget,” he said. “We’re not going to engage in hypotheticals and what-ifs.”

Complicating matters is that even if the House approves the plan, there may not be the votes in the Senate.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said Tuesday it is “up in the air” whether she will support the spending and tax-cut plan. And with no Senate Democrats willing to vote for the plan, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, needs her vote.

Townsend wants Ducey to rescind his executive order giving him emergency powers.

She pointed out that if lawmakers approve the budget, they will adjourn for the year. And that, Townsend said, leaves the governor with broad unilateral authority to enact restrictions and even effectively alter state laws, with the legislature not around until next January to try to countermand his actions.

Townsend also is balking at providing tax relief for the most wealthy to counter Proposition 208, which imposes a 3.5% surcharge on earnings over $500,000 a year for married couples.

She believes an audit will show that the measure did not pass. And Townsend questioned the need for legislation that makes sharp reductions in tax rates for the most wealthy if it really failed.

House Dems walk out stalls GOP budget

lot of numbers on a spreadsheet (3d render)

House Republicans’ hopes of passing a budget Tuesday were dashed when the Democrats boycotted the morning’s floor session. 

Without the constitutionally required majority of members present in the building to conduct business, the House adjourned until 10 a.m. Thursday, when all of the Republicans are expected to be physically present and they will try again. 

Meanwhile, the Senate plowed ahead, advancing four of the eleven bills making up the spending plan before breaking for lunch Monday and planned to finish the remainder in the afternoon and evening.  

Reps. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa; Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert; John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction; and Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, were not at the Capitol Tuesday, although they had planned to vote on the budget bills via Zoom. However, with all of the Democrats except for Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, boycotting, the chamber was a few short of the 31 needed to constitute a quorum. 

“This is not normal,” said Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “This is not OK. What is happening is a complete disdain for the only constitutional duty that we have.” 

House Democrats protested that the plan, despite how closely divided the Legislature is, has not included any input from them, and that if the Republicans want to pass a party-line budget they shouldn’t count on the Democrats’ help to do it. 

“You can’t simultaneously ignore the wishes of half the state and then take us for granted to pass a partisan budget,” Bolding said. 

Before adjourning, Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, warned of potentially dire consequences if there isn’t a budget in place before the new fiscal year starts on July 1, including employees not getting paid, schools and local governments losing revenue and people not being able to visit relatives in prison. 

“I would ask us all, it may really be tough, but could we contemplate growing up and shouldering the responsibility together and think of together more than individual and pass a budget?” Bowers asked. 

Toma said Democratic leaders promised him, after they similarly delayed a vote on an elections bill two months ago by not showing, that they wouldn’t do that again. 

“This is just a step too far,” Toma said. “I really hope voters start paying attention because this is an epic joke, and not in a good way.” 

The budget, which was introduced a month ago, has been delayed as Republicans made changes to get a handful of holdouts in their caucus on board. It includes a proposal to phase in a flat income tax that Democrats have unanimously opposed. Aside from their problems with the flat tax and other provisions such as what Democrats see as inadequate funding for education and infrastructure, Bolding said the public and Democrats also need more time to evaluate the amendments Republicans released Tuesday morning. 

“Dropping a dozen new amendments this morning that rewrite major portions of their plan to vote on this afternoon is inappropriate,” Bolding said. “A budget should be developed with all voices at the table, but they don’t want the public to know what’s in this plan until it’s too late.” 

Other Democrats echoed his sentiments. 

“I refuse to be complicit in the @AZHouseGOP’s desire to permanently reduce our state revenue by $1.7 billion,” tweeted Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson. “We can use that money to fund our schools, expand health care, and protect our environment. If the GOP wants to be reckless, House Dems will NOT give them cover to do it.”  

Republicans said Democrats would be to blame if there is a partial government shutdown on July 1. Isaac Humrich, who use to work for former Republican U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, accused the Democrats of hypocrisy, highlighting a tweet from Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, who spent the morning at a protest calling on U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to support eliminating the filibuster. Humrich called the filibuster “a parliamentary procedure that bears striking resemblance to what House Dems just pulled.” 

Toma was guardedly hopeful the House will be able to pass a budget when it reconvenes on Thursday. 

“I’m as confident as anyone can be this session,” he said. “As far as I know, we have the votes.” 

Toma said he intends to pass a full budget. He said passing a “skinny budget” like last year’s that would keep state operations funded after June 30 without making other changes, which is one idea that has been floated, wouldn’t be as easy at this point as it might sound. For starters, it would have to be drafted, and that hasn’t been done. Toma said the House would move forward on Thursday whether the Senate passes a budget before then or not. 

“I can’t control what happens in the Senate,” he said. “I can only control what we do in the House.” 

House flounders bid to pass tax bills

Rep. David Cook argues against a proposal by Republican leaders which would limit the amount of income taxes paid by the most wealthy. (Screengrab by Capitol Media Services)
Rep. David Cook argues against a proposal by Republican leaders which would limit the amount of income taxes paid by the most wealthy. (Screengrab by Capitol Media Services)

The tax cuts that are the centerpiece of next year’s proposed budget failed in the House Monday when one Republican joined the Democrats to shoot them down. 

After extensive debate, the two bills, which would phase in a 2.5% flat income tax rate and set a maximum rate of 4.5% until then to blunt the impact of Proposition 208, failed 30-30. Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, joined every Democrat in the House to oppose them. 

The House has adjourned until 10 a.m. Thursday, the same day the Senate is scheduled to come back. On May 26, both chambers adjourned until June 10 to give them some time to work out the stalemate over the budget, which needs unanimous Republican support to pass but doesn’t yet have that in either body.  However, Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, had held out hope the House would come back sooner, and on Friday he said the House would come back Monday to vote on the budget whether the votes were there or not. Toma said after the House adjourned that he wasn’t surprised by the outcome but felt he needed to get everyone on record with their votes. 

“We’ll continue talking and see what we can do to try to come up with something that’s workable,” Toma said. 

In response to criticism of the size of the proposed tax cut, which would reduce revenues by an estimated $1.9 billion in FY24, Toma said he didn’t have a specific number in mind when he started crafting the proposal but was trying to come up with good policy. He said he would be willing to discuss a higher rate but said a higher flat rate would fall harder on lower income earners, which would go against the concerns of flat tax opponents who already view it as giving too much to the rich. 

“I just don’t think they’ve thought it through,” Toma said. 

Toma acknowledged the challenge of modifying the tax bills in a way that could get Cook, the lone Republican holdout, on board without losing any of the other Republicans who support the bills now. 

“If we buy one but we lose five, that doesn’t work,” he said. 

Cook, whose rural Legislative District 8 includes small towns such as Globe, Florence and Superior, said he supports tax cuts and has voted for them in the past, but that this proposal is too big and the state needs to focus on paying down its debt. As Cook debated and voted, he also tweeted updates on the Telegraph and Mescal wildfires threatening his district — including when, during the votes, he received word that his family had been told to evacuate his home in Globe. 

“Just got word at my house that they are asking us to evacuate,” he said at 10:51 a.m. “I was brought away from my home to vote on bills that did not have the votes in the house or senate on purpose to be on record.” 

A proposed amendment to one of the tax bills would have increased the urban revenue sharing distribution from 15% to 17% starting in the 2024-2025 fiscal year, an attempt to help cities and towns, especially smaller ones that are more dependent on state income tax revenue. However, Benjamin Bitter, the assistant to Florence’s town manager, said the town would still lose out even with the changed formula. 

“Florence would still face about a 9% shortfall under the 17% proposal,” he tweeted during the debate. 

In response to a series of questions from House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, Toma acknowledged that the proposed 4.5% maximum income tax rate would reduce taxes on high earners from what would be an 8% rate otherwise, although he said this shouldn’t change the amount of money collected for education funding under Proposition 208. Voters, he said, had approved a 3.5% surcharge for schools but hadn’t addressed what the maximum rate should be. 

“Yes, the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the max income tax percentage paid by a taxpayer in the state of Arizona is 4.5% total, because they’re the ones that make the jobs that create the economic conditions that lead to economic improvement for the entire state,” Toma said. 

Opponents of the tax cut said supply side economics doesn’t work, pointing to Kansas, where tax cuts passed in 2012 led to huge reductions in revenues. The state reversed the cuts in 2017. 

“It is the height of arrogance to believe that this time the flat tax is going to work when it has been shown it never has,” said Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Cashion. 

Democrats argued workers, not businesses, drive economic growth. 

“The reality is without those working-class people there wouldn’t be jobs, there wouldn’t be an economy,” Bolding said. 

Toma said that Arizona is in “a very different situation” than Kansas in 2012 – Kansas, Toma said, was trying to eliminate its income tax during an economic downturn and was then unwilling to make the needed spending cuts. By contrast, he said Arizona is growing and projecting a large surplus. 

The House did vote to move one budget bill, dealing with the transportation budget, out of the Committee of the Whole, clearing the way for it to receive a final floor vote at some vote. It advanced with one amendment getting rid of a provision that would have increased towing fees, leaving the current ones in place. The changes were supported by the towing industry, which said the changes would help cover their increased costs; opponents feared they would make it harder for people to get their vehicles back and make it more likely they would lose them forever if they couldn’t pay the fees. It did not take up the other eight budget bills on the calendar before adjourning. 

The House also voted to reintroduce, as new bills, the 22 bills Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed on May 28 in an attempt to pressure lawmakers to reach a budget deal faster. 

House panel OKs criminal sentencing changes

Symbol of law and justice, law and justice concept, focus on the scales

State lawmakers took the first steps February 3 to reversing decades of tough-on-crime policies.

Without a single dissent, members of the House Committee on Criminal Justice Reform voted to restore some of the discretion taken away from judges more than four decades ago to determine what is an appropriate sentence.

HB2673 does not scrap all of the mandatory sentencing laws.

In order to divert from the code, a judge would need to find that a mandatory sentence would be an injustice to the defendant, that it is not necessary to protect the public, and that the person was not convicted of a serious or dangerous offense. And judges would have to explain their decision on the record.

But lawmakers did not stop there. Committee members also approved:

– Barring the state from denying certain licenses to people solely because they were convicted of drug offenses.

– Curbing the ability of prosecutors to “stack” charges from multiple offenses being tried at the same time to get an enhanced sentence.

– Ensuring that female prisoners have access to hygiene products.

– Establishing an independent office of “ombudsman” who would have oversight over the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry.

Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, who crafted that last one, said it in particular is crucial to making changes in the prison system.

Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman

“This is the beginning of reform,” he said. “We can’t fix something if we don’t know what to fix.”

But the major shift goes to the issue of sentencing reform.

The state’s policies on incarceration date back to 1978, when lawmakers voted to impose mandatory prison terms for certain crimes.

And in 1993, they approved the “truth in sentencing” law which says criminals must serve at least 85% of their term before being eligible for release. That followed complaints that even when judges were imposing longer terms that inmates were getting out after serving only a fraction.

Freshman Rep. Joel John, R-Arlington, said he became interested in the issue after meeting a constituent who had served two years in prison “for some petty crimes he committed because he became addicted to painkillers from injuries he sustained on the job.” After release, John told colleagues, this man couldn’t find a job and ended up working on a farm for him.

“He was subjected to the mandatory minimum sentences,” John said.

“And there were people that spent less time in prison than he did for more serious offenses,” the lawmaker continued. “That didn’t seem right to me.”

John said he sees no reason why a judge, who has met the defendant and examined the circumstances, should be precluded from imposing a sentence that appears more appropriate.

The measure also picked up support from Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer.

He told lawmakers that, officially, he is neutral on the measure.

“But I can tell you, this is good governance,” Volkmer said.

He acknowledged that the legislation does remove power from prosecutors in his office to bring charges and seek certain sentences.

“However, I can tell you there are individual cases in which people will come forward when an injustice occurred, a person got more time than they reasonably should have,” Volkmer continued. “It’s not common, but it does happen.”

Giving more discretion to judges to deal with those circumstances, he said, helps prevent that from happening

There’s also a financial component to all of this.

The latest figures show more than 37,700 people in the care of the prison system. And the agency’s current budget now exceeds $1.2 billion a year, more than 10% of every dollar to run state government.

“It’s a justice issue, if we save some money that we can reinvest in making the community safe,” said Molly Gill, representing Families Against Mandatory Minimums. But Gill, a former prosecutor, said the focus should be on doing what’s right.

“Frankly, I got sick of sending people to prison who didn’t need to be there, and putting people there who didn’t need to be there that long,” she said.”

Not everyone is pleased with the change.

Steve Twist, who was the assistant state attorney general during much of the time that lawmakers were tightening up sentencing laws, sent a letter to lawmakers expressing his opposition. He wrote that it would return Arizona to the days of indeterminate sentencing “which result in great disparity, inequality and injustice.”

“That system was rejected by a bipartisan overwhelming consensus in 1977 and we should not return to the mistakes of the past,” Twist said.

That did not impress Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Laveen.

“We live in 2021,” he said. “And the people of Arizona have consistently come to us, individually and as a group, and asked us to move forward on criminal justice reform.”

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk did not appear at the hearing, but entered her own statement into the record in opposition.

“Arizona adopted sentencing ranges to promote uniformity,” she wrote. “This bill takes us back to the days when who you are, where you live, and who your sentencing judge is will determine your sentence.”

And Polk said if lawmakers are concerned about the sentences imposed, the answer is to revisit the sentencing framework that judges have to work within, not giving them more discretion.

HB2319 deals with the problems some released inmates have with getting a job. It says that, with only a handful of exceptions, the conviction of a drug offense cannot be a barrier to getting a state license.

“We know that employment is the key to breaking free of the cycle” of people winding up back behind bars,” said Dianne McCallister representing the Opportunity Solutions Project. She said ex-offenders are faced with multiple hurdles to getting a job.

“But Arizona’s regulations should not be one of them,” McCallister said. She said there are many jobs that require state licensing, like working as a cosmetologist or at a pest-control firm, where a drug offense should not be a barrier.

There are limits. For example, it still would not allow someone with a criminal record to get a certificate as a teacher, be in certain health profession jobs, or be certified as a peace officer.

The issue of HB2318 is designed to address situations where prosecutors “stack” multiple charges from a single event.

Arizona law always has allowed enhanced sentences for those who are repeat offenders. But what happens, said Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, is that prosecutors combine multiple separate offenses committed on separate occasions into a single trial and then use that to seek longer sentences for someone as a repeat offender.

His legislation would preclude that from happening.

Toma got a similar proposal through the Legislature in 2019, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey. He said the language in this one is more of a compromise.

The measures approved by the panel still need to be debated by the full House.

House panel to tackle bills on rioters, defunding police

hoenix Police stand in front of Phoenix Police Headquarters Saturday, May 30, in Phoenix, waiting for protesters marching to protest the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed back man who died in police custody with much of the arrest captured on video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of Floyd. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The House Military and Public Safety committee is scheduled to take up two controversial bills Monday that were introduced in reaction to the protests and calls for police defunding last spring and summer.

HB2309 would, among other changes meant to crack down on people who take part in violent protests, create a new class 6 felony crime of violent or disorderly assembly, “if a person, with seven or more other persons acting together, and with the intent to engage in conduct constituting a riot or an unlawful assembly, causes damage to property or injury to another person,” and anyone convicted under it would be barred from receiving state or local public benefits in the future. And HB2310 says if a city, county or town cuts its police budget by more than 10%, the state will withhold tax monies it distributes to local governments from them in the same amount. Both are being sponsored by Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, and have the co-sponsorship of most House Republicans, including Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria.

Bowers said in late January that he believes we need “trained, capable presence in our cities by police,” and said state taxpayers shouldn’t have to help cover the budgets of cities that cut their police budgets.

“If a city is going to take punitive measures against their police force, I’m not going to backfill it,” he said.

HB 2309 also says someone arrested for violent or disorderly assembly cannot be released from custody for at least 12 hours “unless a magistrate finds that the person is not likely to immediately resume the criminal behavior.” It would reclassify assaulting a peace officer while violating this law as a class 6 felony and require at least 6 months in jail for anyone convicted. And, it would raise obstructing a highway, public nuisance, shining a laser pointer at a police officer or recklessly damaging property worth between $250 and $1,000 from a misdemeanor to a class 6 felony if done in the course of committing violent or disorderly assembly. The Arizona lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police has signed up in support of the bill, while the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has come out against both it and HB2310. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns is also against HB2310.

Becca Fealk, program coordinator for the Arizona office of the American Friends Service Committee, which is active on prison and criminal justice reform-related issues, said it is unfortunate that, with so many other issues facing the state, lawmakers are taking up bills that “expand the power of the state and create more harm.”

“Both of them expand criminal penalties, and that’s something that AFSC is absolutely opposed to,” she said. “I think it’s been interesting to see the number of sponsors that have gone on these bills, which I think is a reaction to the political time.”

Other bills on Monday’s committee agenda that could spur debatel include HB2685, which would require state and local governments to accept consular IDs as valid identification if they are issued by a country that uses biometric identity verification techniques in issuing them; and HCR2026, which would put a question on the November 2022 ballot to limit the governor’s power to declare a state of emergency to 14 days, unless the governor calls a special session of the Legislature to vote on topics related to the emergency.

Both the House and Senate have been full of proposals this year to limit the governor’s emergency powers, a reaction by some Republicans to Gov. Doug Ducey’s handling of the Covid pandemic. The state and local governments have been banned by law from accepting consular IDs since 2011; another bill repealing this passed the House in 2020 but didn’t make it through the Senate. Bowers said earlier this year he supports changing the law to allow them.

House poised for new faces, new leaders

An old watchtower bell was mounted on the sidewalk in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix in 2021.  (File photo)

The next Arizona House of Representatives will look much different than it did in 2022 with many members losing their primary election races or moving to a different area of government. 

What likely won’t change is Republicans will hold onto majority control in the House and a speaker of the House seat up for grabs. Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, is said to be a candidate for the seat although he hasn’t publicly confirmed he’s running. Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, announced he was running for the seat in a Turning Point Action rally in August.  

Toma, ESAs, vouchers, Save Our Schools Arizona, private schools, tuition, charter schools, public schools, AEA
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria

Chaplik was critical of Speaker Russell Bowers, R-Mesa, at the rally, saying Bowers “refused to listen to the conservatives” and other Republican members of the Legislature to help pass a Democratic budget. 

“Arizona is aiming to make Florida jealous of our Legislature and how impactful we will be supporting Kari Lake,” Chaplik said. “We will rival Florida for the top spot in America, mark my words.” 

The Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, reported that activist groups campaigning for Chaplik and Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, for Senate pro tempore have made leadership races unusual this year. Groups including EZAZ and FreedomWorks have become more open about campaigning for their desired candidates after becoming frustrated with current leadership, Yellow Sheet reported. 

House leadership positions in both the majority and minority caucus are determined by a secret ballot among each party’s elected legislators after the general election.  

Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, confirmed he was making a bid for majority leader, along with Reps. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City; Gail Griffin, R-Hereford; and Steve Montenegro, a former representative and senator running in Legislative District 29. 

Joseph Chaplik

“It’s important for us to work together as a caucus,” Dunn said. “I’m usually pulling people together and I’m willing to offer my skills to help do that and give up my committee assignment. If the caucus wants me, then I’ll offer my services,” Dunn said.  

Overall, 15 of the 31 Republicans in the House are up for re-election for House seats this November, including two of the party’s three leaders. Bowers lost his primary race for Senate in Legislative District 10.  

Democrats will have even higher turnover with 11 of its 29 current representatives up for re-election. Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, lost his primary election bid for secretary of state and party Whip Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, didn’t file for re-election.  

That leaves Assistant Minority Leader Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, with a potential opening for Bolding’s seat, although she hasn’t publicly said anything on the matter. Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, wrote in a text that several of his colleagues have asked him to consider running for minority leader but it’s not something he’s currently focusing on.  

“I am humbled to have their early vote of confidence, but right now, my focus is on protecting and expanding our seats in the State House this November,” Cano wrote. “Together, we’ll continue to connect with voters from all walks of life in (the) final stretch of the campaign and demonstrate our ability to turn the page at our State Capitol for the better.”  

Cano also wrote that “all” Democratic nominees are ready to lead in the next legislative session. 

House to put budget to vote on Monday


The Arizona House plans to return Monday morning to pass – or fail – a budget, with or without the Senate, a top House Republican confirmed Friday. 

House Majority Leader Ben Toma said he and fellow leaders are continuing negotiations with the Senate, governor’s office and Republican holdouts to secure as many votes as possible, but the House plans to vote on the $12.8 billion spending plan and the largest tax cuts in recent memory regardless of whether they have the votes to pass.  

“Many of us are furiously working today and probably over the weekend to finalize changes that should be ready by Monday morning,” he said. “Then we’re going to go ahead and attempt to pass it, and if there are any Republicans out there that want to hold out, they’re gonna’ have to explain why.” 

House and Senate leaders first planned to pass their budget more than a week ago, but after it became clear the bills lacked support to pass either the House or the Senate, both chambers called it quits until June 10, with the caveat that they would return earlier if they had reached an agreement with a handful of holdouts.  

The Senate’s plans for next week remain unclear: Senate President Karen Fann did not return a phone call and a spokesman for the Senate GOP said Friday morning he was trying to find out details but had not shared them by publication time.  

As of now, the budget still lacks the votes to pass either the House or Senate. All Democrats are opposed to a plan to shrink the state’s four income tax brackets to a single 2.5% rate that would disproportionately benefit wealthy Arizonans, and GOP leaders can’t afford to lose a single Republican in the House or Senate.  

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said in a text message that he remains opposed to the budget proposal, though he hopes House leaders will make additional changes to address his concerns, which include the tax cuts’ effect on cities and towns, debt, unfunded pension liabilities, water infrastructure and capital improvement needs. 

“I am concerned that federal COVID relief money has created a false economy and I believe it’s prudent to take some time to ensure we don’t send the state off of a fiscal cliff,” he added.   

Cities and towns now receive 15% of state income taxes through a decades-old revenue sharing agreement based on municipalities giving up the ability to impose a local income tax. The proposed tax cuts, which would amount to $1.9 billion in lost revenue in FY24, would cost $285 million in local revenue, a cut of roughly 31%, according to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. 

Cities have advocated for increasing that shared revenue percentage to somewhere between 18.2% and 18.9% to prevent any losses to local revenue. Since last week, Toma said House leaders settled on a number around 17% — citing an economic analysis commissioned by the League that showed that 17% would work if looking solely at the impact of the flat tax. 

However, the same analysis indicated that the higher number is necessary because the Legislature also plans additional tax cuts for the wealthiest Arizonans to negate the effects of last year’s voter-approved Proposition 208, which added a 3.5% surcharge for single people making more than $250,000 and married couples making more than $500,000. 

Under the Republican tax plan, those wealthy Arizonans would pay 4.5% of their taxable income. The Prop 208 fund would receive the first 3.5%, and only the remaining 1% would go to the General Fund. Essentially, the richest Arizonans would pay a 1% tax rate for all state services, further shrinking the money available to be shared with cities and towns. 

League of Arizona Cities and Towns legislative director Nick Ponder said the league heard rumors Thursday night that the House cut a deal with cities – rumors which came as a surprise because the League hasn’t spoken to House leadership since last week. 

There is no deal, cities are not back to their preferred neutral stance on state budgets and an increase to 17% of state shared revenue is inadequate, he said.    

 Toma said he saw no reason to hold cities harmless for Prop 208, because they didn’t oppose the ballot measure.  

“In terms of the cities complaining if we’re going to do something to correct the tax policy issues that 208 has created, if they had concerns they should have lobbied against 208 and explained how this could hurt long-term revenues for them and for everyone else in the state,” he said.    

House leaders are still talking to the Senate and governor about demands from Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Gilbert, and other conservatives to add $7.5 million for election security measures, including new watermarked ballot paper and an ongoing fund to repeat exercises like the Senate’s audit of the 2020 presidential race, Toma said.  

The budget he expects to put up for a vote Monday will have some cuts requested by Republicans, he said, but overall it will be at about the same $12.8 billion price tag floated two weeks ago. He said he doesn’t expect any significant increases in higher education spending, something Republican holdout Paul Boyer of Glendale has pushed for in the Senate.  

Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said the governor’s office heard the House plans to return and expressed optimism that the budget will pass. The fiscal year ends June 30 and a budget must be passed by then to avoid a government shutdown.  

“We’re hopeful that progress will be made on the budget next week,” Karamargin said.  

Toma said it’s important to put a budget up for a vote even if it lacks the support to pass, and it’s on holdouts to come up with a solution that will get to 31 votes in the House, 16 in the Senate and a signature from the governor.  

“It’s easy to pick apart someone else’s plan,” Toma said. “It’s quite another to try to come up with one to get all of those votes,” he said. 

It’s past time for lawmakers to publicly explain their stances on the budget proposal, Toma said, and Republicans who oppose the tax cut plan he crafted need to tell their voters why. 

“When we have such huge projected surpluses, I don’t know how one explains why they’re anti-tax-reform in this particular case,” he said.   

While they hope to return Monday, House Republican leaders still haven’t formally told House Democrats about the plan. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said legislative staff were busy preparing calendars for a Monday return, but he was still waiting on the official notice. 

Bolding and fellow Democrats also have not been invited to participate in negotiations with GOP leaders or the governor, but they stand willing at any time, he said.  

“If it takes them to see it fail on a board and for them to be embarrassed by that vote in order for them to make that happen, I’m OK with that, if that’s the route they choose to go, he said. “But I think that would be, quite frankly, a waste of taxpayer time, staff time and members’ time, when they have an alternative, which is to reach across the aisle and come up with something that has support.” 

House, Senate GOP leaders bring in budget holdouts

budget Arizona

The Legislature may start debating and voting on the FY22 budget as early as Tuesday after striking a deal with Republican holdouts that slows down the implementation of tax cuts and pays off more debt. 

The deal, aimed at convincing GOP Sen. Paul Boyer and Rep. David Cook to support the spending plan, also increases funding for cities. House and Senate leaders were headed into additional meetings Monday afternoon to work out remaining details. 

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said the chamber could start moving budget bills at least through the Committee of the Whole as soon as Tuesday if the votes are there.  

One key change is upping state revenue shared with cities from 15% to 18%, a change demanded by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. Twenty-one mayors signed a letter praising the updated budget plan on Monday, though the 13 mayors from Cook’s Legislative District 8 who have opposed the flat tax plan were not among them.  

“We are pleased to see that the agreed upon budget reflects the priorities of cities and towns,” the mayors wrote. “Recent adjustments to the proposed budget will increase Urban Revenue Sharing to cities and towns to 18% beginning a year prior to cities feeling the effect of the income tax cut.” 

Toma said he opposes this personally – he wants to set it at 17% — but is willing to compromise on it.  

“I am willing to make that change because we still get where we need to get,” he said. 

The mayors’ letter also refers to a revised income tax cut plan that will start at $1.3 billion and ramp up to $1.8 billion annually, slightly lower than the $1.9 billion in Gov. Doug Ducey’s original plan. GOP leaders were still finalizing details of how the tax cut will be phased in, but current plans would reach a single 2.5% tax rate (and a maximum of 4.5% for Arizonans making more than $250,000 who are subject to a 3.5% surcharge for education funding under last year’s Proposition 208) only if the state has the revenue in future years to handle the tax cut.  

Boyer did not return a call or text today, but Cook said he had a handshake deal to support the new proposal while waiting to see details in ink.  

A Senate Republican spokesman said Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, the last remaining GOP holdout in the Senate, is on board, though Townsend did not return a call Monday afternoon. 

Townsend’s opposition to the budget had less to do with the budget itself and more to do with keeping the Legislature from adjourning sine die before completing the Senate’s ongoing audit or ending the year-long state of emergency.  

To court her, House Republicans scheduled a Tuesday hearing on a resolution calling for a convention of the states and on Monday afternoon passed her election policy omnibus bill along party lines. 

Meanwhile, teachers stepped up their advocacy against the budget and tax plan, gathering in the Capitol Rose Garden Monday afternoon to protest the proposed tax cuts before setting up in the House gallery.  

Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher from the Deer Valley Unified School District, said a better use of the state’s surplus is more spending in education, including restoring funding for full-day kindergarten. Her district now offers full-day kindergarten, at a cost of about $4 million to the district that Fisher said could be spent on salaries, counselors and reducing class sizes, but many districts do not.  

“Our state has a very real opportunity right now to give our kindergarten students everything they need to learn,” Fisher said. “Our governor and Republican legislators have chosen instead to give the wealthiest Arizona’s yet another tax cut.” 

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said there’s a “very strong chance” education groups seek to refer the tax cuts to the ballot if they end up passing. Doing so would require collecting more than 118,000 signatures from valid voters. 

-Staff writer Kyra Haas contributed reporting 

Incoming lawmakers, governor-elect aim to tackle housing

New homes are under construction at the new master-planned community Reserve at Red Rock sits in Mesa, Arizona USA on November 30, 2022. Housing affordability has fallen to its lowest level in 33 years, and mortgage and home prices have surged. (Photo by: Alexandra Buxbaum/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Republicans and Democrats want to address housing in the upcoming legislative session, and some of their proposals overlap.

Everyone in and around the Capitol is aware of the housing shortage regardless of political affiliation but agreeing on solutions is a tricky issue that pits state and local control against one another.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved a Housing Supply Study Committee that has been meeting for the past several months to learn about Arizona’s lack of affordable housing.

The committee members are now preparing documents on the issue and how they want to address it.

Rep. Steve Kaiser, House, affordable housing
Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix

Committee chair Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, will present the report within the next two weeks or so. He will also likely sponsor some legislation that will come out of the committee as he did last year.

Democrat Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs has a very detailed housing plan that includes several proposed bills. She is a former social worker and legislator with an interest in housing problems.

Land costs and building costs have increased, more people are moving into Arizona, inexpensive housing is decreasing, and new housing isn’t being built as quickly as it did in previous years, but lawmakers already have possible solutions on the table.

Lifting Zoning Restrictions

Jake Hinman, Arizona Multihousing Association director of government affairs, said, “Zoning has made it extraordinarily difficult to get through the process. NIMBYISM is a result of zoning.”

He accused cities like Scottsdale of being “downright hostile” toward affordable housing while other cities like Tempe are taking the issue full-on and ending up housing the workforce and low-income residents.

Perhaps the most commonly repeated theme in the Housing Supply Study Committee is the need to cut back on zoning “red tape” that discourages developers from wanting to build homes in Arizona.

“Twenty years ago, you could take a property from dirt and build a house within six months,” Senate President-elect Warren Petersen said in an economic proposal he released earlier this year. “Those days are long gone as a litany of hurdles have been placed in obtaining approvals for land development and housing. Now, it can take as long as four years! Let’s increase the housing supply by shortening this window. One way to accomplish this is through administrative approvals for all projects that meet existing laws and requirements.”

Kaiser has made repealing zoning restrictions a priority over the past several meetings of the Housing Supply Study Committee, but the question that remains to be tackled is which zoning regulations must go.

This is not necessarily a partisan issue.

Hobbs offers some specific deregulation proposals in her housing plan.

Hobbs, gubernatorial, election, Lake, debate, Clean Elections Commission, PBS, debate, Lake, Ask Me Anything, education, Chandler, election, gubernatorial, PBS, debate, interview, Lake, Mike Broomhead, gubernatorial, candidates, Ducey, border, abortion
Katie Hobbs

“Examples of zoning changes that lead to more housing inventory include: building an additional dwelling unit, an accessory unit or a single-room occupancy unit on a residential lot; allowing higher density zoning that can accommodate more development of moderate-income housing; permitting higher density residential projects in or near commercial and mixed-use zones, major transit investment corridors, or employment centers; reducing restrictive requirements for affordable housing projects, such as minimum parking spaces, minimum unit sizes, or common area requirements; and providing zoning and financial incentives to developers who dedicate a certain percentage of units to market or below market rate housing,” she wrote.

Increasing density and allowing non-traditional homes also came up several times in the Housing Supply Study Committee.

Inclusionary Zoning

Inclusionary zoning requires developers to devote a certain percentage of the units in a project to affordable housing and it’s banned in Arizona. Theile included the idea as a recommendation to the committee and was met with pushback from Spencer Kamps, vice president of legislative affairs of the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.

Kamps argued that inclusionary housing essentially taxes the very developers who are trying to create needed housing. He asked where in the United States inclusionary housing has been able to fix a housing shortage, and his question wasn’t answered. Kaiser said he’s not convinced inclusionary housing can do enough to help Arizona.

The idea got a more positive reception from Tempe Mayor Corey Woods who said, “I do think an inclusionary zoning policy would be tremendously helpful.”

Glendale Community Services Director Jean Moreno asked whether inclusionary zoning funded by low-income tax credits could be a solution that keeps developers incentivized and affordable housing coming in.

In this Dec. 4, 2019, photo, the main entrance is seen of a new apartment building opened for a ceremony at the Native American Connections Urban Living on Fillmore affordable housing unit in Phoenix. Republicans and Democrats want to address housing in the upcoming legislative session and some of their proposals overlap. The legislature approved a Housing Supply Study Committee in the most recent session that has been meeting for several months to learn about Arizona’s lack of affordable housing. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Tax Increment Financing

Several states use tax increment financing or TIF, which incentivizes developers. A city sets aside the area to be developed and when property taxes in the region increase, the added revenue – separate from the base revenue stream – is diverted to the developer as a subsidy.

Arizona allows some forms of TIF but bans others. This issue has come up several times in the Legislature and is usually pushed by cities and towns that would get the benefit of more control over development.

Income Discrimination

In Arizona, developments often don’t allow people who use housing vouchers to rent at their properties. Tucson tried to stop developers from discriminating on income source, and it is now the subject of an investigation.

Speaker of the House-elect Ben Toma, R-Peoria, filed a complaint against Tucson on Nov. 16 for blocking income source-based discrimination, which he says violates state law.

“The Arizona Legislature … has explicitly prohibited municipalities from wielding their fair housing codes to continually exact more regulatory burdens on rental property owners,” Toma wrote. State law does ban municipalities with large populations from adopting fair housing ordinances.

Moreno, of Glendale, said discrimination is a problem because vouchers allow mixed income housing and so many communities won’t accept the vouchers. Cities only get a limited number of vouchers and a tight budget for them. Residents must be at the “very low” income level to qualify for them.

Blocking income source discrimination would be a good move in her opinion. “This would provide an opportunity to support households that are at a very low income,” she said.

Housing Trust Fund

Several legislators, including Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, and Kaiser have sponsored legislation to fund the Housing Trust Fund with the Arizona Department of Housing, which can be used for projects like homeless shelters. The HTF got a significant allocation in last year’s budget, but Hobbs wants to increase it even more – as does Alston.  




Lawmakers in negotiation on $1B in tax cuts, flat income tax


The House and Senate are in the midst of budget negotiations that could result in more than $1 billion in tax cuts and the implementation of a flat income tax in Arizona.

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said that while the details are still in flux, he believes support exists for the idea of phasing in a flat income tax over three or four years. He said he would like to see the rate around 2.5%.

“The idea is to kind of do a massive economic development bill and part of that is a sizable tax cut,” he said.

Toma said the bill would also include changes to property and sales tax numbers, and that the goal is to achieve tax reductions that are broad-based yet also targeted to “move the needle”  on economic growth. Toma stressed that the details are being negotiated and that some of the cuts would be offset by increases elsewhere, but he expects the overall tax cut will total more than $1 billion once it’s phased in.

“I fully expect if we do this right, it’ll end up (with) more revenues for everybody,” he said. 

Gov. Doug Ducey proposed $600 million in tax cuts over three years in the budget proposal he released in January, without providing any details of where he wanted them to go. Senate Republicans upped the ante in the budget blueprint they released later that month, proposing $250 million in one-time tax law changes and $200 million in ongoing cuts.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said Friday that the House and Senate conversations last week focused on the broad strokes of tax cuts this year, and are still preliminary since some of the tax hawks in each chamber weren’t in the room for the discussion.

“That’s our linchpin, really, on the budget, because when you’re talking over a billion in a tax package, that takes a big chunk off of the table,” she said. 

Cobb said Toma’s proposal would cut income and property taxes and that a slight sales tax increase was also on the table. She said that the sales tax increase component would be marginal and total just a fraction of a penny.

“We’re gonna start moving here really quick,” Cobb said, adding that her sine die prediction is still a little after the 100-day mark from the start of the session. “Once we get these big pieces out of the way, we’ll be able to move a little quicker.” 

House Democratic leaders have argued against cutting taxes this year, saying any extra revenues should be used to address needs such as supporting schools, bolstering the state’s safety net and helping people who have been hurt economically by Covid.

This is not the time to propose $1.2 billion in tax cuts over the next three years when Arizonans are still hurting, the pandemic is not under control and the vaccine rollout has been slower than expected,” Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said in January in response to Ducey’s budget proposal.

Yellow Sheet Editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this article.

Lawmakers send bill to ban rental tax to Hobbs

A bill repealing a tax on home and apartment rentals that has been a key issue for Republicans in the Legislature for two sessions was sent to Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs on Monday after sitting on the Senate president’s desk for seven weeks.

House Speaker Ben Toma said Hobbs has agreed to sign it as part of negotiations between her and Republicans legislative leaders to approve an extension of a transportation tax in Maricopa County.

The rental tax repeal was vetoed by Hobbs earlier this year after she said it suffered from “defects.”

One of the biggest, she said, is there is no “enforceable mechanism” to ensure that landlords who remit the tax to the cities will pass along the savings to their tenants.

This new version is billed as having a better enforcement mechanism to protect tenants. It also has a delayed effective date of 2025.

Still, the legislation would take away more than $230 million a year in revenue that a majority of the state’s 91 cities and towns collect, according to a lobbyist for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

“The 75 cities that are going to be directly impacted by this, they’ve only got two options should this bill be signed,” the League’s Tom Savage said. “They’re going to have to either cut services, or they’re going to have to increase local taxes to make up for this loss.”

But Senate Republicans who called a news conference to crow about the bill said cities were flush with cash and criticized them for not voluntarily eliminating the rental tax. And they said they wanted to help low-income renters during a period of high inflation by getting rid of the tax, which is levied on top of rents, at rates that average 2.4%.

“This is (money) to help people put food on the table, give them an extra tank of gas in the car,” said Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert. “And we are ready to provide relief.”

Former state Sen. Steve Kaiser, a Republican who resigned in June after championing the rental tax cut this year, criticized cities and the League for fighting the repeal.

“Multiple mayors came to the Capitol armed with their special interest lobbying group to kill this bill, a lobbying group ironically, that is paid for by the citizens of those cities,” Kaiser said at the news conference. “They did not come to the Capitol to advocate for their citizens but instead for their coffers.”

Neither Petersen nor Hobbs spokesman Christian Slater would confirm a deal to sign the tax repeal in return for legislative action on the transportation tax.

But it was an open secret at the Capitol in recent days. And Toma’s confirmation made it official.

Kaiser said the mayors who came to lobby against the repeal failed to mention “they had surpluses in the millions of dollars.”

But Savage, the League lobbyist, said those cities are spending that money to pay for services that benefit renters. And he said the small cut from eliminating the rental tax will not provide meaningful relief for those residents.

“Instead, what it does is take away the critical revenue that we have to pay for all the services that we provide to the same renters,” he said. Cities will either have to cut services or raise their general sales tax to make up the difference.

If signed by the governor, cities will be forced to stop collecting rental taxes in January 2025.

The bill got final legislative approval on June 13 but Petersen sat on it despite a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling that says legislation must be transmitted to the governor promptly after passage.

Asked at the news conference about ignoring the high court, Petersen said “there’s been no controversy on that.”


Lawmakers winnow down sentencing bills


As the Legislature enters what are likely the waning weeks of the 2021 session, a few bills meant to make Arizona’s system of criminal sentencing more lenient have already been signed into law, while more ambitious measures have stalled. 

A bill that has been in the works for years to require a criminal conviction before police can seize someone’s property through civil asset forfeiture passed the Senate this week and awaits Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature or veto. And supporters of a proposal to expand the state’s earned release credit system still hope to pass it this year, albeit with some amendments to appease law enforcement officials and lawmakers who worry its terms are too generous. 

While Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, is still working on possible amendments to SB1064, the earned release credit expansion bill is expected to pass the House if a deal can be worked out – that same chamber easily passed an even more generous earned release credit bill earlier this year. The real question is whether it will pass in the Senate, which is where the previous bill stalled. 

J.D. Mesnard
J.D. Mesnard

“I think it will have a better chance, but I will be candid, I don’t know how really in the loop my Senate colleagues are,” Mesnard said. He said he plans to talk to other senators, including Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee and who didn’t schedule a hearing on the House bill. 

But while earned release credit expansion could still become law, a bill that would have created an independent corrections ombudsman won’t be moving forward, according to its sponsor. 

“Haven’t heard, and it looks like it’s probably dead,” said Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake. “And that’s unfortunate.” 

HB2167 passed the House 38-14 on March 1, and was assigned to Senate Judiciary, where it never got a hearing. Blackman blamed opposition from the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry for its demise. 

“DOC says there are too many issues with the bill, and that they are not prepared to execute the provisions in the bill, and it died,” Blackman said. 

Blackman, a longtime advocate for changes in criminal justice policy, chaired the new House Criminal Justice Reform Committee this year, advancing numerous bills with bipartisan support. What opposition there was usually came from a minority of other Republicans. However, some of the more-controversial bills stalled after passing the House, an outcome which has frustrated Caroline Isaacs, the program director of the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona. 

“I don’t think it’s about the particular bills. … it’s about the obstructionism and the kinds of ridiculous distractions that our state leaders are more engaged in,” Isaacs said. She said Arizona has fallen behind many other states, including some very conservative ones, when it comes to criminal justice reform. 

Caroline Isaacs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Caroline Isaacs

“This is not a radical concept, and so the kind of dialogue, ‘Oh, we’ve got to slow this down, and it’s too much, too soon,’ this is baloney,” Isaacs said. “If you look at states like Mississippi and South Carolina and Texas, this is old news. This is like a shrug. Why would you not do something that works better and saves money?” 

Grover Norquist, who is best known for his anti-tax activism but who has become a criminal justice reform advocate in recent years, made a similar point during aArizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop on Mesnard’s bill April 22. He noted that conservative states such as Texas passing legislation to reduce the number of people in prison can provide a model for Republicans in other states who might be leery of being seen as soft on crime. Norquist said criminal justice reform can be part of a conservative approach to government by reducing spending. 

“You can step forward comfortably if you’ve seen other states do something and nobody died and nobody lost an election and the world didn’t end,” he said. 

Mesnard’s bill would make earned release credits, which could be earned by taking part in programs such as drug treatment and some work and self-improvement programs, retroactive for drug offenders but not for others. Mesnard said there is “less consternation” about letting drug offenders get earned release credits retroactively, but “ultimately, the biggest issue is going to be outside of the drug side of the bill, the non-drug, non-violent offender side of the bill.” 

While Mesnard’s bill would only let them qualify for earned release credits prospectively, and at a slower rate than drug offenders. He said “some folks have a general discomfort with touching that population at all” and would rather stick to the current requirement that they serve 85% of their sentences. Mesnard said this requirement merely incentivizes not breaking prison rules, without giving them a reason to improve themselves. He said discussions include narrowing the scope of which non-violent offenders qualify for earned release credits. 

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who voted against Mesnard’s bill in committee, said he fears going back to the days of less consistent sentences that preceded the ‘80s and ‘90s, when most states enacted the tougher sentencing laws that are largely still in force today. 

John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh

I don’t think that this is really close to what I could support,” he said. “I have real concerns about any bill that would allow a sentence to be cut pretty much in half.” 

Another bill that appears to have stalled is HB2673, which would have let judges go below a statutory mandatory minimum sentence in some cases. It passed the House 50-9, but nothing has happened since it was assigned to Senate Judiciary in February. 

However, not every bill that hasn’t gotten a hearing is dead. House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said he expects his bill to let some felons get their records sealed, which passed the House with only one “nay” vote in February but hasn’t moved in the Senate, to be included in this year’s budget deal. The bill includes a $500,000 appropriation to set up the petition process. 

Ducey, who typically does not comment on bills until they reach his desk and he signs or vetoes them, has in the past been supportive of proposals to reduce recidivism but skeptical of other more far-reaching efforts to change the system. On April 26, Ducey vetoed SB1261, which would have expanded the use of justification as a defense against any criminal offense. 

“I appreciate the sponsor’s intent with this bill,” Ducey wrote in his veto message. “However, I have heard from several county attorneys that this bill could make the prosecution of DUIs nearly impossible. The safety of our highways and roads is of utmost importance, and I am concerned of the unintended consequences this bill may have.” 

However, Ducey has signed a few other bills that went through the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee, such as ones relaxing the state’s repetitive offender sentencing law; creating new data collection requirements for police use of force; prohibiting most state agencies from denying people occupational licenses based on drug convictions; letting some low-level felons have their charges recorded as misdemeanors; and ending the requirement that a driver’s license be suspended for nonpayment of a fine. Isaacs said she was pleased to see these “baby steps.” 

“These passed, the governor signed them, and lo and behold, the sky has not fallen and hopefully our elected officials will see that this is good policy and people support it and there are not negative consequences for supporting criminal justice reform,” Isaacs said. “In fact, it’s the opposite. This is what people want.” 

Legislative committees approve tax conformity bills


Defying both Democrats and their own Republican governor, GOP lawmakers voted Monday to cut income tax rates across the board to prevent what they believe would be a “windfall” to the state on the backs of Arizona residents.

On party lines, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to cut state income tax rates across the board by 0.11 percentage points. The net effect of HB 2522 would be to reduce state revenues this year by about $150 million.

Moments later the Senate Finance Committee gave its blessing to SB 1143 which does the same thing.

But Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said there really is no tax cut, as that $150 million simply offsets the additional dollars the state stands to gain because of changes in federal tax laws. And he lashed out at foes who chided Republicans for pushing what they say is a tax cut.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler)
Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler)

“How can a revenue neutral bill be a tax cut?” he asked, saying he is “simply pursuing revenue neutrality.”

The bills, which now go to the full House and Senate, come despite the fact that about 20,000 returns already have been filed with the Department of Revenue – returns that were filed using the higher tax rates that Gov. Doug Ducey presumed lawmakers would approve.

Grant Nulle, the agency’s deputy director, told lawmakers if they adopted their plan, and not the one the governor wants, he figured it would take about four weeks to make all the changes in the forms and the department’s computers. That means any returns already filed and those that people are turning in now – about two-thirds of Arizonans anticipate refunds – will be incorrect.

Nulle said, though, that if the bills become law his agency could recompute what each taxpayer owes and send out correction notices.

That assumes either bill will become law.

Monday’s votes came over the objections of Ducey who has proposed that any additional dollars be put into the “rainy-day” fund, a savings account that can be tapped during economic downturns when tax revenues don’t keep pace with expenses.

The measures also are opposed by Democrats who said that the state should keep the excess money that would flow to the state because of changes in federal tax laws. They cited needs ranging from education to road funding.

More to the point, they said that while the cut in tax rates would be across the board, the real beneficiaries are those are the top of the income scale, the people who already are going to get benefits from the changes in federal tax law signed in late 2017 by President Trump.

Andres Cano
Andres Cano

First-term Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, said that as a teen he slept on his mother’s couch because his single mother’s income was insufficient to afford more.

“The irony of the bill in front of us is not even my single mom of 10 years ago or the hardworking Arizonan that she is today would stand to benefit from this legislation,” he said, figuring that the dollars paid by people at the bottom of the pay scale saved with a 0.11 percentage point reduction are minimal. By contrast, Cano said, those near the top would see big-dollar reductions in what they owe the state.

“Instead of giving a tax break to mom, this bill puts more money into the hands of millionaires and billionaires who don’t have to worry about where or how their child is sleeping, what they’re eating, or how they’ll pay this month’s bills,” he said.

Arizona generally allows state residents to take the same deductions allowed by federal law. But the new federal law trimmed some of these.

If Arizona follows suit – the course urged by the governor – Arizonans would pay about $57 million more because of new limits on deductions of what is paid in state and local taxes. Another would add another $47 million because of limits on what can be deducted on interest on new mortgages above $750,000 for joint filers.

All totaled, lawmakers estimate the additional revenues would hit at least $150 million.

The proposals by Mesnard and Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, to cut rates by 0.11 percent across the board would reduce overall tax collections by that much. That’s the money Ducey and the Democrats want to keep.

Toma said that would be wrong.

“That windfall, if you want to call it that, was intended for taxpayers’ pockets, not for the state to essentially get lucky by simply conforming and increasing taxes,” he said.

David Wells, research director of the Grand Canyon Institute, said while the cut in tax rates is across the board, the bills do not provide the same level of relief.

Wells said that the top 1 percent of Arizonans – those with incomes above $800,000 a year – will save $30,000 a year because of the changes in the federal tax code. He said full conformity, without a state tax cut, would, increase their state tax liability by about $3,000.

“So they still come out way ahead overall,” Wells said.

By contrast, he said, those at the median household income level of about $61,000 a year will pay just $36 more with full conformity. And Wells said those near the bottom would not be affected at all by full conformity with federal law and the state keeping the windfall because they’re the ones most likely to take the standard deduction and be unaffected by changes in what can be itemized.

“The people in the million-dollar homes, they’re already going to get a huge benefit from the Trump tax plan, the federal income tax,” said Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson. “I’m concerned about the people living in the trailer parks.”

But Mesnard questioned the assumption that only the rich are hit when deductions are eliminated. He cited limits on deductions for interest on new home equity loans.

“Many people consolidate their debt, whether it’s credit card debt, their car, whatever, into a better interest rate they would get on their home,” he said. “And now they’re losing the tax break.”

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said there’s a good reason for the state to keep the extra dollars.

She said while the federal taxes are being cut, so is the amount of money Washington is providing to states.

That includes the KidsCare program which provides low-cost health insurance for the children of the working poor, with the full federal subsidy going away in September. Epstein said the extra dollars could be used to help underwrite the additional state costs.

As it turns out, Ducey wants the state to pick up that shortfall. But he is not relying on the conformity dollars, saying there’s enough coming in from other sources.

The bills are being rushed because Monday was the first day the state Department of Revenue began processing income tax returns. And the department has prepared the tax forms and instructions under the premise that the state would fully conform and keep all the extra revenues, with no cut in the tax rate.

In fact, Nulle, the agency’s deputy director, told lawmakers that the department already has received about 18,000 tax returns filed electronically, with officials estimating another 1,400 returns have been filed on paper.

And while about 80 percent of individual tax returns are e-filed, the the agency is in the final stages of printing out about 35,000 tax booklets, including all the forms. Spokesman Ed Greenberg said that cost normally runs in the $25,000 to $35,000 range.

Legislature 2020: How to spend surplus of money

Winged Victory atop the Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Winged Victory atop the Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

State lawmakers return to the Capitol Monday to deal with something they appear to have plenty: Money and who gets it.

State tax collections have been running ahead of projections made when lawmakers adopted the $11.8 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1. Projections suggest the state could end the fiscal year this coming June 30 with an extra $750 million or more, perhaps even approaching $1 billion.

That’s money available for lawmakers to spend next budget year — or to permanently cut taxes as some are proposing. And that doesn’t even take into account future collections.

Any discussion will have to include more than how much there is. The more important issue is how much of that surplus is likely to recur in future years.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the issue is simple: Don’t commit money now for projects and programs unless you’re sure the money will continue to be there.

J.D. Mesnard
J.D. Mesnard

“Last I had heard, 30-ish percent, maybe 25 percent of the surplus is considered ongoing,” said Mesnard who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. “So we want to make sure that’s the pot that we’re commiting ourselves into the future or to cut taxes in some sort of permanent way.”

The balance, he said, is one-time money.

“We can invest that in roads and one-time projects that are hugely helpful to our state but don’t commit us to some long-term obligation,” Mesnard said.

‘Sweet spot’

That latter category is going to cover a lot of wish-list projects.

Consider, for example, the $20 million that Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, wants for a bridge over Tonto Creek if a request for federal dollars comes up empty. Fund it once and it’s done

Others have their own pet projects.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, wants the state to widen Interstate 10 from south of Phoenix into Pinal County. Shope said there is no reason for that 26-mile section to remain two lanes in each direction when everything on either side is three lanes.

But the price tag on that could reach $500 million.

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, is focused largely on the other pot of funds, the surplus that is likely to continue.

There likely will be a push to put additional dollars into K-12 education.

“We are committed to putting more dollars into the classroom every year,” gubernatorial press aide Patrick Ptak told Capitol Media Services, promising “full details” when Ducey releases his budget later this week.

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

Toma, for his part, has a specific target in mind: accelerate restoration of what’s called “district additional assistance.”

That is a special allocation of state dollars to schools to pay for things like computers, books and buses. Only thing is, lawmakers seeking to balance the budget failed to fund it for years, including $117 million cut by Ducey his first year in office.

The governor has committed to restoration of the full $372 million — but not until the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Toma said that, given the state’s current financial condition, there’s no reason to wait that long.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said that’s a start. But she doesn’t believe that goes far enough given the cuts to public education since before the recession.

Consider: In the 2007-2008 school year the state put $5.2 billion into K-12 education. Legislative budget staffers estimate the figure for this year at $6.5 billion.

And, on paper, the per-pupil aid went from $4,996 to $5,762.

But if you consider the effects of inflation, that $4,996 is now worth only about $4,685.

It’s not just Democrats focused on K-12 needs.

Sens. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, and Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, wants to put a measure on the 2020 ballot to increase the existing 0.6-cent state sales tax for education to a full penny, a move that could bring in an additional $550 million to $600 million a year.

Kate Brophy-McGee
Kate Brophy-McGee

“I think that’s the sweet spot,” Brophy McGee said, saying that’s a number that the public is likely willing to accept. The trick, however, is getting her colleagues to agree to put it to voters.

The funds raised would not just be for K-12.

Higher Education

Lawmakers from both parties say state aid to community colleges has not kept pace. In fact, the systems in Maricopa and Pima counties get no state aid at all, though there has been funding for special programs.

And then there is the university system where the state’s share of the cost of tuition for Arizona residents has dropped from about 75 percent to just half that.

“And we wonder why tuition has gone up,” Fernandez said.

Voters actually may get a choice of funding measures.

Others groups are crafting a plan to boost income taxes on the most wealthy under the premise that sales taxes are regressive — the poor pay a higher percentage of their income than the rich — and the simple political fact that it could be crafted so the higher tax rates kick in only at higher incomes, leaving most voters unaffected.

There are some other education-related issues which may not have financial impact, including adding even more cash for counselors and providing more dollars to the state Department of Education to investigate misconduct allegations against teachers.

But the debate about the cash is about more than how to spend it.

Tax Cuts

Toma said that a newly imposed sales tax on internet purchases — the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case called South Dakota v. Wayfair – is bringing in more than anticipated. So he wants to give some of that back.

“We should be looking at additional relief for the taxpayers because none of the Wayfair decision was intended as a massive increase in income to the government, at least not on the state tax,” he said.

His choice for where to cut?

“I will tell you that my least favorite tax is the property tax,” Toma said.

“And the reason for that is I really feel that’s a hidden tax, that people don’t feel,” he explained. “They feel it, but they don’t really realize that they’re getting pummeled, if you will.”

Mesnard is also focused on lower property taxes, particularly for business.

Business property used to be assess for tax purposes at 25 percent of “full cash value,” essentially a rough approximation of market value. Prior tax cuts have taken that to 18 percent.

The plan would trim that again.

But the problem is that lowering taxes for one type of property increases the burden for others — including homeowners. And that has political

In this Jan. 8 2020, photo, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez answers questions in her office. (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)
In this Jan. 8 2020, photo, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez answers questions in her office. (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

implications: homeowners vote, businesses do not.

Mesnard envisions the state using some of its surplus to make up the difference so the tax bill on homeowners does not go up.

That maneuver, coupled with other changes in the Mesnard plan, could trim state revenues by $300 million a year by the time it is fully implemented.

Fernandez said don’t look for Democrat support.

“A tax cut? That’s not one of the things that’s on the table for us,” she said.

Fernandez said lawmakers cut taxes by about $325 million last year with changes to things like the standard deduction on income taxes, a new tax credit of $100 per child and lowering the tax rates for those earning more than $26,500 a year.

Republicans justified the move as simply making up for the fact that changes in federal tax law increased the state tax liability for many Arizonans. The tax cuts, they said, avoided a “windfall” for the state.

Fernandez said her constituents and “stakeholders” – those who provide and depend on government programs – had a different take.

“That last tax cut, I think it equaled $12 per person per year,” she said.

“They would rather have a significant investment they could see,” Fernandez continued. “And that would be in public education and/or infrastructure.”

Legislature on track to adjourn May 1

Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The Arizona Legislature will likely end its session next week, killing hundreds of outstanding bills and giving lawmakers several months to hunker down and prepare to come back in the summer — by which time a clearer picture will emerge of the state’s financial and physical health. 

Legislative leaders in the House and Senate have agreed to convene and shortly thereafter adjourn sine die on May 1, a day after the governor’s executive order advising Arizonans to stay home expires.

But that only happens if House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann can quell opposition from rank-and-file Republicans who don’t like the idea of leaving this session’s work in the dust. 

Mark Finchem
Mark Finchem

“We were elected to do a job, and we’ve done half the job,” said Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley.

State budget analysts warned lawmakers that they’d likely not have enough data to determine how best to help the state overcome a massive cash deficit until June, discouraging any budget legislation until then. At that point, it’s likely the Legislature will convene in a special session focused on cleaning up the aftermath of COVID-19. 

“Most of the issues we have in front of us now are budget and fiscal related,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who serves in House leadership. “If we don’t have the answers we need until the first of June, there’s no reason for us to be there any longer.” 

House spokesman Andrew Wilder told the Capitol Times the House only needs a simple majority to have the quorum necessary to reconvene — so not every lawmaker will need to be physically present.

Legal staff in the Senate previously told Fann that the two chambers need minimums of 16 and 31 people physically to mark themselves present, though nothing requires that quorum of senators or representatives to remain for the whole floor session. 

Democrats are on board with the plan, said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez. 

“It’s an excellent idea, I think we need to all continue to do what we’re doing…we’re flattening the curve by staying close to home,” said Fernandez, a Democrat from Yuma. She said lawmakers will have a more accurate picture of the state’s finances by the summer, at which time they can consider passing further aid packages.

Another Democrat, Rep. Diego Rodriguez of Phoenix, said he knows of no plans from his caucus to complicate the adjournment motion. 

Charlene Fernandez
Charlene Fernandez

But the same can’t be said for the majority party in either chamber. Some Republicans may take issue with killing their own bills. Others simply want to get back to work, part of a broader sentiment among conservatives that Arizona should return to the halcyon days before COVID-19 as soon as possible. 

“I wasn’t elected to go wander off and not do what the taxpayer’s asked me to do,” Finchem said. 

He said if leadership is dead-set on adjourning, he’d support a plan to pass remaining legislation that has no fiscal impact before calling the motion. And he said others in the caucus feel the same. 

But, he conceded, the fact that “this is already in the wind” likely means opposition even from multiple Republicans is not enough to force House leadership to change course. 

And frankly, there may be no other course to take, said Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria.

“Some may be unhappy about it but I think it’s our only option at this point,” he said. “A special session will probably be needed sometime after.”

For Democrats, the decision to adjourn carries with it the added benefit of effectively killing hundreds of bills that have sat dormant since the Legislature suspended the session on March 23. This means that hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts — as well as proposals to prevent transgender girls from competing in high school sports, to limit citizens’ initiatives and others — are off the table until next session, by which time the party dynamics in the House may very well be reversed. 

A rapid adjournment also would kill a legislative effort that would allow county treasurers to extend the payment deadline for property taxes — a request from Maricopa County Treasurer Royce Flora, who has said that such a move could provide relief to homeowners who find themselves unable to pay their taxes in time due to COVID-19.

When lawmakers return in an anticipated special session, they should have a better picture of what the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has done to state finances. Legislative budget analysts and economists who met in mid-April urged lawmakers not to make any hasty moves as it will take until June to fully see what the sudden shutdown of the state’s economy did to revenues.

Already, analysts predict a $1.1 billion shortfall — plus or minus $500 million — by June 2021. But the extent of that deficit depends largely on how quickly the economy recovers and what additional federal aid the state receives. Policymakers won’t know exactly how much federal money is up for grabs until later in the year. 

Michelle Ugenti-Rita
Michelle Ugenti-Rita

A federal and state decision to delay income tax payment due dates to July 15, as well as a month’s delay in reporting sales tax revenue that means analysts won’t know what the shutdown did to revenue until April figures are available in early June, further complicate a murky economic picture. 

What’s obvious is that the state must fight an uphill battle. An April 20 report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee found that the state lost 7,400 non-farm jobs in March, after adding an average of 10,700 jobs each March for the past decade. Income tax revenues, airport volume and other key economic indicators are all flashing red. 

But with a lack of clarity over just what the state’s financial situation will look like over the next few months, there was no reason to continue in a legislative limbo, Fann said. 

“From a budget standpoint, there was nothing we could do in 60 to 90 days,” she said. 

Fann faced resistance from several Republican senators when she sent them a group text asking if anyone had any objections to adjourning sine die on May 1. And she spent the afternoon on the phone with concerned senators trying to answer their questions. 

“I’ve got some that are disappointed,” she said. “Their bills are dying, and some of the lobbyists are not happy about that.” 

Responses were all over the place, said Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale. He said some senators are pushing to reopen the session in full right away, some are asking for “easy” bills to pass before adjourning and some requesting a special session in the fall. One such bill could be the property tax extension, he said — though the definition of “easy” is highly subjective at the Legislature. 

“There will be 90 opinions on what the easy bills are. If we can come to some sort of agreement, we should,” he said. “I would have preferred to sine die yesterday.” 

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, was among the skeptics. She said she has yet to hear a “credible reason” from GOP leaders as to why lawmakers should adjourn sine die, rather than continuing to hear bills, or an explanation as to what will happen with all of the legislation that now appears dead.

Legislative leaders and the governor’s office need to provide rank-and-file lawmakers with a clearer picture of what the next several months will look like, and what special sessions might address, before ending the session with hundreds of bills outstanding, Ugenti-Rita said. 

“If it’s OK to get the Arizona economy back up and running, I don’t see why it’s not OK to get the Legislature up and running,” she said.

Legislature punts again on housing fixes, slashing cities’ endless red tape

Two years ago, the Arizona Department of Housing issued an analysis that highlighted the extreme seriousness of our state’s housing supply crisis. According to ADOH, the state must build 270,000 new homes and apartments to meet current demand. With more than 100,000 new residents moving to Arizona each year, that shortfall will likely continue to grow.

Since then, the state Legislature has convened twice. Last session and in 2023, there have been months of bipartisan conversations about how to solve this crisis and how to grow the housing supply to better meet demand – a growth that would surely decrease housing costs for individuals and families.

Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus

Here at the Arizona Multihousing Association, which represents thousands of property owners and managers, we have worked hard to unite a diverse set of stakeholders around common-sense solutions for this crisis. This session, months of negotiation over multiple housing supply solutions – proposals that offered “must haves” for both sides – eventually dwindled down to three bills.

SB1161 and SB1163, sponsored by Sen. Steve Kaiser, were the first to lose momentum at the hands of cities, towns and their lobbyists. SB1161 required municipalities to assess their housing needs every five years. The bill also helped Arizonans in need of low-income affordable housing. SB1163 sought to speed up the development process and allow more homes per acre. Cities and towns played “Goldilocks” with these measures for months, until the bills were so watered down, they failed.

That left HB 2536, a slim downed proposal which would have legalized “missing middle” housing options and eliminated aesthetic design requirements.

That measure fell short in the state Senate on June 12, which effectively killed any chance at solving the housing supply crisis in 2023. After the last session’s attempts at reform ended in the creation of a bipartisan Housing Supply Study Committee – which held more than a dozen sessions around the state and heard from 70 stakeholders in 2022 – this year’s failure to fix housing is more than disappointing. It marks yet another missed opportunity to fix an issue that is top of mind for voters of all parties or no party, and that needs to be fixed to keep the state economy humming, impact Arizona’s growing struggle with homelessness and bring down housing costs.

Instead, lawmakers settled for the status quo, which leaves Arizona residents no better off than they were two sessions ago – and leaves the housing supply crisis getting worse with each passing day.

The study committee and the conversations around the Capitol over the past two years have focused on the obstructionist role played by cities and towns when it comes to building more homes. Stakeholders far and wide agree that “zoning,” as the study committee’s final report explains it, “is the primary barrier to addressing the housing shortage. This was the most consistent theme for the majority of presenters (non-profits, builders, developers, business leaders). Zoning reform is a bipartisan issue.”

Over the past two sessions, elected Republicans and Democrats in both legislative houses have voted affirmatively on necessary zoning reforms and measures to streamline housing regulations. They have voted “yes” in committee hearings and on the floor, though not yet in sufficient numbers at the right time to solve this looming issue. While cities and towns, their lobbyists and some elected Mayors continue to stomp their feet and fight against change to protect their own special interests at the expense of residents, the appetite for change is clear. That’s due in large part to the commitment of lawmakers from both parties to expand Arizona’s ability to grow its housing supply.

Speaker of the House Ben Toma is one such leader. In April, HB 2547, which Republican Toma sponsored, was signed into law by Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat. This new law requires cities and towns to consider a housing impact statement – including the cost impact on building or renting homes – before adopting or amending any ordinance related to zoning. Toma’s bill represents the sum of meaningful legislation related to housing passed in the last two sessions.

Finally, Sen. Kaiser showed his leadership skills virtually every day over the past two years on this issue, aggravating the far right and the far left by trying to solve what ails Arizona’s housing marketplace. With Kaiser resigning from the Legislature to put his family first – after two years spent putting struggling Arizona families first on the subject of housing – it remains to be seen who will step up to lead when it comes to slashing red tape and fighting municipalities’ and NIMBY neighbors’ bias against new apartment construction.

The desire for change is there. So, too, is the willingness to vote yes and solve this problem. We need action now, before that 270,000 home deficit grows even larger, and the cost of housing – driven by the law of supply and demand – spirals ever higher.

Courtney Gilstrap LeVinus is president and CEO of Arizona Multihousing Association

Legislature to tackle income tax conformity


Bucking the wishes of Gov. Doug Ducey, two Republicans lawmakers are pushing plans to ensure that Arizona tax collections don’t increase because of changes to the federal tax code.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Rep. Ben Toma each sponsored identical bills in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively, with hopes of fast-tracking one of two plans. If they succeed, that would put the onus on Ducey to either a sign a bill designed to give a tax break to Arizonans, or veto it and push through his proposal to conform Arizona’s tax code to the federal changes in a way that would increase state revenue.

Mesnard and Toma’s first plan would conform to the sweeping changes to the federal tax code signed by President Trump in December 2017. It would then reduce tax rates for all income brackets by 0.11 percentage points.

That would reduce state tax collections by $150 million, according to Mesnard, R-Chandler, matching the amount that state budget analysts say would otherwise increase due to conformity.

Estimates of tax conformity vary wildly, with some as high as $230 million. Mesnard said he and Toma, a Peoria Republican, settled on $150 million as their best guess. It’s better to try and do something, rather than do nothing and let Arizona taxpayers take a hit, Mesnard said.

“I’m not trying to overshoot the mark. I’m not trying to get a tax cut out of this. I’m just trying to achieve revenue neutrality,” Mesnard told the Arizona Capitol Times.

The matching bills, SB 1143 and HB 2522, will be heard in emergency Senate and House hearings on Monday morning.

If the legislation fails, Mesnard and Toma have a second option – “partial conformity,” which would mean resetting most of the Arizona tax code to go along with the federal code but also “decoupling” certain aspects. They include a state and local tax deduction, a mortgage interest deduction and four other miscellaneous measures, Mesnard said.

Arizona would maintain the status quo in those six areas, which would mean higher taxes for some Arizonans. Those higher taxes would then be offset by savings for others, theoretically leaving the state with no additional revenue from tax conformity.

Mesnard’s version of that plan, SB1166, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, while Toma’s version has not been introduced as of Wednesday afternoon.

The plans are mutually exclusive. Mesnard said he’d be happy with either proposal getting approved, so long as lawmakers protect taxpayers in some way.

Both plans would only affect filings for the 2018 tax year, leaving legislators to debate a permanent solution for future years. It’s critical for the Legislature to act now, as Arizonans are preparing to file their taxes. The Department of Revenue is scheduled to make tax forms available to residents by Jan. 28, the lawmakers announced in a news release.

“With tax season right around the corner, taxpayers need answers on how to go about filing their taxes,” Toma said in the news release. “We need to act quickly in a way that keeps our tax code simple and avoids taking any more of the money that Arizonans have earned.”

No deal on tax conformity as deadline to file tax returns looms


With two weeks until the deadline for Arizonans to file individual income tax returns, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey have yet to strike a deal that will finalize the state’s tax laws for 2018.

Ducey has been at odds with Republican legislators for months over how to adjust Arizona’s tax code to changes made at the federal level. The governor favors collecting extra cash from taxpayers by conforming to federal changes that eliminated certain deductions as part of President Trump’s tax overhaul in 2017, and pocketing the new revenues in the state’s rainy-day fund.

GOP lawmakers tried in January to offset estimates of higher tax collections, but were rebuffed by Ducey’s veto.

With the pending April 15 tax filing deadline, lawmakers are now trying to negotiate a compromise with the governor that may mean higher taxes for some Arizonans this year, but the promise of a tax break down the line.

Rep. Ben Toma and Sen. J.D. Mesnard told the Arizona Capitol Times that deals being discussed with the governor’s office are designed to ensure that Arizona taxpayers don’t have to submit amended filings later this year.

The Department of Revenue issued guidance to taxpayers in January assuming the Legislature would conform to some, but not all, changes in federal tax code, just as Ducey wants. Diverting from that guidance could be disastrous for some of the 1.8 million Arizona taxpayers who’ve already filed individual income tax returns.

Hundreds of thousands more may still be filed in the next two weeks – according to the Department of Revenue, more than 3 million individual income tax returns were filed a year go. Altering the tax code at this late stage would force some taxpayers to file amended returns.

“I don’t think anyone has an appetite for the necessity of millions of amended returns,” said Toma, R-Peoria.

Mesnard, R-Chandler, said at this late stage in the year, it’s the Legislature’s goal to ensure that conformity occurs in the least disruptive way possible. That would require lawmakers to approve changes to the 2018 tax code that adhere to Ducey’s wishes, and would mean higher tax bills for some Arizonans.

In the short term, that may be a tough pill to swallow. But Mesnard said he’s OK with that, so long as taxpayers are “equal or better off than they were,” even if that means waiting to provide tax relief until 2020.

“There’s no doubt that time has been working against us. In some ways, I guess it’s been working against the governor just as much,” Mesnard said. “It requires the legislature and the governor to act on whatever we have planned.

Panel recommends less prison time for low-level offenders

Justice word engraved on the pediment of the courthouse

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to give people serving time for low-level felonies the opportunity to reduce their sentences by up to 60 percent, but selling the rest of their colleagues on the idea could be tough.

Allowing people convicted of  Class 4, 5, or 6 felonies to earn three days off for every five served was one of several recommendations unanimously adopted Monday by an interim legislative committee led by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, to look at revamping  sentencing.  

Blackman, who introduced similar legislation in the 2019 session but was unable to pass it, has spent the summer and fall leading discussions about systemic changes to the justice system. He told his colleagues they’ll have to take “bold steps” to revamp criminal justice. 

“It’s going to require guts,” he said. “It’s going to require leaning forward. And I hope that we can do that.” 

Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman

Many of the committee’s recommendations centered around ways to let current or future prisoners earn time off their sentences. Arizona law now allows well-behaved prisoners to earn one day off for every six days served. 

A law passed earlier this year will allow some nonviolent drug offenders to earn three days off for every seven served if they complete drug treatment programs, though the Arizona Department of Corrections does not employ enough counselors or officers to make that treatment available to everyone who qualifies.

Blackman’s committee recommended extending the ability to earn time off sentences to inmates convicted of non-drug offenses, including crimes such as petty theft and fleeing from law enforcement. Class 4, 5 and 6 felonies typically have prison sentences ranging from 1 year to 2.5 years behind bars. 

The committee recommended providing additional funding for educational and treatment programs in prisons and removing a statutory requirement that prisoners be able to read and write at an eighth-grade level to qualify for early release. 

It also  recommended establishing a citizen oversight board for the Department of Corrections and prohibiting prosecutors from using prior drug offenses to enhance sentences for someone subsequently convicted of a non-drug offense. Repeat offenders face harsher sentences, and critics say prosecutors often use long-ago offenses to bring tougher charges and force plea deals. 

Rep. Ben Toma, a committee member who tried to limit how prosecutors charge prior sentences with a bill vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey this spring, said he sees the committee’s work as trying to find a balance between the stick of punishment and the carrot of incentives for rehabilitation. 

“We’re pretty good on the punishment side, perhaps a little too good,” said Toma, R-Peoria. “We really do lack incentives. We should provide every incentive, every opportunity to do the time, if that’s what the punishment is, but to take that time to regroup and become a fruitful member of society.”

Other recommendations nod to requests from conservative committee members that the state gather data to determine whether it’s taking appropriate steps to reduce incarceration rates. Committee members recommended creating a publicly accessible statewide database of prison demographics and sentencing information, and requiring local and state-level criminal justice agencies to report data on charging and sentencing to the governor, House and Senate.

Rep.  Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he thought it would be irresponsible to move forward with changes if the data isn’t there to back them up. Roberts, a former detention officer, said he believes more work needs to be done to address mental health and substance abuse issues that continue to lead people to prison. 

“We beat up on the punitive side of our system,” he said. “My realization is that the punitive side of our system is important, and it needs to be there, but it’s just a piece of the system. The problem is our law enforcement keeps arresting the same people over and over again.”

Reginald Bolding
Reginald Bolding

Democrats on the committee, including Laveen Rep. Reginald Bolding, dismissed calls for more data collection. Arizona’s incarceration rate grew between 2000 and 2016 while the national rate dropped, and that alone shows that something is broken, Bolding said. 

“We’ve seen reports. We’ve seen studies. We’ve seen data. I truly believe that we have the information we need,” he said. 

Instead of more data, Bolding said, lawmakers need courage to pass true reforms to the criminal justice system. Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, implored onlookers who filled a House hearing room to hold their lawmakers accountable to passing the legislation hashed out in the fall’s committee hearings. 

He warned that the Legislature has “gatekeepers” who have not allowed hearings for criminal justice bills in previous sessions and may refuse in 2020 as well. 

“I think we all have a clear mandate that change needs to take place in our criminal justice system at many levels,” Rodriguez said. “The message from our constituents is very clear. Things must change.”

Petersen praises Hobbs for budget negotiations

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs took major heat from many Democrats for negotiating a state budget package with Republican legislative leaders that did not include any changes to the state’s new universal school voucher program.

But Republican Senate President Warren Petersen is heaping praise on Hobbs for the deal, saying she negotiated in good faith, kept her promises and made a rare bipartisan budget happen. And he pointed out that despite Democrats’ anger over school vouchers, “that wasn’t going to get on her desk” because majority Republicans would never vote to curtail the program.

“Kudos to her,” Petersen said about the governor’s direct negotiations with him and House Speaker Ben Toma, which unfolded with direct meetings multiple times a week over two months.

“She was reasonable,” he said.

Hobbs, Lake, election contest, court
Gov. Katie Hobbs (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

“And she would keep her word,” Petersen said. “”Whenever she would say ‘I agree to that,’ she did it.”

The deal on the $17.8 billion state budget package for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 came much earlier than many observers expected. Hobbs is the first Democratic governor since Janet Napolitano left office for a Cabinet post in the Obama Administration in 2009, a shock for Republican lawmakers who have had 14 years of working with a GOP governor.

Petersen sat down with Capitol Media Services this past week for a wide-ranging interview as the yearly legislative session takes a virtually unprecedented one-month break called by Petersen and Toma. With the budget done and the only bills remaining needing major work before votes, they called a break in floor sessions to work on those issues.

“We literally have put everything up there that was ready,” for a vote, he said. “And now I’m not going to make people come down here if I don’t have any floor work to do.”

Happy People

budget, lawmakers, House, Senate, continuation budget,

He said he was the one who came up with the plan that doled out chunks of a big budget surplus to each of the 47 Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate. Minority Democrats got smaller amounts, and Hobbs also got a big chunk to control.

What that earned was individual buy-in from GOP lawmakers who for the first time had ownership of a slice of the budget, Petersen said. That’s a huge difference from the way the budget has normally been done, with Republican leaders hammering out a deal with the governor and then presenting it to rank and file GOP lawmakers as a done deal.

“It came from the difference between communism and capitalism and the way things normally go and why we always have problems,” Petersen said of his strategy.

“You normally have six people down here deciding how … all the money gets spent,” he said. “And then those six people try to convince everybody else to vote for the budget.”

Giving each lawmaker a portion of the budget — $20 million each for GOP House members, $30 million for each GOP senator – gave them control they did not have previously.

“This time when we passed the budget everyone was actually smiling and happy,” he said. “It was like literally the first time I’ve been down here where people were happy.”

Normally, he said, people are angry, having had to get “wrangled into it.”

“Everyone went in ready to vote for this budget. Why? Because I gave them all a piece of the budget. Everybody got their own piece, and they owned it,” Petersen continued.

Even many Democrats voted for the plan, although many grumbled about how it was presented to them. Petersen blamed Democratic leaders for not adopting his formula with their members and delaying giving him their budget “asks.”

Proposition 400

In this Jan. 24, 2020 file photo, early rush hour traffic rolls along I-10 in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

After the budget passed and was signed on May 12, what’s left is a series of top-tier proposals that currently don’t have consensus among Republican lawmakers, with the governor having the final word.

The biggest issue is the extension of a half-cent sales tax in Maricopa County which pays for transportation projects.

The 20-year, multi-billion-dollar tax expires in 2025 unless voters extend it. But the Legislature has to give its permission for the issue to be put on the ballot; it’s the only county that requires that step to ask voters to approve a transportation tax.

Last year, lawmakers passed the tax extension proposal but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Doug Ducey. With an even more conservative Republican caucus this session, it faces tough scrutiny.

Petersen said he and others have major problems with the proposal presented by the Maricopa Association of Governments, the entity that doles out the money for freeways, major roadways, buses and light rail and clean air programs.

And Petersen has little faith in the agency.

“MAG is completely unaccountable,” he said. “They’re very, very insulated.”

He said that, on paper, the agency led by mayors who are supposed to have some oversight.

“But not really,” he said. “These mayors are overwhelmed, busy.”

Petersen said the plan’s use of 44% of the funds for mass transit — versus new highways and road construction — is a non-starter. And he said it creates what he called a $2 billion “slush fund” that he worries would be used to extend light rail despite promises that’s not contemplated.

And then there’s the part that says air quality is a consideration in what to fund.

“If they’re just saying, we can use any measures we want, they need to define what air quality programs they want to do,” he said.

Without definitions, Petersen said MAG could potentially impose limits on gasoline-powered cars or adopt cap and trade programs or who knows what. If they want flexibility for future technologies, he said a mechanism for legislative oversight should be added.

“Believe it or not conservatives want clean air,” Petersen said, including for themselves and their children.

“But they need to define what it is,” he said. “And yeah, if it’s reasonable, we put that in.”

Petersen had just left a meeting with Hobbs when he sat for the interview in his office, and said it sounds like she may want to be directly involved in the negotiations over Proposition 400, the tax extension.

Miscellaneous Issues

affordable housing, multifamily homes, tents, downtown, homeless, zoning

Other remaining issues include a revamped proposal to ban city-imposed taxes on home rentals. Hobbs vetoed that bill earlier this session, saying there was no mechanism ensuring renters facing rising housing costs will see the money. She also opposed the $270 million appropriation to compensate cities for the lost revenue for the first 18 months of the ban, saying it came outside the budget plan.

Toma said recently that tying a signing of a rental tax ban and Proposition 400 in negotiations with the governor was a possibility. Petersen, however, said he’s not doing that.

“I don’t horse trade,” he said.

The other key battle remaining is a Republican proposal to override many city zoning laws to boost construction of lower-priced housing options.

That measure has failed once this year. And new versions pushed by Sen. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, don’t yet have the votes to pass and the powerful League of Arizona Cities and Towns is strongly opposed, calling zoning a quintessentially local issue.

Petersen said he does not know if that will get enough support to pass, and if it does not, that’s OK.

“If he doesn’t have the votes, he doesn’t have the votes,” Petersen said. “It’s really that simple.”

Another handful of bills are also in the mix before lawmakers can adjourn for the year.

“We probably have at least 10 bills that are that have loose ends on them that are really important for Arizona,” he said. “And we’re looking at if we can negotiate what to do with those by June 12, and the rental tax is one of them.”

Petersen, who became Senate President in January after a decade representing Gilbert in the House and Senate, said the unusual long break in legislative action is by design.

He recalled frustration after years of coming in to work, saying the daily Pledge of Allegiance and prayer at the beginning of floor sessions and then adjourning for the day because nothing was ready for votes.

“And so I’ve just told my caucus, and they’ve appreciated this ・ that I don’t just bring people down here to pledge and pray,” he said. “We’re not taking a month off, OK. We just don’t have floor work.”

Petersen threatens lawsuit if state elections manual not revised

The top Senate Republican in Arizona is threatening litigation against Secretary of State Adrian Fontes over a proposed elections manual.  

Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, issued a warning to Fontes in a Monday news release following the public release of the 2023 Elections Procedures Manual draft.  

The secretary of state must produce an Elections Procedures Manual every odd year before a general election. The document is intended to provide legal guidance to election administrators across the state for how to run elections.  

Sen. Warren Petersen

The last time Arizona had a legal elections manual was in 2019. Former Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich sued then- Secretary of State Katie Hobbs over her 2021 manual but Yavapai County Superior Court Judge John Napper tossed Brnovich’s lawsuit and said Hobbs “properly exercised her discretion” in drafting the manual.  

Napper placed responsibility on Brnovich after the state didn’t have enough time to implement the 2021 manual and said Brnovich failed to negotiate with Hobbs or explain how the manual was unlawful.  

Petersen and Speaker of the House Ben Toma, R-Peoria, sent a letter to Fontes outlining why they believe the 2023 draft manual is unlawful on Monday, a day before the draft’s two-week public comment period ended.  

One of Petersen’s and Toma’s primary concerns was the manual failing to instruct county recorders to remove voters registered on the active early voter list who have not cast a ballot during two consecutive election cycles. A law was signed in 2021 that requires this practice. 

“Our current Secretary of State has a history of distorting our elections laws and pushing the envelope on questionable procedures,” Petersen said in the news release. “My hope is that he will update the EPM with our corrections before submitting to the Attorney General and Governor for approval. Failure to do so will result in legal action.” 

Toma, House, Senate, Prop 211, court filing, dark money
House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria

Fontes must submit his draft to the other executive officials of the state by Oct. 1. The deadline for approval following the draft submission is Dec. 31.  

Republicans already had expressed frustration over the two-week public comment period for the draft manual. Reps. Michael Carbone, R- Buckeye, and Steve Montenegro, R-Goodyear asked Fontes to extend the deadline to Sept. 1 and said two weeks wasn’t an adequate amount of time to review the 259-page document. 

Carbone and Montenegro also sent a letter to Fontes on Tuesday expressing their disappointment in his denial of their request with their comments on the manual. They also asked Fontes to publish all comments about the manual on the secretary of state website.  

“We understand that you are not responsible for the errors of your predecessor. And we appreciate the work you have done so far to produce the draft 2023 EPM. Nonetheless, we firmly believe that because we all find ourselves in this unprecedented and preventable situation, we owe it to our constituents to provide them with as much transparency and participation as possible in this process,” Carbone and Montenegro wrote.  

Paul Smith-Leonard, a spokesman for Fontes, told the Arizona Capitol Times Aug. 9 in an email the public comment process for the Elections Procedures Manual is not required by statute and was instead an effort from Fontes to demonstrate transparency.  

Petersen and Toma pointed out in their feedback of the draft manual that government agencies in the state typically allow a 30-day public comment period for rulemaking.  

Other issues Republicans raised with the draft manual include language that states counties lack the discretion to conduct a hand count of ballots cast at precincts or early voting centers. Petersen and Toma also stated language that gives the secretary authority to regulate voter registration procedures and authority to extend the early voting period for uniformed and overseas citizens must be corrected. 

Voting rights groups praised the draft in a Tuesday press webinar held to discuss the manual.  

Rosemary Avila, the senior Arizona campaign manager with All Voting is Local, said she believed Fontes’ draft was receiving more attention this year and in prior years because the 2021 draft manual failed to be administered by election officials. 

“It feels like the 2023 version has been a long time coming so here we are – I think everyone is ready for it and we’re ready to make sure access is provided to all Arizona voters,” Avila said.  

She said positives with the manual included provisions that ensure ballot drop boxes are accessible for people with disabilities, although she said there was room for the manual to improve such as including provisions noting voting rights for people in jail with guidance to counties on how to facilitate voting within jails. 

Chris Gilfillan, the director of political strategies and development for Arizona Center for Empowerment, said the consensus from members of his organization was that the draft manual takes a step in providing access to other methods of voting that work for peoples’ schedules.  

“Voters are busy, they have lives, they have jobs,” Gilfillan said. “Voting is not always the most important thing for them. They need to have access to every method of voting available.” 

Another voting organization, Secure Democracy Foundation, noted guidance for counties to prevent voter intimidation and requirements to increase security for voting equipment and ballot drop boxes as some of its significant additions of the draft manual. 


Petersen unveils inflation reduction plan, mirrors Lake’s

Senate President-Elect Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, unveiled a new plan to mitigate inflation on Tuesday, like the one gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake presented, but the measure will likely face heavy opposition. 

Petersen’s plan would be to eliminate rental and food taxes, reduce (or eliminate) occupational license fees and increase housing supply.  

“Government has done extremely well over the last few years by adding a record amount of revenue. Unfortunately, hardworking taxpayers are reeling during this period of runaway inflation and are having a tough time paying for the most basic necessities,” Petersen said in a written statement. “There are at least four actions we can make as a Legislature to counter the effects of rising costs and help our citizens who are living paycheck to paycheck.” 

Warren Petersen

Elements of his plan strongly resemble the economic plan published by Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, which also called for cutting food and rental tax. 

“Arizonans can’t afford to wait for a change of leadership in Washington – they need relief now. That’s why I’ve pledged to eliminate all taxes on groceries and rent in the State of Arizona, putting almost half a billion dollars back into the pockets of Arizona families,” Lake stated in her plan earlier this year. 

Governor-elect Hobbs opposed Lake’s plan at the time and said it would essentially defund law enforcement by taking away revenue that cities and towns use to fund public safety. 

Petersen’ plans won’t become law without Hobbs’ support. 

Lake’s ‘plan’ would do nothing to actually put money back in the pockets of working Arizonans. Instead, Lake’s plan would get rid of the tax revenue that funds law enforcement in Arizona’s cities and towns, defunding local police,” Hobbs said in a statement at the time, citing an opinion piece by Arizona Republic writer Laurie Roberts to that effect. 

The opinion piece cites Republican Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers as opposed to Lake’s idea. City and town officials have historically opposed similar measures. 

Arizona cities and towns get hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue each year. A large portion of that goes to police and firefighters. Not all cities tax rent or groceries, but most of Arizona’s 91 cities and towns do. 


A proposal to eliminate rental tax was introduced in the legislature last session by Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, but died on the Senate floor when Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, and the Democrats voted it down.  

The bill was opposed by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. 

Boyer said on Tuesday that the measure – Senate Bill 1116 – was a “$202M ongoing hit to cities. Essentially, defunding the police given how much cities spend on public safety.” 

“Nothing justifies poor tax policy but the good news is cities are enjoying surpluses from wayfarer and expanding state shared revenue to 18%. However we can look at delayed implementation for a soft landing,” Petersen said in response. 

Petersen argued in his statement that homeowners don’t have to pay taxes on their mortgage payments and tenants shouldn’t have to pay a rental tax. 


Bolick introduced a bill to cut food taxes in 2019, but the bill was held in House rules and never made it to a floor vote. It was co-sponsored by Reps. Leo Biasucci, R-Lake Havasu City, Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, Ben Toma, R-Peoria, and Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West. The bill was opposed by the East Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona and the Arizona State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. 

Bolick’s bill would only have eliminated food tax on groceries, not meals in restaurants. Petersen doesn’t specify his plans but writes that food is “not a luxury” and that the tax hurts “the poorest of the poor.” 

In Arizona’s largest cities, there is no food tax, and statewide, families who use federal food subsidies do not pay food taxes. 


In a proposal that could enjoy some bipartisan support, Petersen writes that he wants to “increase the housing supply,” something that Democrats and Republicans have been saying loudly for at least the past year. The question is, how Petersen wants to go about it.  

A Housing Supply Study Committee has been meeting for the past few months and will discuss possible legislation to create more affordable housing in an executive session at their next meeting on Tuesday, according to the committee’s chair Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix. Republicans on the committee, including Kaiser, want to “deregulate zoning” on housing projects to make it easier to build more homes, however nothing concrete is on the table.  

Petersen writes that he wants to shorten the window of time it takes to get approval for land development and housing projects. “One way to accomplish this is through administrative approvals for all projects that meet all existing laws and requirements,” he said. 

Kaiser will chair the commerce committee next session and said that he and Petersen have spoken and that he is on board but didn’t get into specifics. 

When asked whether he will sponsor the bills to make these economic changes himself, Petersen said that he will defer to committee chairs first. 


Petersen’s last proposal is to “reduce or eliminate occupational license fees,” which many professionals must pay to stay in business. Petersen has battled occupational licenses in the past. He sponsored two bills that Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law, one allowing professionals moving to Arizona from other states to keep their existing licenses and not acquire new ones, and one requiring state agencies to post about the occupational licensing requirements, notifying professionals of their right to petition to repeal or modify the existing regulation. 

“To create new opportunities for Arizonans, we have to make sure our economy is one of the most competitive in the country to launch or relocate a business. To get there, I plan to identify and roll back any cumbersome and unnecessary regulations that get in the way of Arizona’s appeal to attract new businesses and jobs,” Lake said in her economic plan. 

Petersen noted that the state has full coffers, pointing to over taxation. Arizona has a surplus of more than $2 billion dollars this year.  

Finance Chair J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said in a text that he’s “generally supportive” of the concepts Petersen put forward but hasn’t gotten into the details. 

Hobbs has not yet commented on Petersen’s plan. Her support will be hard to win on the removal of food and rental taxes. City and town lobbyists also likely make their opinions known. 

Players in movement to remake Arizona’s criminal justice system

(AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

Since conservatives got on board with revamping Arizona’s sentencing laws, bills to do that no longer lay unheard, not considered. And as the movement has taken hold over the past few years, a host of groups and people have made their presence known at the Legislature. Following are some of them.

John Allen
John Allen

Rep. John Allen

John Allen, R-Scottsdale, chairs the House Judiciary Committee, so he’ll have a say on whether any bills that propose changes to the sentencing laws.

Allen has exercised that power by giving a hearing to only two of 13 bills sponsored by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, that proposed changes to the criminal justice system. He allowed a hearing on Blackman’s bill that allows nonviolent prisoners to earn credit to be released at a faster pace, but on the condition an amendment he proposed be attached.

In an act of political retaliation on February 5, Allen held a slate of criminal justice bills and said they would likely never be heard when Blackman joined Democrats on the committee to vote to hold one of Allen’s bills. Although two of the bills he held were his own, Tucson Democrat Rep. Kirsten Engel’s proposal to expand the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission was a casualty.


Americans for Prosperity

With chapters throughout the country, Americans for Prosperity is a conservative libertarian political advocacy group working to build grassroots campaigns, work with coalitions and put policy first. Their national efforts include expanding educational opportunities, implementing discretionary and mandatory spending to reverse the debt crisis, reform current immigration policy and more. In Arizona, the mission is more direct – restore all human dignity and work with legislators who align with the values of the organization.

This year, the group has focused their lobbying efforts on remaking criminal justice at the local level. They have worked closely with Blackman to ensure that their policies provide long-term solutions, like removing barriers for individuals post-release and determining which programs are actually attainable.

While Americans for Prosperity has a specific slant, the group cares more about the position of legislation and initiatives than the position of whoever proposed it.


American Friends Service Committee

Founded more than 100 years ago, the American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization working for peace and social justice as a practical expression of faith. They have volunteers in states all over the country who advocate for international peace building, inclusivity, immigrant rights, economic justice and ending mass incarceration.

Arizona’s chapter is based in Tucson where they challenge criminalization, oppose prison expansion and are constantly working to change public opinion. In 2012, the Tucson staff published an in-depth critical analysis of the for-profit prison industry in Arizona. The report claimed the state was wasting money on prison privatization and the prison corporations were buying influence in Arizona government.

Today, the group is educating people on the law that requires Arizona inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentence. They also submitted a proposal this session, reflected in HB2069, that would create a Citizens’ Oversight Committee to hold the Department of Corrections accountable.

Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman

Rep. Walt Blackman

Walt Blackman, who represents Snowflake in the House, has made the remaking of the state’s sentencing laws his signature issue this session, working with several lobbyists and across party lines to propose a host of bills that would ease access to prison data, provide specific definitions and ranges for punishment and change health care options within correctional facilities.

He even turned down entreaties from the National Republican Congressional Committee to run in the swing 1st Congressional District because he wanted more time in the Legislature to work on criminal justice issues, and he spent the summer leading an ad hoc committee focused on changing how Arizona sentences prisoners.

As the deadline neared for bills to be heard in their chamber of origin, only two of his 13 proposals have gotten a hearing. Blackman has spoken boldly as he’s gone about his crusade, saying he doesn’t answer to influential people at the Capitol who might stand in his way. For instance, when Arizona Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery was the Maricopa County attorney he wielded a lot of power at the Legislature and was a barrier to many proposed criminal justice changes, but that only seemed to spark Blackman’s fighting spirit.

“I do not need Mr. Montgomery’s permission to do what I plan to do,” he said in August, before Montgomery’s appointment to the high court.


Creosote Partners

As a progressive lobbying firm that supplies Arizona organizations with money, advice and direct legislative action, Creosote Partners wants to ensure that the politics and legislation reflect the changing diversity of the state. Some of their clients include the American Friends Service Committee, CHISPA, Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, the Arizona School Counselors Association and more.

The organization works with other lobbying groups to create a coalition that builds “consensus” policy that aids both political parties, said Marilyn Rodriguez, one of the four main Creosote lobbyists.

“The advocacy community has done a great job at making sure [criminal justice policy] doesn’t become too political,” Rodriguez said. “By the sheer magnitude of the problem, we cannot be partisan.”

Rodriguez pointed out a disconnect between criminal justice change and immigration policy in Arizona, saying that “immigration policies are criminal justice reform” and she took a long pause before saying that it is “difficult to point to public policy” that has been good for the criminal justice system in Arizona.

Kirsten Engel
Kirsten Engel

Rep. Kirsten Engel

Democrats have long sought changes to Arizona’s criminal code, but their bills – even in this era with a conservative push to revamp the criminal justice laws – have been left to die without a committee hearing. And although Engel’s bills this year were killed by Allen as the House Judiciary Committee he chairs was about to hear them, she’s still the voice of the Democrats on the matter.

The Tucson lawmaker said she was not optimistic about what the incident with Allen may mean for the rest of the criminal justice change agenda from the Democratic caucus or Republicans who are also in favor of revamping the criminal justice laws, at least in the House.

“We haven’t seen any of the reform bills that we have introduced or we’re supporting that are being introduced by Republicans,” Engel said.

Eddie Farnsworth
Eddie Farnsworth

Sen. Eddie Farnsworth

Eddie Farnsworth, the Gilbert Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is perhaps the ultimate committee gatekeeper, and many criminal justice bills die without hearings in his committee. He’s also, ironically, the legislator with the best track record when it comes to passing bills to change the criminal justice system. The only criminal justice reform bill to pass in 2019 was a Farnsworth measure to allow certain people convicted of low-level drug offenses to earn time off their sentences by completing treatment programs. He also championed legislation to overhaul the state’s civil asset forfeiture statutes in 2017.

Farnsworth enjoys a cozy relationship with Montgomery and the two men share a skepticism of sweeping changes to the criminal justice system. But in his last term before retirement from the Legislature, Farnsworth has relinquished his iron grip a little, voting on the floor for bills he may have opposed in previous sessions and joking about “senioritis.” He agreed to hear one Senate criminal justice bill — a proposal by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, to require counties to report sentencing data — and hasn’t entirely ruled out entertaining House bills that make it his way.

Donna Hamm
Donna Hamm

Middle Ground Prison Reform

By working with public education, legislative advocacy and litigation, Middle Ground Prison Reform uses volunteers to address issues that concern prisoners and their families. They highlight that Arizona has a harsh criminal code with a lack of medical care, negligent treatment of the mentally ill, overuse of solitary confinement and a shortage of adequate rehabilitative opportunities.

Last year, the group was the only prisoner rights advocacy group to support SB1310, which passed, requiring the Department of Corrections to notify prisoners of the credits they earned that could lead to their early release.

The organization has taken a position on 25-30 bills that were introduced this session and has worked closely with Blackman on revamping sentencing laws.

The director, Donna Leone Hamm, has been appointed to two committees within the Department of Corrections that are now inactive. The department “didn’t appreciate input [from constituents] so meetings stopped,” Hamm said. Hamm said that it was “unfortunate” that the department is still not receptive to constructive criticism and only responds to litigation.

Sheila Polk
Sheila Polk

Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk

Even though Montgomery’s influence on criminal justice policy diminished at the Legislature because of his new role on the Supreme Court, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is still around and not shy about sharing their opinions with lawmakers.

Polk, who has held office since 2001, has long been an ardent opponent of legalized marijuana – medicinal and recreational – and uses hardline policies in enforcing drug laws.

She was also instrumental in 2019 in the passage of a bill that aimed to stop prosecutors from using enhanced sentences intended for repeat offenders on people who don’t have previous convictions. Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed the bill after Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall and Montgomery bent his ear.

This year Polk persuaded Senate President Karen Fann to introduce legislation to require mandatory five-year prison sentences for people selling even small amounts of fentanyl.

Kurt Altman
Kurt Altman

Right on Crime

Emphasizing cost effective ways to approach enhancing public safety, Right on Crime works with several states and their conservative caucuses to pass juvenile justice reform bills, close prisons and establish committees that oversee the use of taxpayer dollars when it comes to state corrections.

The organization says the ideal criminal justice system works to rehabilitate for reentry into society.

Kurt Altman, whose career includes stints as a federal and county prosecutor and with the Goldwater Institute, is the Arizona director for Right on Crime. He promotes the organization’s positions in the Arizona and New Mexico legislatures while simultaneously running a law firm that defends criminals of all types.

Altman has published several articles, all about the organization’s values applied to policy in Arizona. In a recent article, Altman suggested that Phoenix jails should follow the models in Tucson and Pima County by reducing jail populations to save tax dollars.

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

Rep. Ben Toma

Ben Toma, R-Peoria, made his criminal justice debut last year as he shepherded to passage a bill that aimed to stop prosecutors from using enhanced sentences intended for repeat offenders on people who don’t have previous convictions. Toma made changes to the bill to appease county attorneys and get them to accept the legislation even though they weren’t in full support. But Ducey vetoed the bill after top prosecutors in Arizona’s largest counties turned around and lobbied him for the veto.

The problem when someone doesn’t keep their word is that you can’t trust them anymore,” Toma said at the time. “I don’t know where we go from here if someone has no honor.”

Toma said Blackman’s plan to go around Allen’s committee is good, but Toma tried the same last year with then-House Speaker Mesnard’s help. It appeared to work until Ducey vetoed the measure. Toma feels there is enough support for revamping criminal justice in both parties, but sometimes things don’t always make it “across the finish line.”

This year, one of his proposals, HB2359, would prohibit state agencies from denying an occupational license to any qualified applicant who happens to have a past drug offense. The bill has the OK from the House Rules Committee, so far.

Toma also proposes an expungement bill that would allow courts to seal arrest and conviction records, although it hadn’t received a committee hearing.

“From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to have people stigmatized forever,” Toma said.

Reporter Julia Shumway contributed to this report. 

Precinct committeemen: Flexing clout when lawmakers leave

Bill Bercu, chairman of Legislative District 21 Democrats, calls a meeting of precinct committeemen to order on May 23. (Photo by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)
Bill Bercu, chairman of Legislative District 21 Democrats, calls a meeting of precinct committeemen to order on May 23. (Photo by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)

Precinct committeemen, the party faithful who show up at legislative district meetings and encourage people to vote, occasionally get a chance to have an even more influential role in state politics.

Precinct committeemen help select a replacement when a member of the Arizona Legislature resigns or otherwise leaves office before their term ends.

Here’s how it works: PCs in the vacated district vote for three candidates to replace the member who left office. Then, the board of supervisors representing the county where the lawmaker who left office resides choose one person from the slate to fill out the term.

It’s not all that infrequent in Arizona politics. In the past three years, five seats in the Legislature have been vacated.

Chad Heywood, the former chair of the Arizona Republican Party, said many prominent politicos have come to the Legislature via the appointment process, which speaks to the strength PCs can have.

“It’s one of those things where, the precinct committeemen are seen as not very powerful, until they are,” he said.

The Arizona Republican Party counts nearly 4,000 PCs in its ranks statewide. The Arizona Democratic Party has nearly 2,600.

Those in the “political class” who ignore or discount PCs do so to their own detriment, Heywood said. And PCs know when a candidate is only courting them briefly to further a short-term goal. Successful candidates understand the grassroots power of PCs and work to cultivate it, he said.

“It’s kind of like getting in on the ground floor of politics,” he said.

Ed Ableser
Ed Ableser

This year, former Rep. Phil Lovas, R-Peoria, left the Legislature to work for the Trump administration. Rep. Ben Toma took his place after LD22 Republicans sent his and two other names to the Board of Supervisors.

Last year, Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, resigned to run for Congress. Rep. Matt Kopec filled out her term, though he didn’t win the seat in 2016.

In late 2015, Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, resigned to move to another state, setting off a domino effect wherein former Rep. Andrew Sherwood was appointed to the Senate, leaving a vacancy in the House.

PCs in Legislative District 26, which covers east Tempe and west Mesa, nominated three women to fill the role. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors picked Rep. Celeste Plumlee, who lost in the 2016 election..

Jesus Rubalcava
Jesus Rubalcava

Another resignation, this one by Democratic Rep. Jesus Rubalcava of Gila Bend, happened recently, though the ordinary process for appointment won’t be followed. Because the Maricopa County portion of the district does not have the 30 precinct committeemen required to nominate candidates to replace Rubalcava, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will have to appoint a committee to choose three candidates.

The appointment process respects the role PCs play as active members of their parties who understand the needs and goals of the district, said Jen Darland, a former Democratic PC who was involved in the replacement process for Legislative District 9 in 2016.

Voters already weighed in on a candidate they liked via an election, so it’s important for the PCs to find three people who know how to represent those voters’ interests, she said.

“It’s not necessarily about carrying the party mantra, although that is important. It’s about understanding the pulse of the voters,” Darland said.

The PCs in LD9 forwarded to the Pima County Board of Supervisors three great options to fill Steele’s seat, she said. And that’s really the power the PCs hold in this process – giving three options to the people with the actual power to appoint, the board of supervisors, so that the district basically can’t go wrong, she said.

“I don’t think that there was a PC in the room that was getting all heady about it, but I think that we understood the importance,” Darland said.

Rae Chornenky chairs the Legislative District 22 Republicans, which selected replacements for Lovas earlier this year. She said the process gave PCs an opportunity to talk directly to those who wanted the nomination, something many voters may not get a chance to do.

The nomination process required some quick movements on Chornenky’s part. She had to find a meeting space for more than 100 people within five days and notify all the PCs they needed to attend.

But overall, the experience was positive, informative and important, she said.

“I think the PCs in our legislative district benefitted greatly from the process. They were very interested. The interest and the participation was very high. They came with great questions,” she said.

The LD22 Republican PCs took their role in the process seriously, which didn’t surprise Chornenky because the district is always active in other efforts, like getting out the vote come election time.

“They’re the ones who are ready to step up and make decisions about who should be in these offices, who should fill these vacancies. … They have a vested interest as well as a very important knowledge of issues in their legislative district as well as who is working to further the cause of Arizonans in general,” she said.

Prosecutors’ honor questioned as criminal justice measures die

Justice word engraved on the pediment of the courthouse
Justice word engraved on the pediment of the courthouse

Arizona lawmakers stymied this year in their quests to revamp the criminal justice system are re-evaluating how to work with prosecutors next year after what some described as an 11th-hour betrayal.

The session began with high hopes from lawmakers across the political spectrum that this would be the year Arizona passed what they say is substantive justice reform. It ended in a fizzle, with only two bills alive near the end of the 134-day session. One, which will let some drug offenders out of prison early, is now law. Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed the other, SB 1334, which aimed to stop prosecutors from using enhanced sentences intended for repeat offenders on people who don’t have previous convictions.

The vetoed bill’s main sponsors, Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, and Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, adopted language from one prosecutor, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, that still would have allowed prosecutors to use enhanced sentences for people who’ve never before been convicted. They gave up on requiring the court system to collect and report data on plea deals and sentencing.

“My side of things moved a lot,” Mesnard said. “We scaled this bill down a lot.”

Supporters of the bill made all of those changes because of a promise that county attorneys would at least accept the legislation, even if they weren’t fully on board. Instead, the top prosecutors in Arizona’s largest counties turned around and lobbied Ducey to veto it.

“The problem when someone doesn’t keep their word is that you can’t trust them anymore,” Toma said. “I don’t know where we go from here if someone has no honor.”


While revamping criminal justice is widely supported by the Legislature as a whole — the few bills lawmakers were able to vote on passed on overwhelming margins — most legislation dealing with it had a difficult time moving forward this session.

Advocates for change were dealt their first blow before the session even started, when House Speaker Rusty Bowers dissolved the Sentencing and Recidivism Reform Committee that then-Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, was slated to chair. That meant criminal justice legislation in the House headed instead to the House Judiciary Committee, where they received a colder reception from Chairman John Allen, R-Scottsdale, than they would have from Stringer.

Allen’s committee never heard bills, many sponsored by fellow Republicans, that would have let inmates reduce their sentences by going through treatment programs, allowed judges discretion in sentencing and reduced penalties for possessing a small amount of marijuana, among other things.

Toma’s bill regarding repetitive offenders was one of the few that made it out of the House Judiciary Committee, and it passed the House on a 57-2 vote. But it ran into another committee gatekeeper in Senate: Judiciary Chairman Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who prides himself on killing “bad bills.”

Toma found an ally in Mesnard, who said enhanced sentences make the most sense for someone who commits a crime, serves his sentence and then commits another crime, proving he hasn’t learned his lesson from the first sentence.

“We want a justice system that really is based on justice,” Mesnard said.

And Mesnard said he wanted to see more data collected on how prosecutors use the ability to charge people with crimes that carry enhanced sentences. A frustrating aspect of working on criminal justice reform is hearing conflicting descriptions of what’s happening in the justice system, he said.

Advocates for changing sentencing guidelines, including criminal defense attorneys, say prosecutors use mandatory minimum sentences like those included in the state’s repetitive offender statutes as a cudgel to force plea deals.

Pima County Public Defender Joel Feinman said defendants facing long sentences often feel pressured to take plea deals that can result in years in prison.

“The biggest problem is that it works in conjunction with the prosecutors’ complete control over plea agreements to exert a tremendous amount of pressure on the defendant to take pleas that are not very good,” Feinman said. “I have had clients who I believe were innocent who went to jail, went to prison because they didn’t want to run the risk of going to trial.”

Bad Faith

Prosecutors including Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, meanwhile, say that mandatory minimum sentencing is the best way to deter repeat offenders.

Barbara LaWall
Barbara LaWall

In an email, La Wall said: “We (my office and AZ’s prosecutors) lobbied against SB 1334 and when it passed, we subsequently requested the Governor to veto this bill because it was highly problematic and created a number of significant unintended consequences that would adversely impact the safety of Pima County and other Arizona communities.”

In a letter the two sent to Ducey that LaWall shared with the Arizona Capitol Times, they said the bill “creates a strong incentive for repeat offenders to commit as many crimes as they can before being caught because regardless of the number of people or businesses they victimize, whether two or 20, SB 1334 requires them to be sentenced as a first-time offender for each count.”

Mesnard dismissed that argument as illogical. People who commit multiple crimes face longer sentences than people who just commit one crime, even without enhanced sentences.

“A person who commits Crime A gets Sentence B,” he said. “A person who commits Crime A 10 times will get Sentence B 10 times.”

And while Mesnard said he plans to continue talking with prosecutors, particularly Montgomery, while working on criminal justice issues in future sessions, other lawmakers are frustrated by the two prosecutors fighting against the bill.

“Others may feel that negotiations happened in bad faith or poisoned the well,” Mesnard said. “Others have expressed a sentiment that if we can’t get something this narrow passed, it will be a bleak three years.”

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake, is among them. Blackman said he turned down the National Republican Congressional Committee when it asked him to run this spring because he still wants to work on criminal justice reform.

He saw SB 1334 as an “incremental step forward” toward the comprehensive justice reform he seeks, which aims to reduce the number of people entering the prison system and provide opportunities for those already incarcerated to integrate back into society.

Blackman plans to spend this summer working on improving his HB 2270, which would have allowed prisoners who complete education or self-improvement programs to be released earlier. It died without a committee hearing. He said the late death of SB 1334 is a disheartening sign for the future of his legislation.

“I didn’t know that there were backroom deals for them to go back and change what we had agreed to,” he said. “It’s disheartening to know that is what’s lying ahead of me and others’ efforts to pass criminal justice reform.”

Prosecutors who opposed the sentencing bill should be prepared to see something pass next year,  Mesnard said. He noted that the bill had broad support in the Legislature — only three of the 90 legislators voted against it — and opponents could learn from the 2017 passage of a law altering the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

Prosecutors decried that bill, which took away some of their leeway to seize property from people suspected of, but not charged with, crimes. However, after prosecutors were able to kill it in 2015, the bill passed both chambers on overwhelming margins in 2017 and was supported by groups across the political spectrum, as this year’s repetitive offenders bill was.

“Folks who are opposed need to be careful that they don’t end up drawing too hard a line in the sand or rely on the governor’s veto,” Mesnard said.

Push to remake criminal justice laws hits snag in House


Several bills to revamp criminal justice in Arizona appear to be on life support after the Republican House Judiciary chair decided to hold a trio of bills in retaliation to his own bill being held.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, was not pleased when his bill, which requires local law enforcement agencies to share data with the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, was held by the committee’s Democrats and Vice Chair Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake.

After a lengthy debate where the Democrats wanted more specificity for the data the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission would receive, conversations started to get heated. Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, proposed a striker amendment to that effect, which did not pass and the committee eventually voted to hold Allen’s bill, who then held all other commission bills for the day.

Blackman and Allen then exchanged words in loud tones, asking each other if they had a problem or if they needed to settle their differences in private.

The testy exchange was over Blackman’s concerns that Allen was reacting to the fact that he was voting with Democrats. Allen dismissed Blackman’s concerns, causing Blackman to “excuse” himself from the room and letting the door slam behind him.

Blackman said on February 6 in a press conference he is willing to go around Allen if necessary, but was quick to point out that as a military guy he doesn’t just “jump the chain of command.”

“I’m not saying they’re part of the chain of command, but there is a procedure, but if something needs to be done, I’m going to do it,” Blackman said.

He announced his earned-release credit bill he hopes will go through the House Public Safety Committee rather than let Allen make the decisions that are “bigger” than any lawmaker.

Blackman introduced the bill, HB2808, on February 6. Deriving from work that Blackman’s ad hoc committee on sentencing reform conducted over the interim, the legislation would give eligible prisoners six days off their sentence for every one day served. Prisoners who have no conviction for a violent or aggravated felony on their record and who complete a “drug treatment…or other major self-improvement program” are eligible for one and-a-half days off their sentence for every six days served.

The bill is co-sponsored by several Republicans, many of whom have expressed their support for criminal justice changes in the past, such as Reps. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, and Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa. Others, such as Rep. Jay Lawrence, a Scottsdale Republican on the House Judiciary Committee who is often skeptical of sentencing changes, are more surprising.

But despite Blackman’s bullishness, the dissent in Judiciary may set back revamping sentencing laws.

Engel told Arizona Capitol Times she was not optimistic about what this may mean for the rest of the criminal justice change agenda from the Democratic caucus or Republicans who are also in favor of revamping the criminal justice laws, at least in the House.

“We really did have a problem with that amendment language,” Engel said referring to Allen’s HB 2227. And looking forward, Engel said she’s “not too optimistic” other criminal justice change bills will be heard in committee given how quickly Allen flipped out over holding his bill.

“We haven’t seen any of the reform bills that we have introduced or we’re supporting that are being introduced by Republicans,” she said.

Engel remains hopeful for one bill in the Senate.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, is sponsoring an effort similar to the House that would require detailed sentencing reports from every county attorney and he is continuing to hold meetings with prosecutors and criminal justice advocates to improve his bill, something he said should help when he asks Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, the House Judiciary chair, to hear it.

“I can tell you that at least on the surface, both sides are interested in data,” Mesnard said.

He tried to include reporting requirements in a bill he and Toma worked on last year to prevent prosecutors from charging as repeat offenders people who hadn’t previously been sentenced, but removed those requirements when prosecutors protested.

“They’ve been at the table talking about reporting,” Mesnard said. “They weren’t necessarily opposed to the concept. They just wanted more time to think about it.”

Toma said Blackman’s plan to go around Allen’s committee is good, but Toma tried the same last year (with Mesnard’s help) and it appeared to work until Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed the measure. He feels there is enough support for revamping criminal justice in both parties, but sometimes things don’t always make it “across the finish line.”

One thing not in the mix this session is the appearance of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office not having a presence at the Capitol. Former County Attorney Bill Montgomery is now on the Arizona Supreme Court, and Allister Adel, the new chief prosecutor, has said on several occasions that her priorities are to work on the office ahead of any legislation.

Montgomery had a heavy presence in the past on the opposite side of Toma and Blackman, while Adel has shown some promise to push a pro-criminal justice change agenda by including Blackman on her transition team.

In the Senate, President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said she believed her chamber was willing to let the House take the lead on criminal justice issues.

“We know that Representative Blackman and those guys, that this is kind of their baby,” Fann said.  “That’s one of the reasons why you have not seen senators drop a bunch of bills, because we know that they’re talking about that over there and  they’ve been working on it really hard.”

Fann, who serves on the board of directors of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, added that more Republicans are willing to get on board with changing the criminal justice system because ALEC has pushed such measures, particularly as they relate to nonviolent drug users.

“Nobody wants to be soft on crime, but I think people are finally saying, you know what, perhaps because of drug problems or something else these guys are nonviolent,” she said. “They never would have been shoplifting or have robbed a house or whatever they did if it weren’t for their drug habit.”

Along with Reps. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, and Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, Fann also introduced legislation at the behest of Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk to require mandatory five-year prison sentences for people selling even small amounts of fentanyl. She said there’s no contradiction between that bill and a push to help, rather than incarcerate, people who are addicted, though even House Judiciary members who voted for the bill said they feared it could catch people who sell drugs to support their own habit.

Democrats believe that bill won’t be heard in the full House, and it’s up to Allen and Farnsworth to dictate how everything else will go.

Repeal, replace ‘21 tax cut aims at Prop. 307

Image by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

Education groups pushing a referendum to repeal the almost $2 billion in tax cuts passed last year say a new Republican plan to repeal and replace the cuts, which would nix their effort, is an attempt to undercut the will of the voters. 

However, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, one of the Republicans who spearheaded last year’s tax cut, says repealing and replacing last year’s cut with another tax cut bill is not a response to the referendum, but rather a response to the legal uncertainty surrounding Proposition 208, the 2020 education funding initiative currently being challenged in court. He said he has been considering passing a new tax cut bill since November. 

J.D. Mesnard

“There’s a general agreement that we should repeal and replace,” Mesnard said, although he also said he hasn’t spoken to all his Republican colleagues yet. 

Mesnard and House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, the main architects of last year’s tax cuts, told the Associated Press earlier this week that they are looking to repeal it and replace it with a new version, which would end the referendum. 

Stand for Children Executive Director Rebecca Gau said voters were “fed up,” and that the repeal-and-replace effort was a mistake in an election year, despite a new legislative map the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission approved last month that appears to favor Republicans in 2022. 

“I don’t care what people think about the midterm Republican benefit and redistricting,” Gau said. “People aren’t stupid; they care about these issues, and it’s going to show up at the ballot box in November.” 

Arizona voters approved Prop. 208 with 51.7% of the vote in 2020, imposing an income tax surcharge of 3.5% on income above $250,000 for individuals or $500,000 for those filing jointly to raise money to fund education. Republican lawmakers responded last year by passing a large tax cut along party lines, the main features of which were creating a new small business income tax to let some filers get around paying the Prop. 208 surcharge and phasing in a flat 2.5% income tax rate by 2025.  

After the Legislature adjourned in late June 2021, the Invest in Arizona coalition began collecting signatures to force a referendum on the tax cuts. While their effort to challenge the small business tax cut failed to qualify, their challenge to the flat tax got enough signatures. It will appear on the ballot in November 2022 as Proposition 307, only if the flat tax law is not repealed and the referendum withstands litigation. 

If Democrats oppose the effort unanimously, it will need unanimous Republican support to pass. One undecided could be Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who was one of a handful of Republicans who initially opposed the tax cut last year due to concerns about how it would affect municipal budgets. He told the Arizona Capitol Times he had not heard anything about Mesnard’s proposal and that it is premature for him to comment on it now. 

“I’m waiting to see more,” said Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge. “I’m generally in favor of tax cuts. That’s where I find myself in what makes me a Republican, I guess.” 

Mesnard said he expects a replacement tax cut to pass more easily than the original ones the Legislature passed in 2021. With Democrats unanimously opposed to what they saw as a giveaway to the rich, leadership had to get every Republican on board, a process which took more than a month and delayed the end of the session as the tax cut’s supporters tried to appease a handful of holdouts. This time, Mesnard said, those issues are not going to be relevant. And there is more money available due to higher-than-expected state revenues. 

“If the footprint size doesn’t change, I don’t see how people would say, ‘Now you’re competing with my stuff,’” Mesnard said. 

Then again, it could change – Mesnard did say he wants to go bigger this time around. 

David Lujan

Opponents of last year’s tax cuts see them as a giveaway to the wealthy taxpayers who receive the most benefit from them. David Lujan, who heads the Children’s Action Alliance, said candidates for office this year should answer “whether they support reducing state revenue by billions to give tax cuts to the rich or would they rather see that money invested in our public schools and communities.” 

“Arizona’s economy cannot afford another decade of the worst-funded schools in the nation, but allowing these tax cuts for the rich to go into effect will most certainly make that a reality,” said Lujan, whose group backs the referendum. 

Mesnard said the Invest in Arizona coalition ignores the fact that most taxes are paid by the wealthy and still will be. As for education funding, Mesnard said Arizona is already paying an unprecedented amount of money per pupil. 

Arizona is often ranked in the bottom percentile of state funding per pupil – a report by Education Data Initiative from August 2021 put Arizona at No. 49 of 50 states in per-pupil public education funding – but Mesnard said that the low rankings he has seen are not great apples-to-apples comparisons between Arizona and other states. In terms of the percentage of the general fund going toward K-12 education, Mesnard said Arizona ranks about 10th or 12th nationally. 

“We are clearly prioritizing K-12 funding,” Mesnard said. 

The other potential roadblock to getting Prop. 307 on the ballot comes from a lawsuit brought by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. The group challenges the flat tax law’s referability and the referendum’s signatures, raising issues mostly related to circulator registration defects. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled in December that the tax law could in fact be referred to the ballot, though the Free Enterprise Club has appealed that ruling. The judge has not ruled on the other issues in the case. 

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said he thought the referendum would stand up in court. 

“I think we’re going to see it (Prop. 307) on the ballot unless there are, you know, some underhanded tactics by the Legislature,” Thomas said.

Republicans approve tax conformity bill that cuts rates


Republican lawmakers squared off against GOP Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday by passing legislation to grant Arizonans a reprieve on their state income taxes.

Almost entirely along party lines, Republicans approved a proposal to reduce all income tax rates in Arizona by 0.11 percentage points. State budget analysts estimate that would reduce tax collections by roughly $150 million, compared to the alternative path proposed by Ducey.

The governor wants to conform to the federal tax code in the same manner Arizona historically does, and pocket the extra tax collections in the state’s rainy-day fund. That would undercut the intent of changes to the federal tax code signed by President Trump in December 2017, which were meant to give taxpayers relief, according to Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria.

Taking the wait-and-see approach advocated by Ducey would “take money from the hardworking taxpayers of Arizona,” said Toma, who along with Sen. J.D. Mesnard sponsored the conformity measure.

But the plan can’t go into effect without Ducey’s approval, too, and the governor has consistently opposed efforts to conform in a way that lowers the state’s potential revenue collections. He now faces the choice of whether to veto a bill supported by a wide majority of his own party. Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, was the only Republican in either chamber to vote against the bill.

A spokesman from the governor’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Democrats unanimously argued against relinquishing what some analysts have estimated could exceed $200 million in new revenues for state coffers.

“We need to invest in Arizona,” said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, who argued that Arizonans would rather see the state invest in education or infrastructure than see a minimal reduction in their tax bills. “This income tax cut is not the help they need.”

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, countered that it’s not a tax cut if the taxes won’t be collected in the first place.

“This is not a tax cut. This is an offset,” she said. “If we don’t do anything, this is a tax increase.”

If Ducey signs SB 1143, officials with Department of Revenue have said they’re prepared to immediately begin adjusting tax brackets, even as some Arizonans are already filing their state tax returns.

Mesnard, R-Chandler, said it will take roughly four weeks for the department to fully incorporate the changes outlined in the bill, but anyone who’s already received a tax return at the higher rate would be made whole with an additional refund.

Republicans have votes in House for flat income tax


While House Republican leaders are optimistic that a major tax overhaul that would shift Arizona to a flat income tax will get 31 votes in that chamber, it may need changes before it becomes something that can pass the Senate.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said that while not every Republican is on board yet, he expects they all will be in the end and he supports the proposal personally.

“It’s a very strong Republican bill,” Kavanagh said. “It doesn’t go as far as many of us wanted to. Many of us wanted to have no income tax in the state so we can better compete with Nevada, but this brings us a good distance closer to that.”

However, Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, said Thursday morning that the House plan, which includes switching to a flat 2.5% income tax rate over the next three years, doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to pass.

“I know from conversations with my Republican colleagues here in the Senate that it does not have 16 votes,” Bowie said on the Capitol Times’ Morning Scoop panel on the tax climate. “So, I know there’s going to be time for negotiation and arm-twisting, but the support is not there yet.”

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, a longtime flat tax supporter who has been closely involved with negotiations with House Republicans over this year’s tax cut package, said there is support for the big picture of the House plan but not necessarily on the details.

“I don’t want to suggest that there’s total agreement on everything, but I think, from what I’m seeing, it reflects general ideas that we talked about,” Mesnard told the Capitol Times. “We were in agreement that we wanted quote-unquote go big, which is what the governor also said. We wanted it to be comprehensive, addressing different areas of our tax code. We wanted to make sure it would help advance Arizona’s competitiveness relative to other states.”

Mesnard said there is agreement among Republicans on getting as close to a single income tax rate as possible, but not over how long to take to phase it in. Mesnard said he would like it to happen more quickly, but that negotiations or other budgetary considerations could impact the final proposal.

“I think that’s the biggest unknown right now,” he said.

The proposal which is being shopped around among House Republicans also includes a reduction in property taxes and a response to Prop 208, the voter-approved law that increased taxes on higher-income Arizonans to fund K-12 education. House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who has been the leading House member crafting the proposal, said the proposal would, in addition to the flat tax, decrease the commercial property assessment ratio from 18% to 17%, and set an effective 4.5% rate cap, incorporating an idea from SB1783, a bill which would let some taxpayers get around the education funding surcharge in Proposition 208. Toma said the education funding called for in Prop 208 would still be covered, although it would come from a mix of tax revenue and the general fund.

Democrats have opposed cutting taxes this year, saying any extra money should be used to address needs such as infrastructure, education and helping people who are struggling due to the Covid pandemic.

“We know in Arizona we need to be building for the long haul,” House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said in March.

During Capitol Times’ Morning Scoop, Bowie noted that 43% of state revenues come from the individual income tax and questioned whether the proposal will be sustainable.

“I know there’s a lot of one-time dollars right now from the federal government, but if we’re looking to make permanent long-term changes to our tax code, how are we going to make the investments that we need to make to stay competitive?” he asked. “How are we going to invest in education or universities or infrastructure or healthcare — all the things that we need to invest in?”

Toma said the total fiscal impact is difficult to calculate since some of the tax cuts will be offset by revenue increases, but it will probably be a little more than $1 billion over three years. He said ongoing revenues are also coming in higher than expected and that their plan doesn’t use any of the federal Covid relief money the state is getting as an offset.

“We’re not contemplating including anything associated with the federal money,” Toma said.

Kavanagh also said the state can afford it.

“We’ve got good, strong revenues coming in that we can afford to do spending restorations and increases that are needed, but also give relief to the taxpayer and also stimulate the economy,” he said.

Republicans introduce bills to lighten criminal sentencing

(AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

A Republican-sponsored bill would allow judges to depart from mandatory sentences for certain crimes.

Under House Bill 2245, the “Arizona Judicial Discretion Act,” judges can deviate from mandatory prison sentences if the judge decides that the sentence is an injustice to the defendant or is unnecessary for public safety.

“What I’m trying to do is put back the decision of sentencing in the hands of judges,” said Rep. Tony Rivero (R-21), prime sponsor of the bill.

Rivero’s bill and a handful of other Republican-sponsored bills that soften criminal sentencing have yet to receive a committee hearing as of Feb. 5, the 23rd day of the legislative session.

Rivero said he hopes to see more leniency in sentencing for minor drug crimes. Crimes that involve serious injury or death, sexual assault against a minor, and offenses involving criminal enterprises would be exempt from the discretion.

“It’s my view, personally, that in Arizona not everyone that is in prison should be in prison,” Rivero said. “But, ultimately, let’s put that decision-making in the hands of judges.”

Mandatory sentences are required sentences for certain crimes under the law that judges have no discretion over.

“There’s a lot of categories that that fits into,” said Kurt Altman, state director of Right on Crime, a group aimed at conservative criminal-justice reform measures. “From drug crimes, to violent crimes to different types of crimes where you can find yourself into that mandatory prison sentence.”

Rivero does not think that completely doing away with minimum-sentence rules would get far in the Legislature.

“You need 31 people in the House, 16 in the Senate, and the governor,” Rivero said. “So, I don’t think that you can get it out of either chamber with just a full elimination of mandatory minimums.”

Altman said that completely doing away with mandatory-sentence rules for judges seems like a good idea, but is politically unrealistic. “There are so many different sentencing statutes, and so many different crimes,” he said.

Arizona would not be alone in a measure like Rivero’s. Republican federal lawmakers have proposed such so-called “safety-valve” measures within federal sentencing guidelines.

The federal government has used “safety valve” discretion guidelines since 1994, giving judges the opportunity in certain circumstances for “making certain findings to sentence outside of mandatory prison sentences,” Altman said. He added, “About eighteen states have something along this line, or like this, on the books, including Texas and Oklahoma, which are not ‘soft-on-crime’ states.”

Currently serving his third term, Rivero ran on a fiscally conservative platform, arguing that it is not fiscally responsible for nonviolent offenders to be kept in prison.

According to FWD.us, a bipartisan group working for criminal justice and immigration reform, Arizona has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the United States.

HB 2245 joins multiple criminal justice reform measures introduced by House Republicans this session.

One of those bills, HB 2270 introduced by Rep. Walter Blackman (R-06), would allow allows prisoners to earn release credits through good behavior and willingly participating in rehabilitation programs. Prisoners who are mandated to serve their full terms don’t qualify.

The bill has been assigned to two committees, which means House leadership has put an extra hurdle in the bill’s path to becoming law.

Another bill, HB 2362 introduced by Rep. Ben Toma (R-22), allows for convicted felons to have their convictions expunged after a certain amount of time has passed.

“What that means is, it doesn’t go away, law enforcement can still see it; if you ever did something else, the prosecution can use it against you,” said Altman, who served as an  assistant U.S. Attorney in Arizona and deputy Maricopa County Attorney. “But, for every other reason, you can say ‘No, I no longer have a felony.’”

Toma’s bill hasn’t been assigned to a committee.

Criminal justice reform, though a bipartisan consensus, can sometimes face tough opposition from prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement.

Rivero said he hopes to make his bill a priority in the session, with the support of Blackman, who is the vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee that is tasked with criminal justice measures. Blackman and Rivero co-chair the House State and International Affairs Committee.

Scaled-down budget possible to break impasse


The Arizona House ended the week seemingly no closer to passing a budget than it had been before, after a single Republican joined with the Democrats on June 7 to kill the two tax cut bills that are the centerpiece of the GOP leadership’s budget proposal. 

With no deal, and with Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, calling for a smaller tax cut than the $1.9 billion proposal supported by the rest of his caucus, one possibility being considered is passing a “skinny budget” – similar to what lawmakers passed last year as they rushed to finish the session due to Covid – to continue funding the government and avert a partial shutdown on July 1. 

“That’s something I think is a very real possibility,” House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said June 10. 

This would mean passing something that would keep funding the government but would not include new spending or policy changes or the proposal to phase in a flat income tax rate Toma and other Republican leaders want. It could mean passing a basic budget, then coming back later in the year in special session to try to do something more. 

“At this point, I think everything is on the table as a potential option,” Toma said. 

The matter of the budget got more complicated June 10 when Gov. Doug Ducey announced a special session to address wildfires around the state.  

A handful of the House’s more conservative Republicans, led by Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, had said their support for the budget would be contingent on deeper spending cuts and funding for election integrity measures. However, all of them voted for the two tax bills that came up June 7. Hoffman proposed an amendment to get rid of the unemployment insurance increase negotiated between House and Senate leaders and the Governor’s Office, but it was voted down. 

Supporters of the tax cut said it would make Arizona more competitive and help businesses that will see a sizable tax increase under the education funding initiative Proposition 208 that voters approved last year. Part of the proposal would immediately impose a 4.5% state income tax cap, cutting taxes on businesses and wealthy individuals who would pay 8% of their income in taxes under current law once Prop. 208 takes effect. Toma said they are “the ones that make the jobs that create the economic conditions that lead to economic improvement for the entire state.” 

Opponents said it would trim revenues cities and towns use for public safety and other basic services and pointed to Kansas’ failed attempt to eliminate its income tax as a cautionary tale. 

“It is the height of arrogance to believe that this time the flat tax is going to work when it has been shown it never has,” said Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Cashion.  

The House did manage to advance the transportation budget bill out of the Committee of a Whole, with an amendment getting rid of a provision that would have raised impound fees and given people less time to reclaim their vehicles, thus leaving the current rules in place. However, the bill has not come up for a final vote in the House, and after the two tax bills failed none of the eight other budget bills were even brought to the floor. 

The House met for less than a half-hour June 10, doing no real business before adjourning until June 14. Toma said he doesn’t expect the House to do much else until there is a budget to vote on. 

“We have a budget that we’ve presented,” Toma said. “We don’t have all the votes yet, as was obvious on Monday. Until we do, there’s probably no reason to put anything up.” 

Toma said the House won’t be working on any other bills in the meantime before a budget deal is reached, pointing to Ducey’s veto of 22 bills in late May in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to force lawmakers to pass a budget more quickly. 

“Anything we do is just going to get, in theory, vetoed again, so what’s the point of that?” Toma said. 

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said Democrats’ preference would be to invest in areas such as education, health care and infrastructure, instead of just continuing this year’s budget. 

“First, we would need to see the actual framework of any budget for us to decide whether we would support or not support a budget right now,” he said. “As a state, we have the ability to make investments. If the majority chooses to leave those investments on the table because they don’t want to work with Democrats, I think that would be a mistake for the state.” 

Toma said he hasn’t been talking to the Democrats about the possibility of passing a bipartisan budget. 

“Quite honestly, I’m not concerned with where they are,” Toma said. “I respect their position philosophically on the tax cuts, but there are members of my caucus who are on this budget only because of the tax cuts.” 

Toma said it would be nice to pass a budget with bipartisan support, but given the “ultra-tribalism” in politics today “I just don’t think that’s reasonable to expect.” 

Bolding said Democrats would be willing to talk, but that there’s no way they could support the current tax cut deal on the table. 

“Right now, Republicans it seems are primarily focused on the flat tax, which is a non-starter for Democrats at the Legislature,” Bolding said. “In the event that the Republicans want to talk about a package that doesn’t include the flat tax and doesn’t disproportionately affect Prop. 208, then we’re willing to have a conversation, but as of this point, we haven’t had official budget negotiations.” 

Cook, the Republican holdout in the House, said he supports a compromise that would still cut taxes – albeit by a lesser amount than leadership’s current plan – while paying down the state’s debt and simplifying the current system without switching to a single flat tax rate. He wants to see the state educate House and Senate members on how much the state owes and work on a long-term plan to address it. 

“I think we can do $1.2 billion in tax cuts and have a two-tiered tax system that has a cap on it,” Cook said. “Probably not the numbers they think. That will alleviate some of the issues they have and alleviate some of the issues I have.” 

Toma doesn’t view this as a solution. He said it won’t address his goal of reducing Arizona’s income tax enough to make the state more competitive with its neighbors and won’t keep taxes down on businesses that will be affected by Proposition 208. 

“That’s just anemic,” he said. “It’s a token cut at best … which to me is completely inadequate.” 

Toma also said he opposes proposals to return some money to taxpayers as a one-time rebate instead of permanent tax cuts. Businesses make decisions about where to locate based on the long-term outlook, he said, not one-time credits. 

“We’re not addressing any of those things by doing a one-time offset,” he said. 


Special session push exposes legislative discord


An outgoing House Republican’s effort to call the Legislature into a special session is driving a wedge in an already factional caucus. 

Rep. Kelly Townsend’s petition for the Legislature to call its own special session – something that hasn’t happened since 1981 – has provoked accusations from colleagues within the party that she’s only trying to raise her profile. 

After all, it’s a difficult task – two-thirds of the lawmakers in both chambers need to agree, something that would require a level of planning and bipartisan cooperation nearly unheard of in this era. 

“I stood with ALL House Republicans in voting to stay in session and I support going back in IF we can get conservative bills passed,” Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, tweeted this week. “Right now, there just isn’t support outside of House Republicans to do that, and Democrats have no interest in helping us reopen AZ and get people back to work.” 

Democrats want a special session, and have been crafting legislation with stakeholders since the last legislative session adjourned on issues ranging from evictions to police violence, said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez. But they believe that the path to success goes up to the Ninth Floor of the Executive Tower – the fear being that without guardrails from Gov. Doug Ducey, a special session would mean a torrent of Republican legislation. 

Kelly Townsend
Kelly Townsend

Ducey has shown no interest in a special session, however, which has only intensified Townsend’s conviction that the Legislature must act. 

Her petition now has 24 signatures, including her own, from members of both chambers, dividing the Legislature into “those who are for the Constitution” and those “who don’t want to displease the king,” she tweeted this week. 

People like Toma, she said, are in the latter camp. 

“It’s worrisome that they don’t understand why it’s so important for us to come back into session, and that they think it’s self serving,” Townsend said. “It does not behoove me to do this. I don’t have a choice, because it’s not being done otherwise.”  

Townsend has two main arguments: Ducey has for months acted without official input from lawmakers, which she believes necessitates legislation to rein in emergency declarations; and secondly, business owners need help from lawmakers. 

People are hurting, Townsend said, and it’s urgent to get back to the Legislature to “return the balance of power for many reasons.”

 Republicans agree. But outside of the 24 on Townsend’s petition, they don’t see a need to address these issues now – House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, has hinted that he’d be interested in legislation to limit Ducey’s emergency powers, though likely not until next session. They’re also concerned that a lack of a pre-ordained plan or arrangement would lead to chaos, and don’t appear to be interested in creating such a plan. 

Competitive leadership races and long-standing frustration with Bowers by the caucus’ most ideological conservatives have already created discord within the party, and Townsend’s petition is in part an extension of that sentiment.  

She sent a letter to legislative leadership this week to request “an update as to what the Legislature is planning on doing to address the ongoing crisis in Arizona,” according to a copy of the letter she shared on Facebook.  

“We have half of the caucus that have signed the petition to call ourselves back into session to address the unfinished business of the Legislature, as well as the various problems brought about by the pandemic,” she said. “I have made it very well clear that I am not comfortable with having the executive branch having sole control over the situation, using executive orders to govern, ignoring the House and the Senate.”  

Townsend wrote that legislative leadership has offered her “literally zero” communication on the status of her inquiry – a claim that a spokesman for Bowers denied. 

Her frustration has grown to the point that she has actively (though unsuccessfully) courted Democrats to sign onto her petition, and said that some have expressed support privately. 

“We could work in a bipartisan way with the Democrats,” she said. “If there’s so much dysfunction that prevents that from happening, maybe we need new leadership.” 

Bowers said this month in a Clean Elections Commission debate that he has requested a special session from Ducey, though it doesn’t appear that he moved the needle. 

“As recently as last week, I’ve made known to the governor that I would like to come in … and review the powers and authorities of the governor’s executive orders to see how we could get a broader influence by the legislative body as we move into larger policy issues relevant to COVID,” he said. 

Special session sought to fix PC snafu

Winged Victory atop the Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

While both the House and Senate have passed bills to walk back a legal change made earlier this month and allow for precinct committeeman elections, neither has enough support now to take effect in time. 

Lawmakers are waiting to see if Gov. Doug Ducey will call a special session to deal with both the precinct committeeman issue, which could create a path for a fix to take effect earlier, and with repealing and replacing last year’s $2 billion in income tax cuts. 

However, replacing last year’s tax cut – which would cancel out a pending ballot referral to repeal the phase-in of a 2.5% flat income tax – would likely need unanimous Republican support. And it took a while to get all Republicans on board to pass the tax cuts in the first place a year ago. 

Rusty Bowers

On March 14, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1720, which would allow for precinct committeeman elections this year, on a 17-12 vote, with only Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, joining the Republicans. And on March 16, the House followed suit, passing House Bill 2840 on a 34-25 vote with three Democrats joining the Republicans. 

The Legislature unanimously passed HB2839, which was meant to fix an issue with candidate signature thresholds caused by changes in numbering during redistricting, on March 3. However, the law also replaced the usual election of precinct committeemen in 2022 with appointment by county party officials. Republicans tend to have more contested precinct committeemen elections than Democrats, and conservative activists quickly called foul. 

“I rise in contrition of the great error that I’ve committed in this bill, and it’s hard for me to stand here having made a mistake on this bill that I’ve signed, the only imperfect bill I’ve voted on in my 30 years,” House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said as he voted for HB2840. 

Bowers, who has not been a favorite recently of the activists who have been the loudest in demanding the precinct committeeman change be fixed, said in an interview earlier this week that the issue was “personal to me” and that he hoped the Democrats would come aboard. But he said he would hold a vote regardless. 

During the vote, he mentioned that some of the vocal people came to his house over the weekend to complain. 

“Either way, we’re going to vote on this bill,” he said. “Voters need to know we’re doing what we can to fix a mistake that I made.” 

Republicans have been pushing to repeal the law so precinct committeemen can be elected on the August 2 primary ballot, but they have been unable to strike a deal to get enough Democratic support to pass it with the two-thirds needed for a bill to take effect immediately. Without an emergency clause, bills take effect 90 days after the end of the session. 

Republicans called on the Democrats to join them in the spirit of bipartisanship and of selecting precinct committeemen by voters instead of party bosses. 

“It is about democracy,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “I do not understand why anybody would oppose electing precinct committeemen. A no vote prevents democracy.” 

Karen Fann

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said Democrats don’t care as much about precinct committeemen elections because most precinct committeemen in the state are Republican. 

“We have a lot of precincts that are full, and we have more PCs applying for those positions, so it’s important for us that we keep those elections,” she said. 

Fann said Democrats tried to trade their votes on the precinct committeeman bill for stopping Senate Concurrent Resolution 1012, which will ask voters in November if they want stricter voter ID requirements for elections. The resolution has already passed both the House and Senate on party-line votes and will be on the November ballot unless lawmakers recall it. 

“They didn’t get anything. They tried,” Fann said. 

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said Republicans shouldn’t just call for bipartisanship when they need something. 

“In this chamber, when we talk about bipartisanship, it’s something we should practice not when it’s just self-interest at play,” he said.  

Bolding said the Democrats read HB2839 and stand by their votes for it. The Republicans’ pro-democracy rhetoric didn’t convince Bolding either. 

“The reality is, it is completely ironic to stand here and talk about elections and giving people representation when what we’ve seen throughout this country is over 900 bills to suppress the vote, nearly 100 coming from Arizona,” Bolding said. 

What happens now?  

“Well, two-thirds would be ideal, but the bill does have a retroactivity clause,” House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said shortly after the vote. 

Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said that the retroactivity clause won’t let them take the steps necessary to put PCs on the ballot in time since the law still won’t be in effect. Still, Toma said, “I would say the legislative intent is pretty clear.” 

Toma said he favors a special session on this and the tax bill, which he says needs to be fixed because the ballot referral was flawed by only challenging the cut in income tax rates, although he didn’t know as of March 16 when Ducey plans to call it.  

“As far as I’m concerned, and in general the House caucus, we’re ready,” Toma said. 

Spending 2020: From $1B windfall to survival


When they returned to work in January, Arizona lawmakers faced a financial situation colleagues everywhere would envy: an extra, unbudgeted $1 billion.

At the time, their biggest challenge appeared to be deciding how to spend that windfall. Should they slash taxes? Build roads and bridges? Pour more money into education?

Then spring hit, bringing with it a wider spread of a disease that had once been an abstract threat on foreign shores. Arizona, and the United States at large, hunkered down and the economy ground to a virtual halt.

Almost overnight, that $1 billion surplus became an estimated $1.1 billion deficit.

“At the beginning of the session, we were all talking about how we were swimming in money,” Sen. J.D. Mesnard said. “We have enough, if you add up everything right now, to tread water. If it gets much worse, we could sink.”

The Chandler Republican, who spent last fall crafting an ambitious plan to cut about $300 million in taxes, primarily through property tax adjustments, is one of many lawmakers who shelved spending plans when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

While he still supports tax cuts in principle and maintains that Arizona’s previous revenue cuts positioned the state to have a strong economy that could weather downturns — though his Democratic critics would say the opposite — Mesnard does not plan to push for his original tax package or any other tax cuts when the Legislature reconvenes. At this point, the state shouldn’t be doing anything to increase or decrease revenue, he said.

“As much as I was pushing for tax cuts, it’s hard for me to see that because it does have an economic impact right away,” Mesnard said.

The staunchest advocate for tax cuts in the House, meanwhile, says there still might be an opportunity to put some money back in the hands of taxpayers, albeit at the expense of extra cash in state coffers. Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, was the champion of an omnibus tax proposal that would have cut revenues by   $161 million in the 2021 fiscal year alone.

That proposal, like many others, “is probably not on the table,” he said, citing changing needs in the age of coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean the underlying principle is dead.

“We have to seriously consider helping certain businesses and taxpayers survive,” he said.

But diminishing state revenues in any manner isn’t in the cards for Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who as chair of the House Appropriations Committee plays a significant role in setting spending priorities for the state. To be fair, neither is increasing taxes – a proposal that would be anathema for the majority of Republican lawmakers.

“When you’re coming back [to the Legislature], you’re coming back to just focus on the deficit, to focus on COVID,” she said.

Tucson Rep. Randy Friese, Cobb’s counterpart on the committee, is among the chorus of Democrats who see the majority’s fondness of tax cuts as something that has crippled Arizona’s ability to cope with crises both financial and epidemiological. He said that to start, no option should be discounted — even tax increases, however sacrilegious they may be in Arizona politics.

“Revenue generation needs to be on the table,” Friese said.

Either way, it’s clear the Legislature’s focus during its eventual return will be on righting the ship. Budgetary priorities from the good old days are looking increasingly unlikely to move forward, including plans favored by Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Project Rocket,” a Ducey plan to invest around $44 million in per-pupil funds for low-income and poorly-performing schools, might not be possible to pull off this session, said Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa.

“I hope that we can keep it in the mix, but obviously we don’t know at this point,” Udall said.

Udall shepherded the bill through her own House Education Committee and through an occasionally hostile Appropriations Committee, where Democrats and Udall’s fellow Republicans expressed misgivings. But by the time COVID-19 hit, the legislation was still awaiting a full hearing in the House.

Now it looks like it’ll be stuck in limbo, at least until next session.

“Unfortunately for many members, there are a number of bills that just aren’t going to make it to the finish line,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge.

Some of these bills were personal and won’t be relinquished easily. Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, pushed for a $19 million appropriation to help build an 80-bed care center for veterans in Kingman. Similar centers exist in Phoenix and Tucson and are being built with state funding in Flagstaff and Yuma, leaving the Mohave County area the one part of the state without a dedicated veterans’ home.

Borrelli, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, said he will continue to advocate for state funding for the veterans’ home as soon as the state can afford it. But for now, all he and the veterans in western Arizona can do is wait, he said.

“We’ll just weather this storm,” Borrelli said. “We need to make the state well again before we start spending on things that are really not that hot.”

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, is pinning her hopes on the federal government. Allen and Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, introduced bills to allocate $15 million toward constructing a bridge over Tonto Creek, following a tragic Thanksgiving incident in which three children drowned after being washed away by flood waters.

Residents of the rural community of Tonto Basin now have two options to reach basic services on the other side of the creek – crossings through the riverbed, which becomes treacherous during a monsoon or after snowmelt, or by driving more than 70 miles on a forest road that can also become impassable during bad weather.

Legislative funding for a bridge over the creek was in drafts of the fiscal 2021 budget before COVID-19 forced lawmakers to abandon their original budget plans, pass a pared-down version and get out of Phoenix, Allen said. Now, with state dollars unlikely and Gila County unable to cover the full cost of a new bridge, Allen is stepping up her advocacy for the project to receive federal grant dollars.

“I will continue to see what I can do for funding this bridge,” Allen said. “I’m just heartsick because it was in the budget.”

Allen’s not alone in hoping the feds step up. Shope said he’s still waiting to see whether Congress will pass a fourth stimulus package, which could free up extra funds to help pass smaller proposals from the session — expanding access to broadband in rural Arizona, for example. But national Republicans and Democrats have been so far unable to reconcile different visions for how the plan should take shape.

“To the extent that exists, there may be some things we can do,” Shope said.

Higher-than-expected revenues at the start of the year raised Democratic politicians’ hopes for their own budget requests. Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, passed a bill out of the Senate that would have increased to $250 the meager $75 monthly stipend the state makes available to grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives who take in children their parents can’t care for anymore.

Gov. Doug Ducey called for doubling the stipend to $150 in his State of the State Address, and some increase was likely to appear in the budget. Alston also had reason to believe another issue she has long pushed for — expanding property tax subsidies for low-income seniors who risk losing their homes because they can’t afford their property taxes — could make it this year because Cobb expressed interest in including that $5 million appropriation in the budget.

Both requests are now dead, at a time when Alston fears her constituents in a high-poverty central Phoenix district, and Arizonans across the state, will most need the extra help. Grandparents who may have been working part-time jobs to help pay for the children they didn’t expect to raise are losing those jobs, and low-income seniors face losing their houses, Alston said.

“A month ago, I saw a silver lining on some of these issues,” she said. “And now to imagine it’s not going to happen at all, it’s very emotionally wearing on me.”

Stringer continues criminal justice reform effort amid controversy

Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, answers questions Wednesday about his comments which were interpreted by some as racist. Stringer said he was not a racist but simply was detailing his views on the effects of rapid immigration on the country. With him is the Rev. Jarrett Maupin who agreed to let Stringer explain his comments to leaders of the African-American community in Phoenix. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES
Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, answers questions Wednesday about his comments which were interpreted by some as racist. Stringer said he was not a racist but simply was detailing his views on the effects of rapid immigration on the country. With him is the Rev. Jarrett Maupin who agreed to let Stringer explain his comments to leaders of the African-American community in Phoenix. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES

At a meeting with a group of African Americans last month, Rep. David Stringer didn’t exactly apologize for his remarks that immigration is “an existential threat” to the United States.

An apology is not what Renee Huff wanted to hear from the Prescott Republican.

“I didn’t come here just because I was offended. I came here because I want to know what comes next,” Huff told Stringer on June 27. “And the judicial system and the criminal justice system is very important, and yes, it is overloaded with people of color.”

Stringer would like to keep working to improve outcomes in the judicial system. That day, he promised that he would continue efforts behind the scenes to advocate for criminal justice reforms at the Legislature.

As the chairman of an ad hoc committee formed to study that very topic, Stringer was poised to have a leading role in that endeavor. That committee was disbanded following news of Stringer’s remarks on immigration, as House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, feared Stringer’s comments would overshadow the committee’s work.

Stringer and the committee are still moving forward, although in a less public setting.

Reps. Tony Rivero, Ben Toma, Kirsten Engel and Tony Navarrete met with Stringer and representatives from various organizations advocating for criminal justice reform on June 26, to plan how to keep studying the issues they would have tackled as an ad hoc committee.

Sam Richard, a lobbyist for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, arrived at the June 26 meeting expecting an apology and for Stringer to step away from the conversation. Instead, Stringer expressed regret that his comments affected the committee’s agenda, and announced he’ll continue to be a part of discussions going forward.

That arrangement is disappointing to the American Friends Service Committee, which works closely with other groups advocating for criminal justice reform, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice on the left, and Americans For Prosperity and Right on Crime, more right-leaning organizations.

“His comments were deeply and gravely offensive to many of the people that we are in that room on behalf of,” Richard said. “So his continued presence is a distraction, both from a political perspective but also from a policy perspective, because it’s hard to divorce the two during an election year.”

“Mr. Stringer’s public involvement in the conversations at any level is a distraction to meaningful progress on these issues,” he added.

Stringer declined to comment, citing a desire to avoid hurting the committee’s effort, and referred questions to Rivero.

Rivero, a Peoria Republican, acknowledged that he’d been asked to be “somewhat of a spokesperson,” the public face of the group’s work, rather than Stringer.

The arrangement was struck as lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, try to find a way to keep the conversation moving forward.

Engel, a Tucson Democrat, said, “We all continue to think, especially Tony (Navarrete) and I and others, the work on criminal justice has to continue. And that’s really the most important thing to do. What we have done is committed to continue to meet.”

As for Stringer’s involvement, Engel said, “I think it’s up to him if he’ll continue attending the meetings… It’s fine so far as he’s not the face of this group.”

Rivero said he wasn’t aware that any organizations were concerned by Stringer’s continued presence in conversations about criminal justice reform, but said he’s happy to sit down and talk about any concerns.

“But as far as David Stringer goes, I don’t agree with his opinion or his comments, but the reality is he’s still a legislator. And if he’s re-elected, he’s one vote that’s needed on this specific issue,” Rivero said.

Kurt Altman, a lobbyist for Right on Crime in Arizona, said Stringer has a passion for criminal justice reform, and some insight. Stringer has boasted of pro bono work he did as a criminal defense attorney in Washington, D.C., and was the one who advocated for the creation of a committee to study the issue this summer.

And Stringer isn’t naive about the spotlight he’s placed on himself, and indirectly, the committee’s mission, Altman said. That’s why he’s stepping back a bit to allow someone else to address questions about the committee’s work.

“He’s a smart guy when it comes to these issues,” Altman said. “People might not agree with his views on all issues regarding criminal justice, but he has some insight, and I think his input is good.”

As an advocate for criminal justice reform, Altman said organizations have to make the best of their situation – in this case, like any other issue at the Capitol, that means working with whoever is in office and has the power to pass laws.

“We don’t get to make the choices on who’s driving policy. It’s a good policy. So whoever’s at the table, I would sit at the table with him,” Altman said.

Despite their disappointment with Stringer, the American Friends Service Committee will also take that approach, Richard said.

“If there is a conversation happening about criminal justice reform at the Capitol, we feel like it is our duty to be a part of that conversation,” he said.

The Breakdown: Have you no honor?


How exactly do you work with someone you believe has betrayed you?

That’s a question some lawmakers are asking themselves about the state’s county prosecutors after what some saw as an 11th hour reversal on criminal justice reform measures.

An attorney plagiarized a significant portion of her application to the Court of Appeals, then changed it after our reporter called shenanigans.

And session may be over, but your state lawmakers are still making waves.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Breakdown on iTunes and Stitcher.


Music in this episode included “Creative Minds” and “Energy” by Bensound.

Toma calls executive order on conversion therapy illegal, unconstitutional

The top House Republican contends a new order by Gov. Katie Hobbs banning the use of public funds for “conversion therapy” is illegal and appears to violate the rights of parents to make decisions for their children.

In a letter Monday to the governor, House Speaker Ben Toma acknowledged that some states have banned the practice. But he said that is something that can be done only by the Legislature.

“Your executive order is an improper exercise of your authority,” the Peoria Republican told Hobbs.

But Toma said the legal problems run far deeper.

He said her definition of what is “conversion therapy” is `unprecedented, vague, unintelligible, and unenforceable,” citing her use of the words “any practice or treatment.”

“State agencies directed to implement your executive order cannot begin to understand what constitutes a banned ‘conversion therapy,’ Toma wrote.

But gubernatorial press aide Christian Slater said the order is a bit more specific.

What it outlaws is “any practice or treatment that seeks or purports to change an individual’s non-heteronormative sexual orientation or non-cisgender identity, including efforts to change behaviors or gender expression, under the false premise that homosexuality and gender-diverse identities are pathological.”

And Slater pointed out that Hobbs, in her executive order, cited the position of the American Psychological Association. It has stated that “sexual orientation conversion efforts” actually are linked to increased efforts at suicide.

Hobbs also said the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has determined that conversion therapy is “coercive, can be harmful, and should not be part of behavioral health treatment.”

Toma, however, said there are other issues.

One is the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” a broad statement in Arizona law of the rights of parents over a minor child “without obstruction or interference from this state.” Provisions range from directing the child’s education and upbringing to deciding the moral or religious training of the child.

There also is a provision saying that the government may “usurp the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health” of their children only by first showing it is “essential to accomplish a compelling governmental interest of the highest order” and that the method of interference “is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”

Other than citing the opposition of various medical experts and professional organizations, Hobbs’ executive order cites only one such interest.

“The government has a duty to taxpayers to ensure that decisions are fiscally sound, transparent, and evidence based, and that public healthcare funds are not spent on discredited, ineffective, and unsafe practices,” she stated.

Toma also said the state constitutional right of freedom of speech protects the right of patients to speak freely with their therapists.

He also cited a 2020 federal appellate court ruling which voided as unconstitutional a conversion therapy ban enacted by a Florida city. There, Toma said, the court determined that the First Amendment does not allow the government to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender.”

But Slater said all that misses a crucial point.

“It’s not like an actual ban on conversion therapy,” he said of the governor’s order.

“That would have to be statutory,” Slater continued, just like Toma is claiming. But this, he said, “is just a ban on the state promoting or supporting conversion therapy.”


Toma, Kavanagh, Kern gunning for House majority leader


A trio of Republicans are jostling to lead the GOP House majority next year – should a GOP House majority still exist, that is. 

With Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Mesa, the position’s current occupant, moving to the Senate, the majority leader job is wide open, and Representatives Anthony Kern, John Kavanagh and Ben Toma all want a shot.  

Getting the job will require victories in their general election races, victory for the House GOP and a vote from fellow members of the Republican caucus. But success means an opportunity to mold the party’s ideology and broker agreements between warring factions within the party and across the aisle. 

If Republicans maintain their tenuous 31-29 majority, slim margins make the position especially important, said Kavanagh. He touted his relationships with other lawmakers, his oratory and his organizational capabilities – skills he’s honed in a 14-year tenure. 

“I’ve been in every possible legislative situation – other than being in the minority,” Kavanagh said. “Republicans need to put their best image forward, a lot of outreach to the media, at events, newspaper columns.” 

John Kavanagh
John Kavanagh

Kern, a Glendale Republican who serves as chair of the House Rules Committee, has twice failed at earning a spot in House GOP leadership – he’s hoping “the third time’s the charm.” 

“I just keep losing by one vote, I don’t know why,” he said, referencing his 2016 bid as a freshman to become whip and his 2018 run for majority leader. 

Kern said he sent letters to fellow Republicans asking for their vote, and has started giving likely incoming freshmen his elevator pitch, which includes conservative policy, caucus unity and supporting the agenda of House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. 

“I thought Rusty did a good job,” he said. 

Bowers himself is facing a challenge from Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who’s running to boost the role of the caucus’ most conservative members. 

His candidacy was borne out of frustration by Liberty Caucus-affiliated Republicans in the House who lamented the adjournment of the legislative session, who decried the governor’s stay-at-home order and in general who viewed the party’s establishment-wing as aloof and uncommunicative. 

Anthony Kern
Anthony Kern

None of the three majority leader candidates have announced their support of either pick for speaker – even Kern, despite his stated support of Bowers. Kavanagh described himself as “running independently,” while Toma declined to answer. 

Toma, a Republican from Peoria, said the majority leader job would be especially important if Republicans continue to hold a slim majority in the House. 

“There are times when as a majority leader you have to take a hit for the majority, and that’s something I’m willing to do,” he said. 

Toma, who generally eschews fiery floor speeches in favor of policy work, is a dedicated conservative, but earned goodwill with Democrats for his desire to pass sentencing reform legislation. 

He’s the preferred majority leader of Rep. Regina Cobb, the House Appropriations chair and a Bowers supporter.  

“Toma is the guy I think would be best suited for the position,” said Cobb, of Kingman. “I think that he’s able to work with all kinds of personalities and that’s what the majority leader needs to be. His temperament is even keel. He’s not antagonistic.” 

 If Democrats take the House, this all may be moot. Though the longstanding minority has no shortage of feuding factions with differing ideological visions, the leadership contest is still opaque. Moderate House Democrats have congealed around Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, as a candidate for speaker or minority leader, but neither he nor current House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez are willing to discuss their ambitions publicly. 

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

And the pool of applicants for leader of a loyal Republican opposition under a Democratic majority is shallow.

Toma said he’s “probably not” interested in the leadership job unless Republicans are in charge. Kern, on the other hand, didn’t want to acknowledge that a Democratic majority is even possible.  

“I promise you they’re not gonna win,” he said, before adding that if Republicans want him to lead in the minority, he would consider it. 

Kern, incidentally, holds one of the seats that Democrats covet most dearly. He and Rep. Shawna Bolick, R-Phoenix, must fend off a challenge from Judy Schwiebert, a teacher who Democrats hope can carry the district. 

Kavanagh said he’d likely want to run for assistant minority leader if Democrats took over – especially if he can help orchestrate a reversion to the mean two years later. 

He expects that Republicans will storm back to power in the midterms, buoyed by a favorable district map and a response to Biden from the right. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has made creating the conditions for a map that benefits Republicans a priority, stacking the committee that vets Independent Redistricting Commission members with Republicans and right-leaning independents.

“I think that will make the next two years even more critical that Republicans put their best feet forward,” he said. “I think we would have a good chance of taking back the chamber.”

Transgender girls can still play girls sports, appellate court rules

Two transgender girls will get to play on girls’ teams, at least for the time being.

In a brief order Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected separate bids by Republican legislative leaders and state schools chief Tom Horne to delay the effect of an order issued last month by U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps blocking the state from enforcing its 2022 ban on transgender girls from playing with and against other girls.

That most immediately means that the girls will be able to participate in girls’ sports as this new school year begins, precisely what Horne, Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma had sought to prevent by seeking a stay of Zipps’ order. In fact, they argued to the appellate judges that, absent their intervention, one of the girls, an 11-year-old student at Kyrene Aprende Middle School, would participate in a cross-country competition on Monday.

The appellate judges apparently were not impressed by the arguments, turning down the requests for a delay in the ruling and instead setting a schedule for the attorneys for both the challengers and the affected girls to file legal briefs. And that means the court will not even consider their arguments until at least November, if not later.

Horne, ESA, data breach, Accurso
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne (Photo courtesy of Tom Horne via Cronkite News)

Horne, reacting to Monday’s order, said he was not alarmed.

He pointed out that, strictly speaking, the litigation affects only these two transgender girls whose bid to participate in girls’ sports was brought in federal court by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the one attending school in the Kyrene district and the other a 15-year who is a student at The Gregory School in Tucson. While that is a private school, it is affected by the 2022 law because it participates in Arizona Interscholastic Association, which allows its students to participate in interscholastic sports with other schools.

But Horne told Capitol Media Services he needs to battle this particular lawsuit because he’s sure the legal fights won’t stop here.

“My view is that this is a first step towards letting males play in female sports in general,” he said.

“So this is a long-term fight,” he continued. “And I think it’s as important enough issue that we’ll win it in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Petersen was critical of the refusal of the appellate judges to step in and allow enforcement of the law.

Sen. Warren Petersen

“Bad rulings like this are just another reminder why the 9th Circuit is the most radical and overturned in the nation,” said the Gilbert Republican. In fact, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with a reversal rate of 81.5%, is the most reversed U.S. appellate court in the land since 2007, according to Ballotpedia. The 9th Circuit comes in second in that time span with an 80% reversal rate.

A spokesman for Toma said he is “disappointed” by Monday’s ruling, saying the Peoria Republican is evaluating his next steps.

The 2022 law requires public schools and any private schools that compete against them to designate their interscholastic or intramural sports strictly as male, female or coed. And, more to the point, it specifically says that teams designated for women or girls “may not be open to students of the male sex.”

In her ruling last month, Zipps, a 2011 appointee of President Obama, rejected claims by Horne and the legislative leaders that it would be unfair to allow those who were born as males to participate against females. The judge said the evidence Horne presented claiming that prepubescent transgender girls are stronger does not hold up under scrutiny.

U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Zipps swears in before a Senate confirmation hearing in 2011. (Photo by Cristina Rayas/Cronkite News Service)

Zipps also said that the 2022 law violates Title IX, a federal law that bars discrimination based on sex in educational opportunities. She said it deprives transgender girls “the benefits of sports programs and activities that their non-transgender classmates enjoy.”

And perhaps the most significant, the judge said the two girls who filed suit, who otherwise would be participating this new school year in sports, would suffer irreparable harm.

In seeking to stay the order, Horne argued just the opposite. He said that allowing Jane Doe, the transgender girl attending school in the Kryene district, to compete in cross-country events with other girls would not be fair to them.

“Unless Doe finishes the race behind every biological girl participating in the race, Doe’s participation will necessarily displace a biological girl from finishing in a higher-ranked position,” the schools chief argued. “Those biological girls will be irreparably harmed in the absence of a stay.”

The attorney for Petersen and Toma had their own arguments, including what he said is the right of state legislators to set public policy and adopt laws like the one challenged here.

“Permitting a single transgender-female athlete to participate on girls’ teams permits and prolongs a continuing violation of law,” wrote John Sauer.

“The act, as a duly enacted law adopted by Arizona’s elected representatives, is itself a clear and authoritative declaration of the public interest in Arizona,” he continued. “The district court erred by disregarding these public interests.”

In her extensive ruling last month, Zipps relied heavily on the concept that transgender girls are, in fact, girls.

She acknowledged that children are “assigned” a sex at birth which generally matches physiology. But the judge said that is different than “gender identity.”

“For a transgender person, that initial designation does not match the person’s gender identity,” Zipps said. She also said that “gender dysphoria” – the distress due to incongruence between the person’s gender identity and assigned sex – is highly treatable.

“Attempts to ‘cure’ transgender individuals by forcing their gender identity into alignment with their birth sex are harmful and ineffective,” Zipps wrote. And the judge said efforts like the 2022 law to deny transgender girls the opportunity to participate in sports with other girls – and she does consider the plaintiffs to be girls – can be harmful, citing high rates of attempted suicide in the transgender community.


Tucking policy in budget to get tested in court

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, looks over the printed budget prior to a vote on the Arizona budget at the Arizona Capitol Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, looks over the printed budget prior to a vote on the Arizona budget at the Arizona Capitol Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Two lawsuits seeking to overturn multiple controversial provisions of this year’s state budget could have big implications for how lawmakers write budgets in the future – if the plaintiffs’ arguments prevail.  

“The Legislature has been pushing the envelope for years, and this time they have gone too far,” Roopali Desai, who is representing the plaintiffs in a challenge to several budget bills, wrote in a court filing this week. “They buried substantive policies in the budget with no adequate notice to the public, and filed a ‘budget procedures’ bill with multiple, unrelated subjects. The constitution doesn’t allow that.”  

The Arizona Constitution says “every act shall embrace but one subject and matters properly connected therewith, which subject shall be expressed in the title; but if any subject shall be embraced in an act which shall not be expressed in the title, such act shall be void only as to so much thereof as shall not be embraced in the title.” This is commonly called the “single-subject rule,” and Desai is arguing the Legislature violated it by adding to budget bills measures such as limits on schools’ and local governments’ power to enact Covid-related restrictions, including mask and vaccine mandates.  

However, whether it ends up being ruled constitutional or not, the practice of including policy in budget reconciliation bills is nothing new.  

“We’ve had these types of provisions in legislation for a very long time, decades at this point,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “If the court does choose to interfere, I think they’d be perhaps on a slippery slope, or at least nowhere near consistent, which has its own challenges.”  

Toma said that, while he didn’t want to comment on what the court will do, “as a Legislature, it is our prerogative to make laws, and the process was followed. It was part of the public process, just like every other bill, and so I’m not sure on what basis they would reverse legislative action.”  

Ben Toma
Ben Toma

This year’s budget, which passed along party lines at the end of a contentious 171-day session, included numerous controversial measures that are now being challenged, some of which were originally proposed as standalone bills but added to the budget when they didn’t make it through the normal process.  

In a court declaration filed in a case challenging the Phoenix Union High School District’s mask mandate, Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, said she and Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, and Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, agreed to support the budget only if a ban on mask mandates that would take effect before this school year was included. 

“This was a position that I expressed to our colleagues on behalf of the group,” Parker wrote. “This was the price of our vote for HB2898 (the K-12 budget reconciliation bill) and other portions of the budget and hence for the provision of funds for the 2021- 2022 school year.”  

As well as the Covid-related provisions that have gotten the most attention, budget bills also contained limits on how teachers can present some topics related to race that supporters have said they intended as a ban on “critical race theory” in schools, and changes to election law such as giving Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich, rather than Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the power to defend the state’s election laws in court. 

Two lawsuits were filed earlier this month – one by the Arizona School Boards Association and other education groups, and one by the city of Phoenix – seeking to get policy items attached to some of the budget provision declared unconstitutional as violations of the single-subject rule. The Phoenix suit challenges a provision in this year’s criminal justice budget bill that seeks to block the city’s plans for independent civilian review of its police department.  

“By stuffing so many different topics and so much substantive legislation into a bill that’s supposed to simply enact parts of the budget, the Legislature made sure that none of these important topics got their own individual votes,” said lawyer Jean-Jacques Cabou, who is representing the city.  

Oral arguments have been scheduled in the school board association’s suit for September 13, while an order to show cause hearing in the Phoenix case has been set for September 7. The state Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee have also signaled they plan to challenge in court some budget provisions related to federal-only voters, albeit on the grounds that they violate federal constitutional guarantees rather than the single-subject rule.  

The school boards association is also challenging the mask mandate ban on equal protection grounds, arguing it treats public and private schools differently. Arizona State University law professor Paul Bender said he thinks this argument is more likely to prevail in court. 

“There’s one claim in there that seems to me to be very strong, and I can’t see how they cannot win on that, and that’s that the legislation distinguishes between public schools and private schools and says public schools cannot require masks, but it doesn’t apply to the private schools, and the public schools are claiming in the suit that that’s a violation of the Constitution,” Bender said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me. What’s the possible rationale for saying public school students can’t be required to have masks but private schools can be required to have masks?” 

Paul Bender
Paul Bender

However, he said the single-subject arguments raise more complex questions. While Bender said he believes the rule is meant to block adding policy changes to budget bills, until now the courts have not agreed with him on this. Bender said his guess is the court will respect long-standing precedent and reject the argument that the bills are unconstitutional on these grounds.  

“I don’t remember anything that’s this substantive that they’ve tried to do through (the budget) process … (but) the problem is over the years, the court just hasn’t enforced the rules, and once the Legislature gets used to doing things and the court hasn’t stopped them, they just keep doing it,” he said.  

Toma said a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would complicate the way the Legislature does business.  

“The reality of it is, though, it really depends on what the decision is and in which case,” Toma said. “I think it would become impossible to pass a budget if the court was to take a very strict interpretation, which I don’t think they will, but at the same time … if they say ‘OK, no more policy in the budget,’ then I guess the open question is … where is the line between policy and a conditional enactment of some kind of a conditional appropriation?”  

Toma did express a personal preference for not including too much policy in the budget and said it could be a good thing if the suits lead to an outcome that makes passing a budget simpler.  

“If an outcome, or a potential outcome, is a ‘dial back, OK, don’t push your luck’ kind of thing – I’m sure they’ll be more eloquent in how they explain it – that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” he said. 


Voucher foes turn in petition signatures

Foes of universal school vouchers turned in 141,714 signatures Friday to give voters the last word.

But whether it gets that far depends on what happens next.

Hanging in the balance is the plan approved earlier this year by Republican-controlled legislature to provide vouchers of taxpayer funds to any of the 1.1 million students in public schools to instead attend private or parochial schools. Those vouchers, which average close to $7,000, also could be used for costs of home schooling.

State and county election officials perform the first reviews to determine, after invalid signatures are eliminated, whether there are still 118,823 left in the petitions gathered by Save Our Schools to hold up enactment until the 2024 general election. That’s when voters would get to decide whether to ratify or reject it.

Beth Lewis

After that, however, supporters of what are formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will be doing their own examination of the petitions with an eye on disqualifying even more signatures — and leaving the referendum petition drive short of the required number.

“We will be ready to defend the parents of our state,” said Steve Smith, state director of American Federation for Children.

“We would very much make sure that the signatures that are turned in, that those are valid and there’s not an attempt to derail this program through invalid and improperly collected signatures,” added Matt Beienburg, director of education policy, Goldwater Institute. “So that would be very much, I think, a starting point.”

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, acknowledged that the signatures submitted provide a margin of error of just 20%. And companies that collect petitions generally seek a 25% cushion.

She said, though, organizers are confident there are enough valid signatures. And at least part of that, Lewis said, is because virtually all the collection was done by volunteers who, as a whole, have a higher validity rate.

And there’s something else.

Opponents of ballot measures routinely seek to disqualify petitions gathered by paid circulators who are required to comply with a host of technical requirements. Those rules, however, don’t apply to volunteers.

Even if it clears all those hurdles, there’s one more potential snag to getting that public vote in 2024.

Legislative supporters could simply vote next year to repeal the legislation, make a few changes, and reenact it. That act would make the petition drive legally moot, forcing foes to start over again next year.

The record suggests voter antipathy toward making more students eligible for vouchers.

Lawmakers approved a vast expansion of the program in 2017, only to have Save Our School refer the measure to the 2018 ballot. It was rejected by a margin of close to 2 to 1.

Toma, ESAs, vouchers, Save Our Schools Arizona, private schools, tuition, charter schools, public schools, AEA
Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria

But House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said that occurred because some voucher supporters opposed the 2017 plan because it had some limits on the number of vouchers that would have been available. He said they feared that voter ratification would have frozen that limit into law.

By contrast, he said, the new version has no limits, eliminating that concern.

Lewis rejected Toma’s explanation – and his contention that people are more likely to support universal vouchers now than they were four years ago.

“I was out in the field in 2017 and 2018 and people were confused,” she told Capitol Media Services. “They were like, ‘What’s a voucher?’ ”

Now, she said, there is a better understanding of the concept of using tax dollars to send children to private and parochial schools.

“They know exactly what this is,” Lewis said. “And they don’t want it,” Lewis said.

Central to the issue is the question of whether public funds should be used for private education.

school choice, Heritage Foundation, Ducey, Florida, K-12, private schools, public schools
Matt Beienburg

“At the end of the day the purpose of the ESA program and school choice is to give parents the ability to pursue the best education for their kids, regardless of what form it comes in,” said Beienburg. “We are focused on individual student aid, not an institution or a particular form of education.”

Lewis acknowledged that there is some sentiment for the concept of “school choice.”

“But they don’t want their dollars going to unaccountable private schools,” she said.

One version of the legislation included a requirement for annual testing of the students who get those tax dollars, like what occurs in public schools, with results reported on a school-by-school basis. But that requirement was removed before the final bill went to Gov. Doug Ducey for his signature. Beienburg said such testing isn’t necessary.

“Nobody is going to be a stronger advocate for their children than a parent,” he said.

Lewis said that’s based on a false premise.

“I’ve been a teacher in Arizona for 12 years and a parent for just as long,” she said.

“And I can tell you that parents don’t know as well as teachers whether they’re learning,” Lewis continued, saying schools need certified teachers who can make those evaluations.

And then there’s the question of who is picking up the tab.

“If a school wants to take public funds, they need to take public accountability,” she said.

Backers have promoted universal vouchers as a way for families of limited means to have access to the same education choices as those who already can afford private school tuition.

Lewis said she understands that sentiment. And she said lawmakers could have crafted a measure with “means testing” to limit the new vouchers to those in real need.

“And we encouraged them to do so,” Lewis said. “But they wrote a bill that benefits all students.”

Kathy Hoffman

That has come into sharp focus with the state Department of Education reporting that more than 75% of the 10,338 applications for the new universal vouchers received so far have come from students not now in public schools, leading state officials to conclude these were students whose parents already were paying to send them to private schools. At about $7,000 apiece, that comes out to more than $54 million.

That figure exceeds the $30 million that legislative budget analysts told lawmakers before they enacted the law would be the first-year cost of providing vouchers to those already in private schools or those being home schooled. That doesn’t count another $2.2 million in new administrative costs.

And by the third year, the report said, the price tag for paying for kids picking up vouchers versus paying their own way will approach $120 million.

That is above and beyond the $176 million the state is now paying for vouchers for students who have been eligible under prior standards.

Vouchers, first approved in 2011, were limited to students whose special needs could not be met in public schools.

Since that time there has been an incremental expansion of eligibility, to the point where vouchers are now available to foster children, children of military families, reservation residents and students in schools rated D or F.

The new law would scrap all preconditions, potentially allowing vouchers to go to all 1.1 million youngsters now in public schools.

“With the current status of applicants, it is not achieving those goals,” said state schools chief Kathy Hoffman. “Instead, it is just a taxpayer funded coupon for the wealthy.”

‘Dreamers’ ready in quest for in-state tuition

In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, Joshua Montano, left, and Deborah Robles protest in front of the Arizona Capitol. On May 10, 2021, the Legislature passed a measure that will ask voters in November 2022 if they want to partially repeal a 2006 ballot measure and allow immigrants who are living in the U.S. without legal permission – but who went to high school in Arizona – to qualify for in-state tuition.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
In this Aug. 16, 2012 file photo, Joshua Montano, left, and Deborah Robles protest in front of the Arizona Capitol. On May 10, 2021, the Legislature passed a measure that will ask voters in November 2022 if they want to partially repeal a 2006 ballot measure and allow immigrants who are living in the U.S. without legal permission – but who went to high school in Arizona – to qualify for in-state tuition.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

 May 10 was an emotional day for Reyna Montoya. 

Montoya, who immigrated to Arizona from Tijuana, Mexico, in 2003, and who founded the advocacy group Aliento, was in the Arizona House gallery when the chamber voted 32-28 to pass Senate Concurrent Resolution 1044.  

The measure will ask voters in November 2022 if they want to partially repeal a 2006 ballot measure and allow immigrants who are living in the U.S. without legal permission  but who went to high school in Arizona – to qualify for in-state tuition. She started crying with joy when it passed. 

“Honestly, this is such a beautiful day for Arizona, and it’s a testament to (what can happen) when policymakers come together across the aisle regardless of political affiliation,” Montoya said. 

The issue is personal for Montoya, who was a junior in high school when Proposition 300 passed with the support of 71% of Arizona voters in 2006.  

“This was home and I wanted to see my little sister grow, but I was considering leaving the state because I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to go to college,” she said. 

Montoya ended up getting a private college scholarship, but her experience drives the work she does today. 

“I didn’t want to see future generations go through the same heartbreak I had gone through,” she said. 

Reyna Montoya (Photo by Diego Lozano/Aliento)
Reyna Montoya (Photo by Diego Lozano/Aliento)

Now, she and other advocates are gearing up for a campaign to convince voters next year that making it possible for young people who are in the U.S. without legal status to attend college is both the right thing to do for those individuals and benefits the state as a whole. 

Karina Ruiz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said, “It’s going to be in their hands to really understand the harm that Prop. 300 has caused in our communities and will continue.to cause, and for them to fix one section and one part of it and help students to attain higher education. 

One argument several advocates brought up – and which appears to have resonated with the handful of Republicans who voted to put SCR1044 on the ballot – is that a better-educated workforce and an improvement in Arizona’s college completion rate, among the lowest in the nation, will mean a better economy. Some tied it to the state’s “Achieve60AZ” goal to get to the point where 60% of Arizonans aged 25 to 64 have a college degree or professional certificate by 2030. 

Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said, “Isn’t a part of government to make policy that people are not on welfare? Well, you know that takes training and education.” 

Montoya said a big part of changing people’s opinions, and one her group has been involved with for several years, has been educating people about the barriers students like she faced and showing them that many of these children are their kids’ friends and classmates and go to the same churches. 

“When you hear about undocumented students, there are so many misconceptions about who we are,” she said. 

SCR1044 was sponsored by Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, plus three Republicans – Sens. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale and T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, and Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa  who are generally seen as more moderate and occasionally break with their caucuses on high-profile issues. The overwhelming majority of their GOP colleagues voted against it.  

Michelle Udall
Michelle Udall

After passing the Senate in early March, it was never assigned to a committee in the House. On May 5 Udall made a motion to put it onto the calendar for a vote, joining with all the Democrats plus Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, and winning a series of 31-29 procedural votes to force it to move forward. 

House Republicans split into a few camps when the resolution came up for a final vote May 11. Four voted for it. Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he favored the policy but couldn’t support the fact that it was moving forward without going through the House’s normal committee process. Bowers, who could have assigned it to a committee but didn’t, said he hoped to build more support within his caucus for it.  

He compared himself to King Mongkut in “Anna and the King,” who moved forward with an execution he didn’t want to perform because Anna had publicly tried to prevent it, and he didn’t want to appear beholden to her. 

“I feel in some ways like the king,” Bowers said. “I must protect this place and its policies and procedures, because it protects law.” 

Other Republicans said they could support a more narrowly tailored measure, perhaps only helping people who qualify for protection from deportation under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, but they see SCR1044 as going too far by giving in-state tuition to a larger group. Some said they worried it will encourage more illegal immigration, pointing to the increase in border crossings under the Biden administration. 

“Children who are brought across the border by their parents or other caretakers are not responsible for the actions of those that brought them,” said House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria. “Having said that, it is impossible to ignore the current situation at the border.” 

Yet others said they oppose giving a benefit to people who are in the country without legal status. 

“Americans should not have to pay for non-American citizens, illegals, giving them favored status for their trespass and invasion into America,” said Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction. 

On a recent episode of Rep. Walt Blackman’s podcast, “The Walt Blackman Show,” the Snowflake Republicaquestioned how the House leadership could have been apparently blindsided by Udall and John, and predicted Democrats would benefit in 2022 by having a policy they support on the ballot to drive up turnout. 

“This is the mother of all bills for Democrats,” he said. 

Democrats in the House and Senate voted unanimously for SCR1044, although Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said in a lengthy Twitter thread in February that he wants a full repeal of Prop. 300. Quezada said SCR1044 “perpetuates a #ethnonationalist perspective that SOME immigrants are good, but ONLY if they radically assimilate, go to college, speak fluent English, have papers, etc. The rest of us are just workers and are undeserving of basic levels of respect.” 

Ruiz of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition agrees. As well as fighting for SCR1044 at the ballot box, she plans to keep working with lawmakers and others toward full repeal. She said it will also benefit the state if adult immigrants who are here without legal permission can access state-funded child care programs or adult education courses, such as English or vocational classes. 

“To us, it’s important to continue that fight and hopefully voters understand that these people were left out,” she said. 

While there haven’t been any recent state-level polls that speak directly to the issue voters will be asked to decide next year, national polling has generally shown high levels of support for giving legal status to immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. 

“This is a type of policy that should be popular among voters,” said Isabel Lee Williams, a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, “especially when it comes to children, who people conceive of as not really making a choice when it comes to their migration … (you) see a lot of support.”  

Williams, who studies American politics and immigration and refugee issuessaid this could make it a politically easy way for Republicans who want to show good faith to Latino voters or voters in “mixed status” families, since the policy in SCR1044 is broadly popular. 

Arizona isn’t the same state politically as in 2006, when voters overwhelmingly approved the current ban. Arizona has gone from a state that Republican President George W. Bush carried by more than 10 points in 2004 to one that Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly won last November. 

Part of the reason for that shift is the battles over policies such as Proposition 300, the anti-immigration SB1070 and Joe Arpaio’s tough stance as Maricopa County sheriff that gave rise to a new generation of Latino political activists and shaped the views of some people who are now becoming old enough to vote. 

“That’s been a culmination of demographic changes and a lot of political advocacy for a long time,” Williams said. “It’s not surprising when you think about it that way.”