Arizona lawmakers propose increase in base education funding


The proposed state budget released today marks some strides forward for public education funding, including a 0.9% increase in base level funding. 

But Democrats and public education advocates say the draft falls short of Governor Katie Hobbs’ initial commitment to creating steadier and sweeping new spending in education, which by-and-large hinged on a promise to eliminate, or at least slow, enrollment in the universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program. 

As lawmakers mull the budget, longevity and stability for public education remains at the forefront.  

“I know that we pushed very hard for education funding, and we’ve seen within the horrible framework that Republicans have given us, we have better education funding,” Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said. “We were able to make some steps forward on that, but only for one year. Where are we after that?” 

The draft budget, released this afternoon, eliminates results-based funding, which frees up $68.6 million to make way for a 0.9% base level increase.  

The Arizona Department of Education would also be granted $300 million in one-time supplementary funding. A spokesperson for the governor said the funds are not specifically meant for ESA accounts.  

Other line-item spending for education includes $15 million to dual enrollment programs, $10 million to increase administrative funding, $5 million to broadband funding and $3 million to professional development for teachers and other personnel.  

And in higher education, the budget strips funding from freedom schools and invests the money back into the universities directly. There is also a $20 million earmark for the Promise Scholarship program and $15 million for the Arizona Teachers Academy.  

Though the budget draft marks some wins in education spending, the lack of a cap on the universal ESA program emerged as a point of contention for Democrats, public education advocacy groups and the attorney general.  

Hobbs made a repeal of the universal program a centerpiece of her 2024 budget proposal, but the promise failed to materialize. 

At a press conference this morning, Hobbs said “We can agree that the voucher program is a drain on resources that should be directed at public education, but I didn’t say we’re going to end it. It is a goal certainly, and we put that in our executive budget as the goal knowing that we were going to be in a place where we would have to negotiate.”  

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee projects the ESA program to cost the state $425 million as universal enrollment continues to soar. The estimate accounts for 55,180 enrollees. As of May 1, 53,945 students are enrolled in the ESA program.  

JLBC estimated enrollment to grow to 68,380 in FY2024. 

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, and Reps. Laura Terech, D-Phoenix, and Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, all tweeted their opposition to a lack of a cap ahead of the budget drop.  

Both Marsh and Terech noted the expansion continues to cause problems for the original recipients of the program, namely special education students.  

Tonya Reiner, longtime ESA parent with two students with disabilities and leader with the Arizona Coalition of Parents for Equal Student Access, said she fears the impact universal spending could have. 

“I worry that the administration will continue to favor ESA students who attend private schools and fund them over students with disabilities,” Reiner said. “What happens when there’s not enough money for everyone? Will the students with special needs suffer even more under current ESA leadership?”  

Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools, said school choice special interest groups are funneling in a swell of money to advertise the program and boost universal enrollment.  

“The intent is the full-scale privatization of education and Arizona is the tip of the spear,” Lewis said. “And if a Democratic governor decides not to fight against that and to allow the privatization of public education on her watch, then we know where her priorities lie.” 

Save Our Schools, Arizona Educators United, AZ Alliance of Black School Educators, Civic Engagement Beyond Voting, Equality AZ among other organizations are convening in a press conference Wednesday to rally in support of a cap. 

Other agencies are also feeling the strain placed by the universal ESA expansion. 

Attorney General Kris Mayes wrote to the governor over the weekend to express “alarm” that the AG’s office would not be receiving any new allotments from the general fund in a new budget “due to the catastrophic drain on state resources caused by universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.”  

Mayes sent her budget requests to Hobbs over the weekend and warned the lack of new funding could push the office to the “edge of a steep cliff.” 

The proposed budget bills are set to go in front of the House and Senate Appropriation Committees Wednesday. 


Bill to make primary elections earlier goes to governor

A woman arrives to her polling station, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. Elections officials say 62 polling locations in the Phoenix area weren't operational when voting began in Arizona's primary. (AP Photo/Matt York)
A woman arrives to her polling station, Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Arizona voters may be on the verge of getting three more weeks of candidate speeches, robocalls, door hangars and mailers.

On a 24-2 vote May 16, the state Senate approved legislation moving the state’s primary up to the first Tuesday in August. Current law puts it on the last Tuesday. The measure, which got House approval on a 39-21 vote March 14, now goes to the governor.

Proponents say that will give county election officials more time between the primary and the general election, always the first Tuesday in November, to prepare the ballot.

But there’s also a political component: It gives wounds inflicted in divisive intraparty primaries more time to heal — and more time for the winner to reach out to those who were not supporters.

Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said he likes the idea.

“In the state of Arizona we have one of the shortest time periods between our primary election and our general elections,” he said.

That limited time to campaign after the primary, Bolding said, is not a problem in the majority of legislative districts one party has a huge edge in registered voters, as whoever wins the primary has a huge edge over the other party’s candidate.

“There’s other members that live in districts that are very competitive,” he said. “And they need time to not only run a competitive primary but also competitive general elections.”

Bolding said that’s also true with statewide elections.

“This will give statewide candidates (who win their primary elections) more time to travel the state, to have those conversations with constituents, more time for them to build support,” he said.

But Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said that’s the last thing she and her colleagues should be doing. In giving more time for general election campaigning the legislation effectively pushes up the primary races so they, too, will start earlier.

“In my district, they do not want three more weeks of looking at signs on their roads,” she said.

“They do not want three more weeks of robocalls,” Osborne continued. They do not want three more weeks of beautiful, lovely fliers coming in their mailbox.”

Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, had her own objections. She said that a primary in early August can disenfranchise college students who have registered to vote at their college addresses but may not be back at school by that time.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said lawmakers may be on the right track. But she suggested they were not being aggressive enough.

“There are more people in town in June,” she said, saying there are lots of states with primaries much earlier in the year.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports only six states have their primaries later than the end of August. By contrast, two have March primaries, 11 go to the polls in May and 17 states have June primaries.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include the state Senate’s final vote. 

Capital gains tax break passes House


Got stocks, land or similar investments?

The state House voted 35-25 Wednesday to give you a tax break when you sell those items.

But how much you will pocket depends, quite frankly, on how much you make. And the 183 richest Arizonans — those making more than $5 million a year — will each walk away with an average of an extra $27,000.

At issue are capital gains. That’s the difference between what people pay for an investment against what they make when it is sold.

By state law, the profits on anything held for less than a year are taxed as regular income. But long-term gains — investments held for more than a year — are subject to a 25 percent discount when computing state income taxes.

What the House approved Wednesday as HB 2528 would increase that deduction, in steps, to 50 percent.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said the change makes sense for seniors on fixed income who are depending on their investments “to live into their old age.” And if the legislation were limited to that, she said she would support it.

But Epstein cited a report by legislative budget analysts which shows that the change, once fully implemented, will cut state revenues by $23 million a year. That, she said, is money that should be used for other state needs, like hiking teacher pay.

So she proposed applying the proposal only to those who are at least 65 years old and have income of less than $75,000 a year.

That did not sit well with House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who wants the higher deduction for everyone. He said there is no precedent to crafting the tax code based on someone’s age, though Mesnard acknowledged that there are laws to protect some seniors, like property tax breaks.

Anyway, Mesnard argued it is wrong to think about his proposal simply as a tax break.

“Capital gains is investment in the economy,” he said.

“Investment in the economy is good for everybody,” Mesnard said. “And we want to encourage that as much as possible.”

But Epstein pointed out that someone need not invest in Arizona to get the favorable state tax treatment.

“People could invest in the wonderful place that is Dubai,” she said, or China or anywhere on earth.

“They invest there, they live in Arizona, and they get to not pay for anything that is going on in Arizona where they are reaping the benefits of the wonderful things that we pay for in Arizona,” she said.

Mesnard countered that those who live here are likely to invest in Arizona. But he said it ultimately does not matter if Arizonans get their profits from investments elsewhere.

“They’re living here and spending here,” Mesnard said. “And that’s a good thing.”

That still leaves the question of who benefits.

Epstein said those with adjusted gross incomes between $10,000 and $20,000 a year will get just 1 percent of the tax break. By contrast, she said, 12 percent of the cash will go to those in the $200,000 to $500,000 income range, and 26 percent will go to those earning $1 million to $5 million.

And she said the impact analysis finds that 22 percent of the tax break — a total of $5.2 million when the law is fully implemented — will go to those who are in the $5 million plus tax bracket.

“And there are only 183 of them,” Epstein said, meaning an average tax break for each of them of more than $27,000.

That did not bother Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale.

“The rich people pay 80 to 85 percent of the taxes from which we all benefit,” he said. “The lower income people, about who Rep. Epstein is defending, 10 percent of those people pay zero percent in taxes.”

That comment drew derision from Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, who called it “trickle-down economics.”

The measure now goes to the Senate.

Dem House freshmen break tradition, turn up the ‘volume’

(Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)
(Photo by Paulina Pineda/Arizona Capitol Times)

Democratic Rep. Isela Blanc said before being sworn in to represent Tempe’s Legislative District 26, she got some questionable advice: “Sit back. Watch. Avoid talking.”

“I heard it more than once, and I’ve heard it more than once since,” Blanc said.

She didn’t take the advice very seriously though. She was elected to represent the needs of her constituents, she said, and the only power she has is her voice.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said during orientation, she was told to “trust the process” at the House.

“‘It’s very good. It works,’” she said staffers and other lawmakers told her.

But as a member of the minority party, Epstein said, the process doesn’t work if you don’t speak up.

Blanc and Epstein are two of the eight freshmen women Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The Arizona Legislature welcomed one of its largest freshman classes in 2017. More than one-third of the members of the House – 13 Democrats and 12 Republicans – were newly elected lawmakers, never having served as elected officials in any capacity.

But the lack of governmental or lawmaking experience hasn’t stopped the women from using this opportunity to speak out for causes that are important to them and for pushing for changes at the Legislature.

The group is outspoken, often questioning the status quo and challenging their Republican colleagues, many of whom have accused them of grandstanding on the House floor, activism and theatrics.

They are also very active on social media, engaging with constituents on Twitter and Facebook, posting photos and live streams of colleagues as they speak on the floor, and encouraging voters to reach out to lawmakers to demand changes.

It’s in sharp contrast to the attitude of freshmen in previous legislative sessions that have typically spent their first year or two listening and learning, said Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.

“This is a really intelligent, assertive group of freshmen,” Rios said.

A different tactic

It’s also a different tactic than those used by more seasoned Democrats in the House and Senate, or Democrats in swing districts, who often vote alike with Republicans and for the most part keep quiet during debates on the floor and in committee.

And it’s a different approach than those used by freshmen Republicans who have an easier time bringing their issues to the forefront given that it’s a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Freshman Rep. Todd Clodfelter, R-Tucson, for example, said he’s more of a “sit back and watch approach kind of guy.” If he needs to push one of his measures through committee, he’ll reach out to the committee members first. If the bill gets to the floor, he’ll whip votes.

He said it’s rare for him to stand up to explain his vote on the floor, and usually he’ll only speak if he gets riled up.

“We are in the position as the majority party that we really don’t have to twist arms to the level they (Democrats) seem to have to,” he said.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, another freshman, said it’s easier for him and his GOP colleagues to debate issues that are important to them on the floor without having to go to the same lengths as Democrats.

“We can get our bills through committee, we can get our bills out on the floor, and we have a chance of voting them off the floor. That’s just the way it works,” he said.

However, despite being criticized by their Republican colleagues for what some see as antics on the floor, and efforts to prevent them from speaking up, the women said they won’t be stopped.

“Being quelled is just the best reason to speak up more,” Epstein said. “And I always think in terms of I’m here to represent other people. So somebody else tells me hush. What? You’re telling the 250,000 people I represent to hush? No.”

Fire to speak

Democratic lawmakers have long accepted that as the minority party, their bills typically won’t get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature. After years of being bashed over the head with that notion, many have learned to “play the game,” and fall in line with the long-held traditions of the chamber.

But the freshmen Democrats have challenged the status quo these past two sessions. They stand by their convictions and values and won’t let other members roll them over.

“As a Democrat, we are not included in any policy discussion,” Blanc said. “As a Democrat, our voice is shut down, our bills are not heard, and that’s not OK. In previous years, maybe we’d say ‘This is how the game is played.’ Well guess what … the only thing I have is the power of my voice. The tool in my toolbox that I have to display on the floor is to speak authentically, to ask questions, to use my voice, and to exercise my freedom of speech.”

For many of the women, that fire to speak out comes from their previous line of work as lawyers, activists, and nonprofit workers.

Others have felt the need to challenge the status quo since they were teenagers.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said she became politically active in college, eventually lobbying for higher education funding, working on local and national public policy issues, and local election campaigns before running for office.

After President Trump was elected in 2016, Salman said she felt a same sense of urgency and a greater responsibility to act considering that she had also just been elected to the state House of Representatives. Her goal, she said, is to give a voice to those who typically haven’t had one.

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She said she has always been naturally inquisitive, and takes nothing at face value.

“It has come in handy with this job,” she said.

Powers Hannley said before she was elected, she would attend community events in Tucson where her representatives would often say that because they were in the minority there was nothing they could do. She refused to believe that.

“The people back in Tucson, they expect me to speak up. That’s why I persist,” she said.

Epstein said when she was 16 years old she worked in a dress shop selling shoes. The store had a strict dress code policy – employees had to wear solid colors, no patterns. However, one day she decided to wear a brown dress with little flowers on it, which she thought was close enough.

One of the managers, she said, thought otherwise, and he reprimanded her for wearing the dress.

“And I’ll never forget him telling me with his nose raised in the air ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ And at the time I thought? “Why? Why not rock the boat? Maybe the boat needs to be rocked,’” she said.

She’s approached her job at the Legislature in a similar manner, she said. But it’s not just about rocking the boat, it’s about looking at how what they’re doing really impacts constituents’ lives.

And she said all of her colleagues should be doing the same thing.

“This should be normal. What we’re doing should be normal. Why isn’t everybody speaking up like that? That’s what surprises me,” she said. “We have to have the courage of our convictions to speak up.”

More to come

The women’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

On several occasions, Republicans have accused Democrats of political theater, grandstanding, and protesting rather than debating issues on the floor.

And Republicans have actively worked to shut down their efforts by refusing to answer questions during debates on the floor, or limiting the debate to one question. On several occasions, Republicans have called for a point of order to prevent Democrats from continuing with their line of questioning, arguing that their questions are irrelevant to the debate.

During a Banking and Insurance Committee hearing on March 12, Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, shut down a lengthy debate on an insurance bill by calling for the question, meaning members would have to stop discussing the bill and instead vote on the measure, after Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, questioned the intent of the bill and grilled the expert witnesses.

The following day, during points of personal privilege, Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, criticized Democrats for what he perceived to be political theater on the floor.

In response, Rep. Wenona Benally, D-Window Rock, said if Democrats were included in discussions they wouldn’t have to speak out on the floor. However, as she tried to make her point, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, tried to end the discussion by calling a point of order.

On March 29, while debating a bill during Committee of the Whole, Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, accused Blanc of impugning members and asked the chairman to force her to sit down. That move led other members to try to actively prevent the discussion on the bill from continuing.

But the women said they won’t be deterred.

Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said if Democrats were allowed to be a part of the process they wouldn’t have to go to these lengths.

“You don’t want to be seen as problematic and you don’t want to slow things down,” she said. “But on the other hand, you also want to make sure that people know what we’re thinking when we’re passing bills.”

Salman said she was elected to the Legislature just like every other member and it’s her duty to represent the needs of her constituents.

“We were elected to ask questions and to really do our due diligence and dig deeper into the policies that we’re trying to pass,” she said. “If they are concerned about the volume at which we’re speaking, then why do they shorten the process so much?”

For others, like Benally, their motivation is paving the way for future women lawmakers.

“Not only are we going to keep doing what we’re doing, there’s going to be more of us,” she said. “This class of freshmen women, if they think we’re difficult, wait for the women who will come after us because there will be more women coming into this chamber.”

Epstein, Jermaine win LD18 House race; Norgaard out

Rep. Mitzi Epstein (D-Phoenix)
Rep. Mitzi Epstein (D-Phoenix)

Both Democrats in the Legislative District 18 House race maintained last night’s early lead and have won.

Republican Rep. Jill Norgaard will not return to the Legislature, finishing behind Rep. Mitzi Epstein, who got the most votes, and Jennifer Jermaine. Republican Greg Patterson, a former member of the Arizona Board of Regents who served in the House from 1991-94 finished last.

The money race already signaled a tough if not impossible road ahead for Patterson. He raised a mere $31,000, less than half of what Jermaine reported raising.

Still, Save Our Schools Arizona volunteer Jermaine’s path to the House was never guaranteed.

The district flipped in favor of Democrats in 2016, when Sen. Sean Bowie claimed his seat and Epstein took one of the two House seats. But Republicans put up a fight to maintain what they already had and possibly unseat the incumbent senator. Neither battle was successful for the GOP as Bowie kept his Senate seat.

Jermaine was one of at least three Democratic newcomers who overcame Republican incumbents in the House. Domingo DeGrazia topped Rep. Todd Clodfelter in Legislative District 10, and Aaron Lieberman outdid Rep. Maria Syms in Legislative District 28. Those outcomes narrow the party split in that chamber to 32-28.

And Dems could gain a fourth seat. Rep. Jeff Weninger won his re-election bid in Legislative District 17, but the race for the second seat was too close to call. Weninger’s fellow Republican Nora Ellen was behind Democrat Jennifer Pawlik by 1 p.m. Wednesday, but just about 400 votes separated the two.


LD18 House by the numbers

Early votes


Jill Norgaard 24 percent

Greg Patterson 22 percent


Mitzi Epstein 28 percent

Jennifer Jermaine 26 percent


Fireworks allowed more days in Arizona under proposed law


State lawmakers agreed Thursday that members of the Indian community should have the right to use sparklers and similar fireworks for the festival of Diwali the same as other Arizonans can for other holidays.

On a voice vote, the House gave preliminary approval to legislation which spells out that “consumer fireworks” can be sold around the time of the fall festival. Current law restricts their sale and use to the time around Independence Day, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

But it’s not just Diwali that is being recognized as a good time to light stuff up: For good measure, SB 1348 also would add the period around Cinco de Mayo as another time when Arizonans can buy and light fireworks. Diwali is a five-day festival of lights celebrated in India.

A final roll-call vote in the House will send the measure, which already has cleared the Senate, to the governor.

Thursday’s vote came with opposition of several Democrats who complained that these products give off toxic chemicals.

“Barium produces bright brilliant green colors even though it’s poisonous and, are you ready, radioactive,” complained Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe. And she cited other compounds that also are used in these products to produce different effects even though they can cause respiratory and other health problems.

Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said there’s a separate problem with particulates produced by consumer fireworks. She said Maricopa County is close to being declared a non-attainment area for certain kinds of fine dust, a situation that could result in sanctions by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said it would be wrong to use those concerns as an excuse to kill this proposal.

“If we’re concerned about air quality, we could pave all the dirt roads in Maricopa County,” he said. And Weninger said if people are really worried about the health effects of fireworks on Diwali they could run legislation to repeal the ability of Arizonans to light up the devices “on our traditional holiday.”

Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, told foes that their concerns about air pollution are overblown.

He pointed out that Arizona has restrictions on the types of fireworks that can be sold to consumers. That means no Roman candles or anything that can be shot in the air. In fact, actual firecrackers or things that blow up also are banned.

What that pretty much leaves are things like sparklers, ground spinners, smoke devices and cone fountains. And Shah said those in the small Indian community – about 1 percent of all Arizonans – should have the same ability as others to celebrate major holidays with fireworks as other state residents.

“Devali is a point of pride and probably is the biggest holiday for the Indian community,” he told colleagues.

“If you have the chance to go to Indian sometime you’ll know that during the celebration of Devali fireworks are very prominent,” Shah said. “It is like the tree to Christmas.”

The measure does add one new type of device to what would be legal to sell in Arizona during permitted periods: adult poppers. These were described as a beefed-up version of the toys used by children which explode when thrown onto a hard surface.


Goodyear family inspires boater safety proposal

Boats cruise on the Colorado River’s Lake Havasu, where part of the local economy is reliant on the tourism and boating industries the river attracts. (Photo by Andrew Fresh via flickr/Creative Commons)

Kristen and Whitney Heilesen were on a tube behind their parents’ boat on Lake Pleasant in 2017 when a wave runner crossed the boat’s wake and hit them. 

Kristen, who was 10 at the time, suffered a gash on her head. Whitney, who was 13, sustained a minor concussion. 

“It was a scary day for us,” said their father, Todd Heilesen. 

The collision did not scare Todd and his wife Wendy Heilesen away from boating, but it did ignite their interest in tightening up boater safety laws in Arizona, one of just five states that doesn’t require a safety education course for anyone who wants to operate a motorized vessel. 

“The number of times wave runners have approached too close to our boat is unsettling,” Wendy Heilesen said. 

The Goodyear couple, who run the Boat Safety Education Legislation Facebook page, reached out to lawmakers to tell their story and caught the attention of Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, who plans to introduce legislation during next year’s session to phase in a statewide boater safety education requirement. 

“I think you’re making a big difference that will help so many kids be safe on lakes,” Epstein told the Heilesens at a news conference on Wednesday. 

The courses in question, which are offered by some private organizations and by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, are free and take three to five hours to complete, said Christopher Mitton, policy director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.  

While she is still working out the details, Epstein said the bill will likely be modeled after legislation in other states, where the education requirement is phased in over the course of several years. The laws typically require younger boaters to get boater education cards first, then move the requirement up the age scale over the course of several years. Some states require all boaters to receive a boater education card, while others only require it of boat younger boaters or operators born after a certain date. 

Boaters can take the courses online or in-person, and the certification cards are recognized by other states with similar laws. 

“I was quite shocked to learn that Arizona doesn’t already have this law in place,” said Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler, one of several Democratic House members to attend Epstein’s press conference via Zoom. 

Mitton said the number of boaters has increased since 2014, with a particular spike last year as more people sought out outdoor activities due to the Covid pandemic. Recreational boating has a $1.5 billion yearly economic impact on Arizona, he said, and the number of registered boats has risen 14% since 2019. 

“The waterways are getting more congested,” he said. 

As more people take to the waters, the number of injuries has also gone up, Mitton said.  

Boating injuries in Arizona increased from 90 in 2014 to 162 in 2020. There were five deaths reported in 2014 and 10 in 2020. 

“Even one life saved or one injury averted is well worth the effort,” Wendy Heilesen said. 

In other states, Mitton said, local marina associations have frequently opposed mandatory education laws. But here, he said the Lake Havasu Marine Association has expressed interest in the idea, which could help the proposal gain momentum. 

Any such legislation will likely have to pass through the House Transportation Committee, which is headed by Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West. 

GOP lawmakers give business owners escape from school surcharge

Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, right, speaks with Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, during a vote on the Arizona budget Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, right, speaks with Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, during a vote on the Arizona budget Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Republican state representatives voted Friday to allow the owners of small businesses — and anyone who organizes their finances for tax purposes as one — to escape paying the voter-approved income tax surcharge on the wealthy to fund education.

And that would cut hundreds of millions of dollars from what is supposed to go to schools.

SB 1783, approved on a 31-25 party-line vote, creates an entirely new alternate tax category for small business, generally those now organized in a way so their income passes through to their owners. That means the owners now compute what they owe the state on their personal income tax forms, after deducting all business expenses.

Proposition 208, approved by voters by a 51.7% margin in November, imposes a 3.5% surcharge on adjusted personal income of amounts above $250,00 for individuals and $500,00 for married couples filing jointly. Under current law, that means the net earnings of the business retained by the owner.

But here’s the thing: That surcharge applies only to tax categories that existed last year when Proposition 208 was approved. And since this new “small business” classification did not exist last year, the surcharge would not apply at all to anyone opting to use that new category.

The tax relief in SB 1783 goes far beyond what the Republican-controlled legislature already did when they voted earlier this week to cap all income taxes at 4.5%.

In that case, unable to overturn what voters approved, lawmakers created a workaround: The wealthiest would still have to pay the 3.5% surcharge. But, with the 4.5% cap, they would have an effective tax rate of just 1% on their earnings.

But the voter approval of Proposition 208 also means that lawmakers have to make up the difference of what the high-income earners would otherwise have paid. So that guarantees the education programs funded by Proposition 208 would get all the money promised.

SB 1783 changes all that.

“This would create a loophole for the wealthiest in Arizona to file as a small business so they can avoid paying the 3.5% surcharge that Arizonans said they want to support education,” said House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen.

And there are fiscal implications: Legislative budget analysts figured that anyone who now is subject to the Proposition 208 surcharge and is eligible to use the small business classification will do so if it lowers their taxes. And they concluded that, out of the estimated $836 million Proposition 208 was expected to raise for education, SB 1783 would slash that by about $292 million.

Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, said the exemption is justified. She pointed out that campaign materials for the initiative said it would not affect small businesses.

And Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said that means the proponents either were confused “or they willfully lied.”

But Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said that the campaign statement is true and that Proposition 208 is not a tax on business.

She pointed out that what’s subject to the tax is not the gross proceeds of any business. It’s what’s left to the owners after they pay all expenses

That list that can include everything from employee salaries and equipment purchases to other deductions. And it also encompasses what remains after any other deductions, like money a business owner puts into a 401(k) retirement account.

What that leaves — and what’s subject to the Proposition 208 surcharge — Epstein said, is the net income the owner pockets, and only above $500,000 for a married couple.

But Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, said that ignores how businesses operate.

He said they retain net earnings to help them weather the ups and downs of businesses. And it is those net earnings, Kaiser said, that are subject to the tax.

The measure needs final approval by the Senate before going to Gov. Doug Ducey. He is likely to sign it because he opposed Proposition 208.

That could lead to litigation.

The Voter Protection Act, a provision of the Arizona Constitution, bars lawmakers from repealing or making changes in anything approved at the ballot. The only exception is for amendments that “further the purposes” of the original law, and then only with a three-fourths vote.

Rep. Domingo DeGrazia, D-Tucson, said he believes what’s in SB 1783 runs afoul of the provision even though it doesn’t actually repeal the levy.

“The legislature cannot do indirectly what it cannot do directly,” he said.

And attorney Roopali Desai, who represents the Invest in Ed Committee that put the initiative on the ballot, has said the key is whether courts believe the change would “undermine the ultimate will of the voters.”

Half of whatever ends up being raised from Proposition 208 is earmarked for schools to hire teachers and classroom support personnel, a category that also includes librarians, nurses, counselors and coaches. Those dollars also could be used for raises.

Another 25% would be for support services personnel. That covers classroom aides, service personnel, food service and transportation.

There’s 12% for grants for career and technical education programs and 10% for mentoring and retaining new teachers in the classroom. The last 3% is for the Arizona Teachers Academy which provides tuition grants for people pursuing careers in education.

Greg Patterson takes step in political comeback

Greg Patterson (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)
Greg Patterson (Photo by Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)

Former lawmaker and Arizona Board of Regents chairman Greg Patterson is one step closer to a political comeback.

Unofficial results show that Patterson and incumbent Rep. Jill Norgaard secured the top two spots in the GOP primary for two House seats in Legislative District 18.

Patterson previously served in the Arizona House of Representatives from 1991-94.

Most recently, he served as a regent, overseeing the state’s three public universities.

Patterson resigned from his post in 2017, after five years on the board, after a report chronicled a secretly-recorded meeting in which he mocked a state lawmaker.

During a February 2017 meeting between the board and Rep. Mark Finchem, Patterson berated and ridiculed Finchem over his legislative proposal to scale back the authority of the Board of Regents.

Frustrated by criticisms of the board, Patterson stormed out of the meeting attended by Finchem, Norgaard and then-Regents President Eileen Klein. But before he left, he mocked Finchem’s Western-style attire.

Details of that meeting only came to light because Patterson secretly recorded the meeting, a copy of which was obtained by the Arizona Republic through a public records request.

Norgaard and Patterson will face off in the Nov. 6 general election against Rep. Mitzi Epstein and Jennifer Jermaine, who defeated LaDawn Stuben in the Democratic primary.

Republicans hold a small voter registration advantage in the district, which spans parts of Phoenix, including Ahwatukee, and parts of Chandler, Tempe and Mesa.

LD18 House By The Numbers

28,883 votes cast  


Jill Norgaard 44 percent

Don Hawker 12 percent

Greg Patterson 25 percent

Farhana Shifa 19 percent



Denise “Mitzi” Epstein 44 percent

Jennifer Jermaine 38 percent

LaDawn Stuben 19 percent

House approves bill permitting ‘God enriches’ motto to be posted at schools

state-sealHouse Democrats failed Tuesday in their bid to keep the name of the Almighty out of the classrooms – at least the English version.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said there is legal precedent to allowing schools to post the state motto. And that motto, as on the state seal, is “Ditat Deus.”

SB 1289, however, would permit not just those words to hang on classroom walls.

The measure, which now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey following the 33-23 party-line vote, also would allow the English translation which is “God enriches.” And that, Salman told colleagues, is an illegal religious reference.

But the debate about the change in law went far beyond the words and what they mean. It turned into an often spirited discussion of who believes in God and whether some people were trying to eliminate religion in public life.

Existing state law has a list of things that teachers can read or post in buildings.

It includes the national motto, national anthem, Pledge of Allegiance, preamble to the Arizona Constitution, Declaration of Independence and the Mayflower Compact. Also permitted are writing, speeches, documents and proclamations of Founding Fathers and presidents, published decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and acts of Congress.

SB 1289 would actually add the words “In God we trust” in explaining what the national motto is.

But the bigger concern was adding the state motto — and, specifically, the English translation.

Salman said court rulings have accepted the use of the national motto as not so much a statement of religious belief but instead as “ceremonial deism.” That’s how the motto even shows up on U.S. currency.

And Salman even appeared willing to accept allowing the posting of the words “Ditat Deus” since those are, in fact, the words on the seal.

“This bill goes a step further and translates the Latin meaning into ‘God enriches,’ which loses its protection under the ceremonial deism,” Salman said.

“This bill walks down a dangerous pathway of then having a religious interpretation,” she continued. “And that puts our schools at risk for lawsuits.”

Salman’s efforts to curb the measure drew derision from several Republicans.

“I find it interesting that we have people who want to protect us from God at almost any cost,” said House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale.

“The idea that you interpret something from Latin to English all of a sudden makes something objectionable is really kind of silly,” he said. “The idea that somehow children … are not going to live up to our expectations that they become good people because somebody mentioned God to them I think is really one of the crassest political things I’ve ever heard.”

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said the opposition left him confused.

“I would truly like to know how many members do not trust in God,” he said. “And I wonder how many members think that God does not enrichen our lives.”

And then he got more personal, saying he knows his “Democrat friends” believe in God and trust God.

“Why you would vote to take that out of the state motto is beyond belief,” Campbell said.

But Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said those comments ignore the fact that out of her 200,000 constituents “there certainly may be those who do not believe in God.”

“I think we want to be very careful when we use that term in schools,” she said.

There also are atheists in the Legislature itself including Salman.

And Rep. Eric Descheenie, D-Chinle, spoke about the forced conversion of indigenous people. He also told colleagues that he, too, used to be a Christian “until I came to the realization of how oppressive the mindset can be.”

“It has substantiated and justified slavery,” Descheenie said. “It has substantiated and justified acts of genocide.”

For that matter, he is not exactly pleased with existing law about the posting of the Declaration of Independence, pointing out it refers to the native tribes as “merciless Indian savages.”

Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, told Salman he does not understand all the fuss about posting “God enriches” in classrooms.

“It’s an accurate translation of the Latin,” he said.

“It’s a good translation,” Boyer continued. “And so I guess I don’t see the problem that you do.”

House approves tax exemption for pesticides, fertilizers

The Governor’s Office is working to revamp the state’s water laws. In this photo, an irrigation ditch provides water for a farm in the East Valley near Recker and Williams Field roads. (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
Farmland in Gilbert. (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

State lawmakers voted Monday to exempt farmers from having to pay sales taxes on the pesticides and fertilizers they put on the crops grown for food in Arizona.

The 32-28 vote by the full House came following pleas from lawmakers representing agricultural communities that it’s unfair to require those who grow food for Arizonans and people across the country to pay taxes on items they need. And Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, argued that the higher costs will be passed along to consumers, effectively making the tax paid by farmers a tax on the poor.

But the idea drew an angry reaction from several lawmakers who mentioned not just the loss of state tax revenues – potentially up to $19 million – but the idea that it would somehow reward farmers for the use of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

“We don’t want more chemicals in our food supply,” said Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, telling colleagues that one out of every 33 children born in Arizona has a birth defect. “I don’t want to encourage this.”

What’s behind HB 2275 sponsored by Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, who is a farmer, is a ruling in January by the state Court of Appeals in a bid by Wilbur-Ellis Co., a California company, to get a refund of more than $8.3 million in taxes collected on the sale of fertilizers, pesticides and seeds sold in the state.

Arizona’s sales tax is actually a “transaction privilege tax,” levied on the business that makes the sale, though the costs normally are passed along to customers.

Company lawyers first argued that state law does exempt the sale of “propagative materials” from taxes.

Appellate Judge James Beene, writing for the unanimous court, acknowledged there is no definition in the statute of what is “propagative.” But he cited definitions that say these are things that reproduce, like parts of a bud, tuber, root or shoot used to reproduce the original plant.

“Neither fertilizers nor pesticides reproduce or multiply plants,” Beene wrote, even though they do make propagating more efficient.

The appellate judges were no more sympathetic to the company’s argument that the chemicals were being sold to farmers for resale.

What’s behind that argument is a recognized principle in Arizona law only the final transaction is taxable. So if something becomes part of a product that is resold, like sheet metal that becomes part of an air conditioner, the sale of the sheet metal is exempt from taxes.

In this case, Beene said, the company argued that the farmers do not use and consume the fertilizers but instead convey the nutrients in the fertilizer to their customers.

“Simply because some of the nutrients in the fertilizers end up in the crops does not mean the farmers purchased the fertilizers for resale,” the judge wrote. “The farmers purchased the fertilizers for their own use in producing the agricultural products.”

HB 2275 seeks to redefine what’s taxable to specifically exempt a laundry list of chemicals from sales taxes ranging from fertilizers and insecticides to fungicides, soil fumigants, plant growth regulators and rodenticides.

But Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said that goes directly against what the Court of Appeals ruled.

“We don’t eat the pesticides, the fungicides, the herbicides,” she told colleagues. Instead, Epstein said these chemicals are much more like light bulbs purchased by the owner of a factor.

“You need them to run the factory,” she said. “But they’re not a raw material.”

Finchem, however, said that ignores the role that these chemicals play in ensuring an adequate supply of food.

“The agricultural community has put everything they have into doing more with less,” he said. And Finchem said one of the ways farmers can do that is with fertilizers and pesticides, including natural ones.

“I actually see this as a direct attack on the individuals that have fewer dollars to spend for food in their homes,” he said.

And Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, said 47 other states have similar exemptions from sales taxes.

But Powers Hannley said she sees the issue in more basic terms.

“I don’t want more chemicals in the food supply,” she said.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

This story has been updated to reflect the final House vote. 

House kills bill to allow eye tests for pot impairment

Deposit Photos/Syda Productions
Deposit Photos/Syda Productions

Unwilling to trust untested technology, state lawmakers voted Wednesday to block employers from firing workers based on their eye movements.

Current state labor law spells out the kinds of tests that companies can use to determine if current or prospective employees are impaired or under the influence of certain chemicals or alcohol. That includes testing urine, saliva, blood, breath, hair or “other substances from the person being tested.”

SB 1199 would amend that to include “eye movement data collected using software on an electronic device.”

What’s behind this bill is lobbying by the Zxerex Corp., a Scottsdale firm formed last year for the specific purpose of coming up with technology to determine marijuana impairment. Lobbyist Stuart Goodman, speaking to lawmakers last month, said there is a real need.

“There is lots of technology regarding presence, but not impairment,” he said.

There is a basis for eye-movement tests. Arizona law already allows trained police officers to use them to make a preliminary determination if someone is legally intoxicated on alcohol.

But even Goodman conceded that the eye movements involved in marijuana impairment are different — and far more subtle. In fact, he said, what Zxerex is researching is using a camera or smart phone linked to a computer to analyze these tiny movements which are invisible to the naked eye and then, using artificial intelligence, determine if someone is impaired by marijuana.

The technology, he conceded, is not quite ready, with an accuracy rate of just 90 percent. “So there’s still more testing going on,” Goodman said.

That current 10 percent error rate left some lawmakers uneasy about changing the law.

“Essentially, once again, we’re allowing the people of Arizona to be the guinea pigs,” said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, the first time the measure was debated last month. And she said it appears that people who believe the results are inaccurate are left with one option: take the case to court.

“Well, most folks aren’t going to take it to court because they don’t have those kind of resources,” Epstein said.

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, said the problem is even worse than that. She said there are no actual published research reports which show a correlation between changes in eye movement and marijuana impairment.

In fact, Powers Hannley, who works for the American Journal of Medicine, said the research that is out there shows the links that do exist include certain medical conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. The result, she said, is people could be fired for medical conditions.

But Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said there’s a good reason there are not independent, peer-reviewed studies.

“The research is proprietary,” Weninger said.

That explanation did not sit well with Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson.

“If you are asking this body to make a decision, don’t you think we should have access to all the data before we decide?”

Weninger, however, said legislators are not entitled to know everything, suggesting that demanding this research would be tantamount to having Coca-Cola release its secret formula. And he said foes of the bill are off base.

“It never ceases to amaze me the lengths we go to protect, I guess, somebody to be high,” he said. And Weninger said it’s wrong to worry about people losing a job.

“What about protecting employees and fellow employees from danger because somebody is impaired on the job?” Weninger said. “Where does the consideration to your fellow man or woman next to you and putting them in danger?”

Most of his colleagues did not see it that way, voting 34-24 to kill the measure.

House passes bill to cut red tape on border wall construction on private land

In this April 5, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall  with Mexico in El Centro, Calif. A federal judge has denied a request by the U.S. House of Representatives to prevent President Donald Trump from tapping Defense Department money for a border wall with Mexico. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
In this April 5, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits near the wall as President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall with Mexico in El Centro, Calif. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Calling it a matter of property rights and security, the state House voted Thursday to let those living along the border to construct walls without first getting local permission or building permits.

The 31-29 party-line vote came a week after it fell one vote short when Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, refused to go along with the Republican majority. Rivero, who has led trade missions to Mexico and elsewhere, told Capitol Media Services at the time that he was “not sure this was the right way to go.”

Tony Rivero
Tony Rivero

On Thursday, Rivero did not explain his change of heart.

But Democrats, in opposing the measure, said HB 2084 sends precisely the wrong message as Arizona seeks to build ties with its southern neighbor.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, specifically mentioned a trip by state legislators to Guanajuato that Rivero recently organized.

“We were welcomed with open arms,” he said.

“We were treated with respect,” Rodriguez continued. “We were treated with friendship.”

This legislation, he said, does the exact opposite, sending the message “that we prefer a wall to friendship.”

But Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, had a different take.

“We respect our neighbors to the south,” she said.

“This is not about race,” Griffin said. And if there’s someone these walls are aimed at, she said, it is the drug cartels that operate along the border.

And she also said it has nothing to do with the wall being built by the federal government along stretches of the border, construction that already can take place without state or federal permission. What’s at issue, Griffin said, is what landowners living along the border build on their own property.

“This is an issue of private property and private money to move forward with safety of your property, of your and your family’s ability to keep people out,” she said.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said she has “a firm conviction” to protecting private property rights.

“I also have a firm belief that building permits help us to keep buildings safe, help us to make sure that a plan for a building is a safe building,” she said.

“It is about building anything safely and not going around the permitting process,” Epstein said. “If there’s going to be construction it needs to be safe construction.”

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said there’s a safety reason for exempting privately built border walls from local permitting. But she said it’s about the safety of local officials who, threatened by cartels that want open borders, would be loath to grant the necessary permits.

The proposal by Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, is in direct response to problems faced by We Build the Wall, a private group that accepts donations to build barriers on private land along the border in places where there is no federally constructed fence.

That group ran into problems last year while building a 1,500-foot fence on private property in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso, Tx., without first getting city permission. That brought construction to a halt until We Build the Wall agreed to comply with city ordinances.

HB 2084 is designed to eliminate that possibility from occurring here.

Facing questions about safety, Petersen did agree to language requiring that the property owner must provide the local government with a statement by a professional engineer that the wall “was built according to the plan and safety requirements.” That filing, however, does not need to come until two months after completion.

But Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson, said this is less about security than politics.

“This is obviously an ideological bill,” she said. “It’s designed to reach out to the base, the base of the Republican Party on immigration issues.”


House preliminarily approves pro-life proposal


The House gave preliminary approval today for a bill that sets aside $2.5 million to be awarded to an organization that would provide referral services for pregnant women and new mothers.

But that came over the objection of Democrats who pointed out the cash would be reserved only for groups that would counsel women against having an abortion.

The preliminary approval came after the Republican-controlled chamber rejected a proposal by Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, to instead give the cash to an existing volunteer group that staffs the state’s 2-1-1 referral service. She said that would enable the organization to operate on a 24/7 basis statewide – and would provide a broader menu of services.

That suggestion was panned by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who is pushing for the funding aimed at convincing women not to terminate their pregnancies. She said there is evidence that more women would choose to keep their babies if they could get help.

But Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, said there’s a better way to prevent abortions: prevent pregnancy in the first place.

“We should offer cheap or free contraception, the “morning after” pill and medically accurate sex education in the schools,” she told colleagues.

And Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, said the legislation is crafted in a way to give the money to “crisis pregnancy centers” which are often run by churches and faith-based groups that have as their mission to deter women from terminating a pregnancy. She said the record from other states shows these organizations which uses “deceptive and manipulative practices.”

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, did agree to scale back the program, providing the dollars for just one year instead of three. He also wants a report at the end of the year about what services actually were offered for the state dollars.

House Republicans take another crack at control of local elections; bill passes 34-22

(Deposit Photos/Bizoon)
(Deposit Photos/Bizoon)

Claiming it will increase turnout, the Republican-controlled House voted March 7 to set up a system that could force cities to move their local elections to even-numbered years.

HB2604, crafted by House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, does not automatically void the practice in several Arizona communities of having elections on their own schedule. Lawmakers tried that before, only to have that swatted down by the state Court of Appeals as unconstitutional.

Instead, the proposal by the Chandler Republican allows cities to keep their off-year elections – but only if the difference in turnout is within 25 percent of what it was during either of the two most recent comparable statewide elections. If local turnout drops below that trigger, then local elections are declared illegal.

The 34-22 vote came over objections of Democrats who argued the move is not only unnecessary but an infringement by state lawmakers on the rights of cities and their residents to decide what works best for them.

“People in cities want the freedom to have their own preferences,’’ said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe. “I see no reason to hammer down on cities and refuse them their local control.’’

Mesnard disputed that premise.

“I don’t see how changing the timing of election to a time where more people are going to be showing up is the equivalent of strangling of cities or placing a hammer on the cities,’’ he said. Anyway, Mesnard said, a city’s loss of the right to set election dates will happen only if there is significant drop off from turnout in even-numbered years.

Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said when local elections in his home community were consolidated with other races “the amount of people showing up to vote skyrocketed.’’

But Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, suggested that the claims of Republicans wanting to boost voter turnout ring hollow. She said the Republican leadership refuses to even consider Democrat bills to make it easier for people to participate in elections.

One proposal that did not get a hearing would have allowed people to register to vote right up through Election Day.

Now, Salman said, the cutoff is 29 days before the election. She said that ended up locking out people in the 2016 presidential race who became energized during the last weeks of the campaign.

One argument in favor of allowing cities to have their own, separate elections is that it helps ensure that local races and local ballot measures get the attention they deserve. In a consolidated election, those local issues end up near the bottom of the ballot, opening the possibility that some voters may just quit before getting that far.

But Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said that wasn’t his experience when he was a member of a local school board, an election that already occurs at the same time as other state and federal races. He predicted the same would happen if city elections are consolidated into the same ballot.

“If you’re worried about your trash, if you’re worried about your streets getting swept, if you’re worried about community events I have to believe that you’re going to make your way and just have the strength to get to the bottom of the ballot and vote for city council members,’’ Shope said.

The House vote sends the measure to the Senate.

But even if it is approved there and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, that does not necessarily end the matter. It still leaves the question of whether this version is any more constitutional than the one the Court of Appeals voided in 2014.

In that ruling, the judges decided that, at least when it comes to the state’s 19 charter cities, they have a right to decide matters of strictly local concern. And the judges said that when and how cities run their elections fits within that category.

House sends bill to help Uber to Ducey

A requirement for regular safety inspections of rideshare vehicles could soon be a thing of the past.

A measure headed to Gov. Doug Ducey would carve out an exception from existing laws that require anyone driving for a “transportation network company” to get their brakes and tires inspected at least once a year.

HB 2273 says that would no longer apply to vehicles that are less than 10 years old. Instead, it would be replaced by the owner simply attesting once a year that the vehicle meets safety standards.

The proposal would affect all companies that have online platforms linking vehicle owners with riders. But the measure, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, is being pushed solely by Uber.

At a hearing in February, company lobbyist Shaun Rieve told lawmakers that the cost of having a mechanic check the brakes or tire tread could deter some people from signing up to become Uber drivers.

“The cumbersome TNC (transportation network company) inspection requirements are cumbersome and create bottlenecks for Arizonans who want to earn more money on Uber’s platform,” he said. Rieve said that Uber has fewer drivers on the road in comparison to states “without such onerous requirements.”

Not everyone was convinced that scrapping the annual checks was the best thing for safety.

“We have bad ideas, very bad ideas, and Uber-bad ideas,” said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, during floor debate when the House gave the measure final approval earlier this week. “I worry very much about the safety of consumers.”

Rieve said it’s not like it would just be the vehicle owners who would be saying the car is safe.

He pointed out that the app gives customers the option to comment on the ride, including not just the driver but also the vehicle. And Rieve said if someone reports an unsafe condition, the company will take that vehicle out of rotation for new riders.

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, scoffed at the idea that was a substitute for inspections by a mechanic.

“I want you to picture yourself leaving a bar at night,” she told colleagues.

“How many of you walk all the way around the car, check all the tires, make sure there’s enough tread,” Butler continued. “You don’t know anything about the brakes til you’re in the car and they’re not stopping.”

That sentiment was echoled by Aaron Flannery who said he has driven for Uber for seven years. He told lawmakers that in all those years no customer has checked the tread on the tires of his vehicle, the one visible thing they could see.

Flannery said the need for annual safety checks is important given the wear-and-tear on these vehicles.

He told lawmakers he averages about 50,000 miles a year driving for Uber, more than three times what a typical motorist will rack up. And one year Flannery said he hit 88,000 miles.

Rieve told lawmakers there appears to be no difference in accident rates between states like Arizona with annual inspection requirements and those which do not have them.

“And this is because the vast majority of incidents are driver error and not necessarily dealing with the vehicle,” he said.

There is a price tag.

Rieve put the figure at anywhere between $50 and $150. But Flannery said it costs him about $30 to take the vehicle to a mechanic to have the safety check performed.

But he also said — and Rieve did not dispute — that once people are driving for Uber they can get the annual check performed for free by the company.

Flannery also worried that if a driver does a self-certification and then the brakes or tires fail, that would shift the liability for an accident from the company to the vehicle owner. Rieve, however, said the insurance coverage that Uber has for its drivers remains the same.


House, Senate remain under Republican control — again

Maricopa County elections official Deborah Atkins hangs "vote" signs outside a polling station prior to it's opening, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Maricopa County elections official Deborah Atkins hangs “vote” signs outside a polling station prior to it’s opening, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Arizona’s Legislature will have only a tinge of more blue.

For all the talk that 2018 would finally be the year Democrats would either split or gain majority in the Senate, the chamber will remain under GOP control, likely with a 17-13 split.

At least three Republican incumbents did fall to Democrats in the House, and depending on the outcome of one race, that chamber’s split could narrow to 31-29 from 35-25.

Republican Nora Ellen was behind Democrat Jennifer Pawlik as of November 8 in Legislative District 17, which includes Sun Lakes and parts of Chandler and Gilbert. Pawlik, a Chandler teacher attempting to ride the fervor around education to victory, was ahead by just about 400 votes.

House Republicans are preparing for the worst. When the GOP Caucus voted for House leadership on November 7, 31 current and presumed members voted.

Missing from those ranks were the three Republicans whose defeats were certain. Republican Reps. Todd Clodfelter of Tucson, Jill Norgaard of Phoenix and Maria Syms of Paradise Valley all were ousted incumbents, but the circumstances of their defeats don’t quite match the narrative of a Democratic resurgence and rejection of the status quo in the GOP.

Clodfelter has lost before in Legislative District 10, which was represented by two Democrats in 2012 and 2014 before he was elected in 2016. He fell behind incumbent Rep. Kirsten Engel and Democratic newcomer Domingo DeGrazia.

Norgaard’s district swung in favor of Democrats back in 2016, when two of Legislative District 18’s three seats at the Capitol were won by the minority party.

Newcomer Jennifer Jermaine continued that trend. The Chandler Democrat and Rep. Mitzi Epstein of Tempe defeated Norgaard by a comfortable margin.

Syms likely sealed her own fate in Legislative District 28 when she stirred up tension in her own party.

She was accused by fellow Republicans of sowing conflict when her husband, Mark Syms, sought to run against Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee as an independent. And she clashed with fellow Republican Kathy Pappas Petsas in a four-way campaign where the top two vote-getters are elected to the House.

Syms landed in third behind Democrats Rep. Kelli Butler and Aaron Lieberman.

Former Arizona teacher of the year Christine Marsh could give the Democrat’s some consolation with a victory in the LD28 Senate race.

But that would mean closing a sizeable gap between her and the incumbent, Brophy McGee.

The Phoenix Republican has always been a strong candidate in the competitive district, and could hold her lead, if not watch it grow thanks to a strong showing among day-of GOP voters in Maricopa County, where votes were still being counted as of November 8.

Elsewhere, Democrats will look back at opportunities lost.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, once again won re-election in northern Arizona’s LD6, where Democrat Wade Carlisle trailed by more than 1,000 votes.

And Democrat Steve Weichert failed to ride the anticipated blue wave in LD17, where House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, handily won a race to succeed as the Republican senator from the East Valley.

The 54th Arizona Legislature will be a mix of old and new faces. The composition will include current lawmakers who cross the lawn at the Capitol to join the other chamber, 20 true freshman who won election to the Legislature for the first time, and former members who left office and will return.


Crossing over from House

Sally Ann Gonzales (D)

Vince Leach (R)

Eddie Farnsworth (R)

Heather Carter (R)

J.D. Mesnard (R)

Paul Boyer (R)

David Livingston (R)

Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R)

Lela Alston (D)

Rebecca Rios (D)

Tony Navarrete (D)



Victoria Steele (D)

David Gowan (R)


True Freshman

Tyler Pace (R)


Crossing over from Senate

Warren Petersen (R)

Gail Griffin (R)

Nancy Barto (R)

John Kavanagh (R)

Robert Meza (D)



John Fillmore (R)


True Freshmen

Andres Cano (D)

Alma Hernandez (D)

Leo Biasiucci (R)

Walter Blackman (R)

Arlando Teller (D)

Myron Tsosie (D)

Domingo DeGrazia (D)

Bret Roberts (R)

Joanne Osborne (R)

Jennifer Pawlik (D)

Jennifer Jermaine (D)

Lorenzo Sierra (D)

Shawnna Bolick (R)

Frank Carroll (R)

Jennifer Longdon (D)

Amish Shah (D)

Diego Rodriguez (D)

Aaron Lieberman (D)

Raquel Teran (D)

Legislative committees approve tax conformity bills


Defying both Democrats and their own Republican governor, GOP lawmakers voted Monday to cut income tax rates across the board to prevent what they believe would be a “windfall” to the state on the backs of Arizona residents.

On party lines, the House Ways and Means Committee voted to cut state income tax rates across the board by 0.11 percentage points. The net effect of HB 2522 would be to reduce state revenues this year by about $150 million.

Moments later the Senate Finance Committee gave its blessing to SB 1143 which does the same thing.

But Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said there really is no tax cut, as that $150 million simply offsets the additional dollars the state stands to gain because of changes in federal tax laws. And he lashed out at foes who chided Republicans for pushing what they say is a tax cut.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler)
Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler)

“How can a revenue neutral bill be a tax cut?” he asked, saying he is “simply pursuing revenue neutrality.”

The bills, which now go to the full House and Senate, come despite the fact that about 20,000 returns already have been filed with the Department of Revenue – returns that were filed using the higher tax rates that Gov. Doug Ducey presumed lawmakers would approve.

Grant Nulle, the agency’s deputy director, told lawmakers if they adopted their plan, and not the one the governor wants, he figured it would take about four weeks to make all the changes in the forms and the department’s computers. That means any returns already filed and those that people are turning in now – about two-thirds of Arizonans anticipate refunds – will be incorrect.

Nulle said, though, that if the bills become law his agency could recompute what each taxpayer owes and send out correction notices.

That assumes either bill will become law.

Monday’s votes came over the objections of Ducey who has proposed that any additional dollars be put into the “rainy-day” fund, a savings account that can be tapped during economic downturns when tax revenues don’t keep pace with expenses.

The measures also are opposed by Democrats who said that the state should keep the excess money that would flow to the state because of changes in federal tax laws. They cited needs ranging from education to road funding.

More to the point, they said that while the cut in tax rates would be across the board, the real beneficiaries are those are the top of the income scale, the people who already are going to get benefits from the changes in federal tax law signed in late 2017 by President Trump.

Andres Cano
Andres Cano

First-term Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, said that as a teen he slept on his mother’s couch because his single mother’s income was insufficient to afford more.

“The irony of the bill in front of us is not even my single mom of 10 years ago or the hardworking Arizonan that she is today would stand to benefit from this legislation,” he said, figuring that the dollars paid by people at the bottom of the pay scale saved with a 0.11 percentage point reduction are minimal. By contrast, Cano said, those near the top would see big-dollar reductions in what they owe the state.

“Instead of giving a tax break to mom, this bill puts more money into the hands of millionaires and billionaires who don’t have to worry about where or how their child is sleeping, what they’re eating, or how they’ll pay this month’s bills,” he said.

Arizona generally allows state residents to take the same deductions allowed by federal law. But the new federal law trimmed some of these.

If Arizona follows suit – the course urged by the governor – Arizonans would pay about $57 million more because of new limits on deductions of what is paid in state and local taxes. Another would add another $47 million because of limits on what can be deducted on interest on new mortgages above $750,000 for joint filers.

All totaled, lawmakers estimate the additional revenues would hit at least $150 million.

The proposals by Mesnard and Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, to cut rates by 0.11 percent across the board would reduce overall tax collections by that much. That’s the money Ducey and the Democrats want to keep.

Toma said that would be wrong.

“That windfall, if you want to call it that, was intended for taxpayers’ pockets, not for the state to essentially get lucky by simply conforming and increasing taxes,” he said.

David Wells, research director of the Grand Canyon Institute, said while the cut in tax rates is across the board, the bills do not provide the same level of relief.

Wells said that the top 1 percent of Arizonans – those with incomes above $800,000 a year – will save $30,000 a year because of the changes in the federal tax code. He said full conformity, without a state tax cut, would, increase their state tax liability by about $3,000.

“So they still come out way ahead overall,” Wells said.

By contrast, he said, those at the median household income level of about $61,000 a year will pay just $36 more with full conformity. And Wells said those near the bottom would not be affected at all by full conformity with federal law and the state keeping the windfall because they’re the ones most likely to take the standard deduction and be unaffected by changes in what can be itemized.

“The people in the million-dollar homes, they’re already going to get a huge benefit from the Trump tax plan, the federal income tax,” said Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson. “I’m concerned about the people living in the trailer parks.”

But Mesnard questioned the assumption that only the rich are hit when deductions are eliminated. He cited limits on deductions for interest on new home equity loans.

“Many people consolidate their debt, whether it’s credit card debt, their car, whatever, into a better interest rate they would get on their home,” he said. “And now they’re losing the tax break.”

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said there’s a good reason for the state to keep the extra dollars.

She said while the federal taxes are being cut, so is the amount of money Washington is providing to states.

That includes the KidsCare program which provides low-cost health insurance for the children of the working poor, with the full federal subsidy going away in September. Epstein said the extra dollars could be used to help underwrite the additional state costs.

As it turns out, Ducey wants the state to pick up that shortfall. But he is not relying on the conformity dollars, saying there’s enough coming in from other sources.

The bills are being rushed because Monday was the first day the state Department of Revenue began processing income tax returns. And the department has prepared the tax forms and instructions under the premise that the state would fully conform and keep all the extra revenues, with no cut in the tax rate.

In fact, Nulle, the agency’s deputy director, told lawmakers that the department already has received about 18,000 tax returns filed electronically, with officials estimating another 1,400 returns have been filed on paper.

And while about 80 percent of individual tax returns are e-filed, the the agency is in the final stages of printing out about 35,000 tax booklets, including all the forms. Spokesman Ed Greenberg said that cost normally runs in the $25,000 to $35,000 range.

Partisan groups spend big to deliver ‘news’

Deposit Photo

The May article had everything Arizona Republicans could want: breathless allegations that the grown son of a Democratic lawmaker had repeatedly committed voter fraud with a mail ballot, just as President Donald Trump and GOP elected officials throughout the country sought to sow doubt about the security of voting by mail.

It was no wonder, then, that Republican politicians and their supporters jumped on the story from a new political news site founded by a conservative think-tank, sharing it hundreds of times in just a few hours.

There was just one issue, easily discovered when a seasoned Arizona reporter got his hands on the complaint filed against Rep. Mitzi Epstein’s son a few days later. The allegation at the heart of the complaint — that Daniel Epstein cast ballots in both Arizona and California in 2010 — was easily disproved by a check of Maricopa County voting records.

Readers of the Center Square wouldn’t know that from an initial story, or from a follow-up a few days later that contained only a throwaway reference in the last sentence about a portion of the complaint not being accurate.

fake-news-ii-webOn the other side of the aisle, a news website funded by a liberal dark money group has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into digital political ads hammering Trump and Sen. Martha McSally, blurring a line between reporting and partisan advocacy.

Sites like The Center Square and Copper Courier don’t peddle hoaxes like the “fake news” websites that gained infamy in 2016. They describe themselves as filling gaps left when traditional newsrooms reduced government coverage, and articles are generally factual, if short on sources with different political stances than the funders.

Most news consumers aren’t going to hunt for information about a news organization’s funding or potential bias, said Kristy Roschke, director of the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Since launching in 2017, the News Co/Lab has tried to improve digital media literacy, helping news consumers identify credible news and differentiate it from misinformation.

“Most people, it would not be their inclination to click on a news story from a site that looks and sounds like a new site, and then be like, ‘I wonder who publishes this, I wonder what their funding source is,’” Roschke said. “This is absolutely not a thing that people typically do.”

Roschke tells students to start by looking for proof of original reporting, that the author of an article is in a community and talking to people instead of just aggregating work from elsewhere. Particularly if a site is unfamiliar, checking facts in an article against a known news source like a local newspaper can help establish credibility.

Partisan news outlets are hardly a new phenomenon. In the early days of the Republic, newspapers were widely run directly by political parties, and it took until the mid-19th century for the idea of objectivity in reporting and separating editorial opinions from fact-based news reporting to gain momentum.

Satellite radio, cable news and the rise of blogs, coupled with shrinking traditional newsrooms, cleared the way for more partisanship in the news. But while established political blogs built their audiences over years and don’t try to hide their political leanings, new players in the Arizona political media world have taken shortcuts.

Copper Courier is owned by ACRONYM — a liberal dark money group that made national headlines in February as the owner of Shadow, a phone app for reporting Iowa caucus results that malfunctioned in precincts throughout the state. The Courier network set up news sites in the swing states of Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, along with Arizona.

Tara McGowan
Tara McGowan

In a planning memo obtained by Vice, ACRONYM founder Tara McGowan describes goals for what became the Courier network: “enabl[ing] Democrats to compete with Republican echo chambers online,” “build[ing] nimble communications infrastructure for Dems in critical states” and “reach[ing] voters with strategic narratives + information year round.”

To that effect, the national Courier newsroom has spent more than $1.4 million this election cycle on Facebook ads promoting vulnerable House Democrats. In Arizona, Copper Courier has spent more than $450,000 on political Facebook ads targeting McSally, Trump and legislative Republicans.

One ad launched earlier this month lambastes McSally for a proposed bill to provide tax credits for vacations. “She won’t extend unemployment benefits. Instead, Sen. McSally introduced a bill to boost sales for tourism industries,” reads the ad, which Facebook estimates will reach up to 50,000 people.

Copper Courier also spent more than $1,000 to promote an article about state Rep. Jeff Weninger, a Chandler Republican and restaurant owner, closing his restaurant after an employee tested positive for COVID-19, and hundreds of dollars over the past week to promote articles attacking Rep. Shawnna Bolick for opposing mail voting and claiming Republicans are “losing the support of health care workers” — a headline backed up by the single example of the Arizona Nurses Association opting to endorse Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and not former Rep. Brenda Barton in the Legislative District 6 House race.

Facebook occasionally flags promoted posts from traditional media outlets as political, but such occasions are rare. The Arizona Capitol Times, for instance, has spent less than $100 on two ads Facebook deemed to be about social issues, elections or politics, both of which promote events. Promoted posts from the Arizona Mirror with an article about nurses sharing their COVID-19 stories, the Arizona Daily Star about Trump’s border wall and AZFamily about a dog rescued from a landfill were also flagged as political ads.

When it launched, Copper Courier branded itself as “real Arizona news” — in a Twitter ad over a photo of Utah’s Monument Valley. And in multiple tweets, the outlet refers to residents of the 48th state as “Arizonians.”

Copper Courier managing editor Camaron Stevenson, a former Democratic Socialist candidate for Phoenix City Council, said the site doesn’t try to hide its progressive lens from readers, but it also doesn’t openly brand itself as a liberal publication.

“We don’t necessarily want to only attract progressive readers, as much as we also don’t want it to turn people off,” he said. “We’d rather people give our reporting the chance, and read what we’re writing and what we’re about, as opposed to, you know, giving them that notion that might cause them to either not read or ignore us.”

The publication’s “about” page makes one reference to being owned by a “progressive” organization. But to find any reference to ACRONYM, readers either have to follow a second link to the national newsroom’s “about” page and scroll past a list of employees across the nation or read to the bottom of the Copper Courier’s “ethics and standards” page. Neither describes what ACRONYM is.

Jason Stverak,
Jason Stverak,

The Center Square, meanwhile, is owned and operated by the nonprofit Franklin News Foundation, which formed in 2009 as the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. One of its founders, Jason Stverak, is the former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party.

Prior to launching the Center Square, Franklin ran news websites under the banner “watchdog.org.” Like Watchdog, the Center Square covers news from a conservative perspective of “taxpayer sensibility,” homing in on budgetary stories about how state governments spend tax dollars.

“In our newsroom, the emphasis of our coverage is placed on keeping a check on the government by specifically focusing on how tax dollars are spent within a specific state government,” publisher Chris Krug said in an email.

Krug and executive editor Dan McCaleb defended publishing a Center Square article on Epstein’s son, writing that they accurately reported on a complaint filed with Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

“I can appreciate the interest in this particular story, given that the Arizona Mirror wrote something different that differed from the story we broke about the filing of the complaint,” Krug said. “But it would be lacking context in your reporting on this single story if you didn’t acknowledge that — as of this afternoon — The Center Square has published more than 700 other original straight-news stories from Arizona since we started covering the state in 2019.”

Both Krug and Stevenson compared their publications to the Arizona Mirror, a nonprofit news site from the States Newsroom which has rankled conservative politicians since it launched in 2018 with support from the Hopewell Fund, a progressive charity. The Hopewell Fund served as a fiscal sponsor for the fledgling States Newsroom, enabling the new nonprofit to raise money tax-free while it waited for the IRS to approve its own nonprofit application.

Like the Copper Courier, the Arizona Mirror does tend to cover issues important to liberals, such as immigration and criminal justice, through a progressive lens. Opinion columns published in the Mirror uniformly represent left-leaning perspectives.

But the Arizona Mirror’s reporters and editors are all longtime Arizona journalists, who left positions at The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Capitol Times to write for the new publication. Stevenson’s sole professional journalism experience involved running cameras at Phoenix-run television station KAZT, while his deputy, 2017 Cronkite graduate Jessica Swarner, previously wrote short posts for KTAR.

The journalistic pedigree of reporters and editors working at States Newsroom publications recently prompted Nieman Lab, a journalism foundation at Harvard, to remove the 16 States Newsroom outlets from a map purporting to show “hyperpartisan sites … masquerading as local news.” Arizona Mirror editor Jim Small said he believed States Newsroom would have supported the Mirror staff if it decided it wanted to do advocacy journalism, but there has been no pressure to frame stories or coverage.

“At the end of the day, the work of each one of the publications is going to stand on its own, and I personally think our work will shine above certainly the Copper Courier’s or anyone else’s,” Small said.

Republicans approve tax conformity bill that cuts rates


Republican lawmakers squared off against GOP Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday by passing legislation to grant Arizonans a reprieve on their state income taxes.

Almost entirely along party lines, Republicans approved a proposal to reduce all income tax rates in Arizona by 0.11 percentage points. State budget analysts estimate that would reduce tax collections by roughly $150 million, compared to the alternative path proposed by Ducey.

The governor wants to conform to the federal tax code in the same manner Arizona historically does, and pocket the extra tax collections in the state’s rainy-day fund. That would undercut the intent of changes to the federal tax code signed by President Trump in December 2017, which were meant to give taxpayers relief, according to Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria.

Taking the wait-and-see approach advocated by Ducey would “take money from the hardworking taxpayers of Arizona,” said Toma, who along with Sen. J.D. Mesnard sponsored the conformity measure.

But the plan can’t go into effect without Ducey’s approval, too, and the governor has consistently opposed efforts to conform in a way that lowers the state’s potential revenue collections. He now faces the choice of whether to veto a bill supported by a wide majority of his own party. Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, was the only Republican in either chamber to vote against the bill.

A spokesman from the governor’s office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Democrats unanimously argued against relinquishing what some analysts have estimated could exceed $200 million in new revenues for state coffers.

“We need to invest in Arizona,” said Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, who argued that Arizonans would rather see the state invest in education or infrastructure than see a minimal reduction in their tax bills. “This income tax cut is not the help they need.”

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, countered that it’s not a tax cut if the taxes won’t be collected in the first place.

“This is not a tax cut. This is an offset,” she said. “If we don’t do anything, this is a tax increase.”

If Ducey signs SB 1143, officials with Department of Revenue have said they’re prepared to immediately begin adjusting tax brackets, even as some Arizonans are already filing their state tax returns.

Mesnard, R-Chandler, said it will take roughly four weeks for the department to fully incorporate the changes outlined in the bill, but anyone who’s already received a tax return at the higher rate would be made whole with an additional refund.

Senate approves 4-year continuation for school for deaf, blind

legislation, age, Gress, Jones, school boards, legislators, House
(Photo by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images)

In what has become a mysterious political struggle, state senators on Thursday debated on how long to allow the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind to operate before it must return to the Legislature for approval to continue as a state agency.

A last-minute change in the Senate that may be reversed in the House put the school on course to continue for four years instead of the standard eight given to most state agencies in good standing.

Most of the Senate wants the school to continue for the standard eight years but opposition from a few Republicans nearly brought the continuation down to two years. Four was the compromise that Democrats supported under protest.

Hoffman, equity, Mendez, woke, inclusion, diversity, bill,
Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek

After three hours of debate, the Senate finally passed Rep. Beverly Pingerelli’s bill, House Bill 2456, with the four-year amendment from Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, who said before the 27-1 vote he prefers the eight-year continuation. Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, voted against the bill.

Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said on the floor that he also has an issue with just four years.

“I think this should have been eight years,” he said. With Bennett, Gowan and the Democrats united in agreement that eight years is preferrable to anything less, the Senate had more than enough votes to make that change, but it didn’t happen.

State agencies are subject to a sunset review and the Legislature may continue their existence for up to 10 years. Bills to continue agencies usually smoothly pass through the Legislature and are signed by the governor.

There are exceptions, though, like when an agency has a history of trouble and controversy. Last year, some lawmakers tried to hold the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry to a three-year sunset review.

The department had a long history of failing to provide adequate health care to prisoners, a botched execution and a host of troubles surrounding executions.

The sunset review bill that former Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law gave the department eight years until it’s renewal but requires the state Auditor General to conduct annual reviews of the department on an assortment of areas.

But the school hasn’t been plagued with troubles.

Six weeks ago, the school became concerned when their continuation bill stalled in the Senate Government Committee without a hearing.

The bill had previously passed in the House without opposition, and the committee of reference recommended an eight-year continuation.

Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, used a procedural tactic to revive the continuation bill in the Education Committee and Bennett agreed to hold a hearing for it, but then the Government Committee, led by Sen. Jake Hoffman, Queen Creek, decided to hold a hearing on the original bill.

The bill was amended in the Government Committee to two years and in the Education Committee down to five years in one long confusing day where deaf and blind students, parents and teachers rushed around the Legislature, cried, and pleaded with lawmakers to allow their school to continue longer.

It appeared on the Senate floor Thursday with yet another amendment to continue the school for four years.

Democrats asked repeatedly why the school is getting a different treatment from dozens of other agencies when it seemingly had not done anything wrong. Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, noted that the most damaging finding in the latest Auditor General’s report on the school was self-reported and they worked to resolve it.

Sen. Eva Burch, D-Mesa, said teachers are refusing to sign contracts because of the political controversy surrounding the school.

“Teachers are being lost as we speak because of what we’re doing in here right now,” Burch said.

Hoffman said that shorter continuations are the best way for lawmakers to serve the agency because stricter guidance leads to higher standards.

“In furtherance of that mission, we want to provide the deaf and blind children with the best possible education,” he said.

Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, was the only other lawmaker to say that short continuations mean better oversight. He said everyone expects the school, which has been in operation since before Arizona was a state, to continue for a very long time.

Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said it is appalling to suggest the school needs more oversight.

“It is simply appallingly curious. It really begs the question of what other motives are going on?” Epstein asked.

Hoffman refused to answer Epstein’s question about whether he has met with the school.

School Superintendent Annette Reichman said that Hoffman never spoke to her.

The floor debate got heated.

Sens. Catherine Miranda and Raquel Teran, both Phoenix Democrats, were reprimanded for referring to a rumor that’s been circulating around the Legislature for the past several weeks, that all this difficulty around the school continuation is because Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, has a “vendetta” against the school for opposing one of her bills, which failed.

Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson

Wadsack filed a bill that would have required the school to accept students who aren’t deaf or blind but have other disabilities.

Miranda made the accusation and was silenced by Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who was running the floor debate. Wadsack left the room during Miranda’s comments.

“We don’t have direct evidence of that, but yes that is our perception, that that’s accurate, that it’s true,” Reichman said of the rumor.

Wadsack declined to comment. She also wouldn’t answer a question from Epstein on the floor.

Marsh and Miranda criticized the body for not providing adequate accommodations for deaf and blind people in committee or on the floor. There is a livestream available of the proceedings with closed captioning, but no interpreters. Miranda asked whether the Senate is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Tensions also ran high when Democrats accused Republicans of ableism. Sundareshan, and Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, both referred to the process that way and were chastised for impugning the motives of other members, but Reichman said that’s exactly how she sees it too.

Mendez tried to amend the bill to go to 10 years, but the amendment failed on party lines. He voted ‘no’ in protest, making the final vote 27-1.

Mendez noted that the Senate recently voted 21-7 to continue the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control without any similar pushback. The bill’s opposition came from the same group opposing the eight-year school continuation

A bill from Rep. Lupe Diaz, R-Benson, to continue the Arizona State Parks Board for eight years also passed the Senate on Thursday, but there was no debate. That bill passed 21-6 with Hoffman, Wadsack and four other Republicans opposed.

The last hope for eight-year continuation proponents is that the bill is altered one final time in a conference committee and restored to an eight-year bill. Bill sponsor Pingerelli said she still supports an eight-year continuation, and she’s looking at the best options.

State House passes measure to remember victims of Communism.

Marx, Engels and Lenin illustration on white background
Deposit Photos

State lawmakers decided Tuesday that Arizona needs to remember the victims of Communism.

But not so much others.

The proposal by Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, approved by the House on a 45-15 vote, would designate every Nov. 7 as Victims of Communism Memorial Day. He told colleagues that this mirrors similar measures being pushed in other states.

Bob Thorpe
Bob Thorpe

“It’s nothing more than recognizing the people that died under communism in various countries,” he said.

“Under Stalin we had millions of people that were starved to death,” Thorpe said, referring to the leader of the now-defunct Soviet Union. “In Venezuela, there are people that had food shortages and just real oppression of the people.”

Anyway, he said, it would not be a paid legal holiday.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, was annoyed by the narrow focus of HB 2259.

“Have we been reduced to this that we’re going to compare the suffering of one group to another and say that the suffering of one group is more profound or tragic than another?” he asked.

It starts, he said, with “the realistic possibility that Fascism is trying to rear its ugly head again in this world, something he said cost millions of lives.”

But it doesn’t stop there.

“Western expansionism victimized an entire continent in Africa,” he said.

“It victimized the native peoples of our own country,” Rodriguez continued. “And yet we’re going to now pick and choose over what group of victims were more noble in their suffering, in their loss?

Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, had a similar theme, saying if lawmakers want to honor and recognize victims, they should start much closer to home.

“Before we can start going and reviewing and acknowledging and recognizing victims of others we should be recognizing and acknowledging how ‘manifest destiny’ has almost completely ethnicized, genocide our indigenous communities here in our state,” Blanc said.

That concept, coined in 1845, essentially said that the United States was destined — perhaps by God — to expand across the entire continent and spread its religious and cultural beliefs over the people who already were living there. In some cases it also became an excuse to force the removal of Native Americans from their lands.

“That would be a really good first step in acknowledging and recognizing our own atrocities of our own people,” Blanc said.

Thorpe did not dispute the essence of what she was saying.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time on the Navajo Nation,” he said.

“They’ve had some real atrocities committed to them,” Thorpe said. “Our other tribal nations around the country, the same thing.”

But he pointed out that any lawmaker is free to bring up any resolution or proposal for consideration by the full Legislature.

“If any member wanted to bring forward a day of remembrance for people that have been treated unjustly, I certainly support that,” Thorpe said. But that, he said, shouldn’t affect his proposal.

“The reason why we have this bill here is somebody brought it to me and asked me to run it,” Thorpe said. “And I thought it was a great idea.”

The language, he later told Capitol Media Services, came from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group funded by business interests that propose model legislation.

Tuesday debate went beyond who is a victim to questions of exactly who was being remembered.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, pointed out that Thorpe’s legislative proposal, like all others, is formatted so that any new language appears in all capital letters. That helps it stand out when being reviewed.

But what that means is that the measure lawmakers were voting on asked them to vote on victims of COMMUNISM. Yet the caption of the measure, which is not actually part of the bill, used a lower-case C.

That, Epstein said, left her a bit confused — and provides no guidance to those who would put the law and the new holiday into the statute books.

“If it is an upper-case Communism, then perhaps I can see you meant Stalinism and Leninism,” Epstein said. “And I can certainly see victims there.”

She said, though, that communism — with a lower-case C — is something quite different.

“It’s a philosophy, an idea, it’s nebulous,” Epstein said. “It can’t hurt anybody.”

Thorpe, however, dodged her question during floor debate about which he has in mind, saying the bill is simply what was prepared at his direction by legislative staff.

“I will certainly take a look at the bill language,” he said.

But after the vote, Thorpe told Capitol Media Services he was referring to “Communism, of course.”

The measure now goes to the Senate.

Tax cut proposals get initial approval

Courting a possible veto, Republican state senators have approved three proposals to cut individual income taxes as soon as this coming budget year – and deny the new governor the revenues she is counting on to create new programs and expand existing ones.

And two of them would be permanent and one-way measures, meaning that once the tax rate goes down, the only way the revenues could be restored is with a difficult-to-get supermajority vote of legislators or the public.

The least comprehensive of these is SB 1281.

Sponsored by Sen. Janae Shamp, R-Surprise, it would require the Department of Revenue to issue a $200 income tax rebate to individuals who are residents of the state at the end of this year. That figure would be double for a couple filing a joint return or a single individual who is a head of household.

Even Arizonans whose tax liability was not that much would be entitled to a payment as long as they file a state tax return.

What’s behind the measure is the fact that the state is looking at a $1.8 billion surplus for the coming budget year. Requiring a rebate would reduce that by $936 million.

That would reduce the funds for some of the new or expanded programs being pushed by Gov. Katie Hobbs who has proposed a $17.1 billion spending plan – assuming she would sign the measure.

Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said she would consider supporting such a measure.

Mitzi Epstein

“The interest and attention of just wanting to give money back to the people is a beautiful idea,” she said. But Epstein said that there should be a trade-off: raise the minimum corporate income tax from $50 to $500.

“If corporations were to pay their fair share, we could cut things like the sales tax rate which is highly regressive,” she said, with those at the bottom of the income scale paying a larger percentage of what they earn in sales taxes than those at the top. Arizona has a 5.6% sales tax rate, including a 0.6% levy dedicated to education.

“Then the people would not have to pay so much in the first place,” Epstein said. “And we would not have to give them a rebate.”

Epstein also listed all the things that could be done with the $936 million, saying it could restore funding cuts from school construction and repairs, provide a hiring bonus to put more teachers in the classroom and finance the widening of an approximately 25-mile stretch of Interstate 10 that the federal government has so far refused to fund.

Shamp said all that misses the point.

“It’s not our money,” she said as the Senate approved her measure on a 16-13 party-line vote. “It is the taxpayers’ money and it’s time we give it back.”

Far more comprehensive is a measure by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler.

It would require an annual determination of the “structural surplus.” That’s the amount of ongoing state revenues above anticipated ongoing expenses, adjusted for population growth and inflation.

Mesnard, Senate, citizens, signatures, Senate, elections,
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler

Then SB 1577 would have the Department of Revenue reduce the state’s income tax rate equal to half that figure.

What that would mean in actual dollars is difficult to calculate.

Legislative budget staffers said there would be no tax break for at least the next three years.

That’s because the enacted 2.5% flat individual income tax reduced state revenues from what they would have been. That changed the starting point for future calculations.

But the analysts say that they presume that, at some point in the future, tax collections will grow faster than inflation and population. And assuming a $200 million structural surplus, that means having to reduce revenues by $100 million, something that would cut the income tax rate from 2.5% to 2.46%.

What concerned Epstein is that is a one-way ratchet: Once the rate is reduced, it would not automatically go back up – even if there were a recession leaving the state without sufficient revenues.

In fact, any move to increase the tax rate to deal with a future deficit would require a politically difficult two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate and approval by whoever is governor at the time.

Taxes also could be increased by voters at the ballot. But here, too, there is a hurdle, with any such measure requiring at least a 60% approval margin.

Mesnard, for his part, said he was not worried about how the state would weather an economic downturn. He noted the state has a “rainy-day fund” which is supposed to equal 10% of the state budget, a figure that currently equals about $1.4 billion.

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Katie Hobbs

Epstein, however, suggested that is hardly enough.

She pointed out that the state faced a $3 billion deficit in 2009. And that was a time when the budget was less than $10 billion, two thirds the size of current spending.

The way the state dealt with that was cutting expenses by $1 billion, borrowing $1 billion that had to be paid back over time, with interest, and getting voters to approve a temporary one-cent hike in the state sales tax hike to raise $1 billion a year.

But Mesnard said he is operating under the philosophy that there won’t be that kind of a financial downturn – and that tax cuts can help improve the Arizona economy.

Hobbs already has earmarked the anticipated revenues for the coming fiscal year to finance her $17.1 billion spending plan. And many of her programs, like college scholarships for “dreamers,” additional aid to schools and a tax credit for the working poor, would require not just current funding but dollars in future years.

The governor declined Thursday to say whether she has decided to veto either of these bills after they get sent to her following House action. But Hobbs acknowledged that the measures did not pick up a single Democratic vote.

“Certainly, if something can’t get bipartisan support that’s going to play into our decision in signing or vetoing legislation,” she said.

Hobbs, however, would have nothing to say about SCR 1035.

In essence, it is virtually identical to SB 1577.

But its enactment would not be contingent on her signature but on voter approval in 2024. And anything approved at the ballot, even if put their by lawmakers themselves, cannot then be altered by them.

That would leave another ballot measure in a future year as the only method to repeal it.

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said cementing such a provision into statute fails to acknowledge that there are times the state needs to use its surplus.

She specifically noted the ongoing problems of drought and how that has affected Arizona’s share of the Colorado River. And it was the fact that Arizona had a surplus last year that allowed lawmakers to make a $1 billion commitment over three years to find alternate sources of water, possibly including desalination.

“None of these problems are going away,” Sundareshan said.

All three measures now await a vote of the House which earlier this week approved cutting the corporate income tax rate by nearly 50%.


Testy session, debates marked by use of ‘impugning’ rule in House

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.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler)
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler)

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.

Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff)
Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff)

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.

Rep. Mark Finchem
Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley)

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.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

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.