A new cannabis group that formed to oppose a 2020 marijuana ballot initiative to legalize recreational use launched its own competing effort November 13 with plans to have legislators send it to the voters in lieu of collecting signatures.
The Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce played up differences between its ambitions and the Smart and Safe Arizona Act
The Cannabis Chamber wants to give more licenses to those that don’t already own medical dispensaries – 125 compared to the initiative’s 26. Under the Cannabis Chamber’s plan, dubbed the Small Business Liberty Act, the Legislature would dictate a proposed excise tax, but the intent is to keep it under 16%, which is where the initiative set its excise tax. But there is no indication yet whether legislators would keep that tax under 16%, since they are essentially being given complete control to set the tax.
The referendum would also change who gets to test marijuana in the state under SB1494, a bill from Sen David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, that was signed into law. The comparison says the Smart and Safe initiative does not eliminate the opportunity for dispensaries to own testing facilities, whereas Gowan’s bill strictly says testing will be done by third-party companies.
In the weeks leading up to the announcement, politicians in favor of legalization and representatives behind the ballot initiative were scratching their heads over the attempt to have legislators not only approve an adult-use legalization effort, but to have them also send it to the ballot.
The idea that lawmakers would ever legalize marijuana on their own, even in the face of an initiative that many presume will be successful, is far-fetched. They would need the votes of a majority of Democrats, who already have voiced support or at least worked with Smart and Safe to get started, and at least a handful of Republicans.
But given the little information Mason Cave, one of the Cannabis Chamber’s board members, has divulged, it appears the referendum is relying on more Republican support.
Cave said he met with roughly 20 legislators before releasing the proposed language, but would only confirm Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge as one of the legislators. But Brett Mecum – a former staffer for Gowan – is serving as the group’s lobbyist.
Shope said his big takeaway is the referendum would give oversight to the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control instead of the Department of Health Services, which oversees the state’s medical marijuana program.
One factor working against getting a referendum out of the Legislature is the Voter Protection Act, which is designed to keep the Legislature from usurping the will of the voters by requiring legislative amendments to “further the purposes” of the original measure and pass with a two-thirds vote.
Cave said his effort would leave things open for as many amendments from the Legislature before it would reach the ballot and would rely on the Department of Liquor to make any changes after that.
Mecum is considered the group’s secret weapon given his Gowan connection and success passing a marijuana testing bill at the end of session. Mecum currently represents RAOF, a management company owned by Cave, which contracts with nonprofit medical marijuana license holders. Cave said at the referendum language launch where Mecum was in attendance, he thought passing SB1494 shows there is a legislative appetite for legalization.
But wanting marijuana properly tested is far from the same as wanting it to be legal.
In the wake of this new push, Stacy Pearson, the spokeswoman for Smart and Safe, said those involved with the ballot effort are not at all worried about the Cannabis Chamber.
She said that the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce’s plan to go through the Legislature at this stage is “the definition of insanity” and if there was an appetite with the lawmakers, they would have gone that route.
“It won’t get out of the Legislature,” Pearson said.
Pearson said the Cannabis Chamber made no attempts to reach Smart and Safe over working together. But Cave said he did reach out to some Arizona Dispensaries Association members before continuing on with his effort. The Cannabis Chamber has not been shy about its dislike of the current ballot initiative, mostly because the initiative is the industry writing “its own rules,” Cave said.
He also told Arizona Capitol Times that if his effort fails next session he would be faced with a crucial decision to make.
“We could switch to an initiative on our own … [or] if [Smart and Safe] doesn’t get too far down the road with their process, maybe we could work together to change language,” Cave said.
Pearson said that won’t happen. They are currently ahead of projections on collecting signatures to place the measure on the ballot and expect to be complete before the end of the 2020 session.
“We’ve already filed and refiled,” Pearson said, referring to going through Legislative Council to make revisions to the original language.
If the Cannabis Chamber receives its best case scenario of reaching the ballot in 2020, there could be two legalization efforts left up to voters for approval and if both receive enough votes to pass, the one with the most votes wins.
Cave said this happened recently in Missouri with three legalization efforts.
Even so, some members of the Legislature still would never go for it. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said that it is highly unlikely the GOP-controlled House would ever agree to legalize pot.
“I just can’t imagine all the stars would line up for it. After all, this is marijuana we’re talking about,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Smart and Safe Arizona Act is currently ahead of its projections and expects to reach the threshold of 237,000 signatures of registered voters by the end of the second quarter next year, Pearson said. They will still continue to collect signatures until the deadline, though, she said.
Yellow Sheet Report editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.
Two House Democrats who planned to run as a team for separate caucus leadership roles are now challenging each other for the top spot.
Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese, D-Tucson, said he is running for minority leader and he confirmed that Minority Whip Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is also seeking the position.
In addition, Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, also entered the race for minority leader.
The fact that the minority leader race is shaping up to be a three-way contest caught many Democratic House members by surprise, given that Friese and Fernandez were initially planning to run together for the leader and assistant leader positions.
Friese said he originally planned to run for minority leader while Fernandez eyed the assistant minority leader position. While they had pledged to support each other, they weren’t running on a slate, he said.
But Friese said Fernandez decided to run for the leader position instead.
Fernandez did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Friese said the competition hasn’t discouraged him.
“I believe in my vision and I’ve explained to my caucus what my vision is, and that’s what leadership elections are about – what vision we want to take into account when we go into the session,” he said.
Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, who is running for the Senate in District 27, said members expected the leader race to come down to Friese and Bolding, and she was surprised to learn that Friese and Fernandez are now running against each other because they get along so well and have worked as a team the past two years. Still, she said she anticipates it will be a friendly race.
“Regardless of who won, the other would jump in and support them,” she said.
If Friese were to be elected minority leader, it would be a natural succession for the Democratic caucus and Friese, who has served as assistant minority leader the past two years.
Friese said as leader, he would continue building on what the leadership team has accomplished under Rios.
He touted his leadership experience and his relationship with Democrats and Republicans as reasons why his colleagues should elect him.
“My leadership vision absolutely includes working with Republicans when we find common ground. I think that we’re always working together. But I feel comfortable drawing a line and telling them what you’re offering is not good enough,” he said.
Friese said in the past couple of years, the caucus has come together on important issues, such as university bonding, a public assistant program for the needy, and teacher pay raises, and has made it known to the GOP caucus and governor what they would need to come on board with those proposals. He said while Republicans weren’t willing to negotiate, his plan as minority leader is “to continue to hold that line.”
“Hopefully next year, we’ll have 28 votes and I’ll be able to say, ‘We ask for this one thing and you can choose [to] negotiate with 28 Democrats or strike six different deals with Republicans.’ And I believe the larger our caucus is, the more power and more leverage we’ll have to get something meaningful,” he said.
As for Bolding’s credentials, the two-term lawmaker said he has had a bill signed into law by the governor each year he has been in office, a feat for Democrats whose bills are rarely even heard in committee.
Bolding has also been a part of Democratic efforts to kill Republican legislation he said would negatively affect Arizonans, such as payday lending, election-related measures and criminal justice matters. He said he has also been instrumental in leading education funding discussions and has successfully brought together education stakeholders and teachers.
He said he has developed good working relationships with members of both parties, but like Friese, he’s also not shy about holding his colleagues’ feet to the fire, he said.
Bolding said if he’s elected he will fight for Democrats to be at the table during discussions rather than trying to negotiate after the fact.
“For too long we’ve had to fight to make sure that we’re in the room and that’s what you’re going to get from a Bolding leadership,” he said.
Bolding said while a three-way race could lead to the contenders splitting the vote, the caucus has a good idea of what it’s looking for in its next leader.
“The caucus wants a pragmatic, progressive champion that is going to help lead the caucus and I think that’s the reputation that I’ve had down there,” he said.
Bolding is running on a slate with Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, who is seeking the assistant minority position, and Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson, who is running for minority whip.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, is also running for minority whip.
Democrats and Republicans will elect their leaders shortly after the November 6 general election.
Early the morning of May 7, a Thursday, a motley crew of senior Senate Republicans and their Democratic counterparts, disregarding a chorus of conflicting desires from the membership as a whole, pulled the plug on the 2020 legislative session.
It appeared to be a practical decision. More than a month of quarantine has exposed deep fault lines within the majority party, schisms so vast that further legislating would likely devolve into an attritious slog. Those divisions haven’t gone away – a sizable chunk of legislative Republicans want to get back to business, and many of those same lawmakers have repeatedly threatened to raise hell at figureheads in their own party for putting the state under a quasi-lockdown for the past several weeks.
The saga began on March 30, when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, himself a Republican, followed other states in announcing a stay-at-home order that discouraged Arizonans from going out into public except to participate in a broad list of “essential” activities. Nonetheless, frustration with Ducey from his own party quickly developed.
The executive orders have highlighted three distinct factions in the House and Senate Republican caucuses: those who trust that the governor made the right decision, those rankled by some orders but not willing to roll their party leader and those who are ready to burn it all down.
Leading the charge in the House, the incubation chamber for this most recent strain of intra-party dissent, is Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa. She’s been vocal – on social media, in the press and at protests in front of the Capitol – in her insistence that the stay-at-home order amounts to a tyrannical overreach by the governor.
“I have to be a voice for my community,” Townsend said. “And they are screaming. I don’t know who [Ducey] is talking to, but it’s not LD16.”
Townsend has gone as far as to write a letter to U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr, asking him to issue an opinion on the constitutionality of the stay-at-home order.
And, in a move that is perhaps even more significant now that legislative adjournment is imminent, she drafted a concurrent resolution that would effectively end the governor’s declaration of emergency, terminating the stay-at-home order with it. Ending the session early, she said, would amount to a failure of leadership.
A declaration of emergency can be terminated in two ways – by the governor’s decree or by a concurrent resolution of the Legislature. Although Townsend was the first to raise the possibility, a growing number of her colleagues in the House, including Majority Leader Warren Petersen, have joined her in calls for legislative action. In the Senate, Michelle Ugenti-Rita hoped to carry a companion resolution, but she said on Facebook May 7 that Senate Prsident Karen Fann will not allow her to introduce it.
“I wish Warren Petersen was our speaker,” Townsend said. “He would be able to take care of this without giving up. I hope [Bowers] does the right thing.”
Townsend’s seatmate, Sen. David Farnsworth of Mesa, said he strongly supported both proposed resolutions. Farnsworth, who has attended two protests at the Capitol calling on the governor to immediately reopen the state, said there are always crises to provide excuses for the government to grow its authority, but lawmakers and the people of Arizona must remind the governor that his first duty is to protect the individual liberties of Arizonans.
“If I were king of Arizona, I would open it up,” Farnsworth said. “If people want to stay home, let them stay home and cower under the covers.”
Frustration with the governor’s handling of the virus has spilled over into frustration with leadership within the Legislature. Whispers abound about a ploy to instate more outwardly conservative leaders, those who might be more ideologically sympathetic with the Liberty Caucus – a group of Tea Party-style Republicans who came to power in the state more than a decade ago under the guidance of then-Rep. David Gowan, who would go on to be House speaker and then join the Senate.
One grievance is a lack of communication. This was on full display when Bowers and Fann announced in April that they planned to convene the Legislature and adjourn shortly thereafter on May 1, without first securing buy-in from many members.
One such lawmaker, Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley, said at the time that leadership’s decision to go ahead with a plan that hadn’t been shopped around was “disturbing,” and that he only found out about the May 1 date from an attorney friend who happened to have business before the Legislature.
The Senate’s new plans to adjourn sine die on May 8 also came as a surprise to many members, said Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. Mesnard, who favors continuing the legislative session indefinitely so lawmakers can easily come back to pass legislation or serve as a check on the governor, said Republicans received individual follow-up messages after a closed caucus meeting on the morning of May 7 asking if they would support sine die or a bill proposed by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, to protect people and businesses that disobey Ducey’s executive orders from punishment or civil liability.
After that, Mesnard said he learned about sine die plans from reporters who called following Fann’s early morning press release.
“When leadership wants to do something, unless there’s enough folks pushing back, it will happen,” he said. “The Senate leadership has made clear that it wants to sine die. I don’t think that there are enough folks pushing back.”
Mesnard said he’s counting on Republicans in the House to push back, something Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said he and his fellow colleagues in the Liberty Caucus are doing.
“We’re in a situation where we need to speak up,” Blackman said, adding that he’s counting on that group to fight to “get back to work,” presaging the likely pushback that a motion to adjourn will get from some in the GOP.
While Blackman’s not outwardly critical of the job that leadership has done, he acknowledged that others are – and said that the House majority position that Petersen will vacate if he goes to the Senate may present an opportunity.
In fact, Blackman said he has been approached by other members to make a bid for leadership – a job he doesn’t doubt his ability to do, but nonetheless is not interested in for now.
“When you have this much pressure in a situation, the idea that we are somehow showing stress cracks should not be all that surprising,” said Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale.
Interestingly, similar factors were at play when the Liberty Caucus was born. In 2009, Gowan, then a freshman member of the House, led a cadre of lawmakers who were frustrated with House Speaker Kirk Adams, who drafted a recession-era budget proposal that didn’t make the aggressive cuts that the new class of conservatives wanted since they were rid of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano. She resigned to join the Obama administration.
Gowan had promised on the campaign trail to read every budget before voting on it, and now was being robbed of the opportunity to review the bill, which was written without input from the freshmen. He and the fledgling Liberty Caucus refused to vote for the bill, and strong-armed Adams into making deeper budget cuts.
Whether this new iteration of staunch conservatives will be as effective this time is unclear – though they’ve got a growing track record, having cajoled Bowers into backing down from a plan to adjourn on May 1, and raising their concerns to the level of the governor, who has expedited the end of the stay-at-home order.
“The governor has moved quite a bit toward the Legislature’s worldview,” said Allen.
Democrats see the winds changing too, especially with the about-face the governor pulled in extending and then quickly dialing back his executive order.
“From one day to the next, things changed,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, of Yuma.
Still, moving the needle any further may be difficult. Even though GOP membership has made it quite clear that top-down decision-making causes heartburn, many were once again surprised to hear about the May 7 decision to adjourn the next day. And a concurrent resolution to overturn the emergency declaration would require dozens of puzzle pieces to fall into place in a very specific order, largely because lawmakers have blown by deadlines for the introduction of legislation. Democrats, of course, wouldn’t vote on such a measure, and the same can likely be said for a small handful of moderate Republicans in the Senate.
Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, is among the group of moderate Republicans who believe Ducey made the right decisions with the information he had available. Members of her caucus were understandably alarmed by Ducey’s comments about potentially jailing, fining or revoking business licenses for people who flouted his executive orders, she said, but she wouldn’t support their “reactionary” resolutions to end the state of emergency.
The state had 9,945 COVID-19 cases and 450 deaths as of the morning of May 7, and those numbers continue to rise. Ducey now plans for his stay-at-home order to expire May 15, with retail and salons fully reopening May 8 and restaurants allowed to resume dine-in seating on May 11.
The primary response of both the Legislature and the governor needed to be protecting public health, Brophy McGee said. But she said it may be necessary to clarify how much authority lawmakers ceded to the executive in the name of public safety, she said.
“When the house is on fire, or there is a threat of fire, you don’t necessarily have the time to check off all the boxes,” she said. “This whole set of circumstances was so unprecedented, and it came upon us so fast.”
Fellow moderate Sen. Frank Pratt, a Republican from Casa Grande, described the resolutions aiming to overthrow the governor’s order as a “bad idea.” Those questioning Ducey’s actions should consider that the governor made decisions based on communicating with public health experts, Pratt said.
“I believe it’s kind of a slap at the governor,” Pratt said of Townsend’s resolution. “I support what the governor is trying to do. He’s charged with a real tough decision.”
No election cycle would be complete without a cadre of candidates preaching about the importance of working across the aisle.
But that line will really be put to the test in the Arizona House of Representatives in 2019.
Nineteen true freshmen will join the chamber, 13 of whom are Democrats. And four of those Democrats represent districts where the minority party was able to flip a seat out of Republican hands. Their combined effort now leaves the House with a 31-29 split.
That means Republicans still have the majority, but their losses this year significantly reduced their ability to pass legislation without Democratic support. Just one or two stray Republicans who disagree with their party on, say, funding for public education could upset that delicate balance of power.
For now, plenty of current and incoming representatives are still promising bipartisan efforts in the next legislative session. But it’s no surprise they rarely agree, and it doesn’t take much to coax the party politics out again.
That was evident when a panel of lawmakers talked about the next legislative session at a November 16 conference of public school board members, administrators, and finance officials.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, was optimistic about bipartisanship.
“Everything good about the state of Arizona has happened because Democrats and Republicans worked on it together,” she said.
Fernandez will lead Democrats in her chamber as House minority leader starting in January.
Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, will serve in leadership with her as co-whip.
He said Democrats are open and ready to work with the majority from day one, but he put the onus on the Republicans to include them.
“Members of the majority will have to step back and ask themselves if they want to really work with the other side,” he said.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, was the contrarian.
Mesnard will be joining the Senate in 2019 after fending off a challenge by Democrat Steve Weichert in Legislative District 17, but he had some parting thoughts for the House and its new dynamic.
Despite the tight split coming to the House, he said Republicans would still be in the majority in both chambers. Conversations will have to happen on both sides, but he said they’re bound to diverge.
“That’s just the way politics is,” he said. “We’ll get along when we can. … Obviously, we have disagreements, and I think that will continue to be the case.”
He certainly had his disagreements with Bolding, who placed blame for Arizona’s education funding crisis squarely on the shoulders of the GOP.
“If you consistently are cutting taxes 25 of the last 26 years, you don’t have revenue, and then a crisis occurs, then you have to sell the buildings – you were in the majority,” Bolding said. “You made the decision, and now we have to suffer.”
Mesnard did not take the critique lightly.
“Time and again, this is the Republican perspective, we see the Democrats being late to the game, saying, ‘Oh, you should’ve done this.’ Except when we tried to do that, you opposed it,” Mesnard said, referring to a proposed temporary tax increase that went to the voters during the recession. “Whatever we do is wrong, according to you.”
Mesnard offered the 20 by 2020 teacher pay raise plan as an example.
He said Democrats would never say the plan was a good thing, and he criticized them for characterizing the plan as a drop in the bucket.
Fernandez did applaud Republicans for the raise, but not without a caveat.
“Yes, the Republicans did pass the 20 by 2020 plan,” she said. “But by golly, it took about 70,000 people in red to come to state Legislature to make it happen.”
And she said the people who marched on the Capitol were there for much more.
“It wasn’t just teacher pay raises that they were coming for,” she said. “They were talking about their classrooms not being equipped with the resources that they need. They were talking about their roofs leaking. They were talking about classrooms that had 30 kids and 25 desks. This is what the teachers asked of us. … Our constituents wanted public education funded.”
Mesnard acknowledged the Red for Ed movement had an effect on everyone, not just lawmakers, but he said to suggest Republicans weren’t already heading in that direction before the teachers’ strike earlier this year was factually inaccurate.
Ultimately, it was just another disagreement not likely to be resolved anytime soon, with or without Democrats closing in on the majority.
And it’s a disagreement that is sure to arise again in the upcoming session.
Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated as more results become available. This story was first published Nov. 3 at 8:45 p.m. This most recent update occurred Nov. 5 at 7:51 p.m.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez looked far and wide for opportunities to knock off Republican incumbents and take control of the state House. But, at least if results as of November 5 hold, Fernandez missed something right under her nose – the vulnerability of her seatmate.
With an additional 138,000 votes that came in from Maricopa County late November 4, Republicans have solidified their lead over Democratic challengers in most key races in the state House, and in one instance, knocked off a Democratic incumbent: Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Buckeye – Fernandez’s seatmate. If those leads hold, the House will remain in Republican hands with the same slim margin as last session.
As late at November 5, Democrats were still holding on hope that they’ll take control of the chamber for the first time since the 1960s, especially after suffering under a tantalizingly tenuous 31-29 GOP majority last session. Central to this goal is a handful of Republican-held districts with changing electorates that seem primed to elect new leadership, especially with a highly motivating presidential race at the top of the ballot.
In each, single-shot Democratic candidates with tremendous resources are vying for open seats or challenging potentially weak incumbents. The party is hoping to take this strategy to the bank even in ruby-red districts in Scottsdale and southern Arizona, where not long ago fielding any kind of candidate would have come as a surprise.
But only in LD20 has the tactic so far borne fruit. In Legislative District 6, Legislative District 11, Legislative District 21, and Legislative District 23 – the rest of the districts that, to varying degrees, made up the party’s map this year – Democrats have fallen behind their Republican opponents.
These results could change, as Maricopa County alone still has to count hundreds of thousands of ballots. In a reversal from previous cycles, many Republicans held onto their ballots until Election Day, creating a phenomenon in which healthy Democratic leads evaporated in the middle of the night as more results poured in.
But even if Democrats are able to surge from behind in LD6 and LD21, the most they can get in the House is 30 seats, barring a major comeback from Peten.
Fernandez’s detractors within the caucus – a growing group that has coalesced behind Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson – were quick to put the blame at her feet, lamenting that she should have done more to fundraise for Peten, given her influence with the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
“I think we gave it 110 percent,” Fernandez said. “Any time I could raise money for Dr. Peten, I did.”
Ben Scheel, a consultant for Fernandez, pushed back against the criticism, noting that state statute bans direct contributions from one candidate committee to another.
“Everything that Peten could spend, we matched with slate mail pieces etc.,” he said in a text.
“Fernandez gave $26,000 to ADLCC from her account. She also raised huge amounts for ADLCC working with (Rep. Raquel) Teran.”
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, edged ahead in LD6 with 28% of the vote. Trailing him is former lawmaker Brenda Barton, who is running to solidify Republican control of the northern Arizona district. Latest returns show she has 26% of the vote. Just 267 votes separate her from Democratic Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans, who led in early votes and seemed to be comfortably in second place heading into November 4. In fourth place is Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor running as an independent, with 20%.
LD6 is a district of political poles with a large contingent of independents. Flagstaff, a college town, is reliably Democratic, as is Sedona and the parts of the district that intersect with tribal nations. Towns like Payson, where Barton’s from, are fiercely conservative, along with the rural sections and the dozens of little unincorporated settlements, retirement communities and census designated places that fill out LD6’s emptier stretches.
Blackman’s seatmate, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, left the Legislature after last session to run for a seat on the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.
This created an obvious opportunity for the Democratic Party, with Evans as an obvious champion. She led the House in fundraising this cycle, taking in a massive $717,018.25 – a sum eclipsed only by the more than $1 million that Republican LD6 Senate hopeful Wendy Rogers raised, which seems to suggest something about the district’s competitiveness. Evans also benefited from independent expenditure groups, which put enormous amounts into supporting Evans and attacking her opponents.
Democrats led in early ballot returns for much of last week, but saw that lead close as Election Day neared – an inversion of the trend in previous elections, which saw Democrats take the edge late in the game. Republicans went into November 5 leading by roughly 1,500 ballots in LD6, with 60% turnout.
Democrat Judy Schwiebert is leading in LD20 House, a widely-watched race that will serve as a test case of the Democratic Party’s suburban strategy. She has 36% of the vote in the West Valley district, three percentage points ahead of the incumbent, Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix.
Rep. Anthony Kern, the district’s other incumbent, a Republican from Glendale, follows in third place, with 31%. He trails his seatmate by around 1700 votes. Like in LD6, Democrats began early voting with a sizable lead in returns, an advantage that diminished heading into Election Day.
LD20 is one of two districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, but that supported Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema two years later, a sign to Democrats that they might be able to flip a seat in the Legislature. It’s the kind of suburban district that has peeled away from the GOP in recent years, with demographic shifts that narrowed the Republican voter registration advantage to only around 6,000.
Schwiebert, like Evans, has proven a prodigious fundraiser and a magnet for outside spenders. She’s raised $551,464 as of November 3, surpassing both Bolick and Kern by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In LD21, Republican Beverly Pingerelli sits in first, with 35% of the vote. She’s two percentage points ahead of the incumbent Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, who in turn leads Democratic challenger Kathy Knecht by 1,264 votes.
LD21 is a district of similar characteristics to the neighboring LD20: It spans the suburban West Valley and has new residents that Democrats hope can give them an edge.
But the electorate hasn’t shifted to the same degree as LD20, and the Democratic registration disadvantage has remained relatively stable between last election and this one: around 14,000 voters. LD21 is also the home of deep-red retirement communities like Sun City.
However, unlike LD20, LD21 has an open seat, as Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, chose not to run for re-election. This could make it possible for Knecht to edge out Pingerelli, even if Payne’s seat remains secure. Knecht also has a track record in over-performing expectations. In 2018, she was only around 3,500 votes from winning the LD21 Senate race as an independent.
Knecht, as with most of the other single-shot Democrats running this year, has vastly outraised her opponents – around $300,000 to Payne’s $72,000 and Pingerelli’s $47,594. If either of the Republicans is worried about their chances, that fear isn’t reflected in their fundraising.
Republican Reps. Bret Roberts and Mark Finchem pulled ahead with a solid lead in LD11. Roberts has 34% of the vote, with Finchem not far behind. Democrat Felipe Perez, a medical doctor, has 32% of the vote. He’s separated from Finchem by around 3,400 votes.
The map for Democrats has grown as the election cycle has gone on – or so they believe, at least. LD11, an expansive southern Arizona district that has elected some of the House’s most conservative members, is at the heart of that expansion.
Democrats poured money into the district, especially in the late stages, seeing a potential for gains in the LD11’s increasingly blue Pima County section. Perez raised more money in the third quarter than he did in all of the election cycle previously.
Independent expenditure groups played an outsized role, as the local party infrastructure is largely focused on more achievable districts. They spent almost $300,000 in Perez’s favor, and have invested around $250,000 to attack Finchem – not huge sums compared to LD6, but for a district where Democratic registration lags by almost 20,000 voters, it’s money that has turned heads southward.
However, this money doesn’t necessarily translate into results, and the astronomically high turnout rates of southern Arizona retirement communities like SaddleBrooke could secure the Republican position.
Republican Rep. John Kavanagh and Joseph Chaplik are leading over two-time Democratic challenger Eric Kurland in LD23. Kavanagh has 37% of the vote, leading Chaplik by three points. Kurland is in third with 29%.
Kurland conceded on Twitter November 5, saying that “all of the fine people from Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Rio Verde and Fort McDowell deserve nothing but your very best.”
Chaplik threw doors to the district wide open when he defeated Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, in the primary.
Kurland has aimed his challenge almost solely at Chaplik, needling him for avoiding debates, suing political opponents and making claims of campaign sign vandalism.
Only Kurland and Chaplik bothered to seriously fundraise, bringing in $266,157.40 and $187,662.76, respectively. (As a note: $80,000 of Chaplik’s haul came in the form of money he loaned his own committee).
Kurland first ran on his “Time for a Teacher” platform in 2018, when he came within 3 percentage points of unseating Lawrence.
Two Public Policy Polling surveys showed Kurland as the first pick of a plurality of LD23 voters, though more voters picked Kavanagh as either their first or second preference.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, has a comfortable lead in LD4, but her seatmate is on track to lose.
Fernandez has 40% of the early votes, while Republican farm business owner Joel John has surged into second, with 31%
He leads incumbent Peten, a Buckeye Democrat, by around two percentage points, or nearly 2,000 votes.
John represents one of the few serious chances Republicans have of flipping a Democratic district this year. LD4 has conservative hotspots around Buckeye and the neighboring exurbs, as well as among the district’s farming communities.
In Peten, the GOP saw a Democratic incumbent who generally has not performed as well as Fernandez, her seatmate, and who has yet to face a serious opponent since her appointment in 2017 and first election the following year.
Republicans have come close in the district before. In 2014, Fernandez defeated Richard Hopkins by fewer than 200 votes. That said, the Democratic registration advantage – which now sits at around 16,000 voters – has grown considerably in the subsequent six years.
A state GOP senator wants to allow the Arizona Department of Health Services to inspect medical marijuana kitchens without giving notice and blames the marijuana industry for killing the same effort last session.
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, introduced his first bill of the 2020 legislative session hoping to address concerns over how marijuana edibles are created in those kitchens. Last session, he enlisted Sen. Paul Boyer to sponsor the bill for him, hoping he would have better luck getting the three-fourths vote needed to amend the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act because it is voter protected.
Not a single Democrat in the Senate voted for the SB1222 on the floor February 18, and none of the 13 members gave a reason why they refused to support it.
Borrelli believes it’s because the dispensaries persuaded them to kill the measure.
“They have no clear-cut reason why to vote ‘no’ other than the marijuana industry doesn’t want any oversight whatsoever,” Borrelli said.
When it passed through committee none of the Democrats said a word, and on the Senate floor only the Senate Minority Whip Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, spoke, but not to provide any inkling as to why she was voting no. Otondo, instead, chose to take issue with Borrelli’s choice of words on whether marijuana does in fact have medicinal value. Borrelli and Boyer were the only other senators to speak at all. Boyer, R-Glendale, said he still doesn’t understand why it did not have the support from the Democrats.
Otondo could not be reached for comment.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, thought his caucus opposed the measure because the bill would give oversight of the inspections to the Department of Agriculture instead of DHS, but Boyer shot that down.
That was only something discussed as a possibility after the bill failed, he said.
Borrelli is more hopeful his bill that he sponsored himself will make it through since in the interim there was a DHS audit pointing to problems the department has had when it comes to witnessing the creation of marijuana edibles in dispensary kitchens.
As it stands, dispensaries get advance notice of inspections, and the DHS audit found that kitchens always happened to be closed at the time of inspections. Borrelli’s bill eliminates the advance notice making it so inspections would be random like they are for any other industry.
“[Inspectors] can go into everything from a Burger King to an abortion clinic unannounced – but not a dispensary,” Borrelli said, adding that if any other industry received notice before an inspection it would be ridiculous.
“I’m going to inspect your illegal gambling operation on Thursday at three o’clock, is that OK with you,” Borrelli said. “You’re going to get there and people will just be playing dominoes and chess.”
This is the only business that enjoys that huge benefit, Borrelli said.
The Smart and Safe Arizona Act, an effort to legalize adult use marijuana on next year’s ballot, also would address Borrelli’s concern over advance notice of inspections. It says DHS should make “at least one unannounced visit annually” to each licensed facility.
Pele Peacock Fischer, the Arizona Dispensaries Association lobbyist, said the association was going through a transition period between lobbyists when the bill failed so no association lobbyist influenced the Senate Democrats on how to vote.
She said a potential reason why it failed could be because the Legislature wanted to wait to see what happened with the State v. Jones case at the Arizona Supreme Court, which eventually determined on May 28 marijuana concentrates could be used as medicine.
In the other chamber, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma,said in July her caucus would happily help get the three-fourths vote necessary to close the loophole, noting that they supported new marijuana testing requirements, and don’t want to put medical marijuana patients’ health at risk as the audit suggested.
If legislation would make it through the House and Senate, Tim Sultan, the Arizona Dispensaries Association executive director, said they would not stand in the way.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers is blowing off a threat by the Gila River Indian Community to pull out of the drought contingency plan − and deny the state its water − if he pursues his own legislation on forfeiture of water rights.
Bowers, in a statement late Friday, said he always has intended to push ahead with the plan to determine how Arizona should deal with the loss of water from the Colorado River because of declining levels of Lake Mead. And that plan, he said, should include the tribe.
“But if they want to pull out of a deal that benefits both the state and the community, that is their choice,” Bowers said. “We hope they will reconsider.”
Bowers also took a slap at a letter sent Thursday by tribal Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis saying the council would not consider reviewing and signing its part of the drought contingency plan if Bowers pushes ahead with legislation the tribe believes interferes with its own separate claim to water rights from the Gila River.
“I think it is unfortunate and inappropriate that leaders of the community are now trying to leverage their support of the DCP on the defeat of this unrelated bill,” he said.
But House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said Friday it is Bowers who is acting improperly in pursuing what he calls an “unrelated bill.” She accused the speaker of trying to “provoke one of our most vital partners” whose 500,000 acre-feet of water between 2020 and 2026 is crucial to replacing some of the water the state will no longer be able to draw from the Colorado River.”
And the Yuma Democrat warned that if the deal falls apart, it will be federal officials who decide who are the winners and losers.
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, who was involved in crafting the drought contingency plan, was more direct, accusing Bowers of “sabotaging” the drought plan and saying what he’s trying to do is illegal.
Bowers, however, said he remains convinced that his HB2476 is needed, even if it means the tribe denies the state its water.
At issue are ongoing legal claims by the tribe over who has the right to water from the Gila River.
In essence, the tribe is relying on existing law which says if people do not use their water rights for a period of five years, those rights can be declared forfeited unless there’s a justified excuse. There even is a federal appeals court decision that says that use-it-or-lose-it law applies even to water rights first acquired prior to 1919.
HB2476, set for a hearing Tuesday before the House Committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water, would eliminate that automatic forfeiture. Tribal attorney Don Pongrace said that would interfere with his client’s claims to that water from the Gila River.
Bowers said his legislation is justified.
“Dozens of rural families are being financially destroyed by ongoing litigation brought by the Gila River Indian Community,” he said. “I initiated HB2476 to stop this from happening in the future.”
And Bowers said that the tribe “will not receive one drop of water from their lawsuits.”
But Bowers, in his Friday comments, made no mention of the fact that if the tribe pulls out, the state loses that 500,000 acre feet of water it has committed to provide in exchange for $60 million from various state sources.
So far Gov. Doug Ducey has been silent on the Bowers legislation, with aides refusing to discuss the issue or whether the governor would promise to veto the bill if it gets to his desk. Instead their only comment is that Ducey is focused now on getting the necessary federal approval for the multi-state plan.
The Democrats are not so reticent.
“It is absolutely unfathomable that the speaker would go out of his way to provoke one of our most vital partners in a delicately negotiated drought contingency plan and threaten to undermine Gila River Indian Community water rights that were settled over 15 years ago,” said Fernandez. And she said Bowers is mistaken if he believes he can push through his legislation and still count on the tribe to provide water for the plan.
“Gov. Lewis was crystal clear that undermining the community’s water rights in another region would negate its ability to participate in the DCP,” Fernandez said.
She also reminded Bowers of the March 4 deadline set by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman for all states to have completed their plans. Burman said if the deadline is not met she will start preparing her own plan for how to divide up the reduced amount of water available among all the states in the Colorado River basin.
That could result in Arizona getting even less water than the multi-state deal on the table, particularly as existing federal laws and agreements give this state a lower claim to the water than other states. And the big losers in that are likely to be Pinal County farmers who have the lowest priority for the water that will be available.
“I don’t know what the speaker hopes to accomplish with this,” Fernandez said. “But if it’s federal control of our drought contingency measure and the destruction of our Central Arizona agriculture economy, it looks like he’s on the verge of getting it.”
“Speaker Bowers’ audacious flip from supporting the DCP to sabotaging it and his further pursue of this legislation risks invalidating the DCP and putting Arizona’s water future in the hands of the federal government,” she said.
Otondo also said that what Bowers wants to do is “clearly unconstitutional.” She cited a 1999 ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court which said that the question of whether someone forfeited rights to water is determined “on the basis of the law existing at the time” and not on subsequent changes in that law.
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.
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.
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.”
Lawmakers and staff are preparing for multiple special legislative sessions to address COVID-19 and economic recovery now that the regular session has officially ended.
While the Capitol has been treating at least one special session as something of an inevitability for weeks, the Senate’s abrupt adjournment on May 26 has hastened that fact. The chamber finished its labors without debating a pair of COVID bills that originated in the House, effectively adding them to the agenda for a forthcoming special session.
Legislators are shifting their focus to those sessions, where they can “address economic stimulus and recovery initiatives, liability concerns, meet the health and human services needs of the state and other legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said upon adjournment May 26.
Gov. Doug Ducey has committed to calling lawmakers back for two special sessions, one on economic issues and one to address the budget, Fann said. She said she expects at least one to be held in the next 30 days.
Last week, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he expects to return for a special session in mid-June, by which time lawmakers will have access to much-anticipated state revenue data from budget forecasters. The data will provide the most complete picture yet of how the state’s economy has fared during two months marred by the pandemic and the associated lockdown
A special session provides lawmakers the opportunity to return to the Capitol to pass bills related to specific issues. The last time one was convened was in 2018, when legislators met to address the opioid crisis.
Such sessions are called in one of two ways. Typically, the governor brings legislators together for a special session under a provision of the Arizona Constitution. In that scenario, Gov. Doug Ducey would set the parameters of debate, though he can name as many subjects as he’d like.
This is the most likely path forward, said Rep. Regina Cobb, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
“We have been in talks with the Governor’s Office once a week for the last three or four weeks,” the Kingman Republican said. “They definitely know that they need to call a special session and they’re ready to do it.”
One of these sessions would likely examine the state’s revenues, and would also include additional funding for the state’s COVID-19 response. By then, legislators will have a better estimate of the state’s budgetary shortfall – which, as of the most recent estimate, could range from around $500 million to around $1.6 billion.
At least 831 Arizonans have died of COVID-19, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Health Services. Even as much of the state has begun to reopen, the department reported 479 new cases on May 27.
Cobb said all options for balancing the state’s books are on the table – at least all options that Republicans would vote for, meaning that a tax increase is highly unlikely. Fund sweeps, though unpopular, are on the table, she added, as is using the $1 billion rainy day fund and cutting agency budgets. Cobb expects the second special session to address economic stimulus.
“We need to make sure our economy gets a jump start,” she said.
If for whatever reason Ducey doesn’t call a special session, legislative leaders can convene their own under another provision of the state Constitution – but only with a two-thirds majority.
This would require Democratic and Republican leadership to broker a deal of some kind. Either they agree to begin a special session and fight over its content after the fact, or agree to a special session with limited parameters beforehand. “If we can’t even agree on that, then how would we ever, ever govern,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. “That would be a clear picture to Arizonans that there’s total dysfunction.”
Either way, if the last two weeks are any indicator, it could be ugly.
Even if Ducey calls a special session, a smooth, bipartisan process seems unlikely.
“I always have the hope that we can do that,” Cobb said. “But every time the efforts are futile. It’s always one issue that separates us, one policy. Everybody digs their heels in, and then it becomes a partisan thing.”
But Fernandez said the situation for Arizonans is too dire to ask for half-measures just for the sake of creating goodwill with the majority party. She wants a special session that’s “laser-focused” on COVID-19, and then a separate one to deal with the state’s finances and economic recovery.
One priority is fixing the state’s unemployment system, particularly ensuring that Arizonans get their benefits on time and in full. But Democrats also want to bolster unemployment payments even after the nationwide emergency declaration ends, which likely will be a non-starter for Republicans.
Fernandez said her caucus has split into working groups that are studying different aspects of the state’s response, from imagining how schools will open in the fall to fixing unemployment insurance.
“It’s definitely going to be hot-button, but it’s worth it right now,” she said.
Regardless, she said there’s no choice but to broker peace with the Republicans, as unlikely as that may seem.
“How that’s going to happen, I don’t know,” she said. “We never have before. Certainly we’re not going to show them a piece of legislation and they’re going to throw their names on it, but hopefully this is a starting point.”
A few of the 28 House bills on the Senate’s calendar on May 26 – bills that died when moderate Republicans joined Democrats in voting to terminate the session – could make a reappearance, Fann said.
“We have some really good economic development (legislation) which can be COVID-related bills, so yes, and hopefully we get as many as possible,” the Senate president said.
One House bill that wasn’t on any calendar but that will make an appearance – albeit likely in a much-revised form – is Rep. John Kavanagh’s HB2912, a measure to protect businesses and nonprofit entities from legal liability if a patron or employee gets COVID-19.
Republican Sens. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert and Vince Leach of Tucson have been working on their own versions in the Senate, while Ducey staffers are working with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry to draw up their own liability measure. Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing for a chance to participate in drafting discussions, using as leverage the fact that the proposal needs Democratic votes to secure an emergency clause that would allow the bill to be enacted as soon as the governor signs it.
The bill from Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, would require plaintiffs who sue a business after contracting the virus to prove the defendant acted in “gross negligence” based on “clear and convincing evidence,” increased legal standards. The House passed that bill on party lines last week, but it failed to get traction in the Senate. The House also passed HB2913, which would appropriate tens of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act monies to child care centers, though that too did not get a hearing in the Senate.
The upper chamber had substantial disagreements about both of those bills, said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix.
“You look at that liability bill, and it bops the governor over the head,” she said, referencing provisions that decriminalize violations of Ducey’s COVID executive orders.
Brophy McGee, along with fellow moderate Sens. Heather Carter of Cave Creek and Paul Boyer of Glendale, have long pushed for the Legislature to focus its efforts on COVID-19. Their votes with the Democrats to end the session on May 26 fit within that framework.
A liability protections bill might win over Democrats if it includes provisions that compel businesses to follow federal health and safety guidelines if they reopen. And it might find broader support among the state’s cities and towns if it includes legal protections for public entities, said Nick Ponder, the legislative director for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
“If we are required to open and required to maintain the same line that the Governor’s Office has maintained … then I think that we should also consider not exposing local governments to further litigation,” Ponder said.
Child care and education are also likely to be on the agenda. In addition to a renewed effort to appropriate CARES Act monies for child care centers, Brophy McGee and Democratic Sen. Lela Alston of Phoenix want to pass legislation that would allow relatives caring for children who can’t stay with their parents to access child-only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, as well as a bill to increase the monthly stipend for those temporary guardians to $250 from $75 — non-related foster parents receive $600
And educators want to be a part of the negotiations to ensure that public education budgets aren’t slashed to help right the state’s fiscal ship, said Stacey Morley, the government affairs director for Stand for Children Arizona.
The reason is simple, she said. The majority of school budgets go toward payroll. Cutting those budgets means layoffs, which would contribute to the state’s already dire unemployment figures.
“You want as many people working as possible,” she said.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
A House panel quashed a bid Monday by Pinal County farmers to get the state funds they say they need to produce the extra water needed for the drought contingency plan.
HB 2590 would have advanced $20 million to irrigation districts to drill new wells and construct canals designed to deliver an additional 70,000 acre feet of water a year to the farms. That would partly make up the reduction in the amount of Colorado River water that is now delivered to the farms.
And Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said the plan is for the money to be paid back once the districts get an anticipated grant from the federal government.
He said the cash is needed now because it’s hard to say how long it would take the feds to come up with the dollars. And Cook said the wells need to be pumping by 2022 to make up for lost water.
But several lawmakers from both parties questioned why state taxpayers should be on the hook, especially after they said the drought contingency plan approved late last month already has some cash for the farmers. That resulted in a 5-5 vote in the Appropriations Committee, killing the plan.
Cook reacted angrily to the vote, saying the move undermines the whole plan.
“We have to have this water be delivered at some point in time by the end of 2022 or DCP numbers don’t work,” he said. “That water has to be delivered by that date.”
And Cook said that’s a point his colleagues apparently do not understand.
“I kind of remember a biblical story where the pharaoh told someone to make, what, bricks without straw?” he told Capitol Media Services. “Is that what we’re doing here?”
He is likely to try to resurrect the issue when lawmakers begin debating the $11.4 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.
The drought contingency plan is how Arizona intends to deal with the fact that its Colorado River allocation will be cut by about 18 percent, to about 2.3 million acre feet, when the level of Lake Mead drops to a level that triggers automatic cutbacks. Pinal farmers are expected to take a big portion of that hit.
Part of the plan involves allowing the farmers to replace some of what they are losing in river water with groundwater. But that entails drilling new wells and constructing delivery systems.
The drought plan has a $9 million appropriation, along with an $8 million reduction in property taxes.
Cook, however, told lawmakers that the actual cost for four major irrigation districts is at least $37 million, with the price tag possibly as high as $50 million for all Pinal farmers.
Some of the opposition goes to the question of whether the state should be in the position of facilitating the pumping of more groundwater, especially in an area where there has been a history of ground subsidence.
Cook, however, pointed out that the farmers, who already are using some groundwater, have the legal right to pump even more. And he said that, everything else being equal, the farmers actually would prefer not to pump but instead have the Colorado River water that is being cut.
But the request for the extra dollars left several lawmakers cold.
“What you’re saying is $17 million isn’t enough,” said Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, pointing to the cash already being made available.
“We’re taking $20 million out of the general fund we haven’t paid back other things,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.
And Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Phoenix, indicated he was not comfortable with what he saw as an unsecured promise by the farmers to pay back the cash, saying he would prefer a requirement for the farmers to tax themselves to ensure repayment.
Cook said the farmers are doing what they can.
“They already levy taxes on themselves,” he said. “They’re putting up tens of millions dollars for this project already.”
Fernandez, however, suggested the farmers were trying an end run of sorts, pointing out that the extra $20 million that Cook now wants was not in the original drought contingency plan.
Cook, however, said that’s not exactly true.
He pointed to language in the plan which not only anticipates the projects to provide more groundwater must be completed by the end of 2022 “recognizing that completion by that date depends on action on applications for monies and the timely receipt of grants from federal agencies.”
But that, however, was never a mandate on lawmakers to provide the up-front cash, with the law saying “the Legislature may consider other appropriations to be made available to the irrigation districts.”
A landmark Arizona Supreme Court decision on September 16 would have been different had the court not expanded from five to seven justices in 2016.
Gov. Doug Ducey on several occasions has been accused of “packing” the state’s highest court with conservative justices. It was a criticism in 2016 when he signed the court expansion bill into law and this year when he appointed Justices James Beene and Bill Montgomery.
Ducey has now made five appointments, more than any other governor in Arizona history, and has shaped the court for possibly decades.
His choices for justices on the court and the expansion certainly affected the outcome of Brush & Nib v. City of Phoenix, a case in which a split court said the First Amendment rights of two business owners outweighed a city anti-discrimination ordinance.
Ducey appointed Justices Andrew Gould and John Lopez to fill the newly created sixth and seventh seats at the end of 2016, and both of them voted in the majority, joining fellow Ducey-appointee Clint Bolick, who was appointed in 2016 before the expansion, and Gov. Jan Brewer-appointee John Pelander, who retired March 1.
Because oral arguments in Brush & Nib took place in January, Chief Justice Scott Bales, who retired in July, and Pelander still weighed in on the case.
Bales, an appointee of Gov. Janet Napolitano, voted in favor of Phoenix along with Vice Chief Justice Ann Scott Timmer, an appointee of Brewer.
Current-Chief Justice Robert Brutinel, a Brewer appointee, recused himself, but his stand-in, appellate judge Christopher Staring, sided with Bales and Timmer. Staring, who Ducey appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 2015, would have been the deciding vote, had the court stayed at five members.
Thus, had Ducey and the Republican-controlled Legislature not expanded the court, the city of Phoenix would have won the case, 3-2.
The anti-discrimination ordinance was challenged by Brush & Nib owners Breanna Koski and Joanna Duka, who do not want to prepare their custom wedding invitations and other products for same-sex nuptials.
Duka and Koski are devout Christians who believe their work is inextricably related to their religious beliefs. They have said they strongly believe a marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman, and argue they cannot separate their beliefs from their work.
But in the carefully worded decision, the justices refused to give blanket protection to all businesses – including Brush & Nib – to simply turn away customers because of their sexual orientation. Gould, writing for the majority, said it leaves open the question of whether the two women could be forced to produce other products, like place cards for receptions, which do not specifically celebrate the marriage.
And it leaves in legal limbo the ability of Phoenix and other cities to enforce their ordinances that make it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, among other prominent Democrats, criticized the decision, saying it was the result of Ducey’s master plan to stack the court to ensure conservative outcomes.
“This was a narrowly crafted case that produced a narrow, limited and hopefully temporary setback for equal rights in front of Governor Ducey’s packed and politicized Supreme Court,” Fernandez said in a press release.
The court historically is unanimous in its decisions – even after the expansion – and it is especially rare for justices to land on a 4-3 split. The Brush & Nib caseis one of the examples where the dissent opinion would have been the majority without Ducey’s two additional appointments.
But it’s not the only instance. A 2018 water case with a 4-3 decision also saw Lopez and Gould vote with the majority.
In fact, since the two of them joined the court, they have been on the bench for 72 cases together, and have voted together in 71 of those. The one case where they did not agree occurred in 2017, Louis Cespedes v. State, a child abuse case where Gould authored the majority opinion, and Lopez was in the dissent.
A slate of Democrats has announced its bid for leadership of the state House of Representatives, solidifying long-swirling Capitol rumors about a challenge to current House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez.
Rep. Diego Espinoza, a Democrat from Tolleson, went public September 9 with his ambitions to run for House speaker should his party take a majority in the chamber come November, rolling out a slick website and a lengthy vision statement for his newly formed Democratic Unity Caucus.
Espinoza’s team, which includes Rep. Jennifer Longdon of Phoenix as majority leader and Sen. Andrea Dalessandro of Green Valley as whip, is running on a platform of internal reforms that the three lawmakers say are necessary if Democrats want to be a successful governing party next year. In addition to pledging improved communication and party unity, Espinoza promises to expand the Legislature’s role in budgeting, create a committee to address indigenous peoples’ issues and deliver on longstanding policy goals like education funding and expanded access to health care.
“For the first time in more than half a century, the Democratic Party has the opportunity to control a majority of one or both Arizona State legislative chambers,” Espinoza tweeted. “In order to unwrite AZ’s dark history and write a bright future, we need to be bold, we need to be unapologetic, but most importantly, we need to be united.”
That the word “unity” appears 32 times in the ticket’s 12-page vision is no accident. Newfound Democratic success in the Legislature has come with its share of growing pains, as lawmakers struggle to figure out whom the party should listen to, how it should articulate its goals and what courtesy it owes the Republican majority.
Fernandez’s solutions to these quandaries haven’t always gone over well, and a loose faction of lawmakers frustrated with her leadership has formed behind Espinoza.
“We know that to be successful, we cannot create a top-down leadership structure. Instead, our goal is to ensure that all members, regardless of seniority, are heard,” the leadership document reads. That means respecting voting records of individual members that may go against the grain, and fostering “a mutual understanding and respect for what makes each legislative district unique.”
Above all, however, it seems to suggest a need for greater transparency and communication.
“It’s no secret that the House Democratic caucus is very divided,” said Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson, who supports Espinoza. “The big thing this team brings is really an attempt to say we’re going to leave all that BS behind.”
Hernandez and others have in private and in public criticized Fernandez’s leadership style, which they say leaves Democrats who are out of her good graces in the dark, leading to divided votes and missed opportunities for collaboration, even with the GOP. That became apparent in the primaries, when a batch of candidates with support from a prominent labor attorney challenged incumbent Democrats with ties to Fernandez, creating an opportunity for her critics to highlight both procedural and political challenges, ranging from a lack of development and guidance for freshmen lawmakers to a failure to deliver on legislation important to key Democratic constituencies.
Espinoza said his run isn’t meant as a direct criticism of Fernandez’s leadership, and suggested that the divides within the caucus – ideological, personal, whatever – are simply “areas of opportunity that we can expand on and improve upon internally and externally.”
Fernandez of Yuma, who is also vying for House speaker, is not rushing to match her opponent’s efforts.
“To me, it’s an issue of putting the cart before the horse,” she said. “Our goal is to get to the majority.”
And that’s her main pitch to the members: she has presided over a period of success for Democrats, and hopes to continue that streak even further. No public roll-out is needed to drive that message across.
“What I can tell you is we went from 23 (Democratic members) when I started to 29. That speaks volumes,” she said.
She challenged criticism that her team didn’t do enough to communicate or make Democrats feel included, suggesting that perhaps some of her critics within the party just aren’t paying attention.
“You’re not going to hear what kind of communications are going on if you’re not there,” she said. “We show up.”
Though the Democratic Party has political wings, Espinoza’s bid isn’t exactly ideological. Dalessandro, who is counting on cruising to election in the House after vacating the Legislative District 2 Senate seat, is one of the Senate’s most progressive members in addition to being one of the most experienced Democrats, something she said could allow her to navigate those wings easily.
“I think I can heal some of those divides,” she said. “I have good relationships.”
Just because the new leadership ticket isn’t grouped by ideology doesn’t mean there is not an ideological component to this alignment. Espinoza and many of the dozen-or-so lawmakers who announced support for his bid have received campaign support from business and charter school groups, while Fernandez and her team – which now includes Rep. Reginald Bolding of Laveen as majority leader and Rep. Raquel Teran of Phoenix as whip – enjoy close relationships with progressive advocacy organizations like Living United for Change in Arizona.
In explaining his support for the new ticket, Hernandez said that Democrats have to appeal to suburban moms in the East Valley as much as they have to take input from LUCHA if they want to take the majority.
“We can have all these conversations that we want, but it doesn’t matter if we can’t deliver 31 votes,” he said.
Fernandez doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“Unity is not just a word on a piece of paper,” she said.
Senate President Karen Fann can boast a 333 percent increase in the number of bills sponsored by Democrats that passed out of her chamber in 2019 compared to last year.
That’s because Senate Democrats cracked double digits, after getting only three bills out of the Senate last year. In the House, meanwhile, 15 Democratic bills passed this year. That’s marginally better than last year when they only got nine bills out of the House, an increase of about 67 percent.
And of the 320 bills signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, only eight were sponsored by Democrats.
“It’s pathetic,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. “It’s a pathetic number.”
Democrats, perpetually in the minority in both chambers, started the year optimistic that close margins in both chambers and several statewide victories in the 2018 elections would lead to more success in the Legislature. In the House, where Republicans hold a 31-29 majority, Democrats began the year thinking they’d have a voice, said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.
Instead, Democrats in both chambers watched as most of the roughly 500 bills they introduced met quiet deaths in the middle of the session as procedural deadlines came and went without hearings or votes.
“I don’t like to look at those numbers because they’re so demoralizing,” Fernandez said. “They’re not reflective of 29-31, just like our committees.”
Some of her members found success through other channels.
Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale, couldn’t get his legislation on adult changing stations in public restrooms heard in the House Rules Committee. It was one of many bills killed silently by Rules Chairman Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale.
But Andrade’s idea still made it into law with the help of Hereford Republican Rep. Gail Griffin. Griffin sacrificed one of her own bills to allow a strike-everything amendment that adopted Andrade’s changing station language in place of her own proposal. Successes like that, involving procedural moves that essentially transferred ownership of a bill out of Democratic hands, were not counted in this analysis.
Senate Democrats succeeded in getting 13 bills out of their chamber, but only four of those received a vote in the House. If Fann were serious about working in a bipartisan way, she could have advocated for those bills in the House, Quezada said.
Two of his bills — SB1437, which would have prohibited most employers from asking about applicants’ criminal history until the interview stage of an application, and SB1424, which would have created a pilot program to help young entrepreneurs — made it out of the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House.
“To allow for Democratic bills to advance out of the Senate and then not advocate for them to at least get hearings in the House, it’s almost as if it would have been better had she done nothing at all and just killed all of our bills in the Senate,” Quezada said. “The end outcome is still the same.”
The bills Democrats succeeded in getting passed were rarely substantive policy issues. Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Glendale, had a bill signed by Ducey that will allow court buildings to fly the POW/MIA flag. Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, secured a new license plate promoting affordable homeownership. And Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, succeeded with a two-sentence law saying rural Arizonans applying for a new federal rural broadband program can get the state Department of Agriculture’s help reviewing their applications.
Still, this year Democrats sponsored more successful bills than they have in any year since 2011. Senate Minority David Bradley, D-Tucson, said he’ll work next year to help other Democratic senators get more bills passed and feel some sense of success.
“While you’re in the minority, you’ve got to deal with the hand you’re dealt,” Bradley said. “You’ve got to be realistic about what can be accomplished, and it all reduces itself to a function of relationships with people, and that’s how you succeed around here.”
Getting substantive bills passed as a member of the minority requires working with the majority, said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix. He credited Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Rep. Jeff Weninger, both Chandler Republicans, for helping him get his school suicide prevention bill passed by testifying for it in committee.
Bowie, who represents a swing district in the East Valley, said he thinks he gets a more welcome reception from Republicans than some of his Democratic colleagues because he takes a less hostile approach.
“Sometimes I think it depends on the member who’s introducing it,” Bowie said. “Sometimes it depends on luck.”
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.
“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.
“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.
House Democrats are balking at ratifying a proposed drought contingency plan over what they see as a key missing element.
Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said Thursday many of her members question why there’s nothing in the proposal to require more water conservation.
Instead, it is more focused on finding ways to move water around, particularly to meet the needs of Pinal County farmers. But the Yuma Democrat said that does not deal with the underlying problem that Arizona is using more water than is naturally available.
Fernandez said she’s not trying to hold the package hostage, especially with a Jan. 31 deadline to act or risk having the Bureau of Reclamation come up with its own plan to divide up the limited Colorado River water.
“Yes, we are at a very critical time with only 14 days left,” she said Thursday.
“But I do think it’s do-able,” Fernandez continued. “Conservation is something that’s important.”
She also pointed out that the package lawmakers are being asked to approve involves more than changing state water laws. There’s also money involved with the state coming up with cash both to buy water from the Colorado River Indian Community and to help Pinal County farmers drill new wells to replace some of the river water they will be losing.
“If we’re going to put money into this, and we’re talking about millions … and we could be on the hook for more, we need to get exactly what we want,” Fernandez said.
Senate President Karen Fann said she agrees with the sentiment. But the Prescott Republican said she does not want to bog down an already-complex issue at the last minute by throwing in additional issues.
“We’re up against the wall,” said Fann.
She pointed out the whole point of the multi-state drought contingency plan is to keep the level of Lake Mead from going any lower than already projected. If that happens, that would trigger requirements to make even deeper cuts in water use than the current plan envisions.
That risk, according to projections from the Bureau of Reclamation, are real.
The last time Arizona and other states made projections was in 2007. Using data for the past 100 years they figured the chance of Lake Mead hitting critical shortage by 2026 was less than 10 percent.
But here’s the thing: Once you look at more recent data only – specifically the last 30 years when the Southwest has been in a historic drought – continuing to withdraw water at this rate increases the chance of the lake falling to critical levels to more than 40 percent.
And Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, has made it clear that if the states do not come up with a plan to stop that, she will.
Fann said conservation will be addressed – eventually. But she said lawmakers need to keep an eye on the immediate problem and that hard “wall” of a Jan. 31 deadline.
“It’s really just a Band-Aid,” Fann said of the drought contingency plan.
“This is not the fix, this is not the solution,” she continued. “This is not the time or the place, quite honestly, because of the wall, to get into some of those bigger conversations about conservation.”
Fernandez, however, said there’s no reason to delay.
“We need something to address this issue so we’re not back here in five or 10 years,” she said. Fernandez said it was ignoring the problem for years is what has suddenly created this push for immediate action.
“We knew there was a drought,” she said.
“We knew climate change was real,” Fernandez said. “And this is what happens when we don’t believe our scientists.”
While Fann doesn’t want progress slowed by new issues like conservation, she said there’s no guarantee that she and other Republicans will vote for the necessary legislation.
It’s not that they’re opposed to it, she said. It’s just that all they’ve seen to date has been drafts.
“So I can’t tell you what’s in it and what’s not,” Fann said. Instead, she said some ideas have been “floated by” lawmakers.
“And everything that’s been floated by we’re still being told, ‘We’re still doing a couple of tweaks’ or ‘We’re almost there,’ ” she said. And without that language, Fann said, there is no way for lawmakers to decide if what they are being asked to approve is what’s been agreed to by the various special interests.
No matter who leads the party next year, legislative Democrats are keen on reviving the subcommittee process when they draw up a budget, a desire that both parties frequently invoke when the prospect of new leadership is on the horizon.
Both of the teams vying for leadership of the party — and possibly the state House — pledge to bring back the committees, which can serve as powerful vehicles of legislative oversight of the appropriations process.
In its mission document, Rep. Diego Espinizoa’s leadership ticket identifies several possible subcommittees, the members of which would drill state agency officials on their budgetary needs and shape the spending plan from the ground up: pre-kindergarten-to-12th grade education, higher education, transportation and infrastructure, and criminal justice.
“We encourage discussion, we encourage debate, and most importantly, we promote a transparent process where the votes for the budget will not be done in the middle of the night while Arizonans are asleep,” reads Espinoza’s plan. “They will be done in the public eye where people will be able to come in and listen to their elected representatives make these decisions.”
The subcommittee process effectively allows lawmakers to reclaim some of the budgeting authority they have ceded to Ducey and party leadership in recent years, giving them an opportunity to pore over the books of individual departments and present a coherent, ground-up budgeting vision to the Governor’s Office. It’s a popular solution for lawmakers who feel stifled or ignored by their leaders during the appropriations season, who are sick of being told to vote for a thick packet of spending legislation they may or may not have seen before.
Not every subcommittee process functions the same, but the recent model under then-House Speaker J.D. Mesnard gives an idea. In 2017, picking up on frustration among the membership about top-down budgeting, Mesnard created three appropriations subcommittees, each chaired by a member of the main committee.
Those smaller groups held additional hearings with smaller state agencies, while the larger ones continued presenting to the whole appropriations committee. The three subcommittee chairs, plus the chair and vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, formed a team of five that created the framework of the budget, then shared it with the rest of the Republican caucus.
Mesnard even extended an olive branch to Democrats, who were allowed a seat on the subcommittees and generally had an outsized role.
That role would only increase if Democrats can take the House in November, giving them the first real opportunity to draft a budget with some weight in years. Opening up the subcommittee process has the additional benefit of giving the would-be Democratic Appropriations Committee chair latitude to probe the spending of Ducey appointees.
Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who is angling for chair of the House Appropriations Committee if current House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez becomes speaker, is also interested in reviving the process. He said he pitched Fernandez on the idea of meeting Friday mornings during budget season to delve deep into agency budgets and grill state officials.
“I’ve always been a fan of the subcommittee process,” he said.
The Friday meetings are a key change. One of the reasons the process fell out of fashion is that lawmakers — especially those who have to travel long distances to their districts — wanted Fridays off.
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, the current House Appropriations chair, has another name for a similar phenomenon: “committee fatigue.”
It was for this reason that House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, didn’t bring the practice back last session, Cobb said. It simply requires more effort, more time, more actual reading of legislation.
Cobb said she has yet to speak with Bowers about the prospect of reviving budget subcommittees, warning that it’s probably too soon to think of such things — though she supports the idea in theory.
“All (legislators) can hear what exactly is going on so we’re not handed a PowerPoint presentation and saying, ‘You’re going to be voting on it,’” Cobb said in 2017 when Mesnard revived the committees.
Similar conditions existed this year, as some lawmakers in both parties complained what they saw as opaque, aloof leadership. This was especially true for Republicans, some of whom even floated the idea of a late-year shakeup.
Mesnard said he still believes the subcommittees offer a better way of budgeting than the current method of having legislative leaders draft a budget in isolation and then present it to members as a finished product. But he acknowledged that it can be a tough methodology to embrace.
“I knew going in that for it to be successful, it would take a little bit of time to get folks back into a way of thinking that we hadn’t really pursued for a number of years,” Mesnard said.
The Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council is recommending several legislative changes to prevent sexual abuse in the disabilities community in response to an incapacitated patient at Hacienda HealthCare who was raped by a caretaker and gave birth at the facility.
The council, members of which are appointed by the governor, released a report today after receiving feedback from the community before and after the Hacienda story broke in December.
According to the report, people with cognitive disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general public, and 12 times more likely if the victim is also a woman.
“While these estimates clearly show the high incidence of sexual abuse suffered by those with disabilities, there has been almost no implementation of policies designed to recognize and stop it – until now,” the report states.
The disability community certainly has the attention of lawmakers in the wake of the Hacienda case. House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, Christina Corieri, Ducey’s senior policy analyst, representatives for Arizona’s congressional delegation all attended the most recent public meeting seeking input from members of the community. State Reps. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe, also participated.
And Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, has been a particularly vocal advocate as a member of the community herself. Longdon uses a wheelchair after being struck in a random, drive-by shooting.
She has said the proposal to eliminate the licensure carveout for centers like Hacienda is a “no-brainer” to start with and has also voiced support for tougher rules on background checks and improved education for staff, individuals with disabilities and their families.
And Longdon has emphasized the importance of including the community in this conversation, invoking a saying among people with disabilities as she spoke on the House floor last week: “Nothing about us without us.”
Whether the council’s recommendations and others from lawmakers will be adopted into law is yet to be seen.
The council did acknowledge in the report that its recommendations come with a price tag in one form or another.
But the report also made it clear that all eyes are on Arizona’s elected officials to act.
“Carrying out each of these recommendations will require resources, whether it be money, time, staffing, or something else,” the report said. “In the wake of the Hacienda case, what Arizona decides to do, or not do, and how the state leverages its resources will signal to Arizonans with disabilities, their families, and the rest of the country where their safety and well-being stand among a list of competing priorities.”
The recommendations include:
Require annual training for staff at any agency who are mandatory reporters of abuse on recognizing the signs of abuse among other things;
stiffer penalties for failing to report the abuse of vulnerable adults;
adopt language that protects the reporter of abuse from retaliation;
eliminate a licensure exemption for intermediate care facilities, like Hacienda;
require the Department of Economic Security’s Division of Developmental Disabilities to annually review a patient’s rights and the signs of abuse with the individual and the family;
allocate funding for additional counselors, advocates and forensic nurses who can support victims;
create legislation on special rules for people with disabilities who testify at criminal trials, such as allowing a victim who is incapacitated to be represented by a parent or legal guardian;
require that Adult Protective Services investigate every claim of abuse and neglect and be given the funding to do so, and;
require the Division of Developmental Disabilities to publicly post performance reports for group homes and adult developmental homes.
The passage of a federal stimulus package to help state and local governments weather the COVID-19 pandemic gives Gov. Doug Ducey discretion over at least part of a $1.5 billion sum — adding to tens of millions he already had at his disposal as part of an emergency spending plan passed by the Legislature in March.
At that time, some state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were uneasy over the size of the checks they were cutting to the governor with little direction on how to spend them. Now, the amount of money at Ducey’s disposal to help mitigate the fallout of the virus has increased significantly — and Arizona, like other states, will be in the dark about how this money can be used until late April, when the federal government allocates the funding.
Already, this has created some confusion. And while the state might have to wait the better part of a month for further instruction from the feds, nonprofits, schools and other organizations that stand to receive aid say the need for more resources is severe.
“We’re seeing double or sometimes triple the usual demand in some areas,” said Angie Rodgers, who heads the Association of Arizona Food Banks. “To sustain that demand every month is going to be a real challenge. We’re going to need the government to step in.”
The Governor’s Office declined to comment on their proposed spending priorities.
When state lawmakers worked a series of late nights in March in an effort to pass a pared-down budget and a pair of $50 million and $55 million appropriations to help the state fight the novel coronavirus, some on both the left and right questioned whether they gave Ducey too much discretion over emergency funds.
On March 12, Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, nearly derailed a fast-tracked bill that guaranteed the Department of Health Services continues to exist for another eight years and moved $55 million from the state’s rainy-day fund to an emergency fund Ducey or the department’s director, Cara Christ, could use to pay for public health emergencies.
Although Livingston ended up voting for the bill, he objected strenuously to the idea that the Legislature would hurry late on a Thursday to authorize $55 million with few restrictions, other than requiring that it be spent on public health and that Ducey or Christ notify the Joint Legislative Budget Committee when they planned to spend the dollars.
“I’m literally reading this as we’re handing the governor and the director a $50 million checkbook, and (saying) ‘notify us if you’re going to use it,’” Livingston said on the Senate floor.
Democrats in the House, meanwhile, were skeptical of the second $50 million appropriation, a key portion of a bipartisan budget deal struck in the Senate. That $50 million was to be used for housing assistance, homelessness prevention, food banks and economic assistance for small businesses, but House Democrats said the budget language gave Ducey too much discretion and publicly griped about the willingness of their Senate colleagues to cut Ducey a check.
“I’m always concerned when it’s up to one person,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.
House Democrats wanted to prescribe specific uses of the fund, affixing a multitude of hostile amendments to the budget deal that would direct some of those millions to specific programs — the Housing Trust Fund, for example — and to help specific groups of people — small business owners, people who use food stamps, and so on.
“We’re getting up to the $100 million number with no plan behind it,” Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, a Tucson Democrat, said at the time.
And now that number, at least in the aggregate, far exceeds $100 million. With the passage of the CARES Act, the third COVID-19 response package to come out of Congress, the state might have more than $1 billion at its disposal, according to a preliminary estimate from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
The state is estimated to receive $4.2 billion in total, JLBC predicts. According to the bill, that money can only be used for “necessary expenditures” related to the pandemic. That $4.2 billion will be divvied among the state and local governments, agencies and other funds and grants.
When the feds distribute the money in late April, Ducey will have some amount of discretion over at least $1.5 billion of it, which must be spent on coronavirus relief, and $68 million as part of an education stabilization fund that he can distribute at will.
When Ducey spends that money, his office will have to keep receipts for an eventual federal audit. But for now, he and other governors don’t yet have directions from the federal government on how they can spend it.
Arturo Perez, director of state services for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said governors should expect definitive guidelines, rules and regulations from the feds on or before April 24, when monies are expected to be given to states. Perez said states have been given vague categories like health care infrastructure and facilities, medical and sanitation supplies and first responder overtime — and it’s as of yet unclear whether states can use that money to offset declining
That’s something the JLBC and other states are still working to clarify, as they could interpret “necessary expenditures” and costs incurred from the pandemic to include lost revenue that came as a result of it. Perez said if that coming federal guidance isn’t favorable to that interpretation, states dependent on general sales tax could suffer.
“There is nothing, nothing comparable to what’s happening,” Perez said. “No one knows what folks are spending it on or what they plan to spend it on.”
As he begins spending the money provided by the state and federal relief packages, Ducey has frustrated non-governmental organizations, local jurisdictions and even some in his own executive branch by not communicating ahead of time.
On the morning of March 30, the Arizona Housing Coalition was set to begin a conference call with representatives from the Department of Housing, the Department of Economic Services, landlords, homelessness advocates and other housing stakeholders on how best to use the $50 million legislative appropriation.
Right before they began the call, they saw an announcement from Ducey’s office: $6.7 million of that $50 million was now off the table, allocated toward food banks and quarantine housing at homeless shelters. Nonprofit leaders who have been working on housing and food insecurity for years are frustrated by far-from-ideal coordination and transparency from the Governor’s Office, Arizona Housing Coalition Executive Director Joan Serviss said.
“We know that this $50 million has to do a lot of different things,” she said. “Fifty million dollars is a lot of money, but it has to go by so fast.”
Housing advocates would like to see more money available for the Department of Housing’s eviction prevention pilot program, which started with $2 million last spring to provide emergency grants and case management to families falling behind on their rent. Through a March 24 executive order, Ducey mandated a 120-day stay on enforcement of evictions for tenants who lose income or are forced to self-quarantine because of the pandemic.
But that order doesn’t prevent landlords from proceeding with evictions and charging tenants with associated legal fees. It just prevents constables and sheriff’s deputies from physically enforcing evictions.
“If there’s a moratorium on evictions, are we just delaying the impact for 120 days?” Serviss asked.
Nonprofit organizations serving people experiencing homelessness are seeking ways to expand temporary shelter space and ensure homeless Arizonans are able to get safe transportation to receive COVID-19 tests and treatment. Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which served as a temporary shelter for Hurricane Katrina refugees and hosts an annual resource fair for homeless veterans, could be an option if the Phoenix Suns and Mercury are willing to make exceptions in their contracts with the Coliseum.
On March 30, Ducey announced a $1 million appropriation toward food banks across the state. The $290,000 earmarked for southern Arizona just about covers the cost of shifting the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona’s five resource centers and one farmers’ market outside and complying with new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, but doesn’t come close to covering increased demand for food, CEO Michael McDonald said.
The largest resource center in southern Arizona usually helps about 9,000 households in a month. It’s now on track to exceed 18,000, and staff who keep a database of families seeking help report that they’ve never before seen nearly one-third of the people seeking food.
“They’ve never needed to show up before,” McDonald said.
Every single dollar the state or private donors can provide helps. The organization suspended its community food drives out of caution and is focusing on purchasing and distributing frozen food provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and fresh produce from Mexico.
Government funding usually makes up about 20% to 25% of the food bank’s funding, with charitable giving picking up the bulk of the budget. As the economy worsens, food bank administrators question whether they’ll receive additional government support.
“People are really stretching and giving us funds now, but will they still be here six months from now when the economic effects linger?” McDonald asked.
And there’s more than just a need for food, said Tyson Nansel, communications director for United Food Bank. At United, much of the money that Ducey authorized March 30 will be used to pay for transportation and refrigeration — and possibly even staffing.
“We’re doing this almost at max capacity,” he said. “If our staff comes down ill from this, we are looking at hiring temporary workers to help fill the slots, in case this gets more serious. But it’s hard to find a Class A driver to take a semi out to rural Arizona right now.”
While the March 30 appropriation will help with immediate needs, uncertainty about the long-term demand for food banks — which has been astronomical since the virus began its spread — means that more money will likely be necessary, said Rodgers, of the Association of Arizona Food Banks.
“We’re grateful for the support we’ve received,” she said. “There will be more cost in the supply chain that we will look to cover.”
And then there’s the matter of the education stabilization fund, around $68 million that Ducey can give to “local education agencies, higher education institutions, or other education-related entities,” according to JLBC.
That’s a broad list of recipients with no shortage of needs — schools are having to figure out how to maintain previous levels of education while delivering course materials in alternative formats, whether that means online or from school bus drivers dropping off packets to students’ houses.
Ducey should consider using at least of some of the $68 million in discretionary education spending he’ll receive from the federal stimulus package to pay for summer school, Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen said.
Allen, a Snowflake Republican, has been closely watching as schools in her northern Arizona district adapt to sending written packets and meals home to students, and as her grandchildren who live in the Valley begin taking classes online. It’s clear that at least some Arizona students will need extra instruction over the summer to keep pace during the next school year, she
“If you had a student that was behind to begin with, I’m sure this has been quite a shock to change how you learn,” Allen said. “I’m talking about full-blown come into school half a day and do core subjects.”
These fluctuations could aggravate the state’s achievement gap, a measure of the disparity in education achievement between wealthier and poorer students, said Rep. Reginald Bolding of Laveen, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.
“A crisis like this will only increase the gap if measures aren’t taken,” Bolding said. “We should invest in technology for students, but also for teachers. We don’t want to take for granted that teachers have laptops and WiFi in their homes.”
There’s the additional challenge of ensuring that these alternative delivery methods are up to snuff, especially if they’re coming from third-party online education providers.
“The worst case scenario for us is to dump millions of dollars into a provider that’s going to produce inadequate results,” Bolding said.
The discretion Ducey holds over how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars particularly troubled Democrats who already fear that the governor isn’t taking the coronavirus criss as seriously as he
Fernandez, the House minority leader, drew a comparison between Ducey and the big-city mayors – Kate Gallego of Phoenix and Regina Romero of Tucson – who have emerged as some of the most vocal critics of the governor’s response to the
“Those mayors, they’re not making decisions based on political whims, they’re listening to experts, listening to the science,” said Fernandez, who agrees with Romero and Gallego that the governor’s response to the virus – whether that means allocating funding or shutting down businesses – should be more aggressive.
“I’d rather look back and say we did too much,” Fernandez said.
House Republicans have stacked the legislative system in their favor even now when Democrats hold nearly half the seats in the chamber.
New committee assignments in the House are largely an improvement from previous legislative terms for Democrats, but the partisan splits on three crucial committees serve as a stark reminder that the Republican Party holds the majority, and they’re not afraid to show it.
The Appropriations Committee, where the first hearings on the budget are held, is split 7-4 in favor of the GOP. It’s no doubt an improvement over previous years, when Republicans boasted a 9-5 advantage in representation on the committee.
But Democratic Minority Leader-elect Charlene Fernandez said it’s still nowhere close to representing the will of the voters. With her party holding 29 of the 60 seats in the House, Fernandez had hoped for committees that mirrored the narrow partisan divide.
Put another way, Republicans hold a 64 percent majority on the Appropriations Committee, while they hold less than 52 percent of the chamber.
“Sure doesn’t look like 29-31,” said Fernandez, D-Yuma.
Her hopes that House Speaker-elect Rusty Bowers would change his mind were dashed this week, when House Republicans announced a roster for committees that reflected the 7-4 advantage.
“I think it was probably easy to put that together, but to look at it and say this is reflective of my Legislature… I feel very hopeful that he’ll say no,” she said.
Bowers did not respond to a call for comment.
The House Education Committee, and the committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water, will also be split 7-4 along party lines.
The committee on water issues was particularly surprising to Fernandez, as she said Bowers told her that water isn’t a political, ideologically-driven issue for Arizonans.
Nonetheless, Republicans have ensured themselves wiggle room to get their bills through committees with little resistance.
The 7-4 split on the Education Committee in particular could preface another tense round of talks about school funding and equity.
Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said both parties have good ideas, and the only way those ideas will be heard is through balance. Without that, he said debates around issues like charter school reform, how to resolve the teacher shortage and funding for public schools will be hindered in the upcoming session.
Bolding, who Democrats elected co-whip along with Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, will serve as the ranking member of his party on the Education Committee. He also sat on that committee in the 2018 session, when the split was 8-3 and House Republicans held the majority by 10 members.
In 2019, they’ll remain in the majority with two members more than Democrats, yet the partisan split in that committee will improve for the minority party by just one member.
Bolding said that wouldn’t look fair or balanced to anyone, especially voters.
“Are we going to govern the way in which the public has asked us to do, which is in a more balanced way? Or is it still going to be a one-party rule?” Bolding said. “I don’t think that’s what the public wants, and I don’t think that’s what they asked us for.”
Minority leadership has voiced similar complaints before. In 2006, when Democrats won 27 House seats–that’s about 45 percent of the chamber–House Minority Leader Phil Lopes asked House Speaker Jim Weiers, a Republican, to split committees 5-4 and give Democrats as close to 45 percent representation in hearings, and on the floor.
Weiers did not oblige, and instead announced 6-4 committee splits that left Dems complaining that their 40 percent share of the committee wasn’t enough.
While Lopes went on about fairness, then-House spokesman Barrett Marson noted there’s nothing obligating majority leaders to defer to Democrats: “There’s no rule to make [committee] membership match the Legislature’s membership. That’s never necessarily been a requirement or even practice.”
In theory, a 7-4 split is not so advantageous. The Republican majority on those committees can only afford to lose one vote from their own caucus and still pass bills 6-5. If another Republican were to defect, the result would be flipped and bills would fail.
In practice, a 7-4 split allows those committees to weather the absence or “present” vote – abstaining – of as many as two Republicans. It also provides cover for a Republican who, perhaps wary of voting for a certain bill, simply leaves the room to avoid the vote.
The committee arrangement also ensures Democrats will have an uphill battle of successfully moving their own bills through the legislative process. Democratic members on committees split 7-4 will have to convince at least two Republicans to support their proposals in order for them to advance.
The arrangement also empowers far-right Republicans to get their bills beyond committees and to votes on the full House floor.
It’s familiar territory for Democrats, who have been the minority party in the House for decades.
Their silver lining is the House floor, where the wiggle room for Republicans is narrower. Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, is well aware of his party’s slim margin for error, and warns that full attendance by Republicans will be crucial to passing bills along party lines.
As the speaker pro tem, Shope will preside over much of the chamber’s debates and votes, and said he’ll be stressing to his fellow caucus members that they need to show up to work.
House members cannot vote present on the floor, so they often simply leave during a vote if they do not want to participate. But there is a rarely-utilized mechanism to bring those absent lawmakers back to the floor. Under House rules, any representative can make a motion for a “Call of the House,” forcing the sergeant at arms to round up absent members “until two-thirds of the members elected to the House are present.”
In the House, that motion has only successfully been made once in the past decade – by Democratic Rep. Diego Espinoza of Avondale, under former House Speaker David Gowan.
As she remembers it, the first time Charlene Fernandez ever had her picture in the newspaper was in 2015, when a photographer caught her on the House floor pushing back on a Republican plan to limit the role of labor unions in construction projects.
That role was already in question. In 2011, the Legislature voted to prevent governments from requiring project labor agreements – a type of pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with a given union – in public projects. Four years later, it was debating a bill prohibiting public entities from requiring that workers on government projects participate in U.S. Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship programs.
But Fernandez, then just a freshman in an impotent House Democratic minority, couldn’t stop Republicans from passing the bill, which Gov. Doug Ducey eventually signed.
In the time since, Democrats have inched closer and closer to a majority in the state House. Fernandez has ascended to minority leader, with a caucus of vocally pro-labor lawmakers at her back. But Democrats have been unable to make any headway on the labor agreement issue – a central desire of the union constituency that is key to progressive power in the state.
Now, the ghosts of defeat, of deals gone awry and of soured relationships are haunting Fernandez and several of her close allies in the party.
Influential labor attorney and lobbyist Israel Torres is flooding contested Democratic primaries with union cash, using an independent expenditure group run out of his firm to put new bodies in the Democratic caucus, even as most of the party and its allies have turned their attention to November, when Democrats hope to at long last topple a Republican House majority.
Revitalize Arizona, a PAC helmed by staffers from the Torres Consulting and Law Group, spent more than $129,000 in the last quarter alone, largely in support of candidates vying for a seat in progressive districts currently represented by progressive Democrats with close ties to Fernandez.
Torres’ enemies – of which there are quite a few – see a personal, petty attempt at consolidating power and settling scores, a union big shot embarking on a perplexing crusade against progressive incumbents with union ties, hoping that his chosen candidates will arise from the ashes of burnt bridges.
“He’s running non-union members against union members,” said Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale. “It’s disgraceful.”
But Torres sees it differently. Democrats in Arizona take union support for granted, he said, and they made promises they couldn’t fulfill. Multiple attempts to restore project labor agreements have surfaced since 2015, and all have failed, including a 2019 effort that is fueling this batch of primary challengers.
“If an elected is in a place to help a worker agenda and chooses not to, or worse — takes a role behind the scenes to kill a worker agenda — then that elected or leadership team should be held accountable by workers,” Torres said. “It’s actually not very complicated.”
Revitalize Arizona, which has raised almost $1.3 million to date, gets almost all of its funding from a group called Residents for Accountability – itself a Torres-run political spending arm for Arizona Pipe Trades Local 469, one of several building trades unions for which Torres acts as a political consultant. It’s been active in Arizona elections for the better part of a decade, and generally supports candidates on both sides of the aisle who could be amenable to union agendas. The size and political influence of the PAC and of the Pipe Trades union make it something of a state chamber of commerce for the left, several lawmakers suggested.
Revitalize is spending most heavily on challengers to Andrade and Tempe lawmakers Rep. Athena Salman and Sen. Juan Mendez, who all take pride in their progressive bona fides and their friendliness with organized labor. This is especially the case with Andrade, a vocal advocate for union-backed bills at the Legislature and a rail conductor organized with SMART-TD, a large industrial union.
And yet Torres’ PAC spent more than $1,000 against Andrade just last week, and makes regular expenditures in support of his challenger, a Realtor from Litchfield Park named Teddy Castro, as well as Andrade’s more moderate seatmate, Rep. Cesar Chavez.
The group began its support of the Castro campaign – which Andrade called “bought and paid for” by Torres – in June, when it paid $12,000 to a consulting firm called FieldCorps LLC to support Castro’s run. Around that same time, Castro received a $10,400 donation from Arizona Pipe Trades 469, which consults the Torres Group when making political decisions, a spokeswoman for Torres said.
In LD26, Revitalize has thrown its weight largely behind Debbie Nez Manuel and Jana Lynn Granillo, though the PAC has hedged its bets and spent in support of Salman as well.
Nez Manuel, a Navajo activist who helped lobby the Legislature to approve a study on missing and murdered indigenous women last year, is hoping to take the vacant House seat in the district. But Salman has no intentions of letting Nez Manuel be her seatmate. She’s running on a slate with Mendez – her husband, the district’s incumbent senator and Granillo’s opponent – and Melody Hernandez, a paramedic and union shop steward who’s able to keep up with Salman’s progressive rhetoric and politics.
Nez Manuel has found herself the darling of several outside groups aside from Revitalize, including the Arizona Integrity PAC, Better Leaders, Better Arizona and others. Integrity PAC, an operation of former Mike Bloomberg 2020 adviser Joe Wolf, is funded mostly through the Arizona Association of Realtors and corporations like Pinnacle West and Southwest Gas. Both it and Better Leaders, Better Arizona are backing business-friendly Democrats in several primaries – as Wolf put it last week, PACs like these support the candidates that are most likely to take meetings with them.
For the record, Nez Manuel denies knowing anything about Revitalize or any of the other groups spending on her behalf, and expressed bemusement with Salman’s attempts at painting her as a corporate-bought moderate.
But Torres said that his electoral spending has nothing to do with broader debates within the party over ideology, bipartisanship and the strength of the leadership team.
“Our strong preference is to not play in Democratic primaries,” Torres said. “However, Revitalize has and will continue to hold electeds accountable — even if that means supporting challengers to … incumbents.”
Torres is mostly referring to a tiff that arose over failed union legislation in the 2019 session. That year, Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, introduced HB2406, a bill that would have effectively reversed the state’s ban on project labor agreement requirements in public works contracts – the logic being that a center-right Republican had a better chance of getting the bill passed than a progressive Democrat.
The previous year, Salman tried and failed to run a similar bill, HB2641, which predictably did not get a hearing in the House Government Committee. Torres had convinced Democratic leadership to let a Republican run the bill that time around, several lawmakers within the party said.
But Shope’s bill fared no better, bouncing from committee to committee without a hearing. Even if it passed, its path in the Senate was uncertain. But Andrade hatched a plan. Rep. Noel Campbell, a Prescott Republican who chaired the Transportation Committee, was running a bill to increase the state gas tax, something of a masochistic annual tradition for Campbell. The legislation would substantially increase the tax, which had sat dormant since the 1990s, in order to fund transportation improvements.
The issue could prove toxic for members of both parties, but especially Campbell’s fellow Republicans, who resent increasing taxes for any reason. He would need bipartisan support to get it done, and Andrade told Cambell that Democrats could help if he allowed an amendment restoring project labor agreements on the bill.
How certain Andrade was that this would be possible isn’t clear. He maintains that he knew the plan – which amounted to tacking one controversial bill to another – was full of pitfalls, though it likely presented the only path forward. He said that he was able to convince David Martin, the president of the Arizona Chapter of Associated General Contractors of America, to remain neutral on the bill, clearing a potential hurdle.
Campbell, however, said Martin was vociferously opposed to the labor amendment, which Democrats hoped to offer during floor debate.
“The contractors did not want to be tied to that,” he said. “I couldn’t convince Fernandez … to support me without the amendment included in it.”
Without the amendment, Democrats would have to tell their constituents that they backed a tax increase without any wins for unions. It became, in effect, a poison pill: no amendment, no bill.
Ultimately, a last-ditch effort to include the amendment in the bill on the floor failed, as did the gas tax legislation itself.
The failure of those bills outraged Torres, several lawmakers said, but the apparent disinterest by Democrats to push harder for the legislation was even more frustrating. In Torres’ eyes, Andrade and his allies in Democratic leadership espoused union values but couldn’t deliver results. And in private meetings with other Democrats, Andrade was frequently critical of Torres and his personality, several of his colleagues said.
“Andrade was out of his lane,” Torres said. “It’s just politics.”
A year later, Torres is delivering on his promises for accountability. While he’s not funding a challenge against Fernandez, his support of Nez Manuel, Castro and Granillo amounts to a challenge against her coalition ahead of an election that could very well propel her to House speaker – assuming her members don’t back an alternative.
“If [Revitalize’s spending] happens to affect that race, then the leader has nobody to blame but herself,” Torres said.
To Andrade and his allies, the whole affair is preposterous. Democrats are still in the minority — with or without a purported deal to get the labor bill passed, they can’t set the Legislature’s agenda, he said.
“It goes to show, holding personal vendettas is what this is really about,” Andrade said. “Instead of investing money to turn Arizona blue, so we can get PLAs, he’s running his core to basically say that he controls the Legislature.”
It’s just Israel being Israel, suggested Delbert Hawk, the political director of IBEW Local 640 — which used to employ Torres as a consultant.
“The problem I have with him is bully tactics,” Hawk said. “We used to employ them, but we let them go. It wasn’t working … we weren’t seeing anything for that kind of money. People would say, ‘Oh, Israel said to do this.’ I don’t give a (expletive) what Israel said. That’s my local. That’s when I knew we had a problem. It became the Torres Show, the Torres Brand.”
Senate President Karen Fann has selected Douglas York, a Republican from Maricopa County, to serve on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Senate GOP announced today.
In a statement, Fann said that York, the president of an irrigation business, understands “the challenges Arizona faces in the next decade” and the growth patterns of the state.
York’s appointment to the commission means that Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, the next and final legislative leader to make their pick, must select someone from outside Maricopa County. The state Constitution stipulates that no more than two of the four partisan picks can hail from the state’s largest county.
Fann had until next week to make her pick. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, made her selection yesterday, starting a seven-day clock for the Senate president.
Evidently, Fann chose to accelerate an already sped-up timeline — House Speaker Rusty Bowers began the process last week, earlier than at any point in the IRC’s history, prompting an ongoing lawsuit from Fernandez and Bradley that stalled yesterday when a judge decided not to slow down the selection process.
In his application for the IRC, York wrote that he was motivated to seek the job in part because of his dissatisfaction with the outcome of redistricting in 2010.
“I am interested in beginning a new process that is fair for the state of Arizona,” he wrote.
A Yuma Democratic lawmaker is asking a judge to toss a defamation lawsuit filed against her by two Republican legislators and a member of Congress.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez contends she did nothing wrong in signing a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to investigate the activities of Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley and now-former Rep. Anthony Kern of Glendale during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Both state lawmakers were there but have denied taking part in any disturbance.
There also were questions raised in the letter she signed about GOP Congressmen Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar. These stem from a claim by Ali Alexander, who organized the “Stop the Steal” movement, that he worked with them and Republican Congressman Mo Brooks from Alabama on the plan for the Jan. 6 demonstration.
In filing suit, Finchem, Kern and Gosar — Biggs did not join in — are seeking unspecified damages as well as a court order requiring Fernandez “to publish a full retraction of the false and malicious allegations” in the letter to the federal agencies.
But attorney David Bodney who represents Fernandez, said the claim is flawed. He said that communications with law enforcement like this letter are “absolutely privileged as a matter of Arizona law.”
Bodney also took a slap at claims made in the original lawsuit that appear to be designed in a bid to use their claims against Fernandez to pursue a political agenda.
The Republican lawmakers claim, without proof, that there were “irregularities” in the election of President Biden and that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook quashed harmful stories about Biden’s son, Hunter, and his laptop that contained documents about his business dealings. And the lawsuit claims problems with the integrity of electronic voting systems and what they claim were “mysterious changes in swing states” of vote tallies on election night.
All that, Bodney said, is legally irrelevant.
“Contrary to all of the rhetoric … this is not a lawsuit about fraud in the 2020 election, the purported suppression of conservative viewpoints by social media companies or issues of border security,” he wrote.
What the lawsuit is, Bodney said, is an attempt by Finchem, Kern and Gosar “to punish a critic for simply asking federal authorities for an investigation into their role in that attack” on the Capitol. And he said there’s no legal basis for that claim.
“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism, and the First Amendment protects Rep. Fernandez to the same extent it protects plaintiffs,” Bodney said.
In seeking federal review, the Democrats said that Republican legislators “publicly advocated for the overthrow of the election results which encouraged precisely the kind of violence that we witnessed.” More to the point, it says that Finchem and Kern, who had lost his re-election bid, were not only present but “actively encouraged the mob, both before and during the attack on the Capitol.”
And then there was the post from Alexander.
“We four schemed up putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting” on counting the Electoral College delegates, Alexander said in a now-deleted video on Periscope.
The letter at the center of the lawsuit, which actually was signed by all of the Democrats in the legislature, says there is evidence that all four “encouraged, facilitated, participated and possibly helped plan this anti-democratic insurrection.” But only Fernandez is named as a defendant.
The lawsuit contends she knew or should have known there was no evidence linking them to the riot. And it says that Fernandez knew the allegation that the Republicans helped stir up protesters were false or that she made them “in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.”
Bodney said even if the letter to the FBI and Department of Justice were not absolutely privileged as communication with law enforcement, the lawsuit fails on other grounds.
“Plaintiffs have failed to plead any facts that would establish, as required, that Rep. Fernandez knew the challenged statements were false or consciously disregarded subjective doubts about their truth,” he told the judge. And Bodney said nothing in the complaint alleges any facts showing that Fernandez entered into any conspiracy to defame.
And there’s something else.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public officials can sue for defamation only if they can show there was “actual malice,” meaning that the person making the statements knew or seriously doubted the veracity of those statements. Simple negligence or even false statements, by themselves, is insufficient for a public figure to maintain a libel or slander action.
And Bodney said the fact that both Finchem and Kern have denied participating in the riot, by itself, is not enough to support their claim that Fernandez knew what she — and the other Democrats — were telling federal officials was false.
“Both the innocent and the guilty will deny their culpability for criminal conduct,” he said. “Neither the law nor common sense required anyone to take plaintiffs’ denials at face value.”
A legislative aide to Fernandez said she is paying for her own defense.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is resigning to join the Biden Administration, the White House announced today.
Fernandez will join the administration as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Arizona state director for rural development. In a press release, the Biden White House praised Fernandez for her time representing rural Arizonans and specifically cited her role in Drought Contingency Plan negotiations in 2019 while she served as House Minority Leader.
Fernandez said she considered running for the Arizona Senate in 2023, since she is termed out of the House, but the state director job was “too exciting to pass up.” She sent her letter of resignation to House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, today, notifying them that she will leave office on Nov. 15
“I’m ecstatic about having the ability to work with rural areas, which are near and dear to my heart because that’s where I reside. And so I’m really, really excited for this next chapter,” she said.
According to the White House, Fernandez and other appointees announced today “will be critical to the President’s efforts to rebuild communities most impacted by the pandemic, the economic recovery, and climate change.”
Fernandez said in her first 100 days in the new position she wants to prioritize rural broadband access, something she said has been an issue in her area of southern Yuma. Fernandez said she is also looking forward to the “prospect of working together with the governor’s office and the USDA to make sure that every Arizonan that needs and wants broadband use in their area will be able to access it.”
She also plans to prioritize expanding the USDA’s loan program for self-help housing, something she said is a fixture in Yuma County. She’s looking forward to working with rural, working families. “The Build Back Better plan is going to affect them, and I want to make sure that I’m there to spread the news,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said she is proud of her time as a legislator.
“I started as a representative, went into leadership as a whip and then became the leader of the largest caucus – 29 members – in years,” she said. “So I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done, and it’s a little bittersweet, but it’s a new chapter.”
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez this afternoon picked Democrat Shereen Lerner to serve on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, a decision that came only a few hours after a Maricopa County Superior Court judge denied a request from Democratic legislative leadership for a temporary restraining order to halt the nomination process.
Lerner, a professor of anthropology at Mesa Community College and historic preservationist who’s active in Tempe civic life, wrote in her application that she had studied election systems from an anthropological perspective and was interested in applying that knowledge at the IRC.
“Shereen Lerner was far and away the most qualified candidate we interviewed, and I’m proud to select her for this vital role in our state’s history,” Fernandez said today in a written statement. “Redistricting is an intense and highly challenging process that requires a combination of intelligence, communication skills and strength of character to succeed. That is exactly what Dr. Lerner will bring to the Commission.”
The pick of the first candidate from Maricopa County still leaves some flexibility for Senate President Karen Fann and Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, who pick next in that order. No more than two of the picks from legislative leaders can be from Maricopa County or from either party. Fann must make her choice within the next seven days.
“Creating fair and competitive legislative and Congressional districts that reflect Arizona’s diverse population and communities of interest is an incredible responsibility, and I will carry out those duties to the best of my abilities at all times,” Lerner said in a written statement.
Fernandez would have preferred not to make the announcement today, as Democrats argued that House Speaker Rusty Bowers’ pick — the earliest a House Speaker has made their choice since the commission’s inception — was premature.
Fernandez and Bradley filed a lawsuit last week against the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments shortly after Bowers on Oct. 22 picked David Mehl, a prominent Republican from Tucson. Historically, the Speaker has made the first pick in the year ending in one.
But Judge Janice Crawford ruled late this morning that while the Arizona Constitution sets a deadline for IRC picks, it says nothing about how early the process can begin. Crawford also said that Democrats failed to explain why they did not file their request for a TRO prior to Bowers’ pick, given that their legal argument for why the order is necessary is that two of the independent candidates — Thomas Loquvam and Robert Wilson — are not qualified, a case that Democrats have been pleading for weeks.
“As set forth above, Plaintiffs had acted to oppose Mr. Loquvam’s and Mr. Wilson’s applications and, thus, knew the facts on which they contend Mr. Loquvam and Mr. Wilson are unqualified,” Crawford wrote. “Any irreparable injury is caused by Plaintiffs waiting until after the Speaker made his appointment to seek the Court’s intervention.”
In explaining her ruling on the TRO, Crawford signaled that she did not believe that the case to remove Loquvam and Wilson from consideration for the IRC was likely to succeed on its merits.
Democrats filed the suit a day after Bowers made his pick, alleging that because Loquvam was a lobbyist with EPCOR and Wilson held a Trump rally at his Flagstaff gun store they were not qualified to chair the IRC.
The state constitution bans paid lobbyists from serving on the commission if they were active in the prior three years. While the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments winnowed out IRC candidates who were registered as legislative lobbyists, they did not do the same for Loquvam, who is registered with the Arizona Corporation Commission.
“It is undisputed that Mr. Loquvam disclosed that he was registered as a lobbyist with the ACC. While the Court, at this stage, may consider Plaintiffs’ position to have some merit, the Court declines to substitute its opinion on the qualifications of a nominee who was fully vetted by the CACA,” Crawford wrote.
She added that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that they would be “deprived of making their selection or will have lost an opportunity to select a candidate that did not become part of the pool because of Mr. Loquvam’s nomination.”
As for Wilson, who owns a gun store in Flagstaff, Crawford said it’s “undisputed that Mr. Wilson has been registered as an Independent for three or more years prior to the appointment” and that “it is unlikely that the CACA was not fully apprised on the facts under which Plaintiffs contend Mr. Wilson is not unbiased.”
In general, she seems intent to respect the role of the commission in vetting candidates, writing that the public’s interest in ensuring that the IRC is composed of “qualified individuals” is secured through the commission’s process.
Earlier this week, Jim Barton, the attorney representing Democratic legislative leadership, told the Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Capitol Times, that the case wouldn’t become “moot” even if the judge denies the TRO, as the plaintiffs wanted to ensure that Bradley had a qualified pool of applicants.
Today’s ruling didn’t shake his belief in the chances of the suit, he said.
“I understand the court’s ruling … but I don’t think it has any impact on our ability to litigate against two candidates who in our opinion are not qualified,” Barton said. “Courts take briefing for a reason. We will brief on the merits of our argument, we will have an opportunity to take some depositions and put on evidence.”
He continued: “I think what is going to happen in effect now is we’re going to be litigating over who’s gonna be qualified to serve as the independent chair.”
One of the leading proponents of the claims of election fraud in Arizona now wants to be in charge of the system.
State Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, has filed a formal “statement of interest” in running for secretary of state next year. That move allows him to begin collecting the signatures he would need to put his name on the ballot.
Finchem is unlikely to be alone.
Democrat Katie Hobbs, the current holder of the office, is likely eyeing a gubernatorial bid, what with incumbent Doug Ducey unable to seek a third term. That portends a wide-open race for the office whose duties include being the state’s chief elections officer.
But the office holds far more importance than the assigned tasks which also cover everything from regulating notaries public to registering telephone solicitors. Under the Arizona Constitution, the secretary of state is first in line of succession if the governor quits, dies or resigns, something that has occurred multiple times over the past few decades.
Also likely in the hunt, though there has been no formal action yet, is Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who currently chairs the Senate Committee on Government and Elections.
Finchem was one of the prime organizers of what was billed as a legislative hearing last year at a downtown Phoenix hotel to hear unverified claims of widespread election fraud in the November tally that gave the state’s 11 electoral votes to Democrat Joe Biden. The prime witness was Rudy Giuliani, attorney for PresidentTrump, and even included the now-former president calling in to complain about the process and the results.
He also sought to have the Arizona Legislature called into special session to invalidate the results and award those electoral votes to Trump. That was shot down by House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, who said there is no legal authority to do that.
Finchem, a figure in the “#stopthesteal” movement, also was at the Jan. 6 rally in Washington that later turned into an invasion of the Capitol. He denied entering the building, though he posted a photo on Twitter saying, “What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud.”
His participation led legislative Democrats to ask the FBI and the Department of Justice to look into his activities leading up to and at the event. To date, the only response from the agencies was that they had received the letter.
House Democrats also filed an ethics complaint against Finchem in a bid to get him expelled. When that was dismissed, he turned the tables and accused the Democrats of unethical conduct but that, too, was tossed.
Now Finchem has a defamation lawsuit against Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, one of the signers of the complaint.
Finchem also has backed the move by the Arizona Senate to audit the results of the Maricopa County vote, a process that remains in limbo while lawmakers figure out how to hire someone who do the work. But he also has suggested in an interview with Epoch Times that if that audit finds no problems it would be because county officials have destroyed evidence.
A retired Michigan police officer, he was first elected to the state House in 2014.
A current and a former state House member are suing Rep. Charlene Fernandez, saying the Democrat defamed them when she asked the FBI to investigate their connections to the deadly Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol.
Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and former Rep. Anthony Kern, also a Republican, allege in Yuma County Superior Court Fernandez “baselessly accused Plaintiffs of the highest possible crimes against the Government of the United States.”
“The malicious purpose of Defendant’s action was to chill debate, not encourage it; to shut down any discussion of election fraud in the 2020 Presidential election and of the larger question of election integrity in general; and, if possible, to criminally punish Plaintiffs for exercising their First Amendment right to peacefully demonstrate and petition the Government for redress of grievances,” the complaint says.
Fernandez, D-Yuma, and the rest of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses signed a letter in early January to FBI Director Christopher Wray and acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen asking for help determining the roles of Finchem, Kern and Republican U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar in the riot.
“What they did outside of plain view we do not yet know,” they wrote. “But there is evidence to indicate that Arizona Representatives Mark Finchem, Anthony Kern, Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs encouraged, facilitated, participated and possibly helped plan this anti-democratic insurrection on January 6.”
The lawsuit details why Finchem and Kern believed there were problems with the 2020 election and says neither one of them took part in fomenting violence on Jan. 6. It says Fernandez “falsely accused plaintiffs of being either directly involved in, or of aiding or abetting, the crimes of terrorism, insurrection, treason, and sedition” and of implying they were responsible for the death of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick.
Fernandez said Tuesday that she hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet.
The FBI has acknowledged receiving the Democrats’ complaint against Finchem and the others but has not publicly announced any action on it. Rep. Cesár Chávez, D-Phoenix, filed a complaint in mid-January asking the House Ethics Committee to investigate Finchem’s advocacy for overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election and his presence in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 the day a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol. Committee Chairwoman Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, said in February she would not be acting on the complaint, calling it an attempt to use the ethics process to settle a political dispute. Finchem filed a retaliatory complaint against House and Senate Democrats that Nutt similarly dismissed.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, and 22 other House Democrats also filed a resolution seeking Finchem’s expulsion from the Legislature, but it was never assigned to a committee.
Finchem and Kern are being represented by Alexander Kolodin, Christopher Viskovic and Bryan Blehm of the Kolodin Law Group of Phoenix, and by George Wentz Jr. and Brant Hadaway of the Davillier Law Group of Sandpoint, Idaho.
Updates: Adds comments from U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Bullhead City
Three current and former Republican lawmakers have been rebuffed by the state Court of Appeals in their bid to avoid paying the legal fees of a Democrat who a trial judge said was unfairly sued by them.
And now, they’re on the financial hook for even more.
In a unanimous ruling Thursday, the three-judge panel said that Yuma County Superior Court Judge Levi Gunderson was absolutely justified last year in requiring Mark Finchem, Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale; and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Bullhead City, to shell out $75,000 that Charlene Fernandez, then a state representative from Yuma, had to pay to her attorneys to successfully defend against a defamation suit they brought against her. He tossed their claim, ruling the lawsuit “was brought for an improper purpose, having been filed against a political opponent primarily for the purposes of harassment.”
Finchem, Kern and Gosar did not appeal the underlying ruling. But they argued to the appellate judges that Gunderson’s decision to force them to pay Fernandez’s legal fees was not justified, saying that such sanctions “will stifle creative advocacy.”
The appellate panel, in an unsigned opinion, didn’t see it that way. It concluded the trio filed suit “without substantial justification” and that “their pleadings were riddled with irrelevant allegations.”
“Further, on appeal, they continue to focus on the parties’ political differences, rather than law and fact, to support their claims,” the appellate judges wrote in assessing a new round of financial sanctions. “Their appeal, therefore, is both groundless and brought in bad faith.”
The new ruling does not say how much more Finchem, Kern and Gosar will have to shell out. That will be determined after Fernandez’s attorneys file a statement of their legal fees and other costs.
At issue is a Jan. 12, 2021, letter that was signed by Fernandez and 41 other Democratic state lawmakers to the FBI and the Department of Justice asking that they investigate the trio, all of whom were in Washington when rioters attacked the Capitol six days earlier.
The letter said Finchem and Kern, who went to Washington, “actively encouraged the mob, both before and during the attack on the Capitol.” And it claimed that the pair “sought to conceal the consequences of their conduct by falsely blaming ‘Antifa.’ ”
It also raised issues about Gosar and fellow Congressman Andy Biggs.
That was based on a claim by Ali Alexander, who organized the “Stop the Steal” movement, that he worked with them and Alabama Congressman Mo Brook on the plan for the Jan. 6 demonstration that coincided with the counting of the electoral votes by Congress.
“We four schemed up of putting maximum pressure on Congress while they were voting,” Alexander said in a now-deleted video on Periscope.
There was no evidence that either Finchem or Kern were involved in trespassing at the Capitol. And both Biggs and Gosar were inside the Capitol during the Jan. 6 session.
While all Democratic state lawmakers signed the letter, the trio chose to sue only Fernandez who had been the House minority leader. They never offered any explanation for that decision.
In filing suit, Kern and Finchem — and later Gosar — contended that she knew the allegations they had helped stir up protesters were false or that she made them “in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.” They sought unspecified damages as well as a court order requiring Fernandez “to publish a full retraction of the false and malicious allegations” in the letter to the federal officials.
Gunderson, however, said that Fernandez, who subsequently resigned from the legislature to take a job in the Biden administration, did nothing wrong.
“The Jan. 12th letter goes to the heart of free speech and the right to petition the government in connection with matters of great public concern,” he wrote.
“Defendant had the right to express her concerns, both as an individual and as a state legislator,” Gunderson said. “Defendant had the right to petition the government, just as her constituents has the right to petition her.”
And the judge said that the letter falls well within First Amendment protections for political speech.
In their new ruling, the appellate judges agreed.
They pointed out that Arizona law requires a court to assess legal fees against any attorney or individual who brings a claim “without substantial justification.” And that includes any claim that “is groundless and is not made in good faith.”
That, they said, is the case here.
“Plaintiffs’ defamation claims were groundless because the statements they contend were defamatory were absolutely privileged as communications to law enforcement about potential criminal activity,” the ruling states. And the appellate judges said the lawsuit was not brought in good faith “because their complaint presented allegations relating to Fernandez’s political positions that were irrelevant to the defamation claims.”
Gosar press aide Anthony Foti said the appellate court said the comments made in the letter could amount to defamation “but concludes that she had the absolute privileged right to defame them without any legal recourse” under what he called the “pretext” that Fernandez was reporting a crime. And he said the ruling reflects two standards of justice.
“Leftists are allowed to defame conservatives under the thinnest of pretexts,” Foti said.
“Conservatives … like President Trump face criminal prosecution for his privileged exercise of free speech,” he said, saying that imposing sanctions on Gosar, Finchem and Kern for attempting to vindicate themselves “is punitive, harsh and the opposite of justice.”
There was no immediate response from Finchem or Kern.
Finchem, who used to represent Oro Valley and surrounding areas in the House, lost his 2022 bid for secretary of state. He now is running to represent the Prescott area in the state Senate.
Kern, a Glendale resident who had been defeated in his 2020 reelection bid for the House, won a two-year term last year for the state Senate.
Gosar, first elected to the U.S. House in 2012, was unopposed in the 2022 general election for two more years.
The state House’s first floor session since March began — and nearly ended — with fireworks.
Almost immediately, Democrats on Tuesday moved to notify the Senate that the chamber had completed its labors and was ready to adjourn sine die, a motion that, if passed, would have effectively ended the session.
The motion failed on party lines — if any Republicans have an interest in ending the session, they didn’t show it on the floor. But nonetheless it provided an opportunity for the two parties to stake their positions on the duties of the Legislature in a time of crisis.
Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, who made the motion to adjourn, cited the plight of his fellow members of the Navajo Nation, which has the highest COVID-19 infection rate of anywhere in the country.
“I believe that as a body that is looking to the best interests of Arizonans…we can successfully, cooperatively end today’s session, and proceed with special sessions that will be specific to the cover pandemic,” Teller said.
That’s one of the Minority’s key arguments: that treating this week as typical distracts from work that needs to be done to help the state survive and recover from COVID-19. Many Democrats want to end the regular session and immediately convene in a special session to that end.
“If we are talking about anything that is not COVID-19 related, we are doing our citizens a disservice,” said Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen. “I believe we need to sine die today and immediately jump into a special session.”
That would provide an opportunity to pass the worker protections and unemployment insurance reforms that Democrats desire. But Republicans don’t see a reason why the Legislature can’t take on some of those issues right now.
Among that group is Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who on Tuesday filed legislation that would appropriate $88 million in federal grants from the CARES Act to support the state’s child care centers as they begin to reopen. It’s one of several pieces of legislation that advocacy groups like the Children’s Action Alliance have requested.
“This bill will appropriate that money and will allow child care centers to receive money so they can reopen…and remain open,” Udall said in a GOP caucus meeting Tuesday morning. “That money will flow to the centers. In order for people to get back to work it’s essential that they have somewhere safe where their children can go.”
If passed, the bill authorizes $85 million in one-time spending to the Department of Economic Security so it can offer forgivable loans to licensed child care facilities and $3 million to the Department of Health Services so it can waive license renewal fees for child care facilities.
Regardless of whether or not the Legislature goes into a special session after it finishes its work this week, Democrats aren’t thrilled about the way GOP leadership is conducting business.
Both the Udall bill and a separate measure to protect businesses and non-profits from legal liability if an employee or patron gets COVID-19 — the primary focus of Republicans this week — were assigned solely to the Rules Committee, rather than the Education or Judiciary committees, where such legislation might normally land.
On one hand, this is more efficient. On the other, there’s generally very little debate or public testimony in the Rules Committee, which has the task of deeming whether a given piece of legislation is constitutional.
“They don’t want to discuss the substantive issues,” said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee
The same complaint can be made for the dozens of Senate bills the House debated today. Many of those carried committee amendments that their sponsors withdrew for the sake of expediency — and to give the Senate as little work as possible should it choose to reconvene and transmit those bills to Gov. Doug Ducey.
To House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, this reads as a political ploy.
“Stop trying to lure the Senate back into session with these Trojan Horse bills,” the Yuma Democrat admonished. “We know this is all about the strategy to get the Senate to reverse a 24-6 vote to adjourn.”
After all, unless the Senate decides to reconvene, most of the House’s work this week is for naught. The House needs the Senate to transmit bills that originated in the upper chamber, and it needs the Senate to vote on the Kavanagh and Udall bills, assuming they pass.
That said, Democrats still fell in line on some legislation that isn’t directly COVID related, such as Sen. Sean Bowie’s SB1445, which requires training programs for school counselors to include instruction on suicide prevention. Republicans pointed to this measure, which passed with near unanimity, as an example of legislation that shouldn’t wait until next year, pandemic or no.
The Senate’s role is immaterial, said Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa.
“I’m proud of those of you who have come in to finish bills that need to be done. It’s important for us to do what we were elected to do,” she said. “This isn’t about what the Senate’s doing.”
If Democrats care about getting in and out of the Capitol as quickly as possible, Townsend encouraged them to resist the urge to comment on each bill and explain each vote — only fuelling claims from the left that Republicans are trying to fast-track remaining legislation with minimal feedback.
“I’d like you guys to prove that you mean it,” Townsend said. “If you really mean it, and you really mean that we need to go home and come back for a special session, then do not press your request to speak. Resist that. Vote and go home.”
Some lawmakers say it’s time to revisit Arizona laws that give the governor broad powers in cases of emergency.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, wants a constitutional amendment sent to the ballot to require governors to get the “advice and consent” of the legislature within a certain period — perhaps 14 days — of declaring an emergency. He said the state’s chief executive would need to provide lawmakers with “evidence that an emergency exists.”
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said she’s not willing to wait to have voters consider constitutional restraints on the power of the governor. She wants a special session of the legislature this fall to reconsider the powers that were given to governors, some specifically in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, doesn’t see the need for such a rush. But she, too, thinks that once this crisis is over that legislators need to consider exactly how much unilateral power they have given governors.
But House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said voters elected Doug Ducey to do a job and that they — and lawmakers — should give him the latitude to do what he thinks is necessary.
In each case, those interviewed by Capitol Media Services say this has nothing to do with Ducey, the emergency he declared in March and the ways he has exercised those powers over everything from what businesses can be open to when people need to stay at home.
“We obviously respect the tough position that the governor is in,” Fann said. “It’s kind of a no-win situation for him.”
But in some ways it is about Ducey since he is the one who declared the emergency.
Fann said that, with the knowledge now of how all that works, that requires a new look at those laws and how they fit into the constitutional balance of power that’s supposed to exist between the executive and legislative branches of government.
“They probably thought it would be 30, 60 days,” she said of those who crafted the laws. And the thinking, Fann said, probably was based on the idea that it’s not easy to call lawmakers into special session to approve specific acts giving the governor special powers.
“But I seriously do not think that this was intended to go on for three, five, six months,” she said.
Ducey, for his part, isn’t interested in any limit on either the breadth or the length of his powers. Daniel Scarpinato, his chief of staff, said what’s happening now with COVID-19 shows the law is working the way it was designed.
“The virus is widespread and its spreading and the numbers are increasing,” he said.
“So to have a date certain of when it would end would be really irresponsible because this is going to go on for some time,” Scarpinato said. “There’ll be additional public health decisions that need to be made.”
What that also means is that, under current law, Ducey’s power to make those without legislative input continues as long as he wants.
So what would be wrong with a requirement for the governor, after some period of time, to go to the legislature, explain the situation and seek permission to keep the emergency in place?
“Our perspective would be that the way to determine whether a public health emergency should continue would be based on public health, the recommendation of public health (officials) and the facts on the ground” Scarpinato said. “In this case, the crisis is escalating, the cases are growing.”
Finchem, however, said Ducey’s stated goals in declaring the emergency appear to have morphed.
“It was to flatten the curve on hospitalization,” he said, spreading out over a longer period of time the number of people who got the disease to prevent overwhelming health care facilities.
“It was not to flatten the goal on transmission,” Finchem continued. “Well, now we’ve moved the goalposts.”
And that, he said, is where constitutionally required legislative oversight would fit in.
Scarpinato said that confuses two separate issues: the declaration of emergency which was issued first and then the stay-at-home order which he said was aimed at slowing the spread.
Finchem, however, said he still believes that, at some point, the governor should have to come to the legislature, explain the decision to declare an emergency and, potentially more significant, detail exactly what metrics he is using to determine when that declaration — and the expanded powers the governor assumes — is no longer necessary.
And, absent legislative blessing, the emergency declaration would cease.
He, like Fann, stressed this isn’t about Ducey.
“This is against the idea that a governor, any governor, can have unlimited, unrestrained power without the people intervening and saying, ‘Not so fast there, cowboy,’ ” Finchem said.
Townsend said something like this would restore the balance of power.
“The legislature is a co-equal branch of government, not subordinate to the executive,” she said.
Townsend is looking at what other states are doing to find a model that might work in Arizona. One, she said, would limit the number of days the governor can have a declared emergency without getting legislative consent.
Some of the powers, Townsend said, followed the terrorist attacks in 2001 “when fears of biological warfare were cresting.”
“I believe the entire state now realizes that this is not a good idea, and the people in each district want their voice to be heard and desire the representative government that they were promised,” she said.
With Ducey showing no interest in calling a special session on the issue, Townsend pointed out that lawmakers can call themselves back to the Capitol with a two-thirds vote of each chamber.
That, however, would require at least some Democrats to go along with the Republican majority.
For the time being, though, Fernandez sees no reason to act.
“I really do trust that someone elected to that office should know when to use that and when not to use those powers,” she said. In fact, Fernandez said, she doesn’t believe that Ducey has used those powers enough to deal with the current pandemic “as well as he could.”
“But I feel comfortable knowing that he could,” she said.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the latitude given to the governor.
That 2002 law, crafted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, gave the chief executive broad new powers to order medical examinations and even isolate and quarantine people without first getting court approval. And it even empowered the governor to use the National Guard to enforce those orders.
Only 10 lawmakers voted against the plan, including House Minority Whip Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park. He said the governor already has broad emergency powers.
Farmers and Gov. Doug Ducey say they are willing to change their stance against government oversight and regulation to protect the state’s dwindling water supply – and they’re willing to let the largest water users write the rules.
This shift in thinking comes as the Legislature convenes Jan. 13 and lawmakers will likely have to address what to do with a growing demand for water, just one year after they passed the Drought Contingency Plan, which doles out water from the Colorado River.
Now, the new urgency is managing Arizona’s groundwater.
In areas in Arizona where groundwater is unregulated, any landowner who can afford it can drill as much and as deep as they wish, take as much water as they want and are not required to report their usage to the state. But their water must be for a “beneficial use,” per statute, which includes agriculture.
But that usage in these areas, which sit outside of areas where groundwater usage is tracked and regulated, known as active management areas, has gone unchecked by the government for decades. Nobody knows exactly how much groundwater is left or how long it will last.
This growing problem is prompting discussion between water stakeholders in the Legislature and in those areas, who are working to ensure there is enough water to grow responsibly and sustainably for generations.
That, coupled with projected shortfalls in the Colorado River and longer, hotter and drier summers, people living in these areas are worried and are asking the government to step in.
The problem has caught the attention of Gov. Doug Ducey, who has cultivated a legacy as the deregulation governor. Ducey said he’s concerned about reports of a dwindling supply in these areas and is willing to approve regulations water users in these places want.
“I am open minded to regulations that protect and steward our water future,” Ducey said. “I’m concerned about some of the reports that we have received, and we’re working to provide the best possible policy going forward, both from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation, and some of the decisions that they make on behalf of the state water management future.”
Ducey said late last year that “positive growth” in areas bring challenges to allocating water responsibly and that the situation is nuanced and Arizona’s water feeds agricultural products that ship around the world.
“Agriculture is a big industry,” Ducey said. “We have not only family farms, but we have people that come in with some corporate farming. If those products are exported to the benefit of Arizona, that’s one thing – water is different.”
Through that and through several stakeholder committees organized by the Legislature, Ducey and lawmakers are letting people who use the most water in unregulated counties come up with solutions that work for them. Once those solutions are found, the state is expected to craft laws that will make implementing those processes, which build on long standing water policy, easier.
The state’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act was shepherded by former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and it restricted irrigation on new farmland in urban areas and required builders there to show a 100-year water supply before making new subdivisions, among other efficiency standards. Since its passage, it’s been trumpeted as a historic piece of policy that pushed the state to conserve water where it was growing the most: Phoenix, Prescott, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz management areas.
Areas like La Paz County and Mohave County, which are currently being examined by Legislative committees, weren’t included at the time.
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute, said that while she thinks there is enough water to go around, the real issue is about where the state is growing.
She said the state should continue to grow where water supplies allow, like what the Groundwater Management Act intends.
‘Land of the free’
Managing that growth will have to be community-centric, Porter said, as some places might not be able to afford, or might not find feasible, more expensive solutions. Ducey and the Legislature say they are aiming to work with water stakeholders, usually powerful business interests, to hash out the hard work and set precedent for how other areas of the state facing similar problems should move forward.
Ducey said his staff is working with ADWR to find these solutions, which those involved in water stakeholder discussions say will differ by county because none of them use water the same way or take them from the same sources proportionately.
But for now, ADWR’s hands are tied because in order to suggest or implement any new regulation in these areas, it needs to document how much water these megafarms are taking and how much water is left. The department is working to provide a model to committees that study groundwater usage in Mohave and La Paz counties.
Those committees, which include members of local government, mining, farming, business and agriculture stakeholders, are chaired by Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu city. The groups, which do not include conservationists, plan to meet sometime during the 2020 legislative session to review ADWR’s data and again after the coming legislative session to suggest legislative fixes.
Cobb has said in the past that because these are the interests who use water the most in these communities, they, collectively, have conservation in mind. She characterized the committees as “kind of like DCP for groundwater in each of the communities.”
The committees will consider what residents and water stakeholders in those counties have already asked for: more regulation, expansions of active management areas, other irrigation non-expansion areas and to tax groundwater or to require everyone to meter usage and charge users accordingly.
Cobb said these counties have no real mechanism to regulate water usage and have become a target for hedge fund groups that effectively mine water.
“[Farmers] want to be the land of the free,” Cobb said. “The problem is now they see that by not having any restrictions at all, we have opened ourselves up to vulnerability – we’re vulnerable to all of the water mining companies coming in. So, when they’re looking at that, [farmers are] saying, ‘I want it open for me, but I don’t want it open for everybody.’”
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said when she threw out the idea of metering wells at a community meeting “it wasn’t very popular.”
“People who own land believe the water rights belong to the property underneath,” she said.
Complicating any solution politically is the fact that one of the larger operations is using Arizona groundwater to grow hay to ship to Saudi Arabia to feed cattle there. In the meantime, some area residents report that their existing wells have gone dry, forcing them to drill even deeper.
“We have to stand up to that,” said Fernandez who has been one of the key legislative players in shaping Arizona water legislation. She said there should be some way to distinguish between families that live in the area and corporate farmers, “people who don’t have a vested interest in the area.”
“But who makes that decision?” she asked.
Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.
The state House of Representatives has finished its work and notified the Senate of its intent to adjourn sine die today, bringing one of the strangest legislative sessions in recent memory one step closer to its end.
Typically, such a motion, carried out at 5:55 p.m. today, would terminate the session. But the House only adjourned after sending two pieces of late-introduced legislation to a Senate that hasn’t yet indicated whether it would come out of its slumber to consider the final House bills.
The first of those bills, which the House passed on party lines, increases the legal standard under which individuals can sue a business or non-profit if they suspect they contracted COVID-19 on the premises. The second appropriates tens of millions of dollars in CARES Act monies to support childcare centers.
Thursday’s action on the floor concludes a last-ditch effort by the House Majority to restore some normality to the chamber. GOP leadership concocted a plan to hear dozens of Senate bills this week – almost all without amendments, which would allow the Senate to return and transmit the bills to the desk of Gov. Doug Ducey with minimal effort.
For the most part, these bills passed out of the Senate with broad support and little fanfare.
But they led to fierce debates and animosity in the House, where the minority party members took nearly every opportunity they had to admonish their colleagues for considering legislation that didn’t directly address COVID-19, for fast-tracking the two final House bills and for using procedural maneuvers to stymie Democratic outrage on the floor.
That much was clear from the start, when on Tuesday, Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, made a motion to immediately end the session that failed on party lines.
“I believe that as a body that is looking to the best interests of Arizonans … we can successfully, cooperatively end today’s session, and proceed with special sessions that will be specific to the COVID pandemic,” Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, said, citing the havoc that COVID has wreaked on the Navajo Nation, which has the highest rate of infection in the country.
But the Republican membership has for weeks been agitating for a return to the Legislature, especially now that the state is in the early stages of reopening.
“We told Arizona that it’s time to get back to work. But if we’re not getting back to work we’re setting a bad example,” said Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers had promised to govern based on a majority of the majority — and his own members held his feet to the fire for nearly reaching an agreement with Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, to adjourn earlier in May.
“When I first said we would sine die, they didn’t accept that,” Bowers said.
Now, a special session is likely right around the corner. While the two parties have agreed upon very little, they’ve both come to accept one or more special sessions to address COVID-19 and right the state’s budgetary ship as an inevitability.
One item that might be on that session’s agenda is the legal liability bill, the brainchild of Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, also a Gilbert Republican.
The Senate intends to return Tuesday to accept the House’s sine die motion, Senate Minority Leader David Bradley said. The Senate itself has already asked the House for permission to adjourn, and has sat in recess, waiting for the House to accede to its request, since.
As such, the chamber can technically return with a quorum at any time. Senate President Karen Fann left open the idea of passing two or three COVID-19-related bills, though support is unlikely there in the Senate for the liability measure.
This will come as welcome news to Democrats, who lamented the fact that the bill received a hearing only in the Rules Committee with minimal input from the public. Some in the minority have expressed support for a liability protection bill if it stipulates that businesses have to take the necessary precautions to protect their patrons and employees from COVID-19.
Lawmakers will also have to contend with a budget shortfall that could potentially exceed $1 billion, the result of a state economy devastated by COVID-19.
“There will be more than one [special session],” said Bowers, R-Mesa. “The budget, if there’s any discrepancies in the things we passed or didn’t pass today, there will be more on childcare, more on liability.”
The House’s final week was a fitting encapsulation of the session as a whole. It began with the hope that lawmakers from the two parties would put their differences aside, unite behind bills that passed with little controversy in the Senate and expedite the end of the session.
But any feelings of good-will quickly evaporated. Bruising committee hearings and floor debates dashed any hopes of a smooth session. Democrats, who felt shut out, tried to block Republican-backed proposals.
“We’re in this weird situation where … we’ve been adjourned for about a month and a half (and) they’re calling us in. Our hope and our expectation was that if they’re not going to follow suit with the Senate and sine die so we can go into special session, maybe we’re here to do the work of COVID-19,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe. “Instead, we see, we’re playing politics. Instead we see we’re doing business as usual.”
In this case, business as usual mostly meant spinning the wheels of policymaking but rarely moving forward. Republicans mustered the support necessary to pass significant legislation, such as a bill to require school counselors and social workers to be trained in suicide prevention.
However, lawmakers spent about as much time debating bills that had little relevance to COVID-19 or that are likely doomed to never get the blessing of the governor’s pen.
“This pandemic has revealed deep, systemic problems in our unemployment insurance program. Over the past three days since coming back into session, our efforts to bring those issues forward in this session were shut down in one of the most undemocratic processes I’ve ever witnessed,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, in a written statement. “Hopefully we can all do better in a special session.”
Democrats attempted to introduce amendments to a variety of legislation throughout the week — such as on a controversial bill that will force insurers to cover pre-existing conditions if the Affordable Care Act is overturned but doesn’t place price caps on coverage — and were outmaneuvered almost every time.
They were also unable to introduce their own version of the liability legislation, as the Rules Committee on Monday voted only to allow the late introduction of Kavanagh’s bill.
“They know just like we know that the Senate is unlikely to come back and do anything substantive,” said Toma. “Them getting an amendment is not them getting a win, it’s them killing the bill.”
But the week wasn’t for naught, even if the liability bill that was this week’s focus doesn’t have support in the Senate, Republicans said.
“The point is that I committed to these people that this is what we’d do, and we did it,” said Bowers.
That’s an important point, as division within the Republican Party has characterized much of the past few weeks. Bowers twice committed to come back to adjourn, only to face harsh criticism from the more fervently conservative elements in his caucus.
“I hope the Senate tries to join us, but even if they don’t, we’ve shown that we have 31 votes when everyone thought we didn’t,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge.
Republican lawmakers voted todayto punish teachers who don’t present both sides of controversial science or events, a move that some lawmakers say could force them to seek out and present contrary views on everything from climate change and slavery to the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Holocaust – and even whether Joe Biden really won the election.
The measure approved along party lines requires that any “controversial issues” discussed in the classroom must be done “from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.”
“Propaganda has no place in our classrooms,” said Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa. She said there have been complaints by parents that their children are being taught things that some people do not believe to be true.
Much of what is in her amendment to SB1532 is aimed at precluding instruction that one race, ethnic group or sex is “inherently morally or intellectually superior to another.” Udall’s measure also would bar teaching that any individual bears responsibility for actions committed by others of the same race, ethic group or sex.
“It simply prevents teaching our students that their race determines their character, treatment or worth,” she said. “Biased, unbalanced teaching hurts children.”
But Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, said the measure is based on a false premise.
“It is not propaganda that our country enslaved people for 400 years,” he said. “It is not propaganda that native tribes had their land taken by our forefathers.”
Udall insisted that nothing stops that from being taught.
“We all acknowledge that these things happened,” she said.
But Udall’s legislation contains no definition of what is “controversial” and, under her proposal, could not be presented as fact but instead would require a teacher to provide an alternate view – or face discipline. Friese suggested that might only be defined in retrospect after a parent objects to something that already was taught.
And that lack of definition alarmed some legislators who pointed out that any teacher who violates the law is subject to not just a $5,000 fine, but would be forced to reimburse the school for any “misused monies.”
Udall brushed aside some of the examples of what might land a teacher in trouble. For example, she said, a teacher would not have to present alternate theories about whether the earth is round.
She said an “accurate portrayal of historical events” would be permitted. And she said that “largely discredited” theories do not need to be presented as fact.
But then legislators started asking about specific examples.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said there are those who believe there were positive aspects of slavery and that some slaves were treated better than others.
“Suppose that a teacher were to teach, and believed was an accurate portrayal, that all slavery was bad, that all masters were bad?” she asked.
“If the sources are well understood and if it’s well-cited, that would be considered an accurate portrayal,” Udall said. “If it’s not something that has been discredited, it would be considered an accurate portrayal.”
But Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, said Udall’s measure makes issues where there should be none.
“It is not a controversial statement to say slavery was the cause of the Civil War and not an issue of states’ rights,” he said. Ditto, Rodriguez said, would be a statement in a current events class saying that Joe Biden was elected in a fair and free election.
“And now we’re going to have to ‘both-sides’ to this?” he asked.
And what of climate change, Salman said, where there is a small group of scientists who contend either it is not occurring or that humans play no role. Does that, too, she asked, require equal time?
“If they’re working on controversial topics, they should teach them from diverse and contending perspectives without giving preference to either side and let students draw their own conclusion,” Udall responded.
Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, asked about the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
“There are ample conspiracy theories as to whether that happened, how it happened,” she said. Butler wanted to know if a teacher who believes the attacks occurred and who caused them would then have to bring in someone with an alternate viewpoint.
“Because there are a lot them,” she said.
“You can just Google it,” Butler continued. “There are all kinds of videos. It’s a pretty established conspiracy theory.”
Udall said she wasn’t concerned.
“Largely discredited arguments don’t need to be presented as fact,” she said.
But Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said even local issues can fall into the same category.
She told colleagues about Felix Longoria who died during World War II, came home in a flag-draped coffin but was denied a wake at a Texas funeral home “because white people would be upset.”
“Our teachers should be allowed to speak about Felix Longoria,” Fernandez said. “But they can’t teach it unless they can talk about why his family was denied a place to honor their father, their son, a husband, a friend and a neighbor.”
Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West, said he sees the legislation as simply an extension of existing law, which declares that parents have a right to direct the education of their minor child “without obstruction or interference from this state.”
“So this is for the parents and this is for the children to be able to stand up against the bad actors,” he said, meaning teachers who don’t honor that law.
And Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, compared all this to the move by some to remove monuments because of what they represent.
“That’s called rewriting history,” he said. “Whether you like that monument or not, that monument exists as a marker in time to provoke thought which, of course, provokes critical thinking.”
Even the method that Udall used to bring the issue to the full House for a vote was itself controversial.
Rather than going through the full process, which would have guaranteed at least one public hearing, she attached it to a semi-related measure which would make it illegal for teachers to use school resources to “organize, plan or execute any activity that impedes or prevents a public school from operating for any period of time.”
That followed a decision by some teachers in the Peoria Unified School District to stage a sick-out in January after the board decided to reopen schools for in-person learning despite the fact that the “metrics” of the level of infection showed it was not yet safe to do that. Heather Rooks, a parent in the district, testified at a hearing that she had evidence that teachers were sending emails from school servers during school hours to organize the event.
The now-amended version of SB1532 returns the bill to the Senate, which approved it without that language. And it, like the House, can approve it without a public hearing.
Democratic representatives took their budget pitch public on Wednesday morning in an effort to appeal to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, while state senators in the minority party are keeping their plans close to the vest.
Their differing strategies reflect the political realities in the state Senate, where GOP leaders have pledged to work across the aisle on a roughly $11 billion spending plan, and the House of Representatives, where Republicans made no qualms about keeping Democrats out of the loop.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she’s tried and failed to engage with her Republican colleagues in budget talks, so instead, she took her case directly to the governor. Her sales pitch comes a week after leaked budget documents prepared by Senate Republicans showed a spending plan that vastly deviated from Ducey’s desires to invest in education and infrastructure, while also saving hundreds of millions of dollars for a rainy day.
Fernandez offered Ducey an alternative path. The House minority leader’s budget proposal accomplishes much of what the governor asked for in January by investing in KidsCare, Arizona’s health insurance program for children; funding a teacher’s academy at public universities; providing state employees a pay raise; and investing in new school construction, among many other areas of agreement.
All told, Democrats seek to spend roughly $200 million more than Ducey proposed, and save roughly $80 million less in the state’s rainy-day fund. With a little “leadership” from Ducey, perhaps House Republicans can be swayed to use those figures as a starting point to negotiate with Democrats, she said.
“They’re not talking to us,” Fernandez said of House GOP leadership.
That’s been the standard at the Arizona Legislature, where Republicans control the governor’s office, the House and the Senate, and historically use that advantage to pass budgets without meaningful input from Democrats. The process inevitably results in budgets that are approved mostly along party lines, save for a rare instance where one or two Democratic lawmakers vote for individual pieces of a spending plan.
“We’ve asked the governor’s staff to bring them to the table with us,” Fernandez said. “That’s the governor’s job – to talk to them and say this budget is good for Arizona and for us.”
As for the Senate, Democrats have been silent when it comes to their own priorities. That, too, is by design, said Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, as they’re trying to cooperate with Republicans to build a bipartisan budget.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” Bradley said. “Over here, we’re still trying to work it out.”
Bradley said Republicans were caught unaware when an early version of their budget draft leaked last week, and he expects Republicans to share an updated version with Democrats soon. Like their House colleagues, Senate Democrats supported most of the governor’s budget, which contains a lot of “Democratic priorities from bygone days,” he said.
Senate Democrats still differ from Republicans on some significant issues, including funding for KidsCare and universities, he said. But as long as Fann keeps those conversations going, Democrats have promised Senate Republican leadership not to broadcast their own budget priorities.
Unlike in the House, “we haven’t been cut out,” Bradley said.
That’s in line with Senate President Karen Fann’s ongoing vow to pursue what one GOP lawmaker called the “impossible dream,” a budget agreement that Republicans and Democrats alike will vote for.
In the opposite chamber, Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, was unapologetic about the Republican’s approach.
“Fernandez and their leadership team, including the real minority leader, Rep. [Isela] Blanc, are the last folks I would reach out to on a budget or any other bill,” Shope said via text. “Doesn’t mean I won’t reach out to other members who are reasonable.”
The House Democrats’ olive branch to Ducey isn’t inclusive of their Republican colleagues either, Shope said. The Democrats crafted their proposal behind closed doors without input from the majority caucus, and in any case, he’s not taking their proposal seriously.
“I don’t pay much attention to desperate acts for attention,” Shope said.
Reps. Regina Cobb, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Warren Petersen, the House majority leader, were similarly left in the dark about the Democrat’s spending priorities, they said, though Petersen took no issue with them announcing their budget plan.
“They’re free to release their own proposal. That’s what they got elected to do, to try to get things done and make things happen down here,” the Gilbert Republican said.
House Republicans are working with Ducey on their own proposal, which they’ll release “as soon as possible,” he said. But if it’s anything like the budget documents that leaked from the Senate, Fernandez said Ducey would do better to engage with Democrats.
“Is he willing to accept a budget that thumbs its nose at most of his stated priorities? Or does he want a budget that moves Arizona forward? His budget, for the most part, will require the votes of both Republicans and Democrats to pass,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez heaped praise on Ducey for introducing a budget in January that was “pretty good” and highlighted the areas in which Ducey’s priorities align with those of House Democrats.
And she appealed to the governor’s sense of expediency.
“With just some minor adjustments to his plan, and some leadership, the governor could lift us out of this stalemate this week,” Fernandez said.
CORRECTION: This article previously identified Tucson Democrat David Bradley as the majority leader in the Senate. He is the minority leader.
The following story is the second of five to be published over the next two weeks based on voting data the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting pulled for the 2017 legislative session. The nonprofit group analyzed the number of floor votes that each lawmaker cast the same as every other lawmaker. The result is a first of its kind look at voting patterns between Arizona legislators, revealing alike votes and disparities – some known anecdotally, others not seen before – between lawmakers, at times regardless of party affiliation. Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting set a minimum threshold of 230 alike votes in the House of Representatives and 435 alike votes in the state Senate to gauge how often lawmakers vote alike with one another.
The threshold could be expanded or shrunk, but think of the analysis like a microscope: zooming in too far, or not far enough, won’t reveal anything of interest. Finding the right magnification, or in this case, the right threshold of alike votes in each chamber, produces significant results and visualizes alike votes among legislators.
Unlike their Republican counterparts, Arizona’s Democratic lawmakers are a less cohesive voting bloc. And it’s the example set by the minority party’s leadership that differs the most.
In the Senate, minority leaders don’t often vote with the GOP. In the House, it’s the top Democrat, Rebecca Rios of Phoenix, who casts the most votes with her Republican colleagues, according to an analysis by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
Rios serves as the minority leader of the House Democratic Caucus, but she also voted alike with Republicans more often than any other Democrat in the chamber. Only one other House Democrat, Rep. Mark Cardenas of Phoenix, came close to casting as many alike votes with Republicans as Rios.
None of Rios’ fellow Democrats in leadership – Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese of Tucson and Whip Charlene Fernandez of Yuma – voted alike with GOP lawmakers at a threshold of 230 alike votes, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis.
[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each representative HERE.]
Current lawmakers and former minority leaders were surprised to learn that a Democratic caucus leader would vote with Republicans so often. Even Rios was at first put off by the distinction.
“Ew,” she said. “I don’t want this title.”
There’s no single bill that exemplifies that discrepancy, but perhaps Rios’ background as a lawmaker best explains her bipartisan streak, some said.
Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said Rios came from a rural district that is tough to represent, and she has worked in the mining industry as a lobbyist.
[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each senator HERE.]
“. . . so those the folks that represent those areas tend to be the Democrats that don’t always vote in line,” Hobbs said.
That’s not the district Rios represents now – her Legislative District 27 is overwhelmingly blue, but that doesn’t mean she lost the characteristics of her rural background while representing parts of Pinal County, Hobbs said.
Rios’ length of service at the Capitol also may have an impact on the way she votes, said former legislator Eric Meyer, who served as House minority leader in 2015 and 2016.
Rios served in the House from 2005 to 2010 before returning in 2015 after a five-year hiatus. That gives her some familiarity with the legislative process, and connections with other lawmakers, that other members of the House’s Democratic leadership team don’t have.
That’s perhaps why Rios’ leadership team doesn’t have the same pattern of alike votes with Republicans, Meyer said.
“They just don’t have as much experience. And with the amount of turnover, it takes time to build relationships maybe and feel comfortable,” he said.
Rios agreed that her “heart is still in rural Arizona,” and that her length of service has given her a perspective that shapes the way she votes.
“You learn to vote based on issues, as opposed to the party or the bill sponsor,” she said.
Besides, she said, “the majority of the votes we take typically are not high profile, partisan issues.”
While she leads her caucus on votes that matter, particularly on core issues that Democrats identify as a caucus each year, she’s still a reliable party leader.
Hobbs credited Rios for leading efforts to keep her caucus unified in votes against certain bills, such as a university bonding package in the fiscal year 2018 budget.
Being a leader also can mean being more flexible when voting on bills.
Meyer noted that it’s natural for minority leaders to form some connections with Republicans given how frequently minority and majority leadership must interact.
There is plenty of negotiating done behind the scenes to keep the House running smoothly, and that takes steady hands and good relationships between Republican and Democratic leaders, he said.
As for the Senate, Hobbs said it makes sense that Democratic leadership would vote infrequently or not at all with Republicans, since it’s often leadership’s job to keep Democrats in unison as the opposition vote against the Republican majority.
Still, at a threshold of 435 alike votes, even two members of the Senate minority leadership team cast alike votes with one GOP senator: Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley of Tucson and Whip Lupe Contreras of Avondale, according to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting analysis.
Rios said relationships among GOP and Democratic leaders do impact voting, “to the extent that when you’re in leadership, you don’t have the luxury of just saying ‘no’ and being partisan for the sake of being partisan.”
And if any member of her caucus has a gripe about Rios’ bipartisan streak, she’ll be happy to hear them out.
“Show me the votes, and I would be more than willing to sit down and discuss each and every vote,” Rios said.
Find out more about your lawmakers’ voting patterns below:
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives sent a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey today calling for an investigation into allegations in a recent whistleblower report that administrators at a state prison suppressed evidence that hundreds of cell doors were broken or damaged.
This marks the second time that lawmakers have called for corrective action at DOC in a year — a unit of the prison was already closed for repairs after similar allegations were made in media reports in the spring.
The whistleblower disclosure, which was filed on December 2, was written by an associate deputy warden at Arizona State Prison Complex – Lewis named Shaun Holland. In a letter to the governor and Department of Corrections Director David Shinn, Holland wrote that doors across the prison were failing “at an alarming rate,” and that the prison administration was hiding the disrepair by closing out repair orders without fixing any of the locks.
Today’s letter, authored by Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and Reps. Randall Friese D-Tucson, Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe, states that party leaders were optimistic that a sea change would come after the retirement of former director Charles Ryan, who helmed DOC for 10 years, but stepped down in August following growing criticism and media reports that he was aware of the extent of the dysfunction in Lewis Prison. However, the letter says that optimism was “premature.”
“It should go without saying that simply writing down that a broken door as ‘repaired’ without actually repairing it does not fix the problem and puts both Corrections Officers and inmates in danger,” the letter states. “ADW Holland has gone on the record to report an unacceptable lack of action to address known, documented hazards that put the lives of officers and inmates at risk every day. It is vital that you initiate an immediate investigation of ADW Holland’s allegations and, if verified, hold those responsible immediately accountable.”
Gov. Doug Ducey said he was aware of the letter and that fixing the locks is a “top priority,” and that the problems would be addressed with new doors and additional resources.
Ducey said he trusts the information he is getting from DOC.
“It’s deja vu all over again,” Fernandez said in an interview. “We’re talking about the people who work in our state, and any way you look at it, the inmates are under our care. We have a responsibility to make sure they’re safe as well.”
She said it’s urgent that the governor lays out a corrective course of action, and that while she trusts his judgment, Democrats will be vigilant in ensuring that changes are made quickly. That said, she said it’s important not to overreact, and that asking for the resignation of DOC officials would be premature.
In a statement provided to the Arizona Capitol Times, Rev. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, said he will look into the issue.
“This is certainly an issue I will be looking into during this upcoming legislative session. I look forward to gathering accurate information on the allegations and taking any necessary steps to ensure that our prisons are secure and public safety is maintained,” Payne said.
DOC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said in an email “the implementation of a long-term solution is currently underway.”
For criminal justice advocates, the persistence of the problems at Lewis – and further allegations of evidence suppression – mean that it’s time to take serious corrective action.
“This isn’t just about not fixing the locks,” said Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform. “We knew that was going to be a project that took quite some time. What is most disturbing is that (Holland) is essentially reporting crimes – falsification of public records.”
She said that not only is an investigation necessary, it could be time for firings – either of lower administrators who hid evidence from Shinn that security problems persisted, or Shinn himself.
In September, Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, wrote a letter to Ducey calling for the appointment of a citizens oversight board for the department and expressing that the resignation of Ryan presented a “historic opportunity” to reform the department.
While she told the Capitol Times today that it may be too early to place the blame on Shinn, who is still early in his tenure, it is “unbelievably discouraging” that problems at Lewis have continued months after the regime change.
“This still does not appear to be a high enough priority,” she said.
Hamm, for what it’s worth, said that even a citizens oversight board would not be a sufficiently meaningful remedy. She is sending a letter to Ducey today to that effect, calling this a “litmus test” of his leadership and asking that an outside expert be hired to monitor operations at the prisons with near unlimited access.
“Frankly, Middle Ground is disappointed in the seemingly lackluster beginnings made by Director Shinn, especially given the multiple crises impacting the Department,” a copy of her letter obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times states. “Whether anyone realizes it or not, there are most likely lawsuits on the horizon. This can all be avoided with decisive, focused and immediate actions.”
Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include comments from Gov. Doug Ducey, Rep. Kevin Payne, and Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and the Department of Corrections.
With two mass shootings fresh on people’s minds the top state House Democrat wants a special session to debate — and presumably enact — a series of gun control measures.
Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is pulling out all of the proposals that the Republican-controlled Legislature refused to debate, much less consider, in the past five years. These range from universal background checks and bans on military-style rifles to limits on high-capacity magazines and making it a crime for adults to leave weapons where children can get them.
She told Capitol Media Services that the mass shootings this past weekend in El Paso and Dayton may finally provide enough impetus for lawmakers to consider these measures.
But the idea of calling all 90 lawmakers back to the Capitol in the wake of the incidents is not picking up any immediate support of Republican legislative leaders.
In fact House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, lashed out at Fernandez for even bringing up the subject.
“I find it disturbing that she will use a tragedy for political purposes,” he said.
Reaction from other Republicans was more measured.
Senate President Karen Fann said she has not had the opportunity to speak with her members since the incidents.
“When everyone returns from summer obligations, we will be meeting to discuss a number of items for next session,” she said. Finding common ground, Fann said, could be difficult.
“This is a very charged issue,” she said. “I’m sure we will have many ideas with polar opposites on how to fix it.”
But Fann said that finding a “good bipartisan solution” will depend on first “identifying where the problems actually lie.”
And House Speaker Rusty Bowers saw no purpose in calling in lawmakers, at least at this point.
“Without a clear idea of what we hope to pass, I have doubts that the Legislature can accomplish anything meaningful if we convene a special session,” he said. Instead, Bowers wants to develop what he called “pragmatic policy proposals that will protect our friends and families from violence, including gun violence.”
More to the point, the speaker said these have to be ideas “that can actually receive the support needed to pass out of the Legislature.”
Even Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, who is Fernandez’s counterpart in the Senate, questioned the wisdom of convening a special session before there is a plan that can get the necessary 16 votes in the Senate and 31 in the House, as well as the signature of Gov. Doug Ducey.
“The key would be the governor saying this is the No. 1 priority of his and convening the leadership of both sides to hammer something out,” Bradley said, before a session can be called.
As for the governor, press aide Patrick Ptak said his boss is “willing to work with legislators from both parties” and is “hopeful both sides can come together to advance common-sense policies that will make a meaningful impact.”
But no call for a special session, at least for now. And when Ducey came out with his own school safety plan in 2018 he specifically excluded the universal background checks that the Democrats want, a move they say will close a “loophole” in the law that allows people to buy weapons at gun shows without having to pass the same background investigation required if they bought a weapon from a licensed dealer.
Fernandez, however, said she believes that the state’s demographics have changed since the days when the GOP majority first began rejecting any gun-control legislation out of hand.
That’s not just an ethnic or racial thing, she said.
“I’m talking about women that are coming to the polls,” Fernandez said. “They’re challenging the status quo of the way men have been doing things at the state Legislature.”
That, she said, is reflected in the fact that Democrats picked up four House seats in the 2018 election, reducing the GOP edge to 31-29. And yet she said that Bowers, fearful of Democrat ideas picking up the occasional Republican vote, has populated the committees that hear the bills — the pathway to a full House vote — by stacking several committees to ensure that doesn’t happen.
The Judiciary Committee, for example, is 6-4 Republican. And there is no requirement for an even number of members on that panel through which most gun legislation would need to pass.
And the Appropriations Committee is stacked even more at 7-4.
She believes that if the Democrat bills made it to the floor that there is the public sentiment — and the votes — for at least some of them to become law, especially given the headlines.
“If you really want to hear what’s changed, it’s these mass shootings,” Fernandez said.
“I mean, you hear about them every day,” she continued. “We hear about a mass shooting, we go to bed and wake up the next morning and there’s another one.”
And Fernandez said these are not partisan issues.
“This is about our kids, this is about our schools, this is about the places we worship, this is about movie theaters and restaurants,” she said. “This has got to stop.”
Fernandez said she and Democrats are behind the idea of allowing judges to take away weapons from people found to be a danger to themselves or others.
The idea, first proposed by Ducey in 2018, made it through the Senate, but only after lawmakers jettisoned some provisions to make it acceptable to the National Rifle Association. Even at that point it could not get a hearing in the House amid concerns about personal rights.
There was no bill introduced this year.
“We’re not infringing on anybody’s rights,” Fernandez said. “But, by golly, if you own a gun and you’ve already threatened someone, then I think that gun should be turned in.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included a headline that left off the word “leader.”
House Republicans pushed through the plan to sharply cut taxes on the rich Thursday — but only after changing the rules to limit debate and objections by Democrats.
The approval, on a party-line vote, came after the 31 Republicans — all present for the first time in days — lined up the votes to limit discussion to no more than 30 minutes. And the rule was crafted in a way to cut off comments at that point, even if all the amendments to any bill had not even been explained.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, acknowledged that the change effectively was payback for Democrats refusing to show up for debate on Tuesday when the Republicans had finally lined up the votes among their own caucus to enact $1.3 billion — and possibly $1.8 billion — in permanent tax cuts and the $12.8 billion spending plan. That left the House without a quorum as four Republicans were away from the Capitol.
“It is clear, was clear then, by the absence of an entire caucus, and by actions prior and currently today, that procedural obstruction and delay have been instituted in lieu of civility,” he said. Bowers said the time limits will still allow for discussion “but also allow us to get out in an expedited fashion.”
But Democrats said Republicans have no one but themselves to blame for the fact that legislature is now up against a deadline to enact a new spending plan for the fiscal year that begins in less than a week.
Rep. Charlene Ferandez, D-Yuma, pointed out that Republican leaders brought lawmakers to the Capitol for 26 days where there was absolutely no legislative business done while they tried to line up the votes among their own caucus. She said that’s because they chose not to involve Democrats in budget negotiations or include their priorities in the plan.
There always has been a limit of three minutes on the ability of legislators to explain their votes. But there has never been an overall cap on the amount of time to discuss specific amendments.
Now, once the clock hits 30 minutes, people still can offer amendments. But there just can’t be any discussion of any of those amendments or to ask questions of proponents.
But Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, who serves as speaker pro-tem, said there is a precedent of sorts for the new rules. He pointed out the U.S. House has a process where the time for debate on each bill is established by that chamber’s Rules Committee.
With the new rules in place, Republicans approved SB 1828. With the Senate already having approved, that sends the plan to Gov. Doug Ducey.
The legislation creates a flat 2.5% personal income tax rate. And a separate 4.5% cap on all income taxes protect the most wealthy — those earning more than $500,000 a year — from the effects of a voter-approved 3.5% surcharge to fund public education by effectively limiting their other income taxes to just 1%.
“This budget has a tax cut for all,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. But Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, said that’s ignoring a crucial fact: It is structured so that the richest get more than a proportionate share of the benefits.
“The benefit to somebody at the bottom rung, somebody who makes less than $21,000 in the state of Arizona, is $3,” she said. By contrast, the tax cut for someone at the $500,000 income level is $30,000.
And for the super rich, Powers Hannley said, those in the $5 million range will save $300,000 each and every year going forward.
“There it is, the further death of the middle class by rewarding the ultra-wealthy,” said Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale
But Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said he sees the issue — and the structure of the tax cut — through a different lens.
“When it comes to the middle class tax policy, whether the minority party wants to admit it or not, reflects upon jobs and the economy in the state of Arizona,” he said. “And tax policy is a direct reflection on how many people in the state of Arizona have jobs that want jobs.”
Fernandez derided that as “trickle-down economics.”
Facing Democrat demands, House Speaker Rusty Bowers on Wednesday finally directed the Ethics Committee to come up with a code of conduct for lawmakers – including whether they can be ousted for their public comments – more than a year after it was first promised.
But it took Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez calling out Republican leadership before there was action. GOP leaders had promised last year to create a committee in the wake of the decision by the House to oust Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, over charges of sexual harassment of other lawmakers and colleagues.
It also came after reporters questioned Bowers about the lack of action to date.
What makes the lack of a code crucial, said Fernandez, is there are no clear guidelines for what makes someone unfit to serve in the Legislature. And she said that should include whether it should cover things that occur elsewhere, like the racially charged remarks made by now-gone Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, to the Republican Men’s Club in Prescott.
But several Democrats already have concluded that such comments should be grounds for discipline – and even expulsion.
“There is a basis to hold people accountable when you make racist statements along the lines that he made,” said Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix.
He is not alone. Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, sought to remove Stringer in January based solely on those remarks – and long before anyone knew about a1983 arrest in Baltimore on charges of molesting, one of whom was developmentally disabled. Stringer resigned March 27 but continued to insist on Facebook two days later those events never happened.
But Bowers questioned whether speech, by itself, particularly away from the Capitol, should ever put a lawmaker’s right to serve into question.
“He was not thrown out due to racial comments,” Bowers said of Stringer.
“He was thrown out for his inability to act in this body because of things that happened long ago,” the speaker said, saying Stringer’s actions showed a lack of “ability to have respect for this institution.”
Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who chairs the Ethics Committee, agreed that it is unlikely that his panel, had it completed its work before Stringer resigned, would have recommended that he be removed for his comments.
But the fact that Stringer needed to be replaced only underlined the questions that loomed at the Capitol for more than a year, since Shooter’s ouster, about legislative conduct. Fernandez said that forming the long-promised committee to craft a code would finally decide what is acceptable from elected officials.
“Where’s the line?” Fernandez said. “I think it’s going to be drawn by our fellow colleagues,” with input from members of the public.
That still leaves open the question of removing a lawmaker for something said elsewhere.
One of the two charges brought against Stringer – the other being the Baltimore arrest – had to do with statements he made last year.
The first set was during that meeting of the Republican Men’s Club where he called immigration, legal and otherwise, an “existential threat to the United States,” that American’s “melting pot” exists for “people of European descent,” and how immigrants from south of the border don’t assimilate because they maintain connections with their home countries.
Despite that he was returned to the Legislature by area voters.
A month later, though, Stringer made comments to Arizona State University students saying that African-Americans “don’t blend in, they always look different.”
Rodriguez said such comments go beyond a lawmaker’s First Amendment rights. He said what Stringer said “go directly to the legitimacy of other American citizens and their legitimacy and their role in our society.”
And Rodriguez argued that if Stringer had made those comments on the House floor he would have been found out of order.
“So how is it that he can say that in public and not be held accountable?” he said. “That’s part of the issue that we’re talking about.”
Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said that, if nothing else, a code of conduct could provide some guidelines and training, including how to work with women and how to “understand that racism is not tolerated in the House of Representatives.”
When Democratic primary voters rebuked a series of challengers to progressive incumbents and their allies on August 4, they weighed in on the identity crisis of a long-suffering party finally approaching the precipice of success.
Democrats want a legislative majority come November. But getting there requires answering some existential questions: Who leads the party? Who should they listen to for input? Who deserves to serve?
Central to this self-interrogation is Israel Torres, a labor attorney and lobbyist with a long list of clients and considerable political ambitions. Torres, through a well-funded PAC called Revitalize Arizona, was involved in several primaries on both sides of the aisle, ostensibly to promote the interests of the unions and labor interests he represents.
He had a special interest in Democratic races in Legislative Districts 26, 27, and 29. In each contest, Torres and Revitalize – which is largely funded through the Pipe Trades Local 469, one of Torres’ main clients – spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on challengers in these districts.
In LD26, he backed Debbie Nez Manuel, an indigenous rights activist who made a state Senate bid in 2018, and Jana Lynn Granillo, who had a long tenure in Tempe Democratic politics, over a slate of progressives called the “Millennial Clean Team,” a reference to their publicly funded campaigns.
But Rep. Athena Salman and Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, all prevailed, and it’s looking like Melody Hernandez, a paramedic that Salman hoped would take the district’s empty seat, will as well. She currently leads Nez Manuel by 261 votes – not an insurmountable deficit, but one that has grown with each new tally.
And in LD27, Torres-backed challenger Catherine Miranda, a former Democratic lawmaker whose anti-choice attitudes and 2014 endorsement of Doug Ducey went against the grain, failed to unseat either Reps. Diego Rodriguez or Reginald Bolding, who serves as House minority co-whip. In LD29, Teddy Castro, a West Valley Realtor, couldn’t topple Rep. Richard Andrade, a vocally pro-union lawmaker with close ties to House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez.
“For the most part, the status quo has been retained,” said Democratic consultant Ben Scheel.
And that status quo is expensive. Between independent expenditures from Revitalize and direct contributions from Pipe Trades, Torres spent more than $60,000 of union cash to support Nez Manuel (and an extra $2,400 on a mailer encouraging voters to support Nez Manuel, Granillo and Salman, though not the other Clean Team members).
In LD27, Torres spent just under $10,000 backing Miranda, and hedged his bets with a $1,700 investment in Rodriguez. And in LD29, he besieged Andrade, spending more than $67,000 on Castro’s behalf and an additional $11,000 on anti-Andrade campaign materials. And he spent almost $44,000 in support of Andrade’s more moderate seatmate, Rep. Cesar Chavez, D-Phoenix.
As Torres saw it, the spending was all about accountability – the current batch of Democrats and Democratic leadership had largely failed to deliver on legislation
that the labor groups he represents supported. But to the candidates who found themselves on the wrong side of Torres’ spending, he was bullying otherwise loyal progressives for something that was outside their control: ultimately, Republicans have the majority.
And even when Republicans were on board, such as in 2018, when Rep. T.J. Shope ferried a labor bill, the Legislature couldn’t give Torres what his clients really wanted: the restoration of project labor agreements in public contracts.
Primaries don’t necessarily have to succeed to be effective. They can be a means of showing force, and instilling discipline.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case in this instance.
“I think this is a little bit of a different scenario, in part because it was not clear what the intent was beyond personalities and personal views,” said Geoff Esposito, a lobbyist with progressive firm Creosote Partners. “Possibly this means that there’s a focus on (project labor agreements) next year, but I already think that was going to be the case. All this does is make it so that he’s not welcome around the table.”
Incumbents in these districts took Torres’ involvement personally, painting his spending as a tactic in a business-backed war against progressives, especially those close to Fernandez, who hopes to be House speaker next year.
“I will say, when you go out to kill the king, you better make sure he’s dead,” said Barry Aarons, a longtime Arizona lobbyist who was a side-player in the 2018 attempt to bring back project labor agreements. “The fact that none of the candidates that Israel supported were successful – it sends the message that he can’t threaten members with, ‘if you don’t support our positions, we’re going to primary you.’”
Revitalize wasn’t the only outside player to spend in Democratic primaries. In general, the election was full of bitter races and awash with outside money, exposing divides between rival factions and interests that the party had largely been able to paper over – at least in public – until now.
But the chaos that extra attention created doesn’t bother Fernandez, who now must help the party lick its wounds and mend bridges in preparation for next year.
“It tells me how powerful we are that so much money has been poured into these races,” she said. “This goes to show you that there are some people out there that know we’re going to be in the majority. They’re trying to establish what our caucus is going to look like. That’s the nature of the game of being in power.”
The Gila River Indian Community will provide the promised 500,000 acre feet of water for the state’s drought contingency plan after being assured that legislation the tribe opposed is dead.
In a prepared statement, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, told him in a meeting Friday that there is no way that HB 2476 will be resurrected this year. Lewis said that Shope’s guarantee is important, as he is the speaker pro-tem of the House of Representatives.
But Lewis also said that Shope told him that House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who crafted the measure the tribe found so offensive, did not intend to bring the issue up again this session.
Lewis also said that House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and Sen. Lisa Otondo, both Yuma Democrats, also expressed their own opposition to the Bowers bill in that Friday meeting.
All that is crucial as the Republicans control just 31 seats in the 60-member House. And with Democrats lined up in opposition to HB 2476 and Shope opposed, there is no way for the legislation the tribe finds offensive to advance.
The tribe’s action clears a crucial hurdle for the drought contingency plan which seeks ways to deal with the fact that Arizona’s share of Colorado River water will drop by about 18 percent next year. That is a net loss of 500,000 acre feet of water a year, enough to supply about a million families.
Pinal County farmers would take the biggest hit because they are at the bottom of the pecking order.
Arizona is seeking to make up for some of that with various deals to acquire more water from other sources and allowing the irrigation districts that supply the farmers to drill new wells.
But the plan also was contingent on the tribe providing 500,000 acre feet of water between next year and 2026 in exchange for $60 million in payments.
That all came into doubt when tribal officials said they would pull out of the deal if Bowers pursued his legislation which they said would undermine their claims to water from the upper Gila River. Lewis now said he’s convinced the bill is dead and the tribe is ready to finish its part of the deal.
The tribe’s action clears a crucial hurdle to the federal Bureau of Reclamation approving the plan crafted by the seven Colorado River basin states to decide who takes what cuts once Lake Mead reaches 1,075 feet above sea level. That is the point at which the first shortages are declared; the cuts are designed to keep the lake from going any lower and triggering further reductions.
But it still leaves in doubt whether the full plan can be ratified by the March 4 deadline set by Brenda Burman, the bureau’s commissioner.
That’s because the Imperial Irrigation District in California won’t sign it’s part of the agreement until it gets $200 million in matching funds to help restore the Salton Sea which lost its own allocation of Colorado River water a year ago. And Arizona state water officials have said that it may take longer than March 4 to get the more than a dozen internal agreements signed.
It remains unclear what Burman will do if that deadline is not met.
While HB 2476 is apparently dead, at least for this year, Bowers has made it clear the issues it raised remains.
That fight is over the state’s”use-it-or-lose-it” laws spelling out that if landowners do not use their water allocations for at least five years they forfeit their rights.
Bowers argued that is unfair as there are many reasons that farmers have to quit irrigating for some period. More to the point, his legislation sought to repeal the law, a move that tribal attorney Don Pongrace said would interfere with the claims the tribe has to that water.
The issue came to a head during a hearing last week where Bowers solicited the testimony of farmers in the upper Gila River valley, all complaining that the tribal claims were denying them the right to move those historic water allocations – the one the tribe claims are forfeited – to other fields which did not have irrigation rights.
Tribal officials, in a prepared statement, said the hearing was a “show trial … whose real purpose could only have been to somehow intimidate the Community into not enforcing its rights.”
After several hours of testimony, Bowers yanked the bill from consideration. But he left its future up in the air, suggesting that he might refine it and bring it back this year.
Lewis told Capitol Media Services at the time that the tribe’s commitment of water for the drought contingency plan would remain off the table unless and until he was assured that the whole issue would remain dead.
The tribal governor said he now has that.
“Rep. Shope assured us he would take them back to the Legislature to help others understand why we perceived this legislation as highly inappropriate and an attack on our Community,” Lewis said in a prepared statement.
“He also provided us with very solid assurances that this legislation is truly dead and that there would be no further consideration of it, as did Rep. Fernandez,” the tribal governor continued. “Their word on this is what we need to confirm this legislation is truly not moving forward and I am pleased that the Community will be able to rejoin the State’s efforts to get DCP over the finish line.”
Fernandez sought to provide her own assurances to Lewis that what Bowers sought to do was not coming back.
“I completely understand why the Community would have viewed this bill as the attack that it was,” she said in her own statement, calling HB 2476 “not only bad policy, but an abuse of our legislative process.”
As some grocery store shelves lay as bare as Cactus League stadiums and restaurant dining rooms, lawmakers in the Arizona Legislature are scurrying to wrap up their business, begin their social isolation and hunker down for a storm. Their rainy day is here.
Gov. Doug Ducey pushed over two legislative sessions to fill a rainy-day fund against resistant Republicans who preferred to use an abundance of revenues to address the state’s debt, and Democrats who wanted to enhance government services.
The state tapped into the $1 billion savings account March 12 to wage the medical fight against COVID-19, a pandemic that is decimating economies worldwide, and while those resistant Republicans and Democrats are grateful for the extra cash, they stand by their arguments against the rainy-day fund.
When Ducey came into office, the state had about $455 million in the rainy-day fund, an amount that remained steady for the first few years of his governorship and one he worked to increase each year of his first term. In 2018, the same year the state got an unexpected $155 million windfall in state income tax revenue changes from federal tax law, Ducey demanded that money be saved, not spent, and that the fund be brought up to $1 billion.
In order to do that, he had to convince Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and a few other Republicans who wanted that money spent to pay down state debt or put back into taxpayer pockets. While Finchem and others were not against the idea of having money stowed away, they weren’t as receptive to savings as much as Ducey was asking for.
For Finchem, it wasn’t the best way to “recession-proof” an economy – he says taxing less is.
“When government takes less money, we are helping people with preparing for an economic downturn,” Finchem said. “But if government takes that money and puts it into the rainy-day fund, well, now the folks are less prepared to deal with changes in their own personal financial condition.”
The balance of taxing what’s necessary and spending and saving wisely on a government level is a tough balance, Finchem said.
Finchem was one of the few Republicans vocally advocating against raising the rainy-day fund to $1 billion in the 2018 legislative session and instead wanted to raise it to $750 million in that time, push for the $1 billion threshold in the 2019 session and include a tax reduction. In the end, he was overruled and he said he’s OK with that.
“Either way, we built up the storehouse, if you will, for a day when things were not so good, and we appear to have arrived at that day,” Finchem said. “I’m somewhat ambivalent at this point. The money is there, but I pray that we are cautious, very cautious and prudent about how we extend those resources for the greatest community.”
If and when they have to dig into the fund, an abundance of caution is crucial in the weeks and months ahead, Finchem said, because once that billion is gone, it’s gone. But that’s dependent on how bad future state revenue projections are.
That’s what Finchem and other Republicans hope to find out in about a month, assuming they pass a so-called “skinny-budget” Ducey approves of and return to work to pass a budget using more current and accurate revenue forecasts.
Democrats, including Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said while they do believe in the idea of a rainy-day fund and are grateful to have one, the severity of this economic uncertainty could have been lessened.
Had the state invested more in public education, health care services, agencies and other budget items Democrats argued were crucial, Fernandez said, the state may have been in a better place. Instead, the state may need to partially bail out these things with emergency funds if the economy worsens exponentially.
With these things at a lower capacity than Democrats asked for, Fernandez said, they’re worried that essential public services, like unemployment insurance, might not be available at the level they could have been. Fernandez compared the budget to maintaining a home.
“You have to have a savings account, of course you do, but you also have to maintain your home and make sure that the water is running and all those things too, to make sure our government is prepared for this,” Fernandez said. “Who prepares for a crisis like this? Who would have known?”
What made building up this fund possible, Fernandez said, was stripping agencies “to the bare bones” and creating an artificial, unearned budget surplus.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, has long advocated for state leadership to focus less on building up a rainy-day fund and more on restoring cuts made during the recession and before.
The state doesn’t have a budget surplus, he insists. Instead, it’s underwater on a debt to underfunded state agencies.
But while he has criticized the rainy-day fund, he said he’s glad the state has some money set aside to deal with the current crisis.
“In the large scheme of things, is it good that we have some resources to deal with this crisis to the extent that we know about it?” he asked. “Yeah, that is true. That’s true. Even though those might seem like conflicting statements.”
These arguments are nothing new for Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns, who said he’s heard, and settled, them before. In late 1993 when Burns was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, he helped lead discussions with other lawmakers and Ted Ferris, then-executive director of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, who first suggested the idea of a rainy-day fund.
That idea became Burns’ project, which he made a reality by the end of that session after pushing against a lot of resistance, mostly from conservatives who thought it was a “method of government growth.”
After weeks of meeting with members, Burns and others finally convinced enough people that it was a good idea and while the formula for the rainy-day fund has slightly changed, the idea in principle has remained consistent.
“My philosophy has always been to have money in the savings account,” Burns said, speaking from personal experience.
When he and his wife moved to Arizona, they financially disciplined themselves to live only on his salary. During good and bad years, he spent frugally and saved what he could while she continued to work and save all of what she made – they eventually used that money to start a business.
The same philosophy applies to state government, Burns said, when even during an abundance of “good” economic years, it’s important to remain hesitant to spend in anticipation of what could come.
“You never know when a downturn could occur and you don’t continue to grow forever – it’s a cycle,” Burns said. “You got to be careful how you spend your money and, and especially careful when you’re in that sort of lucrative income period. That’s when you get in trouble.”
Ducey inherited a projected $1 billion dollar deficit, partially due to pending K-12 litigation, as well as debt from the Great Recession and because of that had to make cuts to agencies and services to generate a surplus. These cuts came at the expense of some pet projects lawmakers wanted, who called the effort to grow the fund a public relations gimmick.
Republicans, like Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, one of the members leading budget talks, wanted more of that money spent on paying down the state debt. In fact, she joined Finchem in calling for the $1 billion rainy-day fund balance to be met this year instead of last year, but was also overruled.
Despite how the state got here and built up the fund, it’s here and its economic future remains foggy until forecasts come. Cobb said that feeling of uncertainty is affecting budget talks for now, but she’s glad the fund is here.
“Whether it’s a gimmick or whether it’s not a gimmick, it’s there,” Cobb said. “I know there wasn’t a broad support for a billion dollars for it, but it’s there and thank God we have it. This is our rainy day.”
In the wake of horror at Hacienda HealthCare, there is no shortage of ideas for how to prevent abuse in the disability community. But what action can and will actually be taken at the state Legislature this year is not yet clear.
What is clear is that lawmakers are paying attention.
Gov. Doug Ducey’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council hosted a public meeting at the historic Capitol building on Jan. 23 to explore potential solutions offered by people with disabilities and advocates. Dozens of people came simply to listen, including House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, and representatives for Arizona’s congressional delegation.
State Reps. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe, also participated.
Fernandez said the recent case of an incapacitated woman giving birth after being raped represented “failure at every level.” And while she and Bowers commended Phoenix police for the arrest of Nathan Sutherland for the assault earlier in the day, they acknowledged that was just one win in a long fight – and no one knows how many others like Sutherland have escaped judgement.
“This is all too common, and it needs to be addressed,” Bowers told the crowd. “We want to do all we can so this doesn’t happen again.”
Members of his party have already proposed some solutions, from video monitoring to eliminating a decades-old state law that allowed centers like Hacienda to operate without a state license.
But yesterday’s public meeting demonstrated how those early proposals are just the beginning of a much deeper conversation that comes too late for so many victims.
Christina Corieri, Ducey’s senior policy analyst, said the administration is looking for a two-track approach: to deal with the specific vendor and facility, Hacienda, and to prevent such a case from happening again, whether through regulation or legislation.
She called the rape of a 29-year-old Hacienda patient, which was only discovered when the woman gave birth on Dec. 29, a “monstrous and unspeakable crime.” But if ever there was a non-partisan issue in need of a solution, she said this is it.
Members of the public offered a wide range of ideas, from a requirement that Adult Protective Services investigate every report of abuse to strengthening criminal penalties on individuals offenders and facilities.
Asim Dietrich, a staff attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law, started with staff at centers for people with disabilities. Like numerous others, he called for improved training on sexuality and recognizing signs of abuse.
But he also said that while staff at these facilities are required to provide their fingerprints for background checks, they are only renewed every six years. Dietrich recommended annual background checks to close that gap.
And he argued for another fix at a more personal level: that people with disabilities should be believed when they report abuse.
Melissa Van Hook, vice chair of the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, called it the elephant in the room. She said nothing is protecting people in care facilities from abuse, and everyone who has the power to do something in the justice system needs guidance.
She told the story of a young boy with autism she worked with seven years ago. He told his family when he was sexually assaulted, but despite his ability to clearly communicate what had happened to him, Van Hook said the police doubted his credibility because of his autism.
Van Hook had to help his family fight for the case to be sent to a prosecutor and for the case to go to yet another prosecutor when the first expressed concern for the perpetrator rather than the victim.
The second prosecutor still told the boy’s family that his autism would be a challenge to the case, but she at least believed they could get a conviction, Van Hook said.
Finally, the judge continued the cycle, struggling to understand the child and his autism, too.
Yet he was one of the lucky few who got results – the case resulted in the felony conviction of his attacker.
Van Hook said that were it not for the attorney’s determination to understand her client’s disability, the family would never have seen justice in that case.
“It took tremendous courage for this boy to speak up about his assault,” she said, adding he was afraid that no one would believe him – a fear that was validated by his experience. “In this country, we are all entitled to fair and equitable treatment in the justice system. It’s time to stop treating people with disabilities as though they are invisible and somehow less than.”
The day after the November 6 election will be followed by another kind of vote, as elected Arizona senators and representatives will meet with their fellow Republicans and Democrats to choose leaders for their respective parties.
Some of those leadership races are all but decided, but others may hinge on who gets elected, and who doesn’t, when voters head to the polls.
Those elected leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate will be responsible for shepherding policies through the Legislature in 2019, and just as importantly, will have the power to block the passage of bills they oppose. The House speaker and Senate president are responsible for assigning bills to committees and scheduling bills for votes on the floor of each chamber.
And caucus leaders help set agendas for Republicans and Democrats, while also serving as a unifying force to keep their respective party members working in concert to back those agendas.
Republican and Democratic caucuses in both chambers will cast leadership votes on November 7, less than 24 hours after polls close on election night.
Rep. Rusty Bowers of Mesa is considered a shoo-in to serve as the next House speaker, though he’s not running unopposed. Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley claims he’s one of the “serious contenders,” while Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott has flirted with running for the post.
Rep. Anthony Kern of Glendale is locked in a two-way race to serve as the GOP majority leader against Sen. Warren Petersen of Gilbert, who’s running for the House this election while also seeking a leadership post. Kern claims to have 18 votes in his favor, enough to win the chamber assuming the 35 member Republican Caucus doesn’t grow in size.
Reps. David Cook of Globe and Becky Nutt of Clifton are the two Republicans running to serve as majority whip. Sen. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican running for the House, recently dropped out of the race for whip and threw his support behind Cook.
Reps. Reginald Bolding of Phoenix and Charlene Fernandez of Yuma are locked in a battle to lead the House Democratic Caucus. Bolding can boast of a slate of supporters, having teamed up with Rep. Diego Espinoza of Tolleson, who would serve as assistant minority leader, and Rep. Kirsten Engel of Tucson, who would serve as whip. Fernandez, the current whip, has the mutual support of Rep. Randy Friese, who would like to continue to serve as assistant minority leader.
Reps. Athena Salman of Tempe and Richard Andrade of Glendale are also running for whip, though Fernandez has not endorsed either candidate.
Fernandez said she’s expecting more legislative success from Democrats in the next session: “We had like six bills that went to the Governor’s Office, which is ridiculous. We have great ideas and we represent more than 40 percent of Arizona,” she said.
Bolding said the Democrats are assured a greater voice next session because they’ll have a larger caucus.
“It’s a foregone conclusion that we pick up seats in the House. The question is how many,” he said.
The only contested leadership race among Senate Republicans is perhaps the closest of the year. Sen. Karen Fann of Prescott said the race for president is too close to call, especially considering several Senate races in traditionally Republican districts may be closer than usual. Her opponent in the leadership race, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, is by his own words “running scared” to get elected to the Senate in Legislative District 17.
Assuming both are elected to the Senate, the winner may be decided by comparing the number of re-elected senators to the number of House members crossing over. Fann would presumably have the upper hand attracting votes from senators she served with the past two years, while Mesnard may have the loyalty of representatives who served under his leadership in the House.
Fann said it’s a “shame” Mesnard decided to run for leadership at all, noting that a freshman senator has never served as president, but Mesnard argued he’s the best choice because of his experience leading the House. He also cites his prior work as a Senate research staffer.
“This is a historically unique situation happening in the Senate, which makes it all the more important for someone who has both leadership experience at the highest level and intimate familiarity with the Senate… to step in,” Mesnard said.
As for the other GOP leadership posts, Sen. Rick Gray of Peoria is running unopposed to serve as majority leader, while Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City is the lone candidate for whip.
Sens. David Bradley of Tucson and Martin Quezada of Glendale would like to lead the Democrats, but both are preparing for an even better outcome for the traditionally minority party in the Senate – the possibility of a split chamber, or perhaps the Democrats winning enough seats to hold a majority.
Bradley’s pitched himself as a seasoned legislator about to serve his last term in office, offering his guidance in a letter sent to all Democrats, and independents, running for the Senate. Quezada, who served as co-whip the past two sessions, said he’s “in great shape” to step up and serve as minority leader, though he’s also focused on how to negotiate a split chamber.
While Bradley acknowledged that he’d be happy to serve as Senate president, Quezada said he’s focused on other positions of power.
“My ultimate goal is a fair and equal division of power,” Quezada. “I don’t think the Senate president has to be a Democrat. It could be a Republican. But I think a Democrat should have a powerful chairmanship if that were the case.”
Rounding out the field of leadership candidates are Sen. Lupe Contreras of Avondale, who serves as co-whip with Quezada, and Rep. Rebecca Rios of Phoenix, who’s running for her second stint in the Senate. Those two would occupy the positions of assistant minority leader and whip, though it’s unclear who’d serve in which capacity.
Stunned by the governor’s veto, some lawmakers already are exploring how – and when – they can finally get an increase in their living allowances.
And one question is whether rural legislators, who the governor said are clearly entitled to more, should throw their more numerous Phoenix area counterparts over the side.
“There’s some of our members that were really counting on that to help them get through the cost of serving,” said Senate President Karen Fann.
“Expenses have just gotten so ridiculously high just trying to find a place to live temporarily,” the Prescott Republican told Capitol Media Services. That includes not just the session which runs from January into at least April, and sometimes longer, but the times that lawmakers need to be at the Capitol the rest of the year for hearings and meetings.
That, in turn, means finding housing in the Phoenix area that’s available year round.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, who sponsored the House version of the increase that Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed on Friday, said this isn’t about lawmakers lining their pockets.
“We have members that are living in motor homes in not-very-nice locations,” he said. “And it’s all because of inflation,” pointing out the allowance of $60 a day for rural lawmakers and $35 for Maricopa County legislators has not been adjusted since 1984.
Both want to make another run at the issue when the Legislature reconvenes in January. But it’s the form that will take that remains under debate.
The legislation Ducey vetoed Friday would have pegged the allowance for lawmakers from outside Maricopa County at what the U.S. General Services Administration allows for travel to Phoenix. That figure is now $185 a day.
It also would have kept the current practice of paying for seven days a week, regardless of how many days the Legislature is in session, under the premise that rural lawmakers need to rent or buy a second residence.
Ducey apparently had no problem with more cash for non-Maricopa County lawmakers, saying there is “a strong case to be made for ensuring we are appropriately recognizing what is required for them to be here at the state Capitol in Phoenix during session.”
But what it also would have done is given a half allowance of $92.50 a day, seven days a week to Maricopa County lawmakers. And, unable to veto just part of the measure, the governor rejected the whole plan.
“Next year, we’ll try something different,” said Fann. But she isn’t ready to say that the new version should be narrowed to only those who don’t live in Maricopa County.
But the idea of jettisoning an allowance hike for urban lawmakers to get Ducey’s signature on a bill definitely annoyed Campbell.
“I don’t like the divide-and-conquer thing,” he said. “That’s not good politics.”
What it also may not be is a winning strategy.
There are 53 lawmakers that live in Maricopa County versus 27 who come to the Capitol from the other 14 counties. That means it will take at least some of their votes for rural lawmakers to get the allowance boost they say they need.
At least part of the impetus for the increase is that lawmakers are paid $24,000 a year. That’s a figure over which they have no control, as it is up to a special commission to make recommendations and up to voters to approve.
The last pay hike was in 1998.
Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, who voted for the allowance increase, said that figure should be $36,000 a year. But that was specifically rejected by voters in prior years, as was a scaled-back proposal for $30,000.
“In California, they get over $100,000 a year, plus automobiles, plus, plus, plus,” Lawrence complained, in addition to $192 a day in per diem. “So, yeah, I believe we deserve more money because it’s an all-year job.”
Campbell said the lack of what he believes is proper compensation rankles some of his colleagues.
“It just shows us they don’t think much about us, they don’t consider the needs that we have,” he said. “And, the truth of it is, nobody’s looking out for us except ourselves.”
But Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she doubts voters will approve a higher salary “as long as we continue to act the way we do.” She said there were days in the just-completed session where the Republican majority, missing one or two key members whose votes they needed, would let the whole day go by without voting on matters.
That still leaves the question of whether proponents of a higher allowance should try again next year with a measure to aid just the out-county lawmakers.
“I would be perfectly OK with that,” said Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who supported the now-vetoed plan. Farnsworth said he actually would have preferred that be the proposal “but that’s not what the bill was.”
Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, opposed the allowance increase, calling the action at the end of the session “poor timing.”
But Grantham said lawmakers should not be in any rush to ignore the needs of Maricopa County legislators like himself. He said even they have expenses that can exceed $35 a day, though he said that perhaps the $92.50 was not the right number.
And Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, who would benefit from an increase to non-Maricopa County lawmakers, said he sees no reason not to provide some financial relief to his Maricopa County counterparts.
“There is some expense to meals,” he said, whether the lawmaker is living in town year round or has an apartment here for the session. What may need to be debated, said Friese, is what is a proper figure for in-county lawmakers.
Friese said he doesn’t necessarily see the governor’s veto as an outright rejection of more money for Maricopa lawmakers.
He pointed out that Ducey also expressed some unhappiness that the increase would have taken effect this year, benefiting the lawmakers who voted for it and whose terms run through 2020. Friese said an increase with a delayed effective date – not until 2021 – may be more palatable.
Fernandez, too, said she believes there needs to be some consideration for costs incurred by Maricopa County lawmakers.
But Fernandez also voted against the increase, not over the beliefs of the merits but the timing.
“For it to come at the 11th hour doesn’t look good,” she said.
Democrats in the House and Senate released their $12.5 billion budget proposal Monday morning, insisting that it’s not too late for the minority party to get a seat at the negotiating table even as crossover week approaches.
The “people’s budget,” as it’s been dubbed by House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, assumes an increase in revenue despite not levying new taxes due to a proposed repeal of tax credits for private school tuition organizations and the hiring of more tax collectors at the Department of Revenue.
The budget uses this extra windfall in order to afford significant spending on schools, housing and infrastructure. But while it spends more than any Republican spending plan and lacks the tens of millions of dollars in tax cuts included in each GOP proposal, the Democratic plan does overlap with each Republican plan in key areas like infrastructure and education spending.
“There is common ground in all the Republican plans we’ve seen,” Fernandez said. “I sincerely hope that the governor and the Republican leaders, I hope they’re listening right now and that they will sit down with us and work together with us. Arizona can’t reach its full potential as a land of opportunity until all sides are at the table.”
Among other priorities, Democrats want to spend heavily on both K-12 and post-secondary education. Like proposals from across the aisle, Democrats would restore district additional assistance and carry out the final round of teacher pay raises.
But the minority would also add $85 million to the Arizona Financial Aid Trust to help students pay for college. And it would spend an extra $15 million in ongoing funds to expand the scope of the Arizona Teachers Academy to include school counselors and social workers. Under the Democratic plan, community colleges would also come out ahead, netting almost $20 million for scholarships and $17.6 million for workforce development programs.
The Democratic budget also calls for spending more than four times as much to aid homeless Arizonans as preliminary spending plans put forth by Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Democrats would appropriate an ongoing $40 million to the Housing Trust Fund, plus another $6 million to help low-income seniors afford to stay in the homes they own.
Republicans in both chambers proposed adding a one-time $10 million to the Housing Trust Fund, though Senate President Karen Fann said she and others in the Senate Republican caucus are interested in doing more if the money is available. Ducey’s budget adds nothing to the fund.
The Democratic proposal also seeks greater funding for administration of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program than any of the Republican budgets. It calls for $3.2 million in ongoing funds for the Arizona Department of Education to administer the program, matching the agency’s request. Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget appropriates only $961,000, while the two Republican legislative proposals call for $1 million. Up to 5% of the ESA fund can be used for administrative costs — 4% to the Education Department and the remaining percent to the Treasurer’s Office.
Despite repeated requests and the growing size of the voucher program, the department has never gotten the full appropriation. This has made for a useful rebuttal by Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat who has faced accusations from the right that she’s seeking to undermine the voucher system — especially after her department improperly redacted and released a database of each voucher account to the media.
Democratic leaders boasted that their budget did not rely on any tax increases, though repealing School Tuition Organization tax credits would result in a $110 million increase in revenue this year and up to $164 million in additional revenue by 2023. Thanks to a 1992 constitutional amendment, any attempt to raise taxes or repeal tax credits requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
The budget also calls for the elimination of results-based school funding that awards state dollars based on performance on standardized tests — another way to free up funds.
“They would be revenue-increasing, but I see that as more of a reallocation,” House Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese said of repealing tax credits. “That program was designed to help families that have less means get to a private school, but that’s not what that program is doing.”
Other big spends include $60 million, $80 million and then $120 million over the next three years for pay increases for those who care for Arizonans with developmental disabilities. Caretakers of the elderly and physically disabled would also see pay boosts under the budget, as would caseworkers in the Department of Child Safety.
Republicans in the House and Senate proposed allocating an extra $15 million this year to provide 3% pay raises to caretakers for Arizonans with disabilities. But Democrats including Sen. Lela Alston, the Phoenix Democrat who serves as the ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the state needs to do more.
“It is a sad state of affairs when these providers are competing for and losing employees to McDonald’s and to Burger King, and this must change,” Alston said.
Friese and Senate Minority Leader David Bradley said Republican leaders have a good idea of Democratic priorities, even if they didn’t share their line-item budget with Republicans until after announcing it publicly. There’s still plenty of time to add Democratic spending priorities to the eventual legislative budget, said Bradley, D-Tucson.
“We’ll go lengthy into the night, night after night after night after night, as long as it takes to get it done. So, yeah, we’re confident that there’s time,” Bradley said.
Republican leaders in both chambers are still working toward finalizing a legislative budget proposal by the end of crossover week, one week from Friday, said Fann, R-Prescott. As of Monday afternoon, she had not seen the Democratic proposal, and she said she was disappointed Democrats shared their spending plan publicly before sharing it with her because she’s been asking for it for weeks.
“We are all working on this diligently, and it would be nice to know what the Democrats want sooner rather than later,” she said.
Republican leaders in the Arizona House and Senate are moving ahead with plans to draft their own budget proposal by the end of the year, reasserting legislative authority they say they lost during recent years.
By the time Gov. Doug Ducey tells the Legislature his plans for how to spend or save an estimated $170 million in ongoing funds and $475 million in one-time appropriations in mid-January, legislative leaders want him to know how the Legislature wants to use that money, Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray said.
“My hope is that by the end of the year we actually have a budget put together, that it will be in the governor’s hands and he’ll actually know what our House and Senate legislative body is looking at so we can be a little more cooperative,” the Sun City Republican said.
And House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she has met with 80% to 90% of her caucus and has reached out to agency heads about their budgetary priorities.
Cobb said she and her counterparts in the Senate will begin meeting in the coming weeks to start drafting a legislative budget proposal.
Although Cobb and other GOP leaders wouldn’t put it in such terms, long-time Capitol insiders say the plan harkens back to a time when the Legislature more readily wielded its appropriations power, going toe-to-toe with the Governor’s Office to fight for spending priorities that were fleshed out before the governor could go public with his or her plan. There were powerful appropriations subcommittees that grilled agency heads and full-fledged line-item budget proposals that had party support prior to the release of the governor’s own plan.
But over time, Arizona’s governors exerted increasing control over the appropriations process. Although there has been no shortage of recent budget fights between the Ninth Floor and the Legislature, lawmakers ceded some of their autonomy in the name of a more efficient — albeit less publicly transparent — process that puts the governor’s priorities front and center.
This old arrangement might not only pull back the blinds on the appropriations process, but also provide an opportunity for some of the state’s more beleaguered agencies and departments to work their connections in the Legislature and vie for greater funding than they might get otherwise.
And in theory, it could provide an opportunity for Democrats yearning to make their desires heard — though whether those desires manifest themselves has yet to be seen, as some key Democrats say they haven’t received an entree into the nascent budgeting process.
“I have felt that we should have done this a long time ago,” Cobb said. “Last year, we were way behind where we should have been. When that budget comes out from the governor, we shouldn’t have any surprises.”
A return to times past
The governor has been statutorily required to present a budget since the late 1960s, but lawmakers relying almost exclusively on the executive budget to frame debate is a relatively new phenomenon that has gained steam within the past two decades.
“There used to actually be budgeting committees,” said Chuck Coughlin, the president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants and a political adviser to then-Gov. Jan Brewer. “You go back to those ancient times, what those processes all did was create ownership in the legislative body of ideas, instead of reacting to what the governor proposes.”
There aren’t many left in the Legislature who were around in those days — though some have been more vocal about wanting to restore legislative authority than others.
“At least since I’ve been in the Legislature, we’ve always waited until the end to get all the numbers,” Gray said. “I think that’s a little too reactionary.”
Gray is one of a handful of Republican legislators who have pushed for years to return to an earlier way of budgeting. They first started to make progress in 2017, when new House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, now a senator, created Appropriations subcommittees to develop an initial budget proposal that could be shopped around to Republican House members.
Long before most current members joined the Legislature, Appropriations subcommittees played a larger role in the budget process, holding hearings with agencies throughout the state in the fall before the session began. Subcommittees held ongoing hearings throughout the session as well, longtime Capitol lobbyist Don Isaacson said.
“They would actually work a budget from the ground up and then toward the end of that process reconcile their differences between the House and the Senate,” he said.
That institutional memory had faded so much by the time Brewer took office that the Ninth Floor had to take control just to get a budget written, Coughlin said.
When the economy tanked in the Great Recession, legislators “kind of punted” a lot of their budgeting authority to the governor because taking responsibility for necessary cuts can be painful, but it’s time to change that culture, Gray said.
“Just like with a business, you have a corporate culture that will set the pace on how things are done and the way things are done,” he said. “We have the same thing in the Legislature. It takes a little while to change that culture, and I think we’re really beginning to see that it becomes much more effective to have a deeper dive into the budget than we have before.”
The Governor’s Office also is further ahead on its budget this year than it has been in previous years and has been in regular communication with House and Senate leadership, Ducey Chief of Staff Daniel Scarpinato said.
“We’re all for more collaboration and discussion sooner,” Scarpinato said.
Perpetually underfunded areas of state government see some promise in lawmakers drafting their own budget proposal.
The state Housing Trust Fund, for instance, had been capped at $2.5 million annually for nearly a decade. Ducey’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal would not have increased that amount, but because lawmakers made the fund a sticking point in their budget negotiations, it received a one-time appropriation of $15 million this year.
The Arizona Housing Coalition has good relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle, spokesman Camaron Stevenson said. He’s “optimistically curious” about how the Legislature’s budget plans will proceed.
“It’s easier for us to work with them than it is for 20 different organizations to go to the governor,” he said.
One Republican lawmaker in the House, Scottsdale Rep. John Allen, has already scheduled a meeting with representatives of the developmental disability community to discuss their budget needs, said Jon Meyers, executive director of the disability advocacy group Arc of Arizona.
“It’s never a bad sign that they want to get started on the budgeting process early,” Meyers said. “It certainly gives stakeholders like us the opportunity to provide more input and work with those legislators over a longer period of time, rather than try to compete with all of the priorities that are on their desks during the legislative session.”
Sen. Lela Alston, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature taking a more active role in the budgeting process could embolden executive agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, to ask for the money they need.
“The agencies that might have needs have to take whatever the governor says because they work for him,” she said. “Sometimes the agencies have needs that they’re not able to put forth because of the restrictions placed on them by the Governor’s Office.”
Democrats in the dark
Beyond one-on-one conversations with Senate President Karen Fann about their priorities, Senate Democrats said they haven’t been involved in any discussions about an early budget.
Alston said she hasn’t yet had any conversations with her committee leadership, though she half-jokingly offered to serve as a “consultant” for them on better ways to work on the budget. She previously served in the Senate from 1977 to 1994.
Sen. Sean Bowie, a Tempe Democrat who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said one-on-one meetings are more than his caucus has had under previous Senate leaders.
The Legislature came close to reaching a bipartisan consensus last year, Bowie said, though all Democrats in both chambers ultimately voted against every budget bill. He said he’s hopeful that there will be a bipartisan budget agreement next year.
“We really want to make sure it’s a true bipartisan process and that Democrats are actually being included as we put together these proposals and put together these budgets,” Bowie said. “We’re not just handed something at the end and told, ‘Hey, come and vote for this.’”
“After what we saw this year in the last part of the session, I am reluctant to put any of their asks in right up front,” Fann said at the time. “It didn’t do me any good to fight for them this year.”
In the House, Cobb said she’s met with a half-dozen Democrats. But several Democrats, including leaders, say that though they’ve heard of the budget plan, they have yet to be involved.
Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, the ranking member on appropriations, said he hasn’t heard anything from Cobb. Neither have Rep. Reginald Bolding, the ranking member on education, Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez or several other key Democrats, including moderates like Reps. Robert Meza and Cesar Chavez.
“It has been the typical way that we’ve seen the Legislature operate since forever, that the majority party is going behind closed doors and creating a budget they want,” Bolding said. “If there’s an opportunity to pick at the margins, they’ll reach out to Democrats. But there’s been no type of collaboration.”
While the Democratic caucus is supportive of the greater legislative control in theory, many in the minority said they’ll find more common ground with Ducey’s plan than whatever a GOP-controlled Legislature comes up with.
“I believe the governor should set the vision,” Friese said. “It’s not unreasonable to get a pulse, but not to get a jump on the governor.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
The Arizona Legislature will adjourn until April 13after lawmakers in the House passed a $50 million deal Monday intended to mitigate the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The passage of the budget concluded a multi-day saga in which leaders from both parties and both chambers butted heads as they rushed to pass a series of emergency measures and leave the Capitol as soon as possible.
The deal, worked out between Senate Democrats and Republicans last week, would give Gov. Doug Ducey great latitude to spend up to $50 million to forestall evictions and foreclosures, fund food banks and assist struggling businesses and nonprofit organizations. The deal also relaxes work requirements and time limits on unemployment benefits. Ducey is expected to sign the spending package today.
“We took that out to our members and said: ‘Here’s the lay of the land, we need to get something done,’” said House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. “We know that they’re a different body and we have to work with them. We put it to our people and they said yes.”
Lawmakers left themselves flexibility in adjourning as well, crafting language to allow Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann to call the Legislature back into session when they see fit — even if that date falls before or after April 13. And the Senate changed its rules today to allow for remote voting, a step the House took last week.
“We don’t know if this is going to get better or worse, or what we’re going to be needed to come in for,” said Fann, R-Prescott. “We tried to set this up the best we could to make sure that the governor would have the ability and the financial resources to do what needed to be done for the next month (or) two months.”
Both chambers already approved $55 million in emergency spending for the Department of Health Services to handle the pandemic. The $50 million safety net approved Monday was an added appropriation on top of an $11.8 billion so-called “skinny budget” that would fund agencies and provide some certainty should lawmakers be unable to return when promised.
The House today also passed a bill loosening requirements for unemployment insurance benefits in order to meet new federal guidelines from the Department of Labor, one of two non-appropriations emergency bills that lawmakers have passed in the last two weeks. The other, passed on Thursday, continues state funding for schools that remain closed through the end of the school year.
Passing the Senate deal was no minor feat in the House. Democrats introduced a series of hostile amendments to expand benefits, prevent price gouging and help small businesses, leading to short-lived but acrimonious debate and a raft of parliamentary procedures to fast-track the budget bills with minimal input from the Minority on the floor.
The Senate deal had only token opposition from two of that chamber’s most liberal members. But House Republicans, who learned about the deal minutes before the Senate began voting on it, balked and adjourned Thursday without voting on the measures.
At that time, neither party in the House was fond of the deal. Bowers said the deal didn’t have enough votes in his caucus. House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, called it a “kneejerk” response.
Democrats, meanwhile, thought the deal gave too much discretion to the governor without going far enough to prescribe certain usages of the $50 million. House Democrats were peeved with their colleagues in the Senate for acquiescing to Republican leadership without pushing for more robust aid for working families.
However, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said that her caucus would fall in line and vote for the deal, despite misgivings from some of her members.
“I wondered why the bill hadn’t been put forth on Thursday,” she said. “[Bowers] said his members weren’t there yet. I told him go ahead and work on it. I assured him that we were still on board.”
Fann said the composition of her chamber made passing a budget favored by the House GOP impossible. While Senate Republicans have a wider margin over Democrats than their peers in the House — a 17-13 margin in the Senate compared to 31-29 in the House — two of her Republican senators were practicing social distancing.
And even if those two Republican senators appeared to vote, as they ultimately did, Fann’s caucus contains more moderate members than the House GOP. This calculus gave Senate Democrats the leverage needed to get the $50 million emergency package into the skinny budget.
“If (the House) sent a budget over here, I could not get it out over here because I did not have a majority of Republicans ready to vote for it on the floor,” Fann said. “It never would have passed. It just wouldn’t.”
With that dynamic in place, Fann and other Senate leaders counted on House Republicans to spend the weekend reading the Senate deal and deciding that they liked it. Several senators had promised not to come in on Monday, effectively forcing the House to bite on the deal.
And despite doubts and bloodied noses on both sides of the aisle, House legislators were indeed able to convince themselves of the Senate agreement — or at least able to realize that there was no better option on the table.
“I think we all started making calls and seeing where they were…and a majority of the majority was fine,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who serves as House speaker pro tempore. “While the trust may not exist between the two caucuses separate from each other, there is trust within our own.”
Ducey said shortly after the House passed the Senate budget deal he was proud of “bipartisan leadership” shown in the Legislature.
“I’ll applaud the bipartisan leadership that we’ve had — Charlene Fernandez, (Senate Minority Leader) David Bradley, Rusty Bowers and Karen Fann. You’ve seen what (Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction) Kathy Hoffman has done regarding schools and what (Democratic Secretary of State) Katie Hobbs has done so we can allow democracy to function. That’s how we’ll continue to operate in Arizona.”
That bipartisanship is nominal at best, only secured through strategic maneuvering by lawmakers in the Senate who understood that perhaps the best way to get the House to act in unison was to give it no other choice.
Even as they pushed for their members to vote the same way on the same deal, Bowers and Fernandez seemed to alienate each other on the floor. Bowers accused his Democratic counterpart of reneging on a promise to stop introducing floor amendments, whereas Democrats were furious at Republican leadership for cutting off debate to fast-track the budget.
And despite a temporary ceasefire, Fernandez promised to continue pushing for the policies underlying those floor amendments, ensuring that debate over the Legislature’s response to COVID-19 will continue at a later date, whenever that may be.
“I hope I’m wrong in thinking that this crisis won’t be worse in two weeks,” she said. “Our work is not done.”
She used to be known as “Charlene’s daughter,” but campaign consultant Lisa Fernandez has emerged from the shadow of her mother, Yuma Rep. Charlene Fernandez, and made a name for herself as a political player in Arizona. Fernandez was recently named one of the 40 Under 40 by the American Association of Political Consultants, and serves as vice president of the Chicago-based Resolute Consulting.
Did you always want to be a consultant? Was this your dream job as a kid?
I was always really focused on the present, so I never, I guess — no one’s really ever asked me that! So I’ll just tell a little bit. I’m from Yuma, born and raised. My mom’s in the Legislature, so I grew up around politics, and because I grew up around it I didn’t really think that’s what I was gonna do. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I thought that I was gonna be a teacher for a while. I had a lawyer come and speak to our high school class and I was like, “Oh, maybe I can be a lawyer.” Things kind of went around in my head. I think a teacher was something because I loved my coaches — I played sports my whole life, so I loved my coaches and I really loved the impact they had on my life, and I thought I would love to do that to kids. So I initially wanted to be a teacher when I got to (Arizona State University).
So how’d that pivot an interest in politics?
I majored in political science and I got involved pretty early with the Young Democrats on campus, and that was just through different connections between my brother, my mom, and other people who’d been around. I just kinda got involved and that was really where I found my footing on my own. I had always been my mother’s daughter, and she worked for a congressman before she was in the Legislature and she ran the Democratic Party in Yuma, and so I was very much Charlene’s daughter, and then I came to ASU and I was around a bunch of other young people who didn’t know who my mom was, and so it was kind of a fun thing to be able to go and build my own name and do all this work in the name of politics.
ASU is where you became Lisa, not Charlene’s daughter.
Yeah. And we laugh and we joke about it because we’ve morphed. Before she got to the Legislature, she became Lisa’s mom, and now that she’s in the Legislature I’m back to Charlene’s daughter, but it’s OK. We’re both OK with it.
Was working with the Young Democrats your coming out party? Like your first gig in politics?
My mom will tell you my first gig was her pushing me in a stroller knocking door to door. She loves to remind everybody I would go door to door with her in a stroller.
How well did that work?
Oh, it always worked. I mean, if I could bring a kid to every canvass I had, guaranteed to open the door. With dogs, not everyone’s a dog person, but they’re not gonna not open the door to a child standing with you. It’s a very good thing, very effective.
But when did it click that you could do this for a living? You jumped around D.C. and Arizona working for U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, worked on a congressional campaign, and with then Phoenix City Council candidate Kate Gallego in 2013.
That was the best campaign, best learning experience, best everything. That I feel like changed the course of my life because I realized I can manage campaigns, I do have these other skill sets, and we really ran that city council campaign like a congressional campaign because that is all I’d known. I’d only worked on congressional campaigns, so we raised more money than any council campaign had at the time. We were polling. We were doing everything you’d do in a normal congressional race. Now in Phoenix that’s normal.
What do you do now at Resolute Consulting?
It’s funny because we don’t run candidate campaigns, but we do issue advocacy. The biggest thing we did this year was the pro-light rail campaign in south central Phoenix, which was just amazing, It was so much fun to work on, and I’d done so much work in south Phoenix on Kate’s campaign, and I enjoyed that a lot. So, same thing. When you run campaigns and do this stuff, there’s just this set of transferable skill sets that you can kind of be dropped into different places and then have a good understanding of what you need to do. But this was the time that I’m now doing business development, and kinda having to sell people on Resolute and me and this type of work in issue advocacy. And you know, it’s different from the campaign world, where it was just going from place to place. People know and understood the work. So it’s been its own challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun.
You’re still young relative to the campaign world. How does that affect your work?
I learned really early on that a lot of times I’m the youngest voice in the room. In politics even, even Democratic politics, one of only a few women and usually one of the only people of color. So that is something that I dealt with early on, and one of the things I love to do is find young, especially young Latinos, but young people who want to get involved in campaigns, and I sit down with them, point them to other campaigns. And it’s funny, Greg (Stanton’s) campaign manager Eric was doing finance for Greg, and we were going over finance stuff, and he’s like, “Oh, you do it this way, too?” And I was like, I invented this way! And we traced it back and someone I trained on Kate’s campaign trained this person on this campaign, and it just warmed my heart. This is exactly what we need. We need to be building up the next generation of leaders, so I really am cognizant of the fact that we need more women, we need more people of color in elected office, but also running those campaigns.
A Republican lawmaker sent nearly 100 pages of intimate letters to an agriculture lobbyist, shedding light on an apparent love affair that has put one of them at the center of controversy and the other under formal investigation by her employer.
Although both deny having a romantic relationship, the letters show the deep affection Rep. David Cook has for AnnaMarie Knorr, a lobbyist with the Western Growers Association, and his intimate familiarity with her personal life, raising the spectre of a potential conflict of interest.
While it’s natural for Cook, a rancher from Globe, to sponsor and vote for legislation benefiting agricultural interests and the Growers Association, his letters create questions whether he remains objective in his capacity as a state representative, or whether the groups Knorr works for receive preferential treatment from Cook.
In the letters, Cook talked at length both about his affection for Knorr and also about state business.
“I deeply love you, and on many occasions I find myself trying to protect me from being hurt by having these deep feelings for you,” he wrote in one letter.
In another section, he mentions a fundraiser he attended. He speculates that Knorr’s father, powerful cattle industry lobbyist Bas Aja, did not contribute to the group holding the fundraiser “because of you.”
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, told the Arizona Capitol Times that although he was aware of the rumors swirling around Knorr’s and Cook’s apparent affair, he did not have enough information to offer a specific comment.
He said that he hadn’t read the letters, though he wasn’t happy with the situation.
“If you ask me if I like it, I don’t like it at all,” he said.
Bowers said he hasn’t launched any kind of formal inquiry into the matter but will do his own investigation before deciding if any formal action is necessary, noting he has yet to talk to Cook about the allegations.
“I’m going to investigate it. To come to some opinion, I need to read letters. I need to know – is there a background to this? What’s the situation in its entirety?” he said.
Cook has not been removed from any of his committee assignments and is still voting on legislation. That’s a stark contrast to how the Western Growers Association has handled matters on its end.
Dave Puglia, executive vice president of the Western Growers Assn, said in a written statement that his organization is “aware of the allegations of professional misconduct by one of our employees,” and that the organization placed Knorr on administrative leave pending an investigation.
The group said Knorr has denied the allegations.
“Western Growers holds itself and its employees to the highest standards of professional conduct. We are also committed to the fundamental notions of fairness and due process. Therefore, Ms. Knorr has been placed on administrative leave pending our investigation into the matter. We will have no further comment while the investigation is pending,” Puglia said.
Cook has been the prime sponsor of several bills Knorr backed on behalf of her clients, and she contributed $455 to Cook’s campaigns in 2018 and this year.
Cook started writing the signed and handwritten love letters to Knorr after she took time off from work to focus on her health last fall.
Although Cook initially denied knowing anything about the letters, he eventually insisted that his relationship with Knorr is purely platonic.
“OK, all I can say is my friends, when I’ve needed help, have been there to help me. And I will be there to help my friends in whatever struggle they’re going through,” Cook told Capitol Times’ sister publication, Yellow Sheet Report, which first broke the news of the letters.
Knorr has not returned multiple calls seeking comment, but the Arizona Republic later reported that Knorr said their relationship was not inappropriate and that she and Cook are the subject of a smear campaign by her husband and her father, who she said didn’t want her to end her marriage.
Aja didn’t respond to the Republic’s attempt to get his side of the story, but told the Yellow Sheet Report that’s not what it’s about.
“We want to limit the exposure to very bad influences in her life. As a father, my primary concern is my daughter and the family, not the state Capitol,” he said in a text message.
Cook was arrested for drunk driving in December 2018 with a blood alcohol content of nearly twice the legal limit. He pleaded guilty to DUI after prosecutors agreed to drop the extreme DUI charge. As part of that plea deal, Cook attended a court-mandated substance abuse treatment program.
Aja makes several appearances in Cook’s letters to Knorr, including one passage where Cook laments that Aja is trying to keep them apart.
“Last night I could not stand it anymore and answered your dad’s text. The one where he said not to text, email or call you. I replied ‘What ever you think – you should never have stopped trusting me.’ The truth is, he never did. I was and am just a tool to him – to be used. But that’s OK,” Cook wrote.
Some letters were adorned with sketches and hearts, even a portion of a crossword puzzle he drew for her. In others, he talked about work, legislation, water policy and the Drought Contingency Plan, interspersed with romantic passages.
In one section, he references a trip he wanted to take with other lawmakers in a helicopter owned by Salt River Project to see highway traffic as part of his plan to secure funding for the North-South Pinal Corridor, asking Knorr for advice on who else to invite on the ride.
The House has no formal rules prohibiting relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists. But lobbyists must obey two sets of rules, according to veteran Arizona lobbyist Barry Aarons, the written rules and the unwritten.
On one hand, they have to follow the law, which means there are limits on the exchange of goods, cash or favors between a lobbyist and a legislator. On the other hand, lobbyists are also “governed by unwritten rules of propriety and optics,” he said.
This means that lobbyists have to be conscious of their relationships with lawmakers so as not to create the perception of improper behavior or a conflict of interest.
Aarons quoted former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, when asked to define obscenity, answered: “I know it when I see it.”
He hesitated to speak directly on the Cook allegations, though he pointed out there is no evidence of either party exchanging sex for favors.
“Do I have lawmakers I consider friends? Yes,” he said. “Have I written them 100 letters? Of course not.”
Female lobbyists in particular must deal with a perception, however unearned, that they’ll engage in inappropriate relationships with lawmakers, said Amy Love, a longtime Supreme Court lobbyist who now works in communications.
“I always thought it was best not to go to lunch, not to go to drinks,” she said. “Even with the great lengths I went to, there were still rumors that were completely untrue.”
This is the third major, public scandal involving a House Republican in as many years. In 2018, the House voted to expel then-Rep. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, after several women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against him. The next year, Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott, resigned after refusing to cooperate with an ethics probe into 1983 charges that he molested two young boys while living in Maryland.
And while Cook’s 2018 DUI was overshadowed by more salacious stories about Stringer, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said it also damaged the House’s ability to work. Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she considers Cook’s behavior “sophomoric,” but that whether he should resign over it is a decision he’ll have to make.
“Since I’ve been here, it was Shooter and Stringer, and then Cook and now Cook again. I gotta tell you, and I’m not acting like Pollyanna because I am not Pollyanna, this puts a real dark cloud over the session already,” said Fernandez. “We were all very excited about coming back.”
Julia Shumway and Dillon Rosenblatt contributed to the reporting of this story.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original form to include more information as well as quotes from House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, lobbyist Barry Aarons and former lobbyist Amy Love.
If Gov. Doug Ducey wants to pass a budget that pockets higher tax collections due to changes in federal tax law, he may have to work across the aisle to get it done.
Sen. J.D. Mesnard told the Arizona Capitol Times that Ducey is in for a long and bumpy ride this legislative session after the governor vetoed a bill, backed by all but one Republican lawmaker, to offset estimates of higher tax collections this year by roughly $150 million or more.
What Ducey calls a windfall, Republican legislators call a dramatic spike in taxes.
Mesnard, R-Chandler, said his GOP colleagues won’t stand for it. And if Ducey is dead set to get his way, the most likely scenario for passing a budget entails the governor and legislative Democrats teaming up to roll Republican leadership, Mesnard said, perhaps as late as June.
“I’ve been around a long time. I can see rolls coming. And I think the present situation is so toxic that that is an inevitability,” he said.
“Rolling” leadership can take many forms, the most dramatic being a full replacement of the GOP leadership teams in the House and Senate if they refuse to advance bills supported by the majority of lawmakers.
The most recent, and less drastic, example came in 2013. Then-Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, was at odds with many GOP lawmakers about expanding the state’s Medicaid program. So Brewer and legislative Democrats teamed up with a handful of Republicans and threatened to remove House and Senate leadership if the Medicaid expansion legislation was blocked.
The chamber leaders relented, keeping their positions, but losing any power to control the flow of legislation through their chambers.
Mesnard’s comments come as the full Senate prepares to vote on two bills that highlight the staring contest GOP legislators find themselves in with Ducey, and could exacerbate the divide between the governor and his own party.
Republican senators on the Finance Committee advanced SB1166, a bill that would reduce income tax collections by partially conforming to changes in federal tax code that were signed into law by President Trump in late 2017. The maneuver would “decouple” certain income tax deductions from the federal code, including a deduction for state and local taxes and a deduction for interest on home mortgages.
Though the method differs, the result of SB1166 is fundamentally the same as an earlier bill, also sponsored by Mesnard, that lowered income taxrates. SB1166, as did the earlier version, seeks to reduce the tax burden on Arizonans filing their 2018 tax returns.
Specifically, Ducey said conformity should be agreed to in the context of budget negotiations. The governor has dug himself into a hole with that stance, Mesnard said, since Ducey can’t get his way without legislative approval.
“I don’t know how a budget with a $200 million individual income tax increase ever gets out of the Legislature without really strong Democratic support,” Mesnard said, noting the sooner Ducey starts negotiating with the minority party, the sooner the session will wrap up. “Unless those negotiations with the Democrats start now, I think we’ll be in session until June.”
Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, echoed Mesnard’s disdain for the situation the governor and the legislators – by declining to act on conformity until now – have put themselves in. While he doesn’t like Mesnard’s latest plan to reduce harm to taxpayers, doing nothing is far worse, he said.
And he, like Mesnard, refuses to support a budget in which Ducey gets his way.
“I will not vote on a budget that raises $100 million, $200 million, $300 million in income taxes on the citizens of this state just because we don’t do conformity,” Livingston said during the Finance Committee vote.
House Republicans are similarly flustered by Ducey, according to Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who told the Capitol Times he’s “pissed” at the governor, “and I think the caucus is pissed, too.” And he won’t vote for a budget that includes higher tax collections, either.
“I’m not going until conformity is taken care of, and if that means staying here until the fall, we stay here until the fall,” Kern said.
Senate President Karen Fann said talk of the governor “rolling” GOP legislators on the budget is premature and unproductive.
Though she acknowledged the budget negotiations this year will be tough, particularly given the power dynamics in the narrowly divided House, that doesn’t mean Republicans can’t work something out with Ducey.
“No issue – I don’t care what the issue is – should be in such a position that it creates this kind of a problem where threats are going on or people are talking about rolling each other. That’s ridiculous,” said Fann, a Prescott Republican. “Somehow, we’ll sit down and we’ll figure it out. But we can certainly do that without threats.”
A spokesman for Ducey declined to comment on Mesnard’s prediction of budget mayhem.
“We aren’t going to negotiate budget issues through the media,” said spokesman Patrick Ptak. “We continue to have productive discussions with leadership.”
Both Senate Minority Leader David Bradley and House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez expressed reservations that the relationship between Ducey and legislative Republicans would deteriorate to the point that the governor would turn to Democrats for help.
“No one’s talked to us about that. I can’t imagine them doing that,” said Fernandez, D-Yuma.
Nonetheless, Fernandez said she’s hoping Ducey won’t budge and that some Republicans will realize they’ll just have to come to the side of the Democrats, who are supportive of the governor’s simple conformity plan. But that is, in fact, one method of rolling leadership, Fernandez acknowledged.
“We’re not actively out there trying to pull people,” she said. “We would not be disrespectful to the speaker. He’s got his caucus. We’ve got ours.”
Bradley, a Tucson Democrat, said his caucus is prepared to work with Ducey, if needed.
“I can’t speak to the discord of [Ducey’s] party, if it’s there,” Bradley said. “But obviously if they are divided, we’re going to try and take advantage of that to the extent that we can.”
Yellow Sheet Editor Hank Stephenson and Arizona Capitol Times reporters Katie Campbell and Carmen Forman contributed to this report.
In any other week, Rep. Anthony Kern’s dinner choices wouldn’t have mattered to anyone but the most fervent crusader against lobbyist influence. This week, depending on who you ask, he’s either a hero fighting government overreach or the face of irresponsibility.
The Glendale Republican and the lobbyist who bought his dinner on Tuesday night, former House staffer Brett Mecum, headed over to the Capital Grille to meet up with three other Republican lawmakers: Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley and Sens. David Gowan of Sierra Vista and Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City.
The four crowded close, grinned broadly and pointed up at a row of clocks showing the time: 8:15 p.m., 15 minutes after Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego had ordered all restaurants to close to diners to alleviate the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s 8:15 p.m……. Do you know where Phoenix Mayor @KateWGallego is?” Kern tweeted, adding hashtags for “resist” and “freedom of assembly.”
Kern has since deleted the tweet, which encapsulates the diverging political philosophies at the Capitol that have made governing in the era of coronavirus so difficult. The GOP-led House and Senate consider the virus serious enough that the House suspended its rules to allow remote voting and both chambers are hurrying to pass budget bills this session.
But Republican lawmakers, including some in leadership, have also dismissed calls to close schools as “pure politics” and orders to shut restaurants as government overreach, theorized that the illness will disappear once the weather warms up and shared conspiracies that the “deep state” is using the coronavirus to expand government’s power.
“Lighten up guys, it’s a little humor,” Kern said. “It’s 8:15. What, the virus only comes out after 8 o’clock? I mean, come on.”
During floor debate in the House on Wednesday, Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, referred to the small number of people in Arizona who have tested positive for the virus so far, expressing that figure as an infinitesimal percentage.
So far, only 15 people have tested positive in the state — but more than 100 tests are pending, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. And that doesn’t capture all the people who might need tests but can’t access them, for any number of reasons.
“It takes an immense amount of privilege to minimize how devastating coronavirus is,” Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said to Grantham.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley put it differently.
“They’re nuts,” he said. “Put that down. It’s sad that science has no standing with some of these people.”
The partisan dimensions of the issue go beyond Twitter. Despite the high stakes and repeated pleas for bipartisanship, negotiations over a spate of emergency bills to help Arizonans respond to the virus are familiar, if not downright routine: Democrats make demands and take advantage of brief political opportunities, Republicans brand those demands as unreasonable, a clash ensues, the dust settles and the cycle repeats.
“Is there bipartisanship? Absolutely not,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. She said that Republicans have brushed aside a list of Democratic policy prescriptions that bolster social safety nets.
“They’re calling this ‘pork.’ I know what pork is, and this is about our constituents, human lives,” Fernandez continued.
The playing field appears more level in the Senate, a rare feat. In the upper chamber, two Republican senators have pledged not to return for the duration of the outbreak, opening a window for Senate Democrats to push their demands and for Republican leadership to embrace a spirit of bipartisanship.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, appealed to Senate Democrats and Republicans to put politics aside in the face of an impending crisis, coming together as a Senate to pass a strong budget that includes some requests from Democrats. In that light, she introduced a bill to address one request from Democrats: allowing workers to receive unemployment benefits if their working hours are slashed but they’re not formally laid off.
“I’m hoping that our Senate members, Rs and Ds alike, are going to step up, show some leadership, show responsibility and get something good together,” she said. “If it’s different than what they have (in the House), we can get it out of here and send it over there and say ‘OK, here’s what we’ve got.’”
But the partisanship of normal budget negotiations doesn’t just go away, even in extraordinary situations. Senate Republicans returned to the floor on Wednesday to adjourn for the day while their Democratic colleagues were still in a caucus meeting receiving a briefing on budget bills, which most rank-and-file members — and Democratic policy staff — hadn’t had a chance to read.
Senate Republicans including Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, questioned the need to even wait for Democrats to consent to the bills proposed Wednesday. If the minority caucus isn’t on board by the end of the week, Republican leadership should just put the bills up for votes and let them fail if they’re going to fail, he said.
“Then hit pause,” he said. “And they can go explain to their constituents why they voted to let government shut down. People need a government.”
– Yellow Sheet editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report
Six months ago – or an eternity, depending on how you count – before the coronavirus, before the most recent wave of public demonstration against police violence, before the David Cook scandal or talk of legislative leadership races, Gov. Doug Ducey set the tone of the fledgling legislative session with an immediately controversial proposal to enshrine a ban on sanctuary jurisdictions in the Arizona Constitution.
It was the political expression of a governor leading his party into electoral war. While he had been conciliatory with Democrats in the previous session, this year was already proving to be different.
But with that proposal – which would soon turn into a ballot referral carried by Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, one of Ducey’s key legislative allies – the tactician in the Executive Tower made a key misstep. Within two months, he pulled the plug.
In those intervening months, Ducey apparently failed to predict the level of opposition that an effort to effectively enshrine one of the remaining provisions in SB1070 into the Constitution would engender, including from within his own party. And while it was the likely defections of heterodox GOP Reps. Tony Rivero and Noel Campbell that killed the sanctuary city referral, it’s crucial to examine another root cause of the initiative’s failure – the state’s community of progressive activists and organizers.
Indeed, though this year didn’t have anything that compares to the effort to recall then-Sen. Russell Pearce – SB1070’s legislative champion – the passage of a minimum wage initiative or the mass teacher walkouts of the Red for Ed days, the Second Session of the 54th Legislature served in its own way is proof positive that activists in Arizona form an increasingly effective vanguard of the state’s gradual leftward shift.
From raising the alarm about the sanctuary city initiative in the public eye to raising hell about controversial elections bills in committee meetings, the state’s cadre of activist groups showed this session that they’re not afraid to play ball in traditional halls of power, though they’re certainly not going to play under the rules that the political establishment sets.
“I think they’re maturing into their role as a force to be reckoned with,” said Democratic political consultant Ben Scheel.
If passed, HCR2036 would have asked voters to decide whether the Constitution should specifically prevent local entities from declaring themselves sanctuary jurisdictions – in other words, a statute or policy that limits cooperation with federal immigration enforcement officials. In practice, not much about current law would change, as state statute already prohibits political jurisdictions in the state from doing just that – an extant provision of SB1070, a divisive 2010 bill designed to give the state authority to control immigration.
But if voters passed a ballot initiative to the same effect, it would become much more difficult for a future Legislature to reverse the policy due to the Voter Protection Act.
Almost as soon as the proposal left Ducey’s lips in January, the opposition began to congeal, waging a public campaign against the bill and painting it as a revival of SB1070. By the end, a business boycott seemed like it could be on the horizon.
At the forefront of this opposition was the aptly named LUCHA, or Living United for Change in Arizona, a group that formed in the fallout of SB1070. Founders Tomas Robles and Alejandra Gomez were two among the thousands of people who came out for a 103-day vigil on the lawn of the Capitol in 2010 – several other of the state’s current legion of community organizers took part as well.
“In less than a decade, many organizers who first cut their teeth fighting that bill are now lawmakers, campaign managers and directors of civic engagement groups like Mi Familia Vota and the Arizona Dream Act Coalition,” Gomez and Robles wrote in a New York Times op-ed in December. “While it’s easy to dismiss mass protests as short-lived eruptions of anger, Arizona offers a model for how this energy can become real electoral power: It happens when people learn to work with one another, build deep connections and create something bigger than themselves.”
These groups followed a path established in the SB1070 days in pushing back against HCR2036, and its twin in the Senate, SCR1007: derive power from popular opposition, and convert that power, largely through non-electoral means, into results in traditional halls of power. In the early days, that same strategy helped to win the historic recall election against Pearce.
This time around, it meant a bruising public campaign that helped turn the business community against the proposal, raising the specter of a hit to Arizona’s economy. And it meant highly visible acts of disobedience during debate on the proposal. In a February meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, activists from LUCHA and other groups went toe-to-toe with Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, the Republican committee chair, after he cut off testimony from lobbyist Hugo Polanco when he called the proposal racist.
When the two started yelling back and forth, Farnsworth asked for the sergeant of arms to remove Polanco, prompting a quick response from Polanco’s allies.
“Whose house? Our house!” they began chanting. “Kill the bill!”
Farnsworth eventually recessed the committee, and troopers from the Department of Public Safety began escorting protestors out. LUCHA was quick to seize on the perception. It was just a preview of what the response would look like if the referral passed out of the Legislature, Polanco warned at the time.
“Our response has been swifter and greater in force,” Polanco said then, recognizing the growing power of activist groups. “That will push the business community and others to act more quickly.”
HB2304, Republican legislation that would have allowed immigration agents to check the citizenship status of people on voter registration rolls and limit the ability of voters to bring translators with them to the polls, faced a similar response. During a committee hearing on the bill, a LUCHA activist testifying against the legislation quarreled with Republicans on the committee, leading House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, to accuse “you and others like you who are disrespectful to the process” of setting a vitriolic tone at the Legislature.
Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, became so frustrated that he walked out of the hearing without voting on the bill. After the hearing, Rodriguez wouldn’t say that Petersen’s statement was intended to be racist, but that the underlying perception – a lawmaker verbally attacking a group of minority activists who had been waiting for hours to speak on the bill – were disturbing nonetheless. Sidelined by the coronavirus, the bill never made it out of the House.
LUCHA and other groups have proved masterful at provoking negative responses from their political opponents. It’s an indication, it seems, that the grassroots have grown in the foundations of the Capitol. And it’s not just at the state level – at Phoenix City Hall, for example, where former Puente executive director Carlos Garcia won election to the City Council.
“Have they gotten stronger? Yes,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. “Have they made their presence known? Definitely. They’re our partners, they’re our stakeholders, and they represent the working class families here in Arizona.”
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez led a wartime caucus. Besieged by a majority that alternated between hostility and indifference, a public health crisis and a state in general disarray, the Yuma Democrat did what she could to rally her 28 colleagues and fight off tax cuts and immigration bills, bolstered by increasingly powerful activist groups who helped run interference on the ground. The minority, by definition, was often not successful. But now they’re gearing up for what could be a watershed election that could for the first time in decades instill Democratic rule in the House. Will new blood make a difference in a famously unruly chamber?
Obviously, there was no shortage of challenges this year – from being in the minority, to COVID-19 and so on. What moments were the most challenging or frustrating for you?
I don’t want to make this just about the minority, but I think most challenging was the fact that we’re treated like the minority even with a 29-31 split. I mean, just with 600 more votes, that could have been 30-30. And I thought this 31-29 would have been an opportunity for us to come together, because obviously Arizona is trying to tell us something. And yet I think we were probably further apart than when we were 23-37.
What do you think that’s a function of?
In general, loss of power is a scary thing. As a parent, when your kid is going off to college, you’re no longer in control of what time they go to bed or what time they come home in the evening. And it’s a scary time when that child leaves for college. And that’s what I feel like the majority was facing. It was that loss of power. We walked in there in 2019 with a thought in our head that we were no longer going to act like the minority. And I’ll tell you that second session of 2018, when we went back, we had an effort to act like we were in the majority. I think it made a difference when November rolled around and we picked up four seats and we became 29-31. So we expected to be treated that way. Maybe the expectation was too high.
What do you feel you were able to accomplish in spite of that?
The bad legislation that we fought off – but it had nothing to do with “in spite of” – it was just the right thing to do. And one of them was the sanctuary city bill that was obviously an issue that Governor Ducey sanctioned, and for us to come together and be able to get the governor to back down, and to get the speaker pro tem to back down, that was monumental. And that was because the people in Arizona want something different. They don’t want the same old thing.They didn’t want SB1070, and they’re ready to move on and they’re ready to move Arizona forward.
If you guys take the majority, do you think that your relationship with what would then be the Republican minority would look different? Or do you think that this is just sort of the nature of the House, that the parties are always kind of diametrically opposed like this?
I don’t think we can work alone. I don’t think that’s what the people, the voters want. They want us to work together. Do they want us to be walked over? No. But even if the Democrats came back with a super majority, I think it is incumbent upon us to work with the minority party. They represent people. And this is what we kept trying to tell them. We represent almost 48% of Arizonans. How can we shut them out? We have to remember that even the minority represents Arizona and we have to include them. So I’m hoping that whoever’s in leadership will remember that.
Also for practical reasons, right? The fact that there would still be a Republican governor and possibly a Republican majority in the Senate would at least necessitate working with the Republican minority in the House, just because you’re going to have to deal with Republicans at some point down the line.
Absolutely. We don’t know what the Senate is going to look like. It could go Democrat, we’re hoping it will, but we will still have a Republican sitting in the Governor’s Office for two more years. And so we have to work together. We have to make sure those lines of communication are open.
It was pretty clear this year that even within the Republican Party, things were not running particularly smoothly. There was a fair amount of discord and dissatisfaction with Speaker Bowers among Republicans. I think a lot of Republicans felt that they were left out of the loop with the governor as much as the Democrats are. What’s the way to overcome that?
It’s gotta be communication. A lot of the discord was the fact that people didn’t know what was going on. People had no idea what was happening – when are we going to come in and when are we not going to come in? What kind of chaos? It was just unbelievable. I would hear from our caucus all the time – have you heard from Speaker Bowers? Has he called you? I would remind them that, as you said, a lot of the Republican members were feeling the same thing. We have to have open lines of communication.
How do these things affect the ability of the chamber to actually craft effective policy and govern – not just the discord, but also scandals like (Rep. David) Cook?
It cast a shadow on everyone. You brought up Cook as a scandal, but then you have to remember, we had (Rep. David) Stringer before that. It cast a shadow, and I’m thinking that maybe that is what hindered the work that the majority was doing – or I should say, not doing. They were focusing on individual members, rather than the greater good. So I think when you’re focused on trying to get something in order over here, something on the other side will suffer. And we were the something on the other side.
Obviously there was not a ton of cooperation, but even beyond that, I think the tone of debate in the House was. Obviously there are legitimate ideological differences, but when you look at the Senate, they’re much more conciliatory. Was being loud and aggressive part of an overarching strategy for debate? Or is that just a function of how the House operates?
The Senate is a much smaller group, right away you can see that. And we have 29 members, they have their constituency that wants to be heard. Some people can call it loud and unruly. But when you don’t have your bill heard, what else do you have? The only thing we have is the microphone and our voice. I think we were doing what we should have been doing for years and years and years. I think Democrats have finally found their voice. They have their constituencies to represent.
If the Democrats take the House, is your plan to make a bid for speaker? Where do you see yourself in that mix?
Where I see myself right now is getting us to the majority. That’s what I’m working towards. Once we get there we’ll figure out where the cards fall. All 29 of us, our focus should be on getting re-elected and bringing more Democrats, taking over and being in the majority.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez has seen the full scope of Democratic legislative power, from the bad old days when Democrats had only 23 seats to the present day, when they’ve accumulated enough power that a single defection from the other side has huge implications. She sat down with the ArizonaCapitol Times to discuss lessons learned, outlook for this session and her theories for what Democratic leadership could look like.
Are we going to be here in June?
Everyone else is saying, we’re gonna come in and get the budget done and get out. I don’t believe it. I think we’re going to be here a while. I think it’s going to be a pretty contentious session. I do think that the other side is anxious to get us in and out so they can get out and campaign. As for the caucus that I represent, we’ve been campaigning since day one. If they keep us here 135 days, like they did last time, we’re fine. If we’re out of here in 30 days, that’s fine. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to work. We’re here for the long haul.
What are the big issues that the caucus is going to hit on this session?
K-12 continues to be a big one. And sometimes left out in the cold is our community colleges. As we know, they were defunded in Pima County and Maricopa County. And then we need to continue to protect the ones in our rural areas. That is the first place people can go to go on to higher education. So it is part of our value system to make sure that they are there for our working families and everyone else. And our universities, where the tuition rates continue to rise. We want to make sure that it’s accessible. We want to make sure that we protect our kids against predatory lenders that have made so many of our kids leave school in debt. Then there’s the other part of it, infrastructure, where we have failed to fund infrastructure. And we’ve done a good job in the last year about restoring funding, but not restoring on an ongoing basis. The county supervisors in my area, they’re telling me they can’t plan five years ahead. They need to know that they’re going to get funding for the next five years so they can build those roads to make sure that our economy continues to thrive.
Q: How can your caucus work to take advantage of the thin Republican majority in the House?
If you watched us at all this last session, we were unified. We finished out the sine die with every single one of our caucus members voting against a budget that had a tax cut that the state of Arizona did not need and did not want. We listened to our constituents and they told us we don’t want tax cuts, we want meaningful investment in Arizona. So we stuck together. The key to this is … we have to value the diversity that all of us come from different areas, but basically we have the same values. So, I think that’s how we stick together, is that we honor those values and then we also honor the diversity.
What is your relationship like with House Speaker Rusty Bowers? How often do you meet?
I met with him one time this summer. I initiated the meeting and went over to his office and I plan to continue to do that. I’m very excited about the changes that he’s made here at the state legislature. We have handicap accessible bathrooms, which I think, before, we were in the dark ages where we hadn’t really implemented that. So as we go into this next session, every floor has a bathroom for men and women that are handicap accessible, which is important. And that was under Mr. Bowers’ leadership, and I appreciate that. We may not sit down and talk about it, but he knows those things were important to us and they were important to his caucus and he put them forth.
In what way do you think his leadership has failed?
I can’t put my finger on one weakness that he may or may not have. It’s been a pleasure to work with him this last session. I’m going to continue to try to build on that relationship … so that we’re going to have a budget that we can all agree on. I would love to see a bipartisan budget, but we have to come to the table. Let’s back up – if there is a weakness, it’s that we were not brought in on the budget talks at the beginning.
But they wouldn’t view that as a weakness, right? Republicans always make a show about bipartisanship, but then by the end of the budget process, Democrats are rarely seriously involved, though the GOP doesn’t tend to actually feel that badly about it, you know?
I don’t know if that’s one person or is it all of their effort to do that? I don’t know if that’s their leadership or is it … some of their colleagues. All I know is that we need to be brought in at the beginning. You can’t bring us in at the tail end and then say, “Here’s the budget. Do you like it? Oh, you like it, then it’s bipartisan, or you don’t, well then it’s not.”
You’ve talked a lot about what you view as failures of bipartisanship. Looking forward at the possibility of having a Democratic majority in the House, and even further into the future at the possibility of having more than the House, should Democrats make bipartisanship a focus? Or, as the GOP has done, play hardball and try to steamroll Democratic policies through?
I think, is it the wise thing to do or the right thing to do? I think if we’re going to talk about issues like our working families and — we talk about unemployment today in Arizona and we say that we’re doing great, the economy’s great, unemployment is down. But we don’t talk about the fact that we’ve got working families that are working two or three jobs. Those are the things we need to talk about. Those are the things that we need to talk about with Republicans. And I think Republicans know that because their constituents are in the same situation as my constituents. And I think if when the situation is reversed and the Democrats are in the majority, those issues can be discussed and we can talk about how we can work through those together. I think that’s the only way we can do this because obviously the opposite doesn’t work.
Are those failures of bipartisanship, though? Or failures of Republican policy? Do you think that Democratic policies are inherently superior to Republican policies?
It’s the failures of a Republican Party that won’t work with the Democrat Party. Because I think together we could have resolved this. And no, I don’t. I don’t think that [policies] are something we own. But I think they are our value system. What do we value? We value a family that can afford to live on one job, and that people can feed their kids and have a room and have a roof over their head. And if they get sick, they don’t go bankrupt. That the air we breathe is clean. That the water we drink is good water. Those are the things that we value, and I think that there are Republicans that will work with us. We are not the party of shutting people out.
Looking forward to what could very well be his last term as speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, reflected to the ArizonaCapitol Times about his expectations for the upcoming session (an early budget, corrections and education funding and water), mused about his relationship with Democratic Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and the forces behind the ascendance of Democrats in Arizona – he blamed an influx of Californians – all while delivering, in typical Rusty Bowers style, an endless stream of parables and fables on the nature of fame and leadership.
Are we going to be here in June?
We would like to have a more abbreviated session. I’ve never heard anybody say we want to stay until June. But sometimes, the issues just keep you there. So we’re hoping to, at least with the major issues, the constitutionally mandated — we’ve got to have a budget — Karen (Fann, Senate president) and I have worked … on making sure that our folks are getting prepared to move a budget quicker and we hope that we can do that. So that’s going to put some stress on staff, et cetera. But it’ll work.
And where are we on the budget?
We’ve had a review with our senior budgeting team with JLBC of demands, but very much a … skeleton of where we are, what our ongoing expenditures are that we can get, we can easily cover with our present budget or present income and what’s capable for ongoing support. And then what one-time funding we have and we’re blessed to have the money to do some things. The challenge of that is what happens next. And I’d been through them both – where we would have $5 million … and we had to build a budget on that. And now we have $1 billion. So some people say, you know, if we’re getting that much money into the coffers, are we taxing too much? And I’m not of that opinion, but I just want us to be wise with what we’re using. Prudent.
What are some of your priorities for the session, budgetary and otherwise?
We’re going to fulfill our promise to have the 5% for teachers. We’ve given additional assistance in the past … that we need to continue with some additional assistance. The county jail challenges, the state’s correctional challenges, are, in my view, real and need to be addressed. The health care challenge that we have most is that we have, as I see, is that we have a burgeoning population … AHCCCS is taking a $1 billion hit. How do we help to get them to draw down more federal funds? You know, it’s not just writing checks. Taxation. I see taxation not as others do. You know, we’ve got to give back the money, but I want us to have a good balance. We are not the richest state in the United States. Also, it’s water. The DCP was only the beginning. I heard recently that our friends in California are now rationing each resident 55 gallons and down to 50 by 2030 — and beyond that who knows? It will be interesting to see what they do with their fountains and with their hotels and their golf courses and a host of other things. But as I have said for years, the barometer and of capacity for Arizona’s development and future is our water supply. So using our water better, reusing water better, wiser, desalination has got to be accelerated. But it is not a silver bullet. No, nothing that we can find is a silver bullet. I want longevity, I want stability into the decades. And so I hope to be a force that says we make wise water policy very slowly, and sometimes it’s glacial, but we will proceed.
You’ve talked a lot about wanting to minimize drama in the chamber. Do you think you were successful in doing so last session, and what can you take from that experience moving forward?
Somebody once said that experience is a hard teacher, and fools learn by no other, and I don’t want to be foolish in how I appraise what we achieved. And I know that we will have our challenges, but I have seen and am grateful to acknowledge individual members, both Republican and Democrat, that exercise themselves towards more civility and an ability to work together. I’ve spoken, thankfully, with many Democrats since, and with many Republicans. And I hope that goodwill can be less a focus of suspicion and more a focused reality. But it’s gonna be tough. It’s a partisan environment and it’s an election year.
On that subject, how is your relationship with Democratic Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez? I believe she told me you guys met once over the summer. Is that right?
Right. She sat right over there, there was no charred flesh or furniture, no bullet holes in the wall, everything was fine. I know that people of good will can work together. Somebody said love is free, but trust is earned. And there were some things that happened that were very difficult and which kind of alienated folks, but she’s tried to bridge that and, and I would like to bridge that.
Are there some opportunities for bipartisanship in the upcoming session?
One area that has always consistently – well, I shouldn’t say that ‘cause it wasn’t started out in ‘93, it went the other way, but now it’s working its way back this way – justice reform. I have just taken token steps trying to chip away at it, and anything that can be achieved that is fair, that protects the safety of our citizens and is fair to those who get off track, who commit crimes but want to make restitution, and get back and re-enter citizenship, I want to help them.
We’re looking at a strong chance that Democrats take the House after the upcoming election. Where does that leave you?
I’m planning to run this next time and I don’t have any further plans at the legislative level after that. That will term me out of the House, and I’m old enough where I can say – no politician ever says enough’s enough. We all are gluttons for punishment or whatever. But I do know this little saying: fame is a vapor. Riches take wing. Popularity is an accident. Only one thing endures: character. And so out of, out of whatever smoke or peace comes out of my time in the Legislature and in this position, I am honored to be here.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez will guide Democrats through a historic time in the state House of Representatives.
The Democrats will have greater leverage during the 2019 legislative session with the partisan split closer than it has been in years – 31-29 just barely in Republicans’ favor.
In a pre-session interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, Fernandez credited her predecessor, now Sen. Rebecca Rios, with getting their party to this point. But it’s Fernandez who now has to take advantage of the odds.
What’s your strategy to make the 31-29 split count?
We know our strength is in our number –29 of us. And when we stick together, 29 of us, we’re strong. So that’s our strategy right now. Making sure everybody’s up to speed, each and every member is out there working hard. I keep telling them you’re not legislators yet, take it easy. But they’re out there working hard, meeting with the constituents who got them here, meeting with stakeholders and bringing forth a lot of great ideas.
What has been your message to your members as they prepare for session?
One of the most important messages is we have to and we want to work with the other side. We are not worried about what letter comes after the name. We just want to work with them. If we can build quality legislation together that will benefit Arizona, that will benefit public education, infrastructure, we’re on it.
Of course, everyone is saying we have to have bipartisanship. But the devil is going to be in the details once these debates get started. Are you confident that hopeful attitude is going to persist?
I don’t think it has to be hopeful. I think it’s reality. We know how to work with the other side. We’ve been doing this for years when we were 22, 25 and now, 29. That’s not a big deal. It’s going to be the other side working with us. They’ve got to figure out what it looks like to reach out to the other side and to compromise and to negotiate.
You have a lot of new members joining your ranks this year. What’s the first thing they need to understand about this job?
It takes a lot of time. You hit the ground running. You’re not going to look back – you just keep going forward. You can’t really make any mistakes, and when you do, you just move on. We can fix those things. It’s OK to reach out. I want them to know it’s OK to reach out, not just here in this House but outside these doors. Outside this building are the people they represent, and they need to reach out to them.
What do you think of Speaker Bowers’ leadership so far?
It’s been a little chaotic, a little disjointed. We still have the same amount of staff as we did when we had 22 members. They’re willing to work hard and put in the long hours to make sure all our needs are met. I feel really bad for them, but they’ve agreed to that. I don’t think they can agree to anything else because we’re not going to get anymore money to hire anybody else.
The session is already off to a tumultuous start with several House members in the news under unflattering circumstances. What do you think that does to the outlook for the rest of the session?
And that’s why I’m being really careful about what I’m saying because that’s got to be rough on Speaker Bowers. He has to deal with 31 members and then two issues on top of that. So, I think it speaks volumes about what is coming for him. You know, I wish him luck.
Of course, you have to work with Governor Ducey as well. What did you take away from his inaugural address?
I think the governor is really going to work with us. He knows the math. He was able to do the math because he’s talked about the 29-31. He’s talked about our statewide wins. He knows the electorate is changing. He’s in his last four years. I think there’s a legacy that he’s thinking about. We can take advantage of that and reach across the aisle, reach across the mall and be able to work with the Senate Dems, the Senate Republicans and the Governor’s Office and really do some quality work for Arizona. They’re expecting it.
He said in his inaugural address that he’d be rejecting tax increases, but then we already have Senator Sylvia Allen calling for an increase to a full cent sales tax for education. How do you work around that dynamic?
Well, you know, that one-cent sales tax is something we brought up in 2014. That’s so 2014. We’re on to new things. We’re putting other things on the table. We’re working with our stakeholders, we’re working with our leadership team, we’re working with our members to put everything on the table. Looking at tax credits, we think with charter school reform we’re going to be saving money, and we want to see what we can find when we start doing the things that we haven’t been doing, that we’ve been very negligent about. Maybe that will help find funding for public schools, and we won’t have to look at raising taxes. But if that’s something we have to look at–it all has to be on the table.
We hear a lot about water, education, charter school reform – and those are all very important issues. But what’s the most important, least talked about issue on the table this session?
You didn’t mention transportation. That used to be a big issue, and it’s still a big issue for us today. Yes, we have provided the HURF dollars again. We were sweeping from that. We want to make sure those are safe. We want to make sure there’s money to build our roads, to rebuild our roads. And when we do rebuild our roads and our bridges, we’re putting people back to work. … It’s a big issue, especially in our outlying areas, and we need to start thinking about that.
Gerae Peten is used to working with her back to the wall.
It’s a mindset she shares with many of her Democratic colleagues in the state Legislature. Years of subordination to Republican rule can do that — as can the difficulties of slowly chipping away at that majority.
“You always have to run in a paranoid sense,” Peten, a state representative from Goodyear, said. She knows, she said, that because of her skin and her gender, she has to work twice as hard – she didn’t get this far in life without a sense of stick-with-it-ness.
But now, in a year where Democrats are otherwise seeking to expand, Peten’s resiliency faces its first real test. If her resolve fails, the implications will be significant, as any one loss by a Democratic incumbent could seriously jeopardize the party’s attempt at controlling the Legislature.
Republicans are looking at Peten’s seat in LD4 with “lots of seriousness,” said GOP consultant and pollster George Khalaf.
The sprawling southern Arizona district, which forms a triangle from Tucson to Phoenix to Yuma, is largely rural, with an exurban portion in Maricopa County that could hold promise for the GOP, he said. Democrats have an admittedly significant 16,000-voter registration advantage in the district, but its fast-growing northern section is trending Republican.
Peten’s seatmate, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, is far too great a target. But Peten, an education policy wonk with a doctorate in education from Northern Arizona University, could be vulnerable.
“[The district] is a very unique animal,” Khalaf said. “I would actually compare it a little bit to LD8. The trends over the last ten years are actually in favor of Republicans, though LD4 has been tremendously more muted.”
LD8, a largely rural district that stretches southeast from the Phoenix suburbs, had Democratic representation as recently as 2016. Since then, the number of registered Republicans in the district has ballooned. As of this August, the district had around 4,000 more Republicans than Democrats. Four years ago, Democrats had a 1,000-voter advantage.
LD4, Khalaf said, is a similar, albeit less convincing, example of the same phenomenon.
Democrats have actually expanded their registration advantage in the district in the past four years. But new Republicans are coming to the district in Maricopa County, where cities like Goodyear and Buckeye are gaining residents quickly.
That geographic distinction is key. Peten – along with Republican challenger Joel John – lives in Maricopa County, 150 miles from the district’s Democratic nerve center in Yuma, the home of Fernandez, Peten’s seatmate.
“Fernandez and (Sen. Lisa) Otondo are natives of Yuma,” Peten, a transplant from the East Coast, said. “That’s the reality.”
Republicans, therefore, hope that Peten will underperform relative to the district’s large Democratic electorate, which is rooted in southern Arizona. And they’ve come close in the district before.
In 2014, Fernandez inched out Republican Richard Hopkins by fewer than 200 votes. Republicans hope that John, a former teacher with an agricultural business whose family has deep ties in Buckeye, can build on that past success.
Fernandez has since grown into one of the state’s most influential Democrats, and while she has her share of detractors from within she remains well-connected to the party’s campaign apparatus. Peten, however, hasn’t had the opportunity to create such a mandate – part of the mission of her backers this year is to make her proximity to Fernandez clear.
Peten was appointed to the seat in 2017 following the resignation of former Rep. Jesus Rubalcava, the subject of a Clean Elections investigation. The next year, a Republican didn’t even run, and Peten and Fernandez easily beat the Green Party candidate. Now, she faces a single-shot challenge from John, who netted more votes than her in the primary, 8746 to 7337.
“This is a very different campaign,” said Charlie Fisher, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
“You’ve seen an explosion of votes from Maricopa County,” he added. “It’s just a heavier lift.”
As of the pre-primary reporting period, John had out-fundraised Peten by more than 2-to-1 – around $40,000 to her roughly $15,500.
“I think it is money down the drain,” said progressive lobbyist and consultant Geoff Esposito. “But I think that’s what they have to do. These suburban districts are trending away from them so fast. It’s the same thing that Democrats experienced at the end of the aughts (with rural districts). They are gonna need to find new places.”
In other words – if Republicans can no longer hold onto districts in north Phoenix, Peoria or the East Valley, they might have to begin chipping away at less conventional goals.
LD4 is a “special pickup opportunity” for Republicans on a map with otherwise little to offer them, said pollster Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights.
And even if John can’t win, focusing an attack on Peten’s seat could divert resources from Democrats who are otherwise primarily focused on playing offense.
“If you’re able to get them to play or defend seats that they weren’t really planning on spending on, that’s a good thing” for Republicans, Noble said.
The question then becomes whether that makes much of a difference, given the significant amount of money that Democratic groups and donors are likely to invest in Arizona this year. Fisher, of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is skeptical.
“I think there are enough resources committed,” he said.
The committee is marshaling staff and volunteer resources to help Peten hold onto her seat in LD4, Fisher said.
“Republicans, like a lot of observers, see the opportunity we have to take the House,” he said. “We understand that we need to defend a couple of marginal districts.”
One of the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s main objectives is to make sure voters see Fernandez, Otondo and Peten as a slate of candidates with aligned values, even if they come from different parts of the state. It also has to focus on turning out Democrats more than it does swinging independents, given the built-in advantage the party has in the district.
“The three of us are running as a team,” Fernandez said.
And it’s a team, she said, that always works with a chip on its shoulder.
Joel John is coming in with a similar attitude. Taking on the district’s Democratic incumbents presents an “uphill battle,” he said.
He was approached by Republicans in the district about running given the opportunity that the district presents – though he had his eye on the position already.
John has been active at the precinct level in Buckeye, and hopes to appeal to the district’s exurban and rural Republican population, while also showing a pragmatic side that might swing the district’s substantial number of independents.
“This could be a possible Republican pickup, but our work is cut out for us regardless,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a shoo-in by any means.”
Peten won’t be ceding ground easily. If Democrats want to take the House majority, they need to hold onto her seat.
“Failure is not an option,” she said. “I do not intend to be the weak link in my caucus.”
Even after a taxing 134-day session, House Speaker Rusty Bowers remains patently himself when he sits down with the Arizona Capitol Times – reflective, resolute and ready with a story, which this time was about the day his brother shot himself in the foot.
Those who know Bowers will be able to imagine the tone of his voice when he gave one-word answers to some questions – lighthearted, accompanied by a laugh but perfunctory nonetheless.
That’s to be expected after what he described as a “demanding” session.
Why was it demanding?
Obviously, losing a member, having the first month or so consumed by DCP, throwing off our schedule, trying to build a caucus cohesion – many people contributed to that. A plethora of bills with one-vote margins, knowing I couldn’t get some through, having to say “no” to a lot of bills… rather than grandstand.
It’s easy to blame things on age because it’s so obvious, but there are issues that require a lot of physical and mental effort. And they take their toll. I’m grateful to have what strength I do, but I’m also (grateful) for other members who are very, very dynamic and picked up the ball in a lot of areas and just did stellar work.
Do you feel that this session set the right tone for your tenure as speaker?
One of the best parts about this job are the kids that come to visit us, and interacting with them in a way that would leave them with a good feeling about what happens here was important to me because many here use those kids as a foil for dogma and indoctrination. And that really chapped me off. … I tried to keep a quieter but happy, upbeat approach to things, but I can’t hide all of that all the time.
Was there a particular moment where you felt chapped and frustrated?
Any you would care to share?
Well, like I always say, I’ve got to ask.
A lot of people get re-elected. And there are demanding times for everybody.
I thought it was fun to end with Ms. Longdon in the (speaker’s) chair. … In the context of a legislative lifetime, that was a historic thing – to have her there, someone who is not ashamed of the challenge of a disability and, in many ways, flourished because of it. I thought, “Why do I need to be the one to say the place is done? Let her do it.” It was cool to be sitting by her and watch that happen. So if there’s a high spot, that’s one of them – how we ended.
Would you say there was a low point?
Of course. Mr. Stringer. It was very difficult for him and for us. … And it speaks to our system where we say we’ve got to give people a second chance, and then turn around and shoot them between the eyes. It was a very complex issue. But much of what we do down here isn’t dependent on the objects of law but on the objects of political capability, and that was compromised.
What didn’t you accomplish this session that you would like to keep working on?
I’d like to do more in criminal justice, but unfortunately, I think it’s going to be more strident than ever. And that’s too bad because ultimately it sours people to the empathy of an issue when it’s presented in a way that you’re being forced to accept it. … That doesn’t do justice to the importance of the issue or to the feelings of everybody or to due process or to justice itself.
Somebody’s already announced that they’re going to come back for the whole enchilada and open the window forever and that they’re going to hold up everything. They’ve already set the bar, and now, three or four other members are saying, “Well, I wish I had decided that I was going to hold up the budget.”
Do you think members will try that again in future sessions?
Yeah, I do. I’ve thought of how we might structure a budget, but it takes them to pass it.
It seems that Senate President Fann is trying to get out ahead of that. She wants to start crafting next session’s budget after Labor Day and have it done by March. Are you on board?
I’m not opposed to that. I’ve just been around a while, and I know that’s been tried before. It all comes down to members. You can get a budget proposal together. That’s great. Bring it out. At the end of the session, we’re still stuck here. It has to have the buy-in of 31 and 16 no matter which way you look at it, no matter how you plan it. You’ve still got to have that buy-in.
It occurs to me that there might be a particular danger of another standoff next year ahead of the 2020 elections.
And how foolish is that?
At the start of session, you described your relationship with Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez as “cautious.” How would you describe it today?
Same way. An informed caution. And her with me.
How was it informed?
Just by what happened throughout the year. I don’t even want to get into it. I’d just as soon let it go.
You also said you were warning your members to cut inflammatory bills and language. That came in the midst of a lot of talk of bipartisanship. Did that last?
Look at every single bill, and look at the vote on every single bill. Was it bipartisan? Probably more than not. There are big bills that define our ideologies. I do not expect any of them to come on board just for the sake of bipartisanship. … For example, gun control. From the idea of the unfettered use of firearms to confiscation, who has moved? Well, the confiscation people haven’t moved. We’re just moving more close to them. Some could say that’s a compromise. It’s certainly a compromise on the part of one party. But there are some things we’re not going to compromise on. I’m not going to compromise on abortion. I think it’s heinous, but that doesn’t mean I can’t talk to people or some have some relationship with people who vote differently. It isn’t necessarily about the vote. It’s about the character.
After 171 days and several false starts and with mere hours to spare before a government shutdown, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a budget and the Arizona Legislature finally succeeded in adjourning sine die at 4:54 p.m. Wednesday.
The day was a whirlwind of votes, as lawmakers eager to pass their last-minute pet projects threw bills up for votes without checking if they would pass first. Some, including a ban on certain types of diversity training and a large increase in per diem payments for lawmakers who live outside of Maricopa County, succeeded. Others, including criminal penalties for damaging Confederate monuments and a flood control district bill that failed on an unusually dramatic 7-51 vote, did not.
Most importantly, the House and Senate finally reached an agreement on the budget bill governing K-12 education. Under an amendment offered by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, and accepted by Republicans in both chambers, requirements for a civics curriculum favored by House Republicans are out of the budget, as is Boyer’s massive school voucher expansion.
Instead, the K-12 bill as amended contains several other provisions from Boyer’s voucher expansion bill, including allowing parents to use their children’s voucher money to pay for educational therapy and reducing the time period a student has to spend in a district school before qualifying for an empowerment scholarship account.
The bill also makes it easier for low-income students who also attend D- or F-rated schools to receive a voucher, though it doesn’t add to the roughly 200,000 students now eligible for the program.
“Of all times, this is the year that these kids need the opportunity to find a school that works for them,” Boyer said.
That was enough for the three House Republicans who joined with the Democrats last week to reject Boyer’s proposed expansion. Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, one of the three, said the amendment was not an ESA expansion and wouldn’t increase the number of students eligible for the program but focused on helping lower-income students.
“The state and the government have no business making decisions for parents when those parents are making the decisions on where to best educate their child,” said Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake. “No one in this chamber, no one has a right to say to a parent that I have to send my kid to a school that is failing.”
Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said he was disappointed that a civics curriculum mandate requiring instruction in the evils of communism and totalitarianism didn’t survive due to Senate opposition, but that it would come back next year. He also touted the bill’s bans on Covid vaccination and face mask mandates in schools, and a provision banning certain types of instruction related to race, ethnicity and sex that its Republican proponents say is a ban on teaching “critical race theory.”
Democrats remained steadfastly opposed to the voucher provisions, and the underlying budget bill.
“I find this bill, everything in this (budget reconciliation bill), wrong.” said Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock. “We’re not doing the right things for the people.”
And Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, said he objected to the premise of the voucher program, that poor children and children of color can only succeed if they’re removed from their community schools.
“Don’t tell me what Hispanic families need,” he said. “Let me tell you what Hispanic families need.”
As soon as the House finished passing the last remaining budget bills, Gov. Doug Ducey signed the entire $12.8 billion budget package, praising its $1.9 billion tax cut that will disproportionately benefit the wealthy. Once the tax cuts are fully phased in, Arizonans earning between $50,000 and $75,000 will see a tax cut of $96, compared to a cut of nearly $350,000 for those earning more than $5 million.
“While we’re giving money back to taxpayers, this budget makes responsible, targeted and substantial investments in the things that matter,” Ducey said in a statement. “Under this budget plan, Arizona is paying off more than $1 billion in debt, we’re helping to protect families with the most sweeping child care package in the nation, and we’re making record investments in K-12 and higher education, infrastructure, public health and public safety.”
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, panned the budget and the session in general.
“This has been a really trying session,” she said. “One-hundred seventy days, that is ridiculous. And it has been an attack on our public-school students, our public-school teachers and our working families over and over and over again.”
As lawmakers gave farewell speeches, Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, noted how difficult the razor-thin Republican majorities in each chamber had made passing a budget.
“With no Republican votes to spare in both chambers, in terms of the budget we actually were a state with 48 governors, all with veto powers … and I’m sure the Democrats had a lot of fun observing the mayhem,” he said.
Kavanagh also joked about the long “honey do” list he would have when he gets home, to which Fernandez replied she has one too – knocking on doors throughout the state with the rest of the Democrats in the Legislature.
“We’re going to make sure we get the job done in two years where we’re in the majority,” she said.
The House will start 2022 with nine new members who were appointed to fill spots that opened due to a slew of resignations after the 2021 session. And that means new faces will be heading a couple of powerful committees.
Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, will head the House Judiciary Committee next year, replacing Rep. Frank Pratt, who died in September. And the committee’s purview will be expanded to include the sort of bills Blackman pushed during the 2021 session as chairman of the House Criminal Justice Reform Committee. The latter panel is being dissolved and will have its responsibilities folded into Judiciary.
And House Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, will have his portfolio expanded to include the chairmanship of the House Rules Committee, replacing longtime Rep. Becky Nutt, a southeastern Arizona Republican who resigned a month ago.
“The last time we had this many resignations was, I think, in 1991, and that’s when AzScam occurred,” said veteran lobbyist Barry Aarons, referring to the gaming scandal that resulted in seven lawmakers being convicted of bribery.
This year’s resignations have mostly come for more pedestrian reasons – only one, former Sen. Tony Navarrete’s departure, was due to criminal charges. Three lawmakers have left for personal reasons, while two House members left that chamber after being appointed to the Senate, one left to take a job in the Biden administration, and three resigned to focus on bids for higher office.
Republican lobbyist and former lawmaker Stan Barnes said, “This is, in my 32 years, the rarest of situations, really, and I’m still surprised when I consider the amount of people resigning simply for a job opportunity or for some other reason that wasn’t compelling in time. To resign to run for another office when you don’t have to is a new phenomenon. The whole thing is one giant surprise to me.”
Barnes said he doesn’t know what has changed in the Capitol’s culture to prompt more members who are seeking higher offices to resign. He said it “does not make sense to me in the name of fundraising or living up to our obligation to voters who put you in the original office in the first place, or maintaining profile. … There’s not a part of it I understand in terms of strategy.”
Having so many new members, Barnes said, will make what is already expected to be a tough session even tougher.
“The problem isn’t so much new members,” he said. “The problem is new members with an attitude. And with an overconfidence. And with a lack of understanding of how things actually work not deterring them from talking too much or engaging in ways that are detrimental to the process.”
Aarons, who believes lawmakers running for higher offices should resign their current positions, doesn’t think having so many new members will be as disruptive as Barnes does.
“New members tend to be kind of still finding their way and will tend to rely more on their leadership as far as positions they’re going to take,” Aarons said.
Aarons thinks a bigger factor in prolonging the 2022 session will be the presence of so many legislators who are running for higher office. Among the legislators expected to return in 2022 are two who are running for Congress, four who are running for secretary of state, three running for state treasurer and one running for state superintendent of public instruction.
“I think they’re going to have a lot of things that they’re going to want to do so that they can raise their profile, and that’s not necessarily going to make for an easier session,” Aarons said.
There will be three new Republicans for whom 2022 will be their first session – Lupe Diaz, who was named to Nutt’s seat; Neal Carter, who replaced Pratt; and Teresa Martinez, who was appointed after Bret Roberts resigned.
Democrats will have six new House members – Christian Solorio, who was appointed when former Rep. Raquel Terán was named to Navarrete’s Senate seat; Brian Fernandez, who was named to his mother Charlene Fernandez’s seat when she left for a job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Sarah Liguori, who was appointed to Aaron Lieberman’s seat when he resigned to focus on his gubernatorial run; and two yet-to-be-named members from vacant seats in Tucson and Phoenix.
Grantham will serve as a key gatekeeper in his new role as Rule Committee chairman. All bills pass through that committee before going to the House floor, effectively letting the GOP leadership which holds the majority on the committee decide whether a bill should move forward or be killed. Barnes said the importance of the Rules chairmanship has grown greatly in recent years.
“Decades ago, it was somebody that would salute leadership when needed in the way of holding bills, but it was generally just a perfunctory rubber stamp,” Barnes said. “That’s changed in the ensuing time, and different members in the past have exercised tremendous gatekeeping … autonomy, apparently unchallenged by leadership. And, dependent on the personality, that phenomenon remains.”
Speaking briefly before Grantham’s appointment was announced, Barnes said he expected the GOP leadership to take this into account when naming Nutt’s successor.
“Speaker (Rusty) Bowers understands the changing dynamics of the role of the Rules chairman, and no doubt will choose someone that he considers a close ally that is cooperative with general majority issues support,” Barnes said.
There has also been some notable committee reshuffling among the House Democrats, who lost a couple of long-serving members to the wave of resignations and have had to name new ranking members to some committees as a result.
Reps. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, and Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, will join House Appropriations to replace three members who resigned, with Butler as the new ranking Democrat. Another notable change is that House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, who is running for secretary of state, is joining Government and Elections.
And if this seems like a lot of changes, just wait a year. Of the House incumbents who are returning for the 2022 session, six have already filed to run for state Senate; eight are seeking higher offices such as Congress or statewide posts; and at least three have publicly announced they plan to leave the Legislature for other reasons after the upcoming session. Others could be squeezed out when redistricting forces them into difficult primaries.
The picture in the Senate is similar, with several senators running for higher offices, several others who have said they don’t plan to run again and a few who could be forced into primary elections with current colleagues. And even if Republicans keep the majority, the House and Senate both will have new leadership in 2023 – Bowers is term-limited, and Senate President Karen Fann plans to retire.
“The turnover at the Legislature for the 2023 session is going to be among the largest ever, at least in my 50 years down there,” Aarons said.
A proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey to abolish so-called legislative immunity is getting some negative reaction from some lawmakers who enjoy its protections — and would have to vote to put it on the ballot for voters to repeal.
“It was put here for a reason, by the people, in the constitution,” said House Speaker Rusty Bowers.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said there are legitimate reasons that lawmakers need protections from being arrested in certain circumstances.
Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said the few lawmakers who have abused the immunity have paid the price.
And Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, who has been at the Capitol longer than anyone else, said Ducey’s call to repeal the provision reflects a misunderstanding of exactly what it says — a misunderstanding she said is apparently shared by some legislators who have tried to claim it.
“They think they have carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted,” Alston said.
That occurred last year when Rep. Paul Mosley, R-Lake Havasu City, claimed legislative immunity when he was stopped for speeding. The deputy even has videotape of Mosley claiming he has driven as fast as 140 miles an hour because his legislative immunity allows him to do that.
Not true, said Alston, first elected to the Legislature in 1976.
What it actually says is that lawmakers cannot be arrested during the legislative session or in the 15 days leading up to the session unless they are charged with treason, a felony or “breach of the peace.” Nothing immunizes them from being arrested and prosecuted after the session is over.
The same provision also says lawmakers are not subject to “civil process” during the same period.
Ducey, in his State of the State speech Monday, referred to the provision as “legislative immunity.”
He said one reason people hold members of Congress in contempt is that they exempt themselves from many of the laws they pass.
“Let’s show the people of Arizona that their elected leaders will live under the same laws as every man and woman in this state,” the governor said.
Bowers, however, said he sees no reason to repeal the protection simply because some lawmakers have acted badly and then sought to escape being held accountable.
Leach said the whole idea of the protection is to keep a police officer or sheriff’s deputy from detaining one or two lawmakers whose votes are needed.
“You could render it nonfunctional,” he said of the Legislature if a member were kept away.
Anyway, he said, those who have abused the immunity have paid the price in bad publicity — and more.
“One member didn’t return,” he said, referring to Mosley who lost his re-election bid last year.
Fernandez agreed that the purpose of the provision is to ensure that lawmakers can get to the Capitol without being delayed.
“It wasn’t for me to get out of running a stop sign,” she said. And Fernandez said the fact that a few people have sought to misuse it is insufficient reason to eliminate the protection entirely.
Some lawmakers, however, side with Ducey.
“We’re no better than any of our constituents,” said Senate President Karen Fann.
She said that at one time — anywhere from 50 to 100 years ago — there were “games” played where a legislator might be stopped en route to a vote.
“I don’t think that’s an issue any more,” Fann said. “So it’s about time we got rid of all that.”
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, agreed, saying the days are long past when law enforcement would try to block a lawmaker from coming to the Capitol.
The issue of legislative immunity comes up from time to time.
In December, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, stopped for drunk driving, gave police his House ID card rather than his driver’s license. But there is no indication that Cook claimed he could not be arrested.
Cook later apologized on his Facebook page. And Bowers sanctioned him by abolishing the newly created County Infrastructure Committee that Cook was to chair.
Cook couldn’t say whether he would be comfortable losing legislative immunity.
“I really don’t understand what that legal term means because I wouldn’t, I just don’t know,” Cook said. “I’ll study it a little bit.”
In 2012, Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, claimed legislative immunity to avoid facing charges of domestic violence. He ended up resigning as it appeared his colleagues were going to have him ousted.
A year earlier, Scott Bundgaard, then a Republican state senator from Glendale, was seen by police fighting physically with his girlfriend alongside a Phoenix freeway. When police sought to arrest both, Bundgaard claimed legislative immunity from arrest, allowing him to avoid jail while his companion was locked up for 14 hours.
Before she was governor, Jan Brewer, then a state lawmaker, escaped being charged with drunk driving in 1988 after the vehicle she was driving rear-ended a van on the freeway. While police reports say she failed the field sobriety test, she was not given a breath test after a DPS officer concluded she was entitled to immunity.
In 1995, then state Rep. Phil Hubbard, D-Tucson, argued he was entitled not to be ticketed for driving 14 miles per hour over the speed limit on Interstate 10 because he was en route to a legislative hearing.
And eight years earlier, then Rep. Bill English, R-Sierra Vista, was arrested on a charge of drunken driving. English initially claimed immunity but eventually dropped that defense, was convicted, and paid a $373 fine.
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.
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.
Arizona lawmakers ended a three-day special session by passing a $100 million bill on June 17 to help people affected by wildfires.
The bill – the House and Senate moved identical versions simultaneously — would put almost $17 million toward hiring inmate fire crew supervisors and filling some other positions and spending more on vehicle purchases, hazardous vegetation removal, fire suppression and mitigation costs and compensating the state and local governments and property owners for wildfire-related expenses.
Gov. Doug Ducey announced June 10 he was calling the special session in response to the Telegraph and Mescal fires, which burned 150,000 acres by June 16.
“We’re grateful to the governor for having responded so quickly,” said House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, who lost an old family cabin near Miami to the flames.
It passed with just two “no” votes in the House and two in the Senate, although many Democrats who voted for it expressed disappointment that the state isn’t doing more to address climate change, which they view as the root cause of the worsening wildfires devastating the Western United States.
“Fire is a natural process,” said Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who cast the only “no” vote in committee and was one of two nays on the Senate floor. “What is unnatural is our irresponsible activities that only fuel fires to be worse than they would have been on their own.”
Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Phoenix, pointed to a comment by state Fire Management Officer John Truett, that firefighting helicopters that scoop up water can’t be sent into the state’s lakes and reservoirs because water levels are too low, as evidence of the seriousness of the problem.
“It was scary to hear there was a perception of a debate over whether climate change is real and whether it’s connected to causing fires,” Lieberman said. “There’s no debate among scientists. There might be a debate among maybe some politicians.”
Several Republicans rejected the climate change framing, saying that climates have changed historically and the Southwest has gone through cycles of drought before. Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, asked why Democrats won’t discuss the role played by management on questions such as reduced grazing.
“Are those going to be acknowledged?” he asked. “My God, I would jump up and down if they were, but I rarely hear that acknowledged.”
Talk was swirling that Republicans were close to a deal on a budget that would include some changes to the GOP leadership’s tax cut proposal and more money to pay down the state’s debts, possibly resolving two key objections that Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, the lone House Republican holdout, had to the proposal. While there was initial speculation a vote could happen June 17, as of the Arizona Capitol Times deadline it didn’t seem likely there would be a budget vote that afternoon.
Bowers said lawmakers would keep talking. He also said the House wouldn’t be voting on a “skinny budget,” or the idea that was floated last week to keep spending at the same levels to avert a government shutdown if there isn’t a deal by July 1.
“We’re not thinking of that,” he said. “We’re (trying) to get something a little more robust.”
In addition to Bowers, Cook has been affected personally by the fires – he owns a ranch in Globe that was close to the path of the fire and his neighbors were forced to evacuate.
The special session came at a time when lawmakers had been deadlocked on the budget for several weeks, with the Republican leadership pushing a $1.9 billion tax cut, including phasing in a flat income tax. The tax proposal is a non-starter for Democrats, and with a handful of Republican holdouts the budget couldn’t pass either chamber given the two-vote GOP majorities in each.
The wildfire bill, which Ducey is expected to sign, will put $75 million toward a mix of expenses, including fire suppression, up to $10 million for capital expenditures and equipment, mitigation projects, reimbursing state and local governments and up to $10 million to help landowners with emergency repairs and infrastructure damage. There is almost $17 million to hire 122 new employees, a mix of inmate fire crew supervisors, team leaders, foresters and forestry technicians. The House rejected on a party-line vote an amendment proposed by Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, to set aside $5 million to help small businesses affected by wildfires.
“If we can’t step up and help small businesses through these times, with $5 million, who are we?” asked Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.
Cook said the proposed amendment was a waste of time and that lawmakers should focus on people like his neighbors who need help immediately.
“When the tax package hits the board that saves small businesses billions of dollars, I’m going to remember what I heard here,” Cook said, prompting a couple of his Republican colleagues to applaud what sounded like a supportive comment about their tax cut proposal.
A lawsuit filed by top Democratic legislative leaders challenging nominations for the Independent Redistrict Commission has no merit and should be thrown out, attorneys for the panel that crafted the nominations said Wednesday.
Assistant Attorney General Michael Catlett said there’s no legal basis for the complaint by House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez and David Bradley, her Senate counterpart, that two people on the list are not legally qualified to be considered for the lone “independent” slot on the five-member redistricting panel.
Catlett does not dispute that one of them, Coconino County Robert Wilson, hosted a campaign event for President Trump in the parking lot of his Flagstaff gun store.
He also said Wilson has occasionally hosted “`meet and greets” for Republican candidates at his business. And, as political independents are entitled to do, Catlett said Wilson did vote in the Republican primary.
But Catlett said the fact remains that Wilson has been a registered independent since 2005. He said that more than meeting the terms of the Proposition 106, the 2000 voter-approved constitutional amendment creating the commission that draws the lines for legislative and congressional districts, which requires someone to be independent for just three years.
Everything else, he told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Janice Crawford is irrelevant.
“If those who drafted Proposition 106 wanted to include additional requirements to prove one’s unaffiliated status, they could have easily done so,” Catlett wrote. “The courts should not second guess that decision 20 years later.”
Catlett acknowledged that Thomas Loquvam, the other independent nominee whose status is being challenged, is registered as a lobbyist with the Arizona Corporation Commission because of his employment with utility EPCOR. And Proposition 106 says members of the redistricting commission cannot have served as a “registered paid lobbyist” in the past three years.
But Catlett contends the prohibition against lobbyists serving on the redistricting panel applies only to those who lobby the Arizona Legislature. In fact, he argues, it could never have been the intent to apply the ban to those who lobby the Corporation Commission
“The ACC’s registration scheme was not in existence when voters added the IRC process to the constitution,” he wrote, pointing out that the corporation commission didn’t create its lobbyist registration system until 2018.
Crawford has scheduled a hearing for Thursday to hear arguments.
What’s behind the legal fight is that the 2000 voter-approved system requires legislative leaders every 10 years — after each census — to choose members of the redistricting commission.
But they must select from those nominated by the separate Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, the group Catlett represents. That panel forwarded the names of 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five political independents.
The majority and minority leaders of both houses each pick one. Then those four name a fifth from the list of political independents.
What makes all this critical is the redistricting panel has the power to determine the political direction of the state for the coming decade. That’s because its members can draw lines that give one party or the other an edge during elections based on political registration.
Crawford needs to make at least one decision immediately: whether to bring the selection process to a halt while she considers the qualifications of Wilson and Loquvam.
The Arizona Constitution gives the first pick to the speaker of the House. But once that selection is made, each successive choice — the House minority leader, the Senate president and the Senate minority leader — has to be made within seven days or that person forfeits the pick.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers started the clock running Oct. 22 with his selection of Tucson developer David Mehl. Unless Crawford stops the clock, Fernandez needs to make her choice this Thursday or get no role at all in the process.
But Catlett is telling Crawford that delaying the process while she decides whether Wilson or Loquvam are legally nominated “would require the court to unilaterally and unfairly alter the constitutional selection deadlines.”
Arizona state employees will pay higher premiums and copays for health insurance next year, and some lawmakers say funding sweeps approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature are partly to blame.
Employees and state retirees were notified September 18 that their insurance premiums will increase effective January 1, the first hike in employee’s insurance payments since 2011, according to a memo from the Arizona Department of Administration. Copays are also increasing for some services, while chiropractic care and certain therapy services will now be classified as specialist care, requiring co-pay hikes of $25 more per visit.
Premium hikes will cost an average of $151.32 more annually for state employees, an expense ADOA officials say is necessary given “skyrocketing” health care costs that have endangered the solvency of a trust fund that pays the costs of employee’s medical and dental claims, according to the memo.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which was briefed on September 6 of the department’s decision to raise insurance costs, opposes the plan, as some argued that funding sweeps are truly to blame for the Health Insurance Trust Fund’s financial woes.
Since 2011, the Arizona Legislature has approved budgets that swept roughly $275 million from the trust fund under then-Gov. Jan Brewer and the first two years of Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration, according to legislative budget analysts.
That would have, at least for now, more than covered projected deficits for the trust fund, Rep. Mark Cardenas said.
“The employee’s health insurance fund has been the Legislature’s personal piggy bank for the last eight years,” the Phoenix Democrat said.
The most recent sweep, $78.9 million approved in Ducey’s second year in office, was the largest of six consecutive years of dollars swept from the trust fund to the state’s general fund to help balance the budget.
The Health Insurance Trust Fund is financed by insurance premiums paid by state employees and various state agencies, which as employers cover 90 percent of state workers’ health care costs.
Sweeping those funds to cover costs elsewhere in the state budget has now come at the expense of state’s 60,000 insured employees and retirees, said Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa.
The adjustment for current employees ranges from a low of $48.10 to $301.08 annually.
The cost to retirees is even higher, since they pay 100 percent of their premiums. For instance, for those not on Medicare, premiums will jump from a low of $711.60 annually for a retiree-only plan, while family plans will increase as much as $2,636.40 annually.
“When the Legislature sweeps the fund over and over again, and then we come back and we have a crisis, we refund the fund on the backs of state employees,” Farnsworth said. “I don’t think that’s right.”
As a Republican lawmaker, Farnsworth is responsible for voting for some of those funding sweeps since he began serving in the Senate in 2013. Rep. Don Shooter, co-chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, acknowledged that wounds to the Health Insurance Trust Fund are in part inflicted by lawmakers, and in the future, lawmakers must cease sweeping those funds.
“We kind’ve dug a hole, which now we’re living with,” the Yuma Republican said.
However, Shooter said he doesn’t regret voting for budgets that included those sweeps. While “it doesn’t take a genius” to realize that six consecutive years of funding sweeps wasn’t sustainable, Shooter said that budgets are never perfect, and the sweeps were necessary to secure budget deals in the past.
Ducey Spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said that the sweeps weren’t done lightly, and that the money was put to good use.
“The state was in a real bind during the recession, and continued to be when we took office in 2015,” Scarpinato said. “There were some difficult choices made. I think it was a good thing that we limited layoffs and drastic cuts, or more drastic cuts, to certain areas that would have really had a detrimental impact, (rather) than to just let cash sit around.”
State lawmakers already acknowledged problems with the Health Insurance Trust Fund earlier this year, when they approved a $75 million cash infusion as part of the fiscal year 2018 budget. But that was not enough, and now the only way to make the Health Insurance Trust Fund whole again is to stop future funding sweeps and to raise premiums, Shooter said.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D- Yuma, said hiking premiums wasn’t the only option. The Legislature could have continued to appropriate money to support the trust fund, and found other areas in the budget – Democrats have long proposed taking a closer look at the state’s multitude of tax credits, and letting some expire – to pay for it.
That option would have held state employees harmless from the Legislature’s errors, she said.
Memos to state employees and retirees note some benefits to the adjustments to insurance plans, including making preventative care free – under current plans, employees still paid a copay for routine checkups. The state has also sought to make the cost of care competitive compared to other government entities and the private sector, Scarpinato said. In years when the trust fund was considered healthy enough to sweep from, employees were sometimes given holidays from paying premiums, and in 2016, premiums were lowered for some employees and retirees he said.
“I think you’ve seen a real effort by the state, and not just under our administration, but really all through the recession, of really avoiding any increases in premiums for our employees, and in fact at one point in time actually lowering premiums,” Scarpinato said. “That is, I think, unheard of to anyone … who doesn’t work in state government.”
ADOA officials have no say over the past sweeps of the Health Insurance Trust Fund by lawmakers. In those years, the fund did have a healthy balance, well above best practices and industry standards, according to Megan Rose, an agency spokeswoman.
In recent years, however, state officials have underestimated the rising costs of medical care, she said, an indication of how much those costs have risen.
Now, based on those same industry standards, “with the reserve that we have and we keep, and the premiums we collect, we are not able to pay the bills,” Rose said.
In a budget request submitted this month to the Governor’s Office, officials wrote that the fund would have a deficit of $219.3 million in 2019 if no changes are made to the premiums paid by employees and state agencies. With the adjustments in premiums and copays, that has been trimmed to a projected $55.6 million deficit. Rose said premiums are designed to cover all the expenses from medical and dental claims of the state’s employees and retirees. No more, no less.
“The goal of the Health Insurance Trust fund is to collect what we spend. It’s not meant to be some type of savings account,” she said.
The Department of Corrections will reopen a shuttered prison in Douglas to deal with the fact that women are being locked up at a higher rate.
“We’re simply out of beds,” David Shinn, director of the Department of Corrections told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. He said the unit at the state prison at Perryville, the only one that houses women, has 67 more inmates than operating capacity.
“Our only option is putting people on the floor,” Shinn said. “That simply is inhumane.”
But Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said it’s not that simple. She said what Shinn wants to do − and the committee gave him the go-ahead on − ignores the fact that the women who would be housed in the facility, which could hold up to 340, would be separated from family.
“I’d rather sleep on the floor and see my kids rather than be isolated in Douglas,” Alston said.
And even Shinn conceded that reopening and staffing the facility may be difficult, as his agency already has more than 1,300 positions it cannot fill in the entire system.
At the root of the problem has been an increase in the rate of women prisoners.
Two years ago the Department of Corrections reported it was adding women at the rate of about five a month. For the most recent budget year the figure is 11.
The result is that there are 4,422 women at Perryville. It is rated for 4,214 beds with another 141 temporary beds added.
What that leaves is the Papago Unit, what had originally been a motel on the west side of Douglas that the state purchased in 1987.
It had been used as a facility for convicted drunk drivers but closed in 2017. Legislative staffers said the state put the walled property up for sale in early 2018 for $560,000 but has so far failed to find any takers.
Now, with the boost in incarcerated women, Shinn wants to reopen it. He figures the minimum security facility has the capacity for 250 permanent beds and 90 temporary beds.
The underlying cause of more women being locked up left House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez with questions. The Yuma Democrat said lawmakers have been told by corrections officials that overall prison population is leveling off.
Shinn had no specific answer to the question of the increasing female population. More to the point, he said, it’s something over which he has no control.
“The people who could best address that are our county attorneys,” he said.
But Shinn agreed to try to populate the facility with women who are from Southern Arizona who might find Douglas closer to family.
“It is certainly something that is important to all of us,” he said.
The committee 7-5 party-line vote came after Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the committee, refused to allow public comment. Several individuals had signed up to speak, including Kara Williams of the American Civil Liberties Union who wanted to talk about alternatives to incarceration including rehabilitation programs.
That annoyed Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who said there were people in the audience who might have some solutions to prison crowding other than simply making more beds available.
Issues of effects on inmates of being sent to Douglas aside, Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, asked Shinn if he actually has the people necessary to reopen and staff the facility.
“From a realistic perspective, no,” he responded. But Shinn said the agency will “find a way to get it done.”
That question of staffing is not simply an issue surrounding Douglas.
In a separate report to the committee, Shinn said that one out of every five positions he is authorized are unfilled. And the biggest problem appears to be at prisons outside urban areas.
Leading the vacancy rate is the Eyeman Prison, one of the facilities at Florence, where there are 642 filled positions and 411 vacant ones. The separate Florence Prison is not much better, with just 505 of 760 positions staffed.
And the prisons at Buckeye and Winslow all have vacancy rates higher than 20 percent.
One interesting exception appears to be the prison in Yuma where only eight of 728 slots are vacant.
The way the agency is dealing with it is overtime. That concerned Friese who said 13 percent of corrections officers were working more than 70 hours a week.
“I’m wondering about someone’s ability to function at 90 hours a week, their alertness, their judgment,” he said.
“It’s a concern,” Shinn conceded, relating the story of one officer he came across who had worked a 16-hour shift the night before, driven 90 minutes home and another 90 minutes back.
“(He) was almost asleep on his feet,” the director said. “I sent him outside to take a break and get some fresh air.”
Shinn said his agency is “really, truly strapped” at the prisons with high vacancy rates.
“And were it not for the dedication of these young men and women being willing to do that, we would be in far worse shape,” he said.
Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said the staffing situation appears to be improving a bit, with the vacancy ratios down a bit from the same time three months earlier. Lawmakers approved a pay hike earlier this year as well as allowing the agency to hire corrections officers at young as 18.
But Friese pointed out that the Department of Corrections has a stated goal of a net gain of 812 officers by June 2020 over the same period last year.
“Are you confident that on this current trajectory, the next three quarters will have 812 new COs?” he asked Shinn.
“No, I’m not,” he responded. “We need to do more.”
One option, Shinn said, might be to hire people who want to work only on a part-time basis.
Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, suggested requiring those who are hired and trained at state expense to sign some sort of commitment agreeing to stay for a certain number of years. The report to lawmakers found starting salaries for the state below not just what is paid by Pima and Maricopa counties to their corrections officers but also less than the Federal Bureau of Prisons and private prisons operated by CoreCivic.
Times of crisis test us in many different ways. Usually, in ways we feel like we could have happily lived without. But it is also the case that as we move through difficulties, it sharpens our focus and brings with it a unique opportunity to learn and to appreciate things we usually take for granted. The public health pandemic that has rattled the world is a crisis that is far from over and that means the window for learning and embracing gratitude extends with it.
The continuing contributions of doctors, nurses, paramedics and all medical professionals have been front and center since we first began seeing spread of the virus across the United States early this year. We have seen heroic efforts from health care professionals who serve us all in times of need, no matter who we are or where we come from. Less obvious, has been the work of men and women who have jobs in public transit, in grocery stores and in delivery services. The immediate needs of society have been met due to this workforce.
Quietly, and mostly behind the scenes, Arizona has had another powerhouse at work for its citizens during this crisis – our public universities.
Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona have made enormous contributions as first responders since the first case of the coronavirus was discovered in Arizona in January.
As we learn from what has happened and appreciate what we have, one of our realizations is that our public investment in ASU, NAU and UofA brings a return that we seldom fully appreciate.
Crisis brings clarity.
The contributions made to the state by Arizona’s three public universities since COVID-19 changed our lives have been nothing short of amazing.
ASU has converted its state-of-the-art research infrastructure at the Biodesign Institute into a fully FDA-approved and clinically-certified lab capable of performing thousands of COVID-19 tests per day. In May, in an effort to make COVID-19 diagnostic testing easier and more readily available to Arizonans, researchers at Arizona State University developed the state’s first saliva-based test.
Along with that, responding to the need for individuals who test positive to be rapidly isolated to prevent the spread of COVID-19, ASU has registered more than 200 students from the Watts College and Colleges of Nursing and Health Innovation to handle contact tracing across the state. In addition, ASU is working on ways to employ smartphone-enabled systems to aid contact tracing efforts.
ASU’s virology team is working to aid vaccine development efforts using wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor the spread of coronavirus. Additionally, the university has activated a personal protective equipment network that makes 300 3-D printers available to produce equipment and has delivered more than 5,600 pieces of PPE.
Shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey declared a state of emergency, Dr. David Harris, director of the Biorepository at the University of Arizona, shifted his lab’s focus and resources to create the materials needed to produce CDC-approved COVID-19 diagnostic test kits. These collection kits are crucial to detect virus presence and identify infected patients. Dr. Harris’ team worked around-the-clock to produce and ship more than 14,000 kits to health care providers and communities across the state at no cost to the recipients. Many of the kits went to rural and tribal communities, which were unable to secure kits on their own.
UofA later developed what is possibly the most accurate antibody test in the nation and partnered with the state to offer the test to 250,000 first responders and health care workers throughout Arizona. There are more than 35 testing locations across the 15 counties.
As home to Arizona’s two public medical schools, UofA made the move in early April to allow qualifying fourth-year medical students the opportunity to graduate early. These new doctors were able to enter the workforce early to help the state combat the virus. Additionally, UofA public health students volunteer their time and expertise to assist the Pima County Health Department with contact tracing efforts.
NAU has been particularly engaged in work with communities, including Arizona’s tribal nations, that have fewer health care professionals and less access to one of the most important resources available during this pandemic – broadband internet. NAU’s Information Technology Services received special permission from The Navajo Nation to install Wi-fi devices at the Navajo Nation Library and Museum property in Window Rock and the Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, the location of the NAU American Indian Nursing Program.
NAU’s Center for Health Equity Research has also partnered with Coconino County to assist with investigating cases, public outreach and education regarding test results. NAU professors have assembled an team to develop a new COVID-19 test technology by applying concepts from physics, rather than biochemistry. And NAU’s COVID-19 Testing Center (CTSC), part of the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute, is working with scientists at Vault Pharma, an emerging biotechnology company, to test candidate vaccines against the novel coronavirus.
From northern Arizona to southern Arizona and across the state, our three public universities have responded locally to this global public health emergency with creativity, commitment and with resources.
As a global health crisis has tested the state of Arizona in 2020, the state’s institutions of higher learning have taught all of us something – that our investment in Arizona’s universities not only serves the students who attend, it serves every single citizen who lives here in ways we can appreciate best when it is needed the most.
Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, is Senate president; Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, is House minority leader; Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, is Senate minority leader, and Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, is speaker of the House of Representatives.
The potential for red-clad teachers again descending on the Capitol could motivate legislators to wrap up budget negotiations before school is out for summer.
Many Arizona teachers already had plans to attend budget hearings and votes at the state Senate and House of Representatives. But legislators’ inability to adopt a spending plan sooner presents the Red for Ed movement with an opportunity to spend even more time at the Legislature’s doorstep.
The presence last year of tens of thousands of teachers on strike and dressed in red at the Capitol forced the hands of the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey to pass a 20 percent pay raise over three years. The Red for Ed movement has remained alive, but has not made a substantial presence during this year’s legislative session. That could change.
Classes end in the Phoenix Union High School District and Mesa Public Schools on May 22 and May 23, respectively, and other school districts across Arizona will soon dismiss their students, too, leaving teachers with ample free time to kick-start their summer vacation at the Capitol.
Jenn Huerta, an eighth grade math teacher at Coatimundi Middle School in Rio Rico, said a tweet from Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, amounted to a challenge for teachers to show up in force.
“Townsend tweeted May 1 she was disappointed to see so few educators at the Capitol. So, we need to go to remind them that we still need to fund our schools,” Huerta said. “Our vital support staff didn’t get raises, our class sizes are the largest in the nation, and our students deserve fully funded classrooms.”
Huerta said her colleagues in the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, where classes end on May 23, share that view. Social media message boards show some teachers already making plans for carpools to the Capitol.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, communications director for Save Our Schools Arizona, said teachers were already planning to have a presence during budget votes. Organizers with SOS Arizona were keeping teachers in the loop to let them know when budget bills are introduced and when voting on those bills begins.
“We’ve been encouraging that, planning that since the beginning,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a reaction to something. It’s just, they’ve been taking so damn long to make any progress in the (Legislature). Sso why not take advantage of it and show up even earlier?”
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said teachers’ presence would be more than welcome, at least as far as Democrats are concerned.
As for Republicans, Fernandez said she doesn’t think the majority party wants any part of another bout of Red for Ed protests.
“I think their goal is to get us out of here before Red for Ed gets here. They learned their lesson last time,” she said.
Democrats are in it for the long haul, Fernandez said.
“We’d love to see Red for Ed in the gallery when we’re debating the budget, so they can see what’s going on,” Fernandez said.
House Majority Leader Warren Petersen said his colleagues aren’t fazed by the end of the school year.
“You always welcome anybody to any budget discussions,” the Gilbert Republican said. “If people want to get more involved, that’s something we all should welcome and encourage. I don’t have any opposition to people getting involved.”
Penich-Thacker said teachers aren’t buying it.
“We absolutely know that they don’t want more of us there, and that’s exactly why we want to be there,” she said. “If school lets out before [a budget deal], then we’ll just say come down and be present in greater numbers.”
Lawmakers in the House suffered an especially acrimonious session marked by the points of order they used to call petty rule violations against each other.
Throughout the 2017 legislative session, the House floor was a hotbed of animosity, as Democratic lawmakers repeatedly tested the boundaries of what they could say about their colleagues, and Republican lawmakers repeatedly tested the limits of how far the chamber’s rules could stretch to limit speech.
Things got so bad that at one point, near the end of the session, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, scolded the entire chamber for overusing House Rule 19, which governs “impermissible debate.”
The rule basically states that lawmakers cannot make debate personal, and should stick to discussing policy rather than their colleagues’ intentions or motives. Lawmakers frequently said that rule was being broken, and accused their fellow legislators of “impugning” one another.
“I’m about at the point where I feel like we all need to take a class on what the word ‘impugning’ means. I have never heard it used so much,” Mesnard told the House on April 26.
He said lawmakers should look up the word before they apply it to their colleagues.
Lawmakers repeatedly accused each other of violating Rule 19 on the House floor this year, though not one of those accusations was upheld by the speaker or acting chairman.
Democrats in the House also complained that some of the use of Rule 19 underscored a pattern of bullying and sexism that permeates the House.
That issue was brought to the forefront after Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, publicly apologized on March 15 for attempting to have Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, thrown out of a committee.
Blanc accused Thorpe of bullying her and attempting to silence her, and Democratic women, and even some Republicans, complained that female lawmakers are far too often shut down by their male counterparts. They pointed to the fact that Rule 19 had been more frequently called against female lawmakers.
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, at the time said sexism in the chamber was an issue that needed to be addressed, but there was also an overall lack of mutual respect.
“The problem, really, is this disrespect, cutting people off, scoffing, making faces when people stand up to speak. It’s existed throughout my whole tenure here, but this session it’s particularly noticeable,” Rios said in March.
And in the final week of the legislative session, Republican Rep. Mark Finchem filed a complaint with the House Ethics Committee demanding Democratic Rep. Mark Cardenas be investigated and possibly punished for writing a Facebook post that criticized Republicans for supporting the budget.
In his complaint, Finchem claimed Cardenas had violated the chamber’s Rule 19 by deliberately misrepresenting his fellow lawmakers.
The passage of Cardenas’ post that offended Finchem stated that the budget was made up of “sweetheart deals and bribes to lawmakers in order to secure their votes” and that Cardenas’ constituents “cannot be bought or sold.”
“Rep. Cardenas has committed disorderly conduct worthy of investigation and possible punishment,” Finchem wrote in the complaint.
The punishment for disorderly conduct in the House can be steep, and lawmakers can even be expelled from the Legislature if they’re found guilty of disorderly conduct.
In response, Cardenas kicked off the final House floor session of the year, on May 10, with a cryptic atonement to an unnamed lawmaker.
“I should have used a different word – maybe ‘horse trade.’ I do regret that,” he said.
Cardenas said he had originally intended to fight against the “stupid” complaint and demand a full ethics hearing on the matter. But when GOP leadership told him that would force them to extend the legislative session by a week, he decided it wasn’t worth it.
“I didn’t want to stay in session next week… So I asked if I could just say, ‘I should have used a different word’ without apologizing? And they said, ‘yes,’” Cardenas said.
Throughout the year, lawmakers in the House also accused each other of violating more arcane rules, such as one that requires lawmakers to remain on the House floor during a vote.
Lawmakers routinely break that rule.
But Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, and Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, among others, made almost a sport out of calling out members of the opposing party who left the chamber during a vote.
Reflecting on the session, Rios chalked up the overuse of the rule to the fact that nearly half the representatives are brand new to lawmaking and the legislative process.
“I think people didn’t understand what rule 19 means. It was clearly overused,” she said, adding that freshmen lawmakers would benefit from more training about the House rules and how to properly use them.
She said issues of bullying seemed to die down after the flare-up.
And Mesnard said it was clear that there was a fair amount of personal animosity and tension between some of the lawmakers, which had become a problem.
“I’ve been thinking about what we should do about it, and maybe that’s trying to get both caucuses together to interact in a non-policy atmosphere…Just to show we can have fun. We can get along,” he said.
Mesnard noted that at the beginning of the year, Republicans took a long-weekend retreat to get to know each other. And lawmakers from both parties attended a “play date” at the Phoenix Children’s Museum where they avoided policy and talked on a personal level, which helped build relationships.
“I think if we had more of that, and if we had done more in the beginning, I think there would be a little more assuming the best of people, instead of assuming the worst,” Mesnard said.
Petty points of order
Representatives repeatedly accused each other of violating House Rule 19 this year. The following exchange, published in the February 22 Legislative Report, a sister publication of Arizona Capitol Times, illustrates how the accusations flew.
During a debate over a letter asking Congress to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley said Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, had overstepped her bounds when she called the House “irresponsible” for backing the bill.
He argued that she impugned the entire chamber under House Rule 19.
However, impugning the entire body isn’t disallowed under Rule 19; only impugning a fellow lawmaker is forbidden.
That same day, Rep. Pamela Powers-Hannley, D-Tucson, called a bill requiring gubernatorial appointees to undergo background checks a “blatant attempt” to discourage people from serving on boards.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, the bill’s sponsor, cut her off, saying his “intent is pure” and Powers-Hannley had crossed a line in questioning that.
“I’m sorry. I thought I had freedom of speech,” Powers-Hannley shot back.
That got Farnsworth riled up, and he noted that, while she has freedom of speech, she also agreed to the House rules when she became a member. He said he had been “kind and gentle” in his admonishment of her, but if she continued, he would call Rule 19 on her and force her to sit down.
Later that same day, as he was fielding questions from another Democrat, Farnsworth said the debate on the bill was “silly.”
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, took advantage of that slip, saying maybe she should call Rule 19 on Farnsworth.
“I don’t like being called silly while myself or my colleagues are asking questions about the bill,” she said.
It’s been just one week since the 2019 legislative session convened if you can believe it.
Lawmakers – and the Capitol press corps – already have their work cut out for them with hundreds of bills filed, and if you’re wondering why our team hasn’t gotten to one brilliant idea or the other yet, blame Mother Nature.
The long-awaited legislation on water and the Drought Contingency Plan hit legislators’ desks last week. What does – or doesn’t – it say?
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
The next steps of choosing members of the Independent Redistricting Commission may get tricky in the coming weeks as the field of 24 Republican, Democratic and independent candidates is nearly set.
When voters in 2000 approved the creation of the IRC – the panel that draws the state’s political boundaries for the next decade – there was nothing specifically written that said new legislative leaders beginning in years ending in one will pick the partisan commissioners. But that’s how it went in 2001 and 2011 when Republicans held firm majorities in the House (the Senate was split evenly in 2001).
But this time, with the Republicans’ slim majority in the Legislature threatened, a bevy of scenarios could play out, one of which could wind up in court.
By law the House speaker gets first choice and has until January 31 to make it. Of course, Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, may no longer be the leader at that point as some Republicans have let it be known they want the job, and the Republicans may no longer hold their majority then either.
Once the speaker picks, it sets off a series of week-long deadlines in which the House minority leader, Senate president and Senate minority leader make their choices.
A Bowers pick before Election Day would set off that mad rush of selections.
Chad Campbell, the House minority leader in 2011 who is now a political consultant, speculated that litigation would be on the horizon if Bowers makes his pick immediately after the election and Democrats take control of the House.
“If the majority flips, then something needs to be done to make sure the majority caucus gets to make the first pick,” Campbell said.
The last IRC, which had a chair that voted almost exclusively with the Democratic members, drew maps that many say gave current Democratic U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema her win in the 9th Congressional District and tipped the power of the congressional delegation to Democrats by five to four.
This time around, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has appointed mostly Republicans to the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, the 16-member panel that chooses the candidates for the IRC, a move that appears to benefit Republicans.
The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments spent roughly nine hours interviewing 38 Republican and Democratic candidates on October 9, winnowing them down to 10 from each party. A day before, the appellate court commission finalized the list of five independents, but Nicole Cullen withdrew, citing family circumstances.
The commission is required to submit five independents and is scheduled to meet October 20 to consider making that selection. The four IRC members selected by the legislative leaders will then choose one of the independents to serve as chair.
The chair commonly acts as a deciding vote for map drawing and other decisions that need three of the five commissioners to approve.
A spokesman for Bowers would not comment on when he would make his pick or who.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said she has begun to review nominees but has not decided yet.
“They (the GOP) make the first move,” she said, adding that she has seen no indication that Bowers is primed to make a pick, though she acknowledged that she likely wouldn’t be the first to hear about it, especially since the lack of physical proximity these days makes it even more difficult to pick up information.
“I’d certainly hope they wouldn’t” rush the pick, she said. Ultimately, her selection will be the result of a “group effort” involving her caucus, she said. She has also regularly been meeting with Arizona Democratic Party Chair Felecia Rotellini.
Rotellini, through a spokesman, declined to discuss IRC strategy.
Kirk Adams, the House speaker in 2011, said that picking the first commissioner gives the speaker a lot of “freedom” to make his choice. He chose first in the 2011 redistricting, picking Republican Scott Freeman from Maricopa County.
“There are no county restrictions at that point and there aren’t really any political restrictions either,” he said.
No more than two of the four partisan picks can be from the same political party or from the same county.
Since the speaker makes the first pick, he – or she – is not bound by the IRC composition’s partisan and geographical requirements. Adams took until the last possible day to select Freeman on January 31, 2011 after interviewing the Republican candidates and working with House staff to figure out who fit his three-pronged approach, he said.
His first criterion was, “Can this person count to three?” Adams said. “Three is the magic number on that commission.”
Five members make up the IRC, so the independent chair holds the most power and is often the deciding vote.
Adams said his second criterion was to find the candidate who had “the intellect to process data,” given how data-driven the IRC is.
“And then the third one, which is just as important as the others, was someone that was reliable – reliably Republican,” he said.
Campbell said his chief priorities while making his selection for the commission were ensuring his choice would “fight for fair maps” and that the IRC had more than “just a bunch of white dudes up there.”
Democrats this year will likely have the same goals while picking their appointees, he said, but a new factor is that control of the House and Senate may be hanging in the balance as leaders choose their appointees. Campbell said he worked with David Schapira, the Senate minority leader at the time, to figure out who each would choose for that cycle’s IRC.
Being reflective of the state was a priority, Campbell said. He also looked at whether candidates knew Arizona well and understood communities of interest, groups of people who are likely to have similar legislative concerns. Ultimately, Campbell picked Jose Herrera, a Latino from Maricopa County, and Schapira chose Linda McNulty, a white woman from Pima County.
Independent Redistricting Commission Finalists
The four legislative leaders will choose two Republicans and two Democrats from the following list of candidates for the IRC. The final four will then pick an independent as chair.
Jonathan Allred – Maricopa County
Scott Crouch – Maricopa County
Lisa Davis – Maricopa County
Paul Djurisic – Maricopa County
Kevin Kopp – Maricopa County
Walter Schoch – Maricopa County
Douglas York – Maricopa County
David Mehl – Pima County
Brandi Oveson – Apache County
Michael Striplin – Pinal County
Ernest Calderon – Maricopa County
Donald Evans – Maricopa County
Shereen Lerner – Maricopa County
James Robbins – Maricopa County
Maxine White – Maricopa County
Grant Buma – Yavapai County
Bryan Cooperrider – Coconino County
Robert Kovitz – Pima County
Teresa Wyatt – Pima County
Derrick Watchman – Apache County.
Megan Carollo – Maricopa County
Thomas Loquvam – Maricopa County
Erika Neuberg – Maricopa County
Gregory Teesdale – Pima County
Robert Wilson – Coconino County
Editor’s note: This report has been updated to reflect Megan Carollo’s addition to the list of independents after Nicole Cullen of Maricopa County withdrew from consideration on Oct. 15
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