4 GOP lawmakers align with Democrats to kill tax cuts for veterans


State senators on Tuesday rejected the one tax break sought by Gov. Doug Ducey in his State of the State speech.

Four Republicans lined up with the 13 Senate Democrats to quash the idea of exempting military pensions from the state’s income tax.

None of the Republicans explained their decision during the vote. But Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, is pushing an alternate set of tax breaks, ones that would give broader relief to individuals and businesses.

“I generally oppose carve outs,” he told Capitol Media Services after the vote.

Sen. David Farnsworth, of Mesa expressed similar sentiments.

David Farnsworth
David Farnsworth

“When we make policies they need to be broad and affect everybody,” he said. “Any time we carve out any segment it shifts the load to everyone else.”

Ducey press aide Patrick Ptak said his boss is not deterred by Tuesday’s vote – or the fact that four members of his own party refused to go along.

“Because this is included in the governor’s budget package, our expectation is that it will be enacted as part of the final budget rather than as a stand-alone bill,” he said.

Tuesday’s vote is the second setback in a week for the governor in getting the priorities from his State of the State speech enacted.

Late last week Ducey had to give up on his call for lawmakers to put a provision into the Arizona Constitution forbidding cities from having policies which preclude law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officials. The governor found himself not only short of votes but facing opposition from the business community concerned about how putting such a measure on the November ballot would affect the state’s image and its ability to land conventions and conferences.

Arizona law currently exempts the first $3,500 of any military pension from state income tax. Ducey proposed removing that cap entirely — at a cost to the state of $43 million a year — calling it a matter of economic development.

“We have a goal: to make Arizona home base for veterans everywhere in the country,” he said.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, who retired from the Marines after more than 20 years, echoed that theme Tuesday in trying to line up the votes for SB 1237.

“This encourages these vets to stay here, lay down roots, move and escape from other crazy states like what I did from California,” he said. And Borrelli said this isn’t necessarily a net loss of taxes to the state.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)
Sonny Borrelli

“I bought a house,” he said.

“I paid property taxes which goes to my local school,” Borrelli continued. “Everything I spent was taxed and went to the local community and even to the state” in sales taxes.

But Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, said she doesn’t see it that way.

In fact, she argued, cutting revenues actually can work against those who have retired from the military. She said that means less money going into the education of people who will provide them the health care they will need.

“That is really more important to me that they have someone to take care of them,” Dalessandro said.

And Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, said the proposal would benefit only those with military pensions, not anyone who is a veteran. More to the point, she said it actually helps only those who retired as officers – with higher pensions.

Borrelli effectively conceded the point.

He said the average rank for an enlisted person after 20 years in the military is E-7, with a pension of less than $24,000 a year.

What makes that number significant is that Arizona already provides a $12,000 deduction from income for single people and $24,000 for couples. So that means an enlisted person who is married already has an exemption equal to his or her military pension.

What that leaves, Borrelli said, are folks like retired lieutenant colonels.

Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, the prime sponsor of the legislation, told colleagues they need to look at the issue through more than the lens of lost state revenues.

“I’ve not served in the military at all,” he said.

“I do sponsor this bill in tribute to (those who) actually go out and sign their name on a dotted line to say, ‘I am willing to die for your freedoms today,’ ” Gowan said. “We can give back to them.”

Anyway, he said, they earned their pension not in Arizona but abroad, though there is nothing in the proposal specifying where they served and whether it was overseas.

Gowan is not giving up, using a procedural maneuver that would allow him to make another bid to line up the 16 votes in the 30-member chamber to resurrect the issue.


Arizona lawmaker pushes to legalize sports betting

In this Dec. 30, 2018, file photo, Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, left, snags a one-handed touchdown pass against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL football game, in Seattle. Betting on the Cardinals or any other sporting event will become legal in Arizona under a Republican lawmaker’s proposal. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
In this Dec. 30, 2018, file photo, Arizona Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, left, snags a one-handed touchdown pass against the Seattle Seahawks during the first half of an NFL football game, in Seattle. Betting on the Cardinals or any other sporting event will become legal in Arizona under a Republican lawmaker’s proposal. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

A Republican lawmaker has a proposal to legalize sports betting in Arizona through legislation he says will avoid nullifying state gaming compacts with Native American tribes.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, wants to bring sports gambling to bars and private clubs throughout Arizona, but he wants the state’s tribes to have exclusive rights in operating sports betting.

The Lake Havasu City Republican likened his SB1158 to off-track betting for horse races.

“This is basically like off-casino betting for sports,” he said.

Borrelli said sports gambling would fall under Class 3 gaming per Arizona law, and therefore must be given exclusively to the tribes. And while tribes would immediately be eligible to allow sports gambling in brick-and-mortar casinos under Borrelli’s bill, he’s also trying to get sports gambling kiosks into bars and clubs throughout the state.

As for his choice of location, Borrelli said he only wants bars and clubs with a liquor license to ensure the clientele is the appropriate age.

“You gotta be 21 to go in a bar. You gotta be 21 to gamble,” he said.

The United State Supreme Court in May cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting, inciting state lawmakers across the country to introduce legislation to bring sports gambling to the masses.

In Arizona, the situation is more complicated.

The state has gaming compacts with some Native American tribes, which have the exclusive rights to operate casino games in Arizona. Those compacts – which specify what games tribes can and cannot operate, and what revenue from gambling tribes share with the state – also include a “poison pill” provision.

That stipulates compacts are null and void if either side violates the terms of the agreements.

For example, something as simple as if a tribe operated more slot machines than allowed in the agreements, or if the state granted gaming rights to non-tribal entities, could jeopardize the compacts.

Gaming attorney Steve Hart said Borrelli’s bill would not trigger the “poison pill” provision of the gaming compacts because the tribes would be the “sole and exclusive operator of all sports betting activity.” Hart, of Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP, consulted with Borrelli on the bill.

“If tribes are the operator of the game, then for the most part, you can conclude there won’t be a ‘poison pill’ issue,” Hart said.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, Gov. Doug Ducey expressed support for legalizing sports betting, which likely calls for renegotiating gaming compacts with Arizona tribes. At the time, Ducey called for a “modernized” gaming compact, which could include other gaming besides sports.

A spokesman for Ducey declined to comment on Borrelli’s bill, but confirmed the Governor’s Office is involved in “confidential” gaming negotiations with the tribes.

There is no timeline on when those talks will be complete.

Borrelli’s move may be independent of the Governor’s Office, but they seem to be working toward the same end goal.

The bill proposes tribes permitted to operate sports betting could be taxed up to 6.75 percent of gross gaming revenue from sports betting. It’s not clear how much revenue the state could gain from legalizing sports gaming.

Jaime Molera, who lobbies for the Indian Gaming Association, said the tribes are still sifting through Borrelli’s bill, but they appreciate his willingness to loop them in. Borrelli approached some of the tribes in an attempt to work on this issue in a collaborative way, and now they’re willing to work with him as a result, Molera said.

“We’re very appreciative of Sen. Borrelli in that we opposed some of his bills in the past, but what he did this time around, he reached out to a number of tribes and sought out how we can work together in furthering his ideas,” Molera said.

Borrelli’s bill would allow tribes to operate sports gambling at their casinos, but it would also allow tribes to contract with outside companies to operate sports gambling kiosks throughout the state.

Borrelli envisions those contractors negotiating with bars and clubs to rent space for those kiosks on their properties. The bars and clubs get paid for renting space; the tribe gets a cut from gambling revenues; so too does the contractor, who would also be responsible for paying state gaming taxes on profits from the machines.

Backward land legislation infringes on personal property rights, shortsighted

Dear editor:

Rep. Mark Finchem and Sen. Sonny Borrelli have taken a backward and myopic view of our shared public lands, while at the same time directly infringing on the rights of private landowners. That’s no small accomplishment.

The two politicians have introduced identical pieces of legislation that would prohibit the sale, gifting or granting of land to the federal government – their weak argument for this is that the federal government already owns too much land in the state and that any further federal control would deprive the state of tax dollars. Here is where they’re both wrong.

Federal lands make the state, local businesses and average citizens billions of dollars every year. The outdoor recreation industry generates over $21 billion in consumer spending, employs over 200,000 Arizonans – generating nearly $6 billion in wages, and it still contributes nearly $1.5 billion in state and local taxes.

Ignoring this massive contribution to our economy is irresponsible. Worse still is telling private landowners what they can and can’t do with their personal property. That’s not the ethos of this state or this country.

Finchem and Borrelli are out of touch, and this legislation is wrong on multiple levels.

Scott Garlid, Executive Director of the Arizona Wildlife Federation

Correction. A previous version of this letter erroneously reported the outdoor recreation industry generates $2 billion in consumer spending. The actual amount is $21 billion. 

Bad blood, ineffective legislating threaten Mosley in LD5 primary

Rep. Paul Mosley (R-Lake Havasu City) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Rep. Paul Mosley (R-Lake Havasu City) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

A crowded Republican primary race in Legislative District 5 and friction among the candidates could pose a threat to Rep. Paul Mosley’s run for a second term in the House.

The Lake Havasu City Republican is facing off against seatmate Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, political newcomer Leo Biasiucci and Jennifer Jones-Esposito, who is making a third attempt for a seat in the Arizona House, in the August 28 primary.

Republican political consultant Chuck Coughlin said while it’s hard to knock out an incumbent in a primary, the LD5 GOP primary is a competitive race.

He said Mosley is a freshman lawmaker, which is generally when incumbents are most vulnerable, and he hasn’t made many friends at the Capitol.

Laurence Schiff, chairman of the Mohave County Republican Party, said that while incumbents tend to win because they have name recognition, an established voting record and financial support from lobbyists and political action committees, Mosley could face an uphill battle.

Schiff said Mosley is the most conservative of the four candidates, a plus in one of the reddest districts statewide, but he has been criticized for being hard to work with at the Legislature. That reputation has made it difficult for Mosley to get bills onto the governor’s desk, Schiff said.

Just a few of Mosley’s bills were signed into law this year. One of his measures, HB2459, which would establish a $250 individual income tax credit for each qualifying child a taxpayer claims as a dependent, was defeated in the House, 18-39, on reconsideration, faring worse than it did the first time around when it failed 20-38. He had tried all that week but failed to garner enough support for the bill, he told colleagues on the floor the day of the vote.

Mosley has also been slammed with allegations of financial impropriety during his time at a brokerage firm, Schiff said, and challenger Biasiucci accused Mosley earlier this year of stealing his nominating petitions from a Lake Havasu City gun shop. Mosley has denied both allegations.

Schiff said while those claims have mostly blown over, there are people in Lake Havasu City who don’t support Mosley and who could give an edge to Biasiucci or Jones-Esposito.

When Jones-Esposito ran in 2012, Schiff said, she lived on the southern end of LD5 in Quartzite and was relatively unknown in Mohave County. Since moving to Kingman, he said, she has gained name recognition and now she also has more experience running a political campaign.

Schiff said Biasiucci has also positioned himself as a serious candidate this year. He described Biasiucci as “a very attractive candidate,” adding that he is young, charismatic, and well-spoken. And he said the Lake Havasu City resident is getting help from Rep. Cobb and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, who have “taken him under their wing.”

Cobb told the Arizona Capitol Times that she urged Biasiucci to run for the House. Though she said she isn’t running on a slate with him, she has held meet-and-greet and fundraising events with him and Borrelli throughout the district.

However, Schiff said Biasiucci ran as a Green Party candidate for the House in 2014 and only recently became a Republican, also at Cobb’s urging, and that could hurt his chances in the extremely conservative district.

“He talks about taking conservative positions but he doesn’t have a voting record, so you never know,” he said.

Former state Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, is less convinced that the crowded field will impact Mosley’s re-election chances.

He said any allegations that have been leveled against Mosley are most likely only known among political insiders, and he said people who are attending events put on by the other candidates were likely already supporters.

He said the race will come down to who has the most money and how effective the candidates are at getting their message out to voters.

“The real battle is in the mailbox and in the media,” he said.

Mosley said he’s unfazed by the competition or by Cobb’s and Borrelli’s apparent support for Biasiucci in the LD5 House race. He said his relationship with Cobb has never been great and he isn’t surprised she urged Biasiucci to run.

He said he is far more conservative than the other candidates and said his voting record speaks for itself. He pointed to his A+ rating with the Center for Arizona Policy, Arizona Free Enterprise Club and the National Rifle Association as examples of his conservative record.

Still, he was snubbed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which only endorsed Cobb for LD5 House, and the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Cobb and Biasiucci. Neither group endorsed Mosley in 2016.

“I don’t see them as a threat,” Mosley said. “I’m on the right side of all of the issues. As long as the voters know my ratings and where I stand on the issues, I’m not threatened at all.”

Bills would prohibit landowners from transferring private property to feds


Fearing an eroding tax base, two Republican legislators are leading efforts to block private individuals from transferring property to the federal government.

The identical proposals by Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley and Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City would prohibit the sale, gift, grant or any transfer of an ownership interest in private land “without the express, affirmative consent of the Legislature and the governor.”

But both SB1046 and HB2092 also contain language that suggests larger issues may be at work, including language about forging “a political solution” that could require the federal government to give up some of what it already owns.

At the heart of the issue is the complaint that the federal government already controls too much of the state’s land.

Mark Finchem
Mark Finchem

“We’ve only got 16 percent of our land that we can use for property tax,” Finchem told Capitol Media Services, with the balance being public and tribal lands. And that 16%, he said, is all the state has to fund critical services like education, public safety, infrastructure and welfare.

The immediate goal, Finchem said, is to stop further erosion.

“We can’t afford to have one acre go into federal possession and be off the tax rolls,” he said. The legislation, Finchem said, ensures that any future transfers have the approval of the majority of the Legislature and the governor.

Many lawmakers have been complaining about the lack of private lands now for years. But Finchem said that current activities in Congress made this legislation especially critical.

That involves the Land and Water Conservation Fund which was established in 1964 to create recreation and conservation areas. That includes protecting national parks and forests and providing public access to rivers and lakes.

The law authorizes the fund at $900 million a year, financed largely from federal oil and gas leases on offshore drilling.

What has happened, though, is the annual appropriation becomes part of the budget negotiation process in Washington D.C. The result often is less than that, with the allocation for the 2019 fiscal year at $506.6 million.

Legislation pending in the U.S. House would make full funding automatic and perennial without further congressional authorization. And that worries Finchem.

“They would like to buy more land,” he said.

What that automatic appropriation would do, Finchem said, is get around fights over presidential action to set aside land for national monuments.

He specifically cited the decision of the Obama administration to create the Bears Ears National Monument, a move that would have protected about 1.35 million acres in Utah from certain activities, including mining. That was partially reversed by President Trump, who slashed the monument to slightly more than 200,000 acres.

Finchem said the federal legislation, HR3195, would allow creation of new federal lands in ways that shield them from these political and legal fights.

“There is a certain group in Congress that has figured out, well, if we buy the land, then we’re good,” he said. “That can’t be undone.”

While Finchem can’t affect what happens in Washington, he figures his legislation can ensure that federal agencies don’t use all that new money to buy up more Arizona private property and take it off the tax rolls – at least not without legislative and gubernatorial consent.

Taylor McKinnon, senior public lands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks the legislation is a bad idea. He said the Land and Water Conservation Fund has paid for thousands of state and local projects.

“It’s troubling that legislators in the Grand Canyon state don’t seem to grasp the natural and economic values of Arizona’s spectacular public lands,” he said. McKinnon said that “misguided attempts” to restrict conservation efforts threaten the state’s $1.4 billion outdoor recreation industry and local economies tied to that.

Underlying much of the dispute of this is the fact that Arizona and many other Western states were admitted to the Union under the condition that the federal government retained title to much of the land.

Finchem contends that is neither fair nor legal, particularly given that other states were admitted without similar conditions.

“We were told we were going to be a state (and) we’d be completely a state,” he said.

“And we’re not,” Finchem said. “We’re still treated like a territory.”

His legislation says there is “historical evidence” that both Arizona and the federal government, expected in 1912 when Arizona became a state, that public lands within the state would be “disposed of consistent with past practice.” And it says that there also is evidence that there was never an intent of the federal government to forever retain holdings within states.

“I would love to have them give back what they have taken from us,” Finchem said.

“That is a direct positive impact for public education because that land goes back on the tax rolls.”

But how would that happen?

“I don’t know,” Finchem conceded. “That would have to be a negotiation with the feds.”

Borrelli again targets medical marijuana dispensary kitchens

Deposit Photo
Deposit Photo

A state GOP senator wants to allow the Arizona Department of Health Services to inspect medical marijuana kitchens without giving notice and blames the marijuana industry for killing the same effort last session.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, introduced his first bill of the 2020 legislative session hoping to address concerns over how marijuana edibles are created in those kitchens. Last session, he enlisted Sen. Paul Boyer to sponsor the bill for him, hoping he would have better luck getting the three-fourths vote needed to amend the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act because it is voter protected. 

Not a single Democrat in the Senate voted for the SB1222 on the floor February 18, and none of the 13 members gave a reason why they refused to support it. 

Borrelli believes it’s because the dispensaries persuaded them to kill the measure.

“They have no clear-cut reason why to vote ‘no’ other than the marijuana industry doesn’t want any oversight whatsoever,” Borrelli said. 

When it passed through committee none of the Democrats said a word, and on the Senate floor only the Senate Minority Whip Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, spoke, but not to provide any inkling as to why she was voting no. Otondo, instead, chose to take issue with Borrelli’s choice of words on whether marijuana does in fact have medicinal value. Borrelli and Boyer were the only other senators to speak at all. Boyer, R-Glendale, said he still doesn’t understand why it did not have the support from the Democrats. 

Otondo could not be reached for comment. 

Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, thought his caucus opposed the measure because the bill would give oversight of the inspections to the Department of Agriculture instead of DHS, but Boyer shot that down. 

That was only something discussed as a possibility after the bill failed, he said. 

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)
Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)

Borrelli is more hopeful his bill that he sponsored himself will make it through since in the interim there was a DHS audit pointing to problems the department has had when it comes to witnessing the creation of marijuana edibles in dispensary kitchens. 

As it stands, dispensaries get advance notice of inspections, and the DHS audit found that kitchens always happened to be closed at the time of inspections. Borrelli’s bill eliminates the advance notice making it so inspections would be random like they are for any other industry.

“[Inspectors] can go into everything from a Burger King to an abortion clinic unannounced – but not a dispensary,” Borrelli said, adding that if any other industry received notice before an inspection it would be ridiculous.

“I’m going to inspect your illegal gambling operation on Thursday at three o’clock, is that OK with you,” Borrelli said. “You’re going to get there and people will just be playing dominoes and chess.”

This is the only business that enjoys that huge benefit, Borrelli said. 

The Smart and Safe Arizona Act, an effort to legalize adult use marijuana on next year’s ballot, also would address Borrelli’s concern over advance notice of inspections. It says DHS should make “at least one unannounced visit annually” to each licensed facility. 

Pele Peacock Fischer, the Arizona Dispensaries Association lobbyist, said the association was going through a transition period between lobbyists when the bill failed so no association lobbyist influenced the Senate Democrats on how to vote.

She said a potential reason why it failed could be because the Legislature wanted to wait to see what happened with the State v. Jones case at the Arizona Supreme Court, which eventually determined on May 28 marijuana concentrates could be used as medicine. 

In the other chamber, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said in July her caucus would happily help get the three-fourths vote necessary to close the loophole, noting that they supported new marijuana testing requirements, and don’t want to put medical marijuana patients’ health at risk as the audit suggested.

If legislation would make it through the House and Senate, Tim Sultan, the Arizona Dispensaries Association executive director, said they would not stand in the way. 

Borrelli badgers woman over ballots, ridicules Republicans

File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)
File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)

The Arizona Senate’s Republican whip attempted to pressure a woman who went dumpster-diving for ballots into handing documents she found over to him instead of law enforcement and implied both of them could be killed for trying to expose fraud.

During the 30-minute conversation, a recording of which was shared with the Arizona Capitol Times, Borrelli called multiple other Republican politicians “corrupt cowards,” said he was the sole senator pushing to investigate the 2020 election and repeatedly told Staci Burk, a plaintiff in an losing lawsuit to overturn election results, that she could be arrested or killed. 

“I might get arrested or whatever,” Borrelli said. “I’m going to get ridiculed in the press. I don’t give a damn. I wanna save this fricking country.” 

Over the weekend, Burk posted photos of two men, one of whom has since been identified as Vietnam veteran Earl Shafer, climbing into a set of dumpsters outside the Maricopa County elections department, removing a yellow trash bag of shredded paper and piecing together documents that appeared to be completed 2020 ballots. 

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer said the county’s 2.1 million completed 2020 ballots were still locked in a vault, as required by state law, adding that the shredded papers could have been ballots cast by deceased voters. 

“I have no explanation for how a voted ballot could be there and we do not believe there were voted ballots in there,” he said. “We’re 100 percent confident that they’re not part of the 2.1 million voted ballots.”

Upon learning about the incident — which was first published in right-wing websites that did not give the county a chance to respond — the Attorney General’s Office tried contacting Burk and Shafer to obtain the shredded papers. So far, they have not handed over the documents, a spokesman said.  

Borrelli did not return multiple phone calls about the recording.

Burk, after speaking to Borrelli, created a GoFundMe account asking for $20,000 to cover her legal costs and saying senators warned her that she would be killed or arrested on false charges. So far, she has raised just $200.

Burk is also self-funding a lawsuit against Gov. Doug Ducey, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, all five Maricopa County supervisors and former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes. Her lawsuit, dubbed the “Arizona Kraken 2.0” made claims that ballots were delivered from South Korea.

A Pinal County judge threw out her lawsuit because Burk was not a registered voter. It’s pending appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. 

During their call, Borrelli repeatedly warned Burk that she was in danger. Arizona is the “domino” that will expose corruption across the country and overturn the election, he insisted. 

“This is so high level that they want this to go away,” he said. “They can try to silence you – you’re a private citizen. They can’t do anything to me. They can bully me all they want but they know they can’t take me out except if they whack me or I have a suicide.”

“If anything fricking happened to me, if I got hurt, if I got killed, this whole thing would go away because there’s nobody in the Senate that would push,” he added.  

During the call, Borrelli called multiple fellow Republicans, including the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and new county recorder Stephen Richer “corrupt cowards,” said he was “really disappointed” in former lawmaker and new Maricopa County treasurer John Allen.

He also mentioned Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert,  and criticized Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale. 

“Warren? Heh. I don’t want to go on and on about Warren. He’s the chairman of the judiciary committee, he inherited this and he reluctantly got involved.” Borrelli said. 

It was Boyer’s  “no” vote on a contempt resolution that stopped the Senate from sending its sergeant at arms to arrest the county supervisors for not turning over ballots and election equipment they contended they could not legally provide.

“He stabbed us all in the back,” he said. 

And he let his feelings known about the Maricopa County supervisors, who fought the senate subpoenas.  

“They’re the corrupt bastards that I want to go — I want them in freaking jail,” Borrelli said. “I want them in jail, you have no idea how much.”

He also repeatedly claimed that Attorney General Mark Brnovich, also a Republican, would let the election materials “evaporate” if Burk shared them. 

“Do you turn it over to the attorney general that’s been turning his back and not lifting a finger?” Borrelli asked. “By the way, they probably have an incentive to make it all go away. I don’t.”

Later in the conversation, he said he couldn’t get other senators, including Senate President Karen Fann, to commit to investigating and protecting Burk as a whistleblower.

“I don’t trust any of those people,” he said. “The reason why we are where we are is because I’ve been a pain in the ass in the Senate and wasn’t going to let this go. Trust me, there are people who would fold like a lawn chair if I let this go.”

Borrelli said he has been in touch with Sidney Powell and Kurt Olsen, two attorneys who worked on multiple lawsuits filed by Trump allies trying to overturn election results. Olsen told him about new technology that would piece together shredded documents, which Borrelli compared to Iranian rugmakers reassembling shredded CIA documents after seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

At other points in the conversation, Borrelli lost his temper with Burk, who insisted that the Senate wouldn’t do anything to help her and claimed to have heard two weeks before the Senate’s failed contempt vote — and therefore more than a week before the Senate drafted its contempt resolution — that lawmakers had a secret meeting in which they decided to stage a 15-15 vote. 

“You don’t think this is part of a cover-up?” Borrelli asked her at one point. 

“Oh, I think it’s a cover-up,” she responded. “But I think the whole legislature is involved.”

Borrelli has insisted that the election was fraudulent since early November. On Nov. 10, he caused callers from across the country to flood a fellow senator’s legislative office, campaign phone number and personal cell phone with irate messages interrogating whether his race was proof of fraud — all because incumbent Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard won his East Valley swing district when Trump lost it. 

More recently, he has made multiple appearances on conservative podcasts and radio shows complaining that Boyer “betrayed the caucus,” contributing to a rash of threats against Boyer that got so bad he briefly moved his family out of their home.

Borrelli’s comments also run in opposition to what other Senate Republicans have tried hard to argue: that their attempts to audit the 2020 election have nothing to do with changing the results.

Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray said in a floor speech he and others were never trying to overturn the election. The Peoria Republican said he was “inundated with people’s input” and it was mostly about an audit.

“You didn’t see any of us trying to change electors,” Gray said on Feb. 4.

Fontes, the former Democratic Maricopa County recorder who lost his re-election bid, said Borrelli should apologize. 

“Mr. Borrelli’s suicide jokes during this incredibly stressful pandemic are irresponsible and lack the maturity, empathy and leadership we should expect from our public officials,”  he said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Boyer, with help, nixes six election bills

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, speaks at an event hosted by Arizona Talks at Greenwood Brewing in Phoenix on March 1, 2022. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Senate President Karen Fann pleaded with her chamber on March 9.  

“I am hoping that a couple more people might change their votes,” the Prescott Republican said as the chamber voted to kill Senate Bill 1629. “I believe that this is a good bill, and it’s a good bill for all the right reasons.” 

Senate Bill 1629 is one of the most wide-ranging election bills that the Senate voted on earlier this week. But it turned out to be a frustrating few days for the Republican Senators who’ve talked for months about using the 2022 legislative session to make substantial changes to Arizona election laws in the wake of the 2020 election audit. 

Several of the bills that failed this week were opposed by the Senate Democrats plus Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale. The GOP’s 16-14 Senate majority means Boyer’s willingness to play spoiler is enough to kill legislation on its own. 

Michelle Ugenti-Rita

But Boyer was also joined by, at different moments, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, and Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, in nixing election laws supported by most of their caucus. Rogers declined to comment on her vote. (Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, voted against one of her own election bills but said she did it so she can bring the bill back for reconsideration.) 

On March 7, Fann couldn’t muster the votes for three bills that would have added rules about the pens used by voters, the way hand audits are conducted and the Attorney General’s election enforcement powers. 

Boyer alone blocked Senate Bill 1475, which sought to give the AG enforcement authority over federal elections. (For now, the office is tasked with enforcing the law just for state elections.) Ugenti-Rita and Boyer voted down Senate Bill 1478, which would have prohibited counties from handing out pens that could bleed through ballot paper, and Senate Bill 1358, which would have added some additional leg work on hand-count audits in counties that use voting centers. 

On March 9 the Senate considered another slate of election laws including Senate Bill 1629. 

The bill was introduced in late January, on the same day that House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, killed another piece of election legislation in dramatic fashion. House Bill 2596 would have all but eliminated early voting, required a hand count of ballots, and given the legislature power to accept or reject election results. Bowers assigned the bill to all 12 House committees, effectively ensuring the full chamber would never even get the chance to vote on it. 

Senate Bill 1629 was received as a potentially more moderate approach to election legislation that still would have pleased fans of last year’s partisan election audit like Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, who was the prime sponsor of the bill. Another 12 Senate Republicans co-sponsored the bill, which would require more frequent election audits, add regulations on ballot drop boxes and change how election officers are trained. In Maricopa and Pima counties, it would require biannual audits by the Auditor General’s Office – and the bill includes a $4.6 million appropriation to the office for election audits. 

Boyer said he supported provisions of the bill relating to ballot images and voter roll maintenance but couldn’t stomach the time and resource costs of the additional audits. “I would like to see the other two pieces move forward if that’s possible, but as far as it stands, because of the auditor general piece, I can’t support this, so I vote no.” he said. 

In total, nine election bills came to the Senate floor and died there this week, but that doesn’t mean we’ve seen that last of them. Borrelli and Townsend are both committed to bringing back their election bills this session. It’s possible they can get Ugenti-Rita on board. 

Ugenti-Rita said after the vote that her objection to the election bills is that the language in some seem to overlap or contradict one another.  “You don’t just throw a bunch of stuff on the board haphazardly,” Ugenti-Rita said. “How these things are drafted, the unintended consequences, how they’re going to be implemented matters, and I care very much about the quality of the policy.”  

She confirmed that if the language is cleared up to her satisfaction, she could swing to a ‘yes’ vote, but Boyer is seemingly set on his ‘no’ votes and can continue to kill these bills without other Republicans in his corner. 

On March 9, Fann waited about 10 seconds after her plea for Senators who’d voted ‘no’ to switch to ‘yes’ on Senate Bill 1629. Then she decided that it wasn’t going to happen. “It appears I have no one changing their vote,” she said with a resigned chuckle. “It’s a sad day. I’m sorry that we could not make these changes for the benefit of the voters.” 


Brnovich at arm’s length in election suit

In this Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court has rejected Republicans' last-gasp bid to reverse Pennsylvania’s certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the electoral battleground. The court without comment Tuesday, Dec. 8, refused to call into question the certification process in Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
In this Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, the Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Arizona is seeking a voice in the lawsuit Texas has brought against some other states won by President-elect Joe Biden.

But exactly who Attorney General Mark Brnovich will side with remains unclear.

In legal papers filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, Brnovich said he wants to file a brief to argue the importance of “election integrity.” And he said he wants a quick decision in the case.

What’s telling, though, is that Brnovich is not joining with 17 other Republican attorneys general who filed their own brief with the Supreme Court siding with Texas. That asks the justices to back Texas in its bid to block a final vote by the Electoral College while the court considers allegations that illegal changes in laws in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin created the opportunity for fraud.

Instead, Brnovich aide Ryan Anderson said his boss wants to ensure that any ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court about laws and rules that govern election laws – in this case, in particular, about the presidential race – do not undermine Arizona’s own regulations. And Anderson said as far as his boss is concerned, Arizona does elections right, which is why it wasn’t sued by Texas as were the four other states where, like Arizona, Biden won the popular vote.

“Had Arizona been sued, that would have put our office in a situation where we would have had to decide what we would have filed and what we would have done,” Anderson said. That would have put Brnovich in the position of having to defend not only the state but the election – and Biden’s win – against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Mark Brnovich
Mark Brnovich

And Anderson left no question about what Brnovich thinks of how Arizona conducted the election.

“The Arizona attorney general will not be advocating to overturn the election results in Arizona,” he said.

Anderson said Brnovich does share one sentiment with his Texas counterpart.

“We all agree that the integrity of our elections are important,” he said. “And there are too many Americans who do not trust the outcome of the election.”

But Anderson said that Arizona’s interest in the legal fight is different than that of the other Republican attorneys general.

The lawsuit filed by Paxton charges that changes made this year to election procedures in the four battleground states, many due to the impact of the pandemic, are illegal.

In essence, he said that the changes, some enacted by courts, weakened ballot-integrity statutes. And that, in turn, has created the opportunity for fraud, though he does not allege any actual instances where that has occurred.

Courts in each of those states have dismissed similar claims. But Paxton is arguing that it is the responsibility of the nation’s highest court to intercede and declare that the procedures used in those four states were illegal and therefore the results should not be allowed to stand.

Anderson said it is noteworthy that Texas did not sue Arizona despite the fact that the election returns, which remain standing after several legal challenges, are awarding the state’s 11 electoral votes to Biden.

He said some of that is due to the fact that Brnovich has fought off various efforts to allow last-minute changes in election laws, ranging from how county election officials have to handle unsigned early ballots to extending the deadline for people registering to vote.

Anderson said it’s not clear the Supreme Court will even consider the Texas petition. But he said if the justices take it up, Brnovich wants to be sure that any ruling they issue respects the interests of Arizona.

Those interests, he said, is that the justices recognize and affirm that it is the legislature that has prime say over how elections are conducted and not courts or even officials of the executive branch.

That’s crucial because Arizona already has some of the laws that the Texas lawsuit says are lacking or were ignored elsewhere.

For example, Paxton complained that some states do not require that signatures on envelopes with early ballots be compared with records on file. Arizona requires matching of all envelopes received.

He also said that some states “flooded their citizenry with tens of millions of ballot applications and ballots,” ignoring normal controls. Arizona, by contrast, sends early ballots only to those who request them, whether on an election-by-election basis or by signing up on the permanent early voting list.

Brnovich is not the only Arizona elected official weighing in at the Supreme Court.

Ten state representatives and three senators, all Republicans, joined with counterparts from Alaska and Idaho on Thursday filed their own brief in support of Texas.

“An elite group of sitting Democrat officers in each of the defendant states coordinated with the Democrat party to illegally and unconstitutionally change the rules established by the legislature in the defendant states, thereby depriving the people of their states a free and fair election — the very basis of a republican form of government,” they charged through their attorneys.

The representatives are Nancy Barto, Frank Carroll, John Fillmore, Mark Finchem, Travis Granthan, Anthony Kern, David Livingston, Steve Pierce, Bret Roberts and Kelly Townsend. The senators are Sylvia Allen, Sonny Borrelli and David Gowan.





Cities can limit fireworks under new law

In this photo taken on Wednesday, July 2, 2014, Brian Herrman, a co-owner of Red Hot Fireworks in Phoenix, puts new items on the shelves. Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation allowing cities to restrict fireworks at certain times. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Cities and towns around the state will have another tool available to rein in fireworks use later this year after Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that lets municipalities regulate their use overnight.

That could trigger a wave of ordinances in communities like Mesa and Glendale that have been trying to clamp down on fireworks, especially around the Fourth of July and New Year celebrations.

“As soon as we can, we would start having those types of conversations about implementing an ordinance to take advantage of the new statute,” said Ian Linssen, a government affairs assistant for the city of Mesa.

The law, Senate Bill 1275, allows municipalities to prohibit fireworks between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. On the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve the prohibition can’t start until 1 a.m. Existing statutes largely tied the hands of municipalities by prohibiting fireworks bans from May 4 to May 6; June 24 to July 6; December 24 to January 3; and some days of the Diwali festival.

“In recent years, those numbers of complaints – of social media messages, of other forms of outreach – have gone up,” Linssen said.

On the other side of the Valley, Glendale has the same problem, according to Deputy City Manager Rick St. John. Last year, the city’s Police Department received 327 calls related to fireworks in the days around July 4, he said. Glendale enacted a noise ordinance and policed illegal fireworks sales, but they couldn’t outright ban the legal fireworks that still frustrated residents.

“We get a lot of complaints. Our council members get a lot of complaints,” St. John said. Ryan Lee, a policy adviser for Glendale, said the council will likely enact additional local rules in keeping with the state law.

The bill is an example of the Legislature giving a nod to the value of local control and marks a step in the opposite direction from previous efforts to expand permissible fireworks activities in the state.

(Cronkite News Service Photo by Rebekah Zemansky)

Tom Belshe, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said the fireworks legislation was one of the organization’s policy priorities for this year and he was glad lawmakers agreed to turn over some power to municipalities for fireworks regulation.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, but it garnered the support of more Democrats than Republicans. It passed the Senate 23-6, with 12 Democrats and 11 Republicans in favor. In the House, it passed 36-21, with all the “no” votes coming from GOP representatives.

Some Republicans, like Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said they were willing to support the bill because the timeframe specified in the legislation means municipalities’ power is limited. “I think this is a very reasonable time – I would’ve put more like 10 o’clock … you’ve got to be able to give the cities some tools to try to bring tranquility to the neighborhoods,” he said in a committee meeting last month.

Not everyone agreed. Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said municipalities don’t need more power than they’ve got to manage the issue.

“I think they have lots of tools to keep their residents in line and I’m just not a fan of giving them more,” she said at the same meeting.

The bill was also supported by animal rights groups, who say that pets can run away and get lost, wander into the street or end up in dangerous heat when they’re scared by fireworks.

“Our hope is that not only will it mitigate pets who have a fear of fireworks fleeing from their homes during the fireworks… but then also really help alleviate the strain that animal shelters see due to fireworks,” said Bretta Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society. She said local shelters are often “overwhelmed” by an influx of pets who’ve gone missing around the Fourth of July and sometimes around New Year’s Eve.

The bill is a scaled-back version of one that passed through the House last year but stalled in the Senate. Last year’s bill would have allowed municipalities to prohibit fireworks from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. and didn’t include the extended hours for July 4 and New Year’s Eve. 

Still, it marks a shift from fireworks laws enacted over the past decade. In 2014, legislators added explicit permission to use fireworks from June 24 to July 6 and December 24 to January 3 and a 2015 rewrite of the fireworks code preserved those dates, blocking cities from enacting bans during those periods. In 2019, they added permitted-use dates in May and during the festival of Diwali and added a new category of permitted fireworks: “adult snappers.” 

Enforcement of any local laws stemming from Senate Bill 1275 could be another issue, however. St. John said that when Glendale police respond to calls about illegal fireworks, they typically arrive after the show is over, meaning the cops don’t witness the illegal activity. They’re likely to run into the same issue with future complaints about firework use during prohibited overnight hours. 

“That’s always been the sticking point,” he said. 

But St. John said Glendale has a plan to use fireworks complaints as part of a larger legal effort. “What we’re going to do, probably this Fourth of July, is take a case forward to our city court that is a recorded event,” he said, adding that the goal is to force a judge to decide whether a video taken by a resident and then reviewed by a police officer can satisfy state evidentiary standards. 

Community colleges to stay with only 2-year degrees

Arizona tied Alaska for lowest graduation rates in 2013, when just 29 percent of students were able to earn a four-year degree within six years of starting. (Photo by JECO Photo via flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by JECO Photo via flickr/Creative Commons)

Arizona’s community colleges won’t be offering four-year degrees, at least not in the immediate future.

On a 3-6 vote Tuesday the Senate Education Committee quashed legislation which would have allowed these colleges to start offering baccalaureate degrees. The 3-6 vote came despite the same measure having gained bipartisan House approval last month on a 42-18 margin.

Rep. Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, the prime sponsor, argued that the current system requires rural students who want four-year degrees to leave their homes. That not only affects families, she said, but undermines efforts to promote local economic development.

She said nothing in HB2790 would force any community college to expand its reach. But Nutt said many of these already have buildings and other infrastructure in place that would allow them to start offering four-year degrees without any new investment and without raising local taxes.

Larry Penley, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, told lawmakers there is no real need.

He said the state’s three universities already have working relationships with community colleges around the state, partnering with them in ways to offer four-year degrees. And he said there even is reduced tuition for university courses that are taught on community college campuses.

But Keith Alexander, assistant to the president of Eastern Arizona College, said much of what’s taught is by computer links. He said that’s no substitute for actually having faculty on campus.

And Alexander said there are gaps in what kind of degrees are available in his rural community.

“We have jobs that are not filled there, the majority of those requiring bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “And there aren’t people there to fill them.”

None of the legislators who voted against the proposal disputed there may be needs, particularly in rural areas, for additional paths to a four-year degree. But their concern was the breadth of the legislation, opening the door – without restriction – to community colleges being able to offer any degree they want.

“Just simply opening the gates … creating a Dodge City atmosphere where you could have multiple nursing programs, multiple accredited programs, you could have all kinds of unhealthy competition,” said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix.

She said there may be some options. But this bill, Brophy McGee said, is not it.

“This has to be put together thoughtfully, carefully,” she said, perhaps with more study and a pilot program.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, however, said he looks at it from the perspective of students.

“This helps out low-income families,” he said, with degrees at community colleges likely to cost far less than what universities charge. And Borrelli said he was not concerned about the effect on universities, suggesting if they were forced to compete they might lower their own costs.

But Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said that’s making an assumption. He pointed out that there is nothing in the legislation that precludes community colleges, granted the ability to offer four-year degrees, do not raise their tuition.

That possibility of higher tuition didn’t impress Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. She said universities, which have no state-mandated cap on tuition, have been increasing tuition now for decades.

Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, said not every community college in the state wants this authority. She suggested the issue needs further study.

That did not go down well with Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City.

“It’s been talked at for decades now, decades!” he said. “From the last century, it’s been talked about.”

Gray did acknowledge, though, that the bill in its current form probably needed some work.


Court orders Senate to turn over audit records, appeal likely to come

Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are being examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)
Maricopa County ballots cast in the 2020 general election are being examined and recounted by contractors working for Florida-based company, Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Thursday, April 29, 2021. (Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic via AP, Pool)

A judge has ordered the Senate to immediately produce the records it has related to the audit of the 2020 election — even those in the hands of Cyber Ninjas Inc., the private firm hired to conduct the review.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp on Tuesday rejected last-ditch arguments by the Senate and Karen Fann, its president, that he should hold off issuing a final order. The judge said there is no need for further litigation, saying that the question involves “undisputed issue of fact.”

And the fact is, he said, the records are public.

More significant, Kemp rejected arguments by the Senate that it is immune to being sued over the records.

Despite the order, however, it could be some time before American Oversight, the self-described nonpartisan watchdog group which is seeking the records, actually gets them. Attorney Kory Langhofer, who represents the Senate, said he will seek an immediate stay of Kemp’s order from the state Court of Appeals.

And even if that fails, the fact remains that some of the documents that Kemp ordered the Senate to produce are in the hands of Cyber Ninjas.

“I can’t produce something I don’t have,” Fann told Capitol Media Services.

Kemp, however, was not impressed.

“Defendants’ claim that they have not even seen the documents of Cyber Ninjas Inc. and its subvendors does nothing to advance their position,” he wrote. “Willful blindness does not relieve Senate defendants from their duties and obligations under the public records law.”

Less clear is whether records produced will give Arizonans a better look at who really is funding the audit.

Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan released a report last week listing what he says are groups that contributed more than $5.6 million, above and beyond the $150,000 spent by the Senate. But those groups, mostly tied to Trump or organizations that allege conspiracies in the 2020 election, are not required under federal law to list their individual donors.

A spokesman for Logan said there would be no further details released. There is no indication whether Cyber Ninjas has that information and whether it would be provided through the public records.

The court order comes as Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, has asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate the refusal of Maricopa County to comply with the latest subpoena, including production of the county’s routers that direct computer traffic.

A spokesman for Brnovich confirmed the request. But it remains unclear, however, whether the attorney general has any power to get involved.

It is true that Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Thomasson ruled earlier this year that the Senate is legally entitled to the information it is seeking. And Thomasson brushed aside a series of contentions by the county that the subpoena was not valid.

Thomasson said, however, the remedy for enforcing that subpoena rests with the Senate itself which has the power to hold anyone who does not comply in contempt. That same statute also says that someone who refuses to comply can be arrested by the Senate sergeant-at-arms.

But, at least for the moment, Fann lacks the necessary 16 votes to get that contempt citation.

Fann is undeterred, saying Tuesday she believes the Senate has other legal methods of getting what it wants. She declined, however, to spell them out just now.

“When it’s all ready to be tied up in a little bow we will do that,” Fann said.

In the meantime Fann now faces the new court order which, unless stayed or overturned by the appellate court, appears to give her little wiggle room.

Fann said the Senate has responded to public records requests with everything it has. But she has argued that materials held by Cyber Ninjas are not subject to those disclosure laws.

Kemp disagreed, saying that the audit is “an important public function” being conducted by the Senate, making Cyber Ninjas and the firms it hired “clearly agents of the Senate.”

That didn’t stop the Senate’s lawyers from saying that there needs to be more evidence presented — and more legal arguments — before Kemp could issue a final order requiring disclosure. But the judge, in his newest order, made it clear that this was a simple matter and he had heard all he needs.

“The courts, rather than government officials, are the final arbiter of what qualifies as a public record,” Kemp wrote.

“Whether a document is a public record under Arizona’s public records law presents a question of law,” he continued. “Further discovery or more legal briefing will not alter, enhance or diminish the court’s findings on this narrow legal issue.”

Nor was Kemp impressed by the claim that the Senate is immune from claims under the public records law.

“Legislators are protected from liability for their ‘words spoken in debate,’ ” the judge said, quoting from state constitutional provisions. And he acknowledged that lawmakers also are immune from being sued personally for their legislative acts.

But what’s at issue here, Kemp said, is a request by American Oversight for a court order compelling the Senate to comply with its duties and obligations under the public records law.

“The verified complaint is in no way a tort claim against any member of the Senate for personal liability in their individual capacities,” he wrote.

“The proposed order and the court’s findings do not, in any way, interfere with or dictate how the legislature conducts its business or its deliberative process,” Kemp continued. “The court is not dictating how the audit is conducted nor interfering in the audit process in any way.”

The judge also pointed out that Fann herself, in earlier court hearings, said the audit is a legislative function within its role under the Arizona Constitution. That means the records involved in conducting it are clearly public and do not fall within the immunity of state lawmakers.

“Such a broad interpretation would render the public records law meaningless as to any legislator at any time under any circumstances,” Kemp said. “This is surely not within the legislative intent of the public records law.”



Ducey agrees to forgo emergency powers to get vote on budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly Townsend
Kelly Townsend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ducey gets proposed ban on private funds for elections

In this Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
In this Oct. 23, 2019, file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Republican legislators voted April 7 to block counties from applying for private grants to make up for shortfalls in what they say they need to properly run elections. 

The 16-14 party-line vote by the Senate for HB2569 came as GOP lawmakers said that the more than $6 million in grants that nine counties got from Center for Tech and Civic Life in 2020 was really just a thinly disguised effort by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg to turn out more Democrats. The center gave out about $400 million to about 2,500 jurisdictions nationally, with reports by the organization showing the lion’s share came from Facebook founder Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. 

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, complained that the cash that ended up in Arizona went to “key swing” counties, notably the Phoenix and Tucson areas. 

“This was targeted in a way to really undermine the integrity of the system under the guise of trying to promote and get out the vote logistics,” Borrelli he said. 

But the record shows otherwise. While the two largest counties got the largest allocations, seven others also got financial help, including Graham, La Paz, Yuma, and Pinal counties where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats. 

And Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, pointed out that this wasn’t unrestricted cash dropped on county election officials but that, in each case, they had to apply and spell out how they would use the money. 

That money, said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, went for particular needs this year due to the Covid pandemic, like additional drop boxes, cleaning supplies, rent for polling places, temporary staff and personal protective equipment. 

“Those are basic necessities when you are administering elections,” he said. 

“There is zero evidence whatsoever that this money was used in any partisan manner,” Quezada continued. “It wasn’t just helping Democrat voters, it was helping Republican voters, it was helping independent voters.” 

But Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said the money received was above the adopted budgets for county recorders and was not needed to fill in gaps. 

“But beyond that, if this grant was coming from China or if this grant was coming from Russia, we might be calling it Russian interference with our elections,” she said. 

“So what is the difference between international money coming from a state overseas to an individual interested party, regardless of how it was spent and how desperately it was needed?” Townsend said. “It’s inappropriate.” 

That, however, still leaves the question of whether the counties had the money they needed. 

Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Cameron, said she has worked in a county elections office. 

“There are struggles of logistics and so many unknowns,” she said, even in the best of circumstances. 

In the 2020 election, Peshlakai said, the extra grant dollars went into brochures and public announcements in rural Arizona. 

More to the point, she said there were measures to keep people from getting ill from Covid during the election. 

“They put out tents, they put out water, hand washing stations, sanitizer,” Peshlakai said. “And in many places they even put up porta-potties because the remote locations they vote in places are where people don’t have facilities, running water.” 

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said it is “irrelevant” whether counties had enough money to run the 2020 election. He said the issue is the precedent being set. 

“This is about the future and whether or not in the future we’re going to allow big businesses to have a new tool in their arsenal for how they influence our elections,” Mesnard said. And he called it “alarming” that those who want more money for elections to say that it doesn’t matter what is the source. 

“If we don’t put a stop to this, if this becomes a trend, you’re going to see all kinds of very wealthy people engaging in this covert, behind-the-scenes” activity. 

Peshlakai, however, said if lawmakers are concerned about the influence of money, they should do more to curb the influence of cash to sway election results. Some of that, she said, is the result of the 2010 Citizens United case when the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that corporations had the same rights as individuals to donate to affect the outcome of elections. 

Mesnard had a different take on it. 

“This makes ‘dark money’ look like a bright day,” he said, referring to Arizona laws that allow special interest groups to try to elect candidates of their choice without having to disclose their donors. 

And he said the public is on his side. 

“When I talk to folks about, ‘Should we let Mark Zuckerberg start funding our elections,’ I have yet to find a single one who thinks that’s a good idea,” Mesnard said. 

The party-line vote sends the measure, which already has been approved by the House, to the governor. 


Counties that got outside funding for elections: 




La Paz$17,000 

Maricopa$2.9 million 





— Source: Arizona Association of Counties.  

An April 8 story incorrectly listed Yavapai County as one of the nine that received money from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The story should have read Yuma County. A corrected version appears below.






Ducey signs bill to allow hemp farming

Field of Hemp

Don’t be surprised if sometime next year you see acres and acres of what appears to be marijuana growing, unfenced, in the desert.

But don’t bother stopping to pick some to smoke.

Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday signed legislation that finally authorizes Arizona farmers to grow hemp. Proponents contend that the plant, which can produce things like fibers for clothing and oils for soaps, would give Arizona farmers some new options to make money off something that likely would grow well in the desert environment.

“This bill opens Arizona to the possibility of a new agricultural product,” the governor said in a prepared statement, saying the measure “could have a positive economic impact for the state.”

And it’s only taken nearly two decades to get here.

The issue isn’t so much industrial hemp. Instead it’s the fact that it really is a form of marijuana.

Prior legislation was sidelined amid questions of how law enforcement could differentiate between crops.

The law that takes effect next summer seeks to resolve that two ways.

First, it contains a clear chemical definition of what is not being made legal. That includes anything with a concentration of tetrahydrocannibinol, the psychoactive element of marijuana, of more than 0.3 percent.

“Expecting to get high on hemp is like expecting to get drunk on a case of O’Doul’s,” quipped Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, during debate on his legislation, referring to the non-alcoholic beer. “It’s a waste of time.”

Second, the only people who will be able to grow the crop are those who have permission of the state Department of Agriculture. The agency will not only be able to inspect the facilities but also prohibit the use of hemp seeds it has not specifically authorized.

And the agency is going to get $500,000 a year to hire inspectors and police the industry.

This change is a long time in coming.

The House and Senate actually voted in 2001 to allow the state’s universities to research industrial hemp as a cash crop, only to have the measure vetoed by then-Gov. Jane Hull, who said she didn’t want to spend public money on a project that “may detract from the goals I support.” Anyway, Hull pointed out that federal law prohibited the possession and growing of all forms of cannabis plants.

Legislation in 2002 to have research funded by commercial interests faltered even with sponsors having a press conference in front of an American flag made with hemp fibers.

Part of what changed is the 2014 federal Farm Bill which specifically allows universities and state to cultivate industrial hemp for research if allowed by state law and the grow sites are certified and registered by the state. And a 2015 federal law removed hemp from the list of controlled substances as long as its THC content did not exceed 0.3 percent.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports at least 35 states have now passed law related to industrial hemp.

Borrelli said hemp farming makes sense in a place like Arizona, where farmers could probably get four cuttings of the plant a year.

“It’s very economical,” he said, saying hemp uses 90 percent less water than cotton.

Even with all that, this year’s measure still raised questions. Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, wanted to know how law enforcement will know whether a crop is legit or not. Borrelli said the key is a grower or processor having proper credentials.

If not? “Then they’re going to go to jail,” he said.

Borrelli also said that context is important.

He said most of the marijuana being cultivated for medical use is grown in climate-controlled greenhouses. But hemp, Borrelli said, is likely to be found in an open field.

And Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, a former police officer, said law enforcement has access to field test kits that can quickly determine whether a plant is legal or otherwise.


Electors vote as lawmakers hold hearing on election

Stephen Roe Lewis, a member of Arizona's Electoral College, signs his name to the Arizona Presidential Electoral Ballot, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Stephen Roe Lewis, a member of Arizona’s Electoral College, signs his name to the Arizona Presidential Electoral Ballot, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Arizona’s 11 Democrat electors cast their votes Monday for Joe Biden even as the chairman of a Senate panel said he will issue subpoenas to check the accuracy of hardware and software that gave the Democrat the edge over President Trump.

Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said there are enough questions raised about whether the Dominion Voting Systems used in Maricopa County produced reliable results.

The announcement followed more than six hours of testimony at the Senate Judiciary Committee which led to a series of questions about whether the results can be trusted. And as Farnsworth said, that doesn’t even address other allegations that ballots were not properly handled and that observers from political parties did not have sufficient access to oversee what was going on.

It’s unlikely that anything that an audit turns up would affect the results of the election.

That would require either a court ruling overturning the results — something multiple judges have so far refused to do — or the full legislature trying to pick its own slate of electors. But both Senate President Karen Fann and House Speaker Rusty Bowers have said there does not appear to be a legal way to do that, even assuming lawmakers could call themselves into special session before Jan. 6 when Congress counts the electoral votes.

Even Farnsworth, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, suggested that this was simply a matter of addressing the various claims and doubts “and try and see if we can reinsert some confidence in our election process.”

Eddie Farnsworth
Eddie Farnsworth

“We hold and audit and we see what the outcome is,” he said. “And then we can put this to rest.”

Farnsworth said the subpoenas could be issued as early as Tuesday.

All this comes as the official slate of electors — the ones pledged to Biden — cast their votes and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs sent off the results to both Congress and the National Archives.

That, however, did not stop two other groups from filing reports that their “electors” had met and were supporting Trump.

One group consists of the 11 Republicans whose names were on the ballot as pledged to Trump, who lost the popular vote according to the certified results.

That vote was organized by the state GOP on the premise that those outstanding legal challenges to the Arizona tally could end up changing the final vote total. In essence, Kelli Ward, the party chair who is a litigant in both pending cases, believes that having the Trump-pledged electors voting on Monday — the date set in federal law — sends a slate of GOP electors to Congress should the cases go their way or Congress decides that their votes are the ones that should be counted and not those pledged to Biden.

But Hobbs aide Murphy Hebert said that’s meaningless.

“It’s clearly a political gesture,” she said. Hebert said Congress can acknowledge only those electors whose votes are accompanied by “letters of ascertainment” signed by Hobbs and Gov. Doug Ducey.

Separately, a group of self-proclaimed “sovereign citizens” filed their own slate of electors with the National Archives claiming they represent the state’s 11 electoral votes for Trump.

Documents obtained by Capitol Media Services show that Mesa resident Lori Osiecki submitted sworn statements for the 11 people “by authority & direction of the sovereign citizens of the great state of Arizona.” That comes complete with the use of the official state seal which in and of itself Hebert said is itself a violation of the law.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs removes her face mask as she addresses the members of Arizona's Electoral College prior to them casting their votes Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs removes her face mask as she addresses the members of Arizona’s Electoral College prior to them casting their votes Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“We absolutely anticipated there would be efforts to disrupt the system like this,” Hebert said. But she said the actual “votes” sent to Washington amount to little more than political theater.

“The statute is very, very clear: The slate of electors for the candidate with the most number of votes in the popular vote are the ones who represent the state in the Electoral College vote,” she said. And these were the 11 Democrats who took the official oath of office Monday morning and signed the certificate of votes.

And what of the “votes” sent off on behalf of either slate of 11 Republicans?

“Anybody can send a letter to the National Archives,” Hobbs said.

At the same time members of the Senate Judiciary were focused on Dominion Voting Systems used in the state’s largest county.

There have been a series of charges leveled against the company both here and nationally that the equipment and software were deliberately programmed to deliver more votes for Biden.

None of those complaints have been found valid by any court anywhere in the nation. But that didn’t stop lawmakers from asking and saying that there needs to be an independent audit and even a full hand count of all the ballots.

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, one of those who wants that 100% hand count, got Maricopa County Elections Director Scott Jarrett to acknowledge that Dominion workers had 24/7 access to his office and even, in certain circumstances, access to the equipment.

But Jarrett said there is no way to alter the codes in a way that would change the outcome.

Members of Arizona's Electoral College are sworn in prior to casting their votes Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Members of Arizona’s Electoral College are sworn in prior to casting their votes Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

He said it starts with “logic and accuracy” test of the equipment, both before and after the election. Jarrett said that would not only capture any change made in the software but that the program is built in a way so that any change would render the results “not readable.”

The equipment itself, he said, is also subject to independent certification by the Secretary of State’s Office.

More to the point, Jarrett pointed out that state law requires an actual hand count of a random sample of ballots, both those mailed in early and those cast on Election Day.

He said the batches to be sampled and the elections to be reviewed are chosen by officials from both political parties. And of the more than 47,000 ballots checked by hand there was not a single vote difference from what was recorded by the equipment.

“These hand counts are an independent audit,” Jarrett told lawmakers. And he said they showed the equipment worked as expected.

Farnsworth was not convinced.

“I do have a concern that the county is taking the position that it just can’t happen,” he said.

“There is a litany of white-collar crimes, digital crimes in the history of this country and this world of some very sophisticated people and the victims didn’t recognize it until some future time,” Farnsworth said. “I think it’s really, really dangerous for us to say, ‘It can’t happen.’ ”

That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City. He said even the operating manual for Dominion software suggests “data can be changed and votes switched around.”

“Nothing’s 100% secure,” he said. “If people want to cheat they’re going to cheat.”

Farnsworth also complained that it’s possible for people who are not U.S. citizens to have voted in the presidential race.

Arizona does require proof of citizenship to register to vote.

But a federal law spells out that people without such proof can use a registration form prepared by the Election Assistance Commission, one that has no such requirement. And those who do not provide citizenship proof can vote in federal elections, including for president and members of Congress.

Jarrett acknowledged that more than 3,000 such “federal-only” ballots were cast in Maricopa County, people who he acknowledged might not be U.S. citizens. That angered Farnsworth.

“That is harmful, detrimental, undercuts,” he said.

“And it is outrageous that we have that kind of a mandate from Congress,” Farnsworth said. “It challenges the very sovereignty of this country, in my opinion.”

Jarrett also defended against claims that observers from political parties could not get close enough to really monitor what was going on in both the process to check signatures on early ballot envelopes and in the actual counting. He acknowledged, though, that there were efforts to keep observers at least six feet from election workers amid fears of COVID-19.

He also said that, despite rumors to the contrary, there were not late “spikes” of votes for Biden. In fact, Jarrett said, the reverse was in some ways true, with Biden having a big lead among the first ballots counted and the later-counted ballots swinging for Trump.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised twice to include information as it developed. 

Fate of most 2020 bills met at Legislature’s deadline


Silent death has come for about two-thirds of the 1,707 bills and resolutions introduced this year in the Legislature.

A February 21 deadline for bills to be heard in their chambers of origin killed most of them, but other bills died primarily because of public outcry

Ideas contained in some of those dead bills could still be revived via amendments later in the legislative process, but their chances of success remain slim.

On February 20, mirror resolutions relating to a constitutional ban of sanctuary cities in the state both saw their demise after protests and controversy drew plenty of local and national attention. The measures were dubbed Gov. Doug Ducey’s “1070,” a reference to the divisive 2010 immigration bill SB1070, which sought to give the state more power to deal with the issue of illegal immigration.

Other notable legislation, including most of the measures in the House to revamp sentencing laws and any attempt to usurp the impending effort to legalize recreational marijuana, also hit a wall.

And Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, put a quick end to any sex education measures in that chamber – controversial or otherwise – after the first day of session.

Sex Ed

Sex education appeared poised to be one of the biggest fights of the session, after conservatives, including Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, took the position that sex ed is the school-sponsored sexualization of young children.

Sylvia Allen
Sylvia Allen

Before the session started, Allen drafted a bill that would ban schools from teaching sex education before seventh grade. The Snowflake Republican’s measure also appeared to ban any discussion of homosexuality during sex ed courses, bringing national attention to the state.

While Allen dismissed that reading of her bill and pledged to amend it, Senate President Karen Fann killed it quickly. Four of the seven bills Fann declined to assign to committees relate to sex education and depictions of homosexuality in instructional materials.

“I am looking at and reading carefully bills that could be highly controversial and whether they have a chance of passing or not,” Fann said.

House Republicans, including Rep. Leo Biasiucci of Lake Havasu and John Fillmore of Apache Junction, introduced their own bills to ban the teaching of sex ed for young students. Those measures also died without hearings, and the only bill related to sex ed that has continued its journey is an omnibus measure proposed by a governor’s task force that would require instruction on recognizing signs of child abuse.

Criminal Justice Change

Rep. Walter Blackman’s bill to establish and expand earned release credits for people incarcerated for non-violent crimes cleared an important hurdle in the House Judiciary Committee on February 20. and looks likely to pass the full House. But this came in spite of – or perhaps at the expense of – a flurry of other proposed changes to the criminal justice system from both caucuses.

The Snowflake Republican, who is at the spearhead of a movement to remake the criminal system, also proposed legislation to establish an oversight committee and ombudsman position to regulate and audit the oft-troubled Arizona Department of Corrections. That bill never got a hearing. Same with his bill to establish pre-arrest diversion and deflection programs that would allow officers to direct people they contact to social services, though a watered down version from Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, made it through the Judiciary Committee he chairs.

Additionally, his bill that would compel the department to offer free feminine hygiene products and provide extra services to pregnant women didn’t even get a committee assignment. Similar bills from Democrats like Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Kristen Engel, D-Tucson, were victims of the partisan process, never even making it across the starting line.

Allen is responsible for some of this. In a February Judiciary Committee hearing, he killed a series of bills that would bolster data collection and make other reforms to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, an apparent act of revenge against members of the committee he chairs who voted down one of his criminal justice bills.


A pair of House Republicans introduced election bills that stirred outcry at the Capitol this year — one that would bar college students from listing dormitories as an address on their voter registration and another that would allow law enforcement officers to be posted at all polling places throughout the state during primary and general elections.

Bob Thorpe
Bob Thorpe

While these may not be considered the most controversial election bills, limiting how college students can vote is not a new idea, especially from the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff.

Thorpe introduced his measure on two separate occasions. Once when it was assigned to the House Elections Committee, but never received a hearing, and another he wrote as a strike-everything amendment to a different bill of his assigned to the House Technology Committee, which he chairs. He ultimately did not give it a hearing, effectively killing it.

Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, on the other hand, wanted police officers at every polling station in the state because of potential violence he thought could erupt due to the growing political divide in the country. But without a plan to fund this option, among other potential issues, the bill was never assigned to a committee.


Despite the likely-to-pass recreational marijuana initiative coming to the ballot this November, Democratic lawmakers still made attempts of their own to legalize the product without seeking voter approval.

Two attempts were virtually marked dead on arrival when Bowers and Fann confirmed that they wouldn’t hear any legislation to legalize recreational pot.

Isela Blanc
Isela Blanc

Democratic Reps. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, and Randy Friese, D-Tucson, came out with dueling proposals. Blanc’s was fueled by her criticism of the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, a proposed ballot measure which she has said would create an oligopoly of powerful cannabis business interests at the expense of minority communities ravaged by the war on drugs. The act’s backers took note and made changes, but not enough to stave off her attempt, which never received a committee hearing.

Across the aisle, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, lost his battle to pass legislation aiming to keep potentially dangerous pesticides of marijuana plants by requiring grow-ops to exclusively use pesticides exempt from federal regulations. But that bill went up in smoke. It needed three-fourths vote to amend the voter-approved law, but was killed when 10 Democrats voted in opposition.

Gender Identity

The Legislature made clear it had no appetite for bills that dealt with gender identity this session. Reps. Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley, and John Filllmore, R-Apache Junction, introduced opposing bills.

Gabaldon’s HB2075 would have added “nonbinary” as a third option for gender on state-issued driver’s licenses, something more than a dozen states already allow. It would also make that identity available for people who don’t drive.

Rosanna Gabaldon
Rosanna Gabaldon

“These individuals don’t recognize themselves as male or female,” Gabaldon said to Capitol Media Services in January. “I don’t see it as controversial.”

Fillmore’s HB2080 would prohibit any state agency, board, commission or department from issuing any document that lists any sex other that “male” or “female.” It would also require birth certificates to only use those options as well and stop schools from requiring teachers to use a sex or gender pronoun when discussing class material “other than the sex or gender pronoun that corresponds to the sex listed on the student’s birth certificate.”

Neither bill got a hearing.

Title Lending

Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, arrived at the Capitol before dawn on the first day to pre-file bills, with a stack of measures to regulate the title lending industry in hand. But Farnsworth’s first bills of the session — just like the resolution Sen. Victoria Steele introduced early that same morning to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — died unheard.

One of Farnsworth’s bills aimed to prohibit title lenders, who offer short-term loans at high interest rates with a car as collateral, from making these loans to people who don’t actually own their car outright.

David Farnsworth
David Farnsworth

Two others were slightly differently worded attempts to cap annual interest rates for title loans at 36%. A 2020 ballot initiative dubbed the Arizona Fair Lending Act would have included both clauses, but supporters conceded that they could not gather the 237,645 valid signatures of registered voters required to make the ballot.

Farnsworth’s legislative measures, meanwhile, never received a hearing in Sen. J.D. Mesnard’s Senate Finance Committee. The Chandler Republican said he prefers that customers have the “freedom” to negotiate their own contracts without government interference.

Farnsworth lamented: “It looks like my whole summer was wasted! I guess I should’ve gone on vacation like everyone else.”

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that there have been 1842 bills and resolutions introduced in the 2020 legislative session. The actual number is 1,707

First day of bill filing brings out early birds with ERA, title lending, short-term rentals measures


Victoria Steele walked into the Arizona Senate before the sun rose Friday, wearing a purple, white and green suffragette sash over her dark pantsuit and holding the most important piece of legislation she plans to run next year. 

David Farnsworth was just a few seconds behind her, a stack of his own bills in hand. The two state senators — one a liberal feminist from Tucson, the other a self-described constitutional conservative from Mesa — sat chatting, waiting for the sun to rise and Senate staff to arrive so they could file the first bills of the 2020 legislative session.  

Friday was the first day Arizona lawmakers could introduce bills for the 2020 session, and lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol Mall used the day to lay the groundwork for what will be high-profile fights during the coming months: everything from ratifying the federal Equal Rights Amendment to regulating the title lending industry to returning local control to cities ravaged by the short-term rental marketplace.

Victoria Steele
Victoria Steele
David Farnsworth
David Farnsworth

Steele woke up at 4 a.m. and drove to the Capitol to introduce this year’s attempt to make history by becoming the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The Congressional deadline to approve the amendment, which states simply that equal rights may not be denied or abridged on the basis of sex, passed without ratification four decades ago.

But feminists in recent years have rallied around the amendment, with Nevada and Illinois becoming the 36th and 37th states to ratify it. Supporters expect Virginia, which just elected a Democratic majority in both chambers, to become the 38th state next spring. 

Against that backdrop, Steele is pushing again for Arizona to join the cause. Even if Arizona won’t go down in history as the 38th state to ratify the ERA, Steele said approving it is important both in case the ERA runs into legal challenges and to preserve Arizona’s historical reputation as a leader in women’s equality. The state gave women the right to vote eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, has had more female governors than any other state and has one of the highest shares of women in the Legislature. 

“Even if they (Virginia) do it first, we do not want Arizona to be on the historical short list of states that never ratified,” she said. “We can show the women and girls of Arizona that we care about them.” 

Republican Sens. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Heather Carter, Kate Brophy McGee and Tyler Pace signed on to bills to ratify the ERA last year, but supporters will have to convince at least two House Republicans to vote for the resolution and persuade influential committee chairmen to give it a hearing. 

Farnsworth, meanwhile, jumped into a brewing fight between the title loan industry and its critics with several bills that would add more regulations to the industry. One would prohibit title lenders, who offer short-term loans at typically high interest rates with a car as collateral, from making these loans to people who don’t actually own their car outright. 

Two others are differently worded attempts to cap annual interest rates for title loans at 36 percent. Both provisions are included in the Arizona Fair Lending Act, a 2020 ballot initiative supported by the same advocates who fought to stop payday lending in the state. 

A competing ballot initiative supported by the title loan industry would overturn almost all laws that limit annual interest rates and prohibit state and local governments from enacting new ones. Farnsworth’s wading into this fight with a series of bills to add more regulations to the title loan industry. 

Another measure Farnsworth filed this morning would require the Department of Child Safety to provide a monthly report to state leaders listing the dates children go missing from state custody, those children’s ages and a description of how they went missing. 

It’s the culmination of months of meetings with critics of the department, who described an epidemic of missing children. 

“My largest priority is to require DCS to give more detail on these reports regarding missing children,” Farnsworth said. 

Isela Blanc
Isela Blanc

On the House side, Reps. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, and Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, fired the opening salvo with a bill to repeal a controversial 2016 law that prohibits municipal or county governments from regulating or banning short-term rental companies like Airbnb.

That law was pitched as something that could facilitate local economic growth, but critics and some city governments say that the unchecked spread of short-term rentals has driven up housing costs and reduced the amount of long-term rental inventory on the market.

“A large majority (of the rentals) are not grandma renting out a second bedroom,” Blanc said. “They’ve been converted into unregulated motels.”

Blanc and Lieberman said they’re confident the repeal effort can get bipartisan support, as the bill doesn’t add any extra regulation.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, was one of the few legislators of either party who opposed the 2016 law. He said he’s glad Blanc and Lieberman are taking a whack at a repeal, but he’s not so optimistic that they convince both the Legislature and the governor to essentially concede that, three years ago, they supported legislation that has harmed the state.

“Minds don’t change that quickly,” he said. “People are reluctant to admit mistakes.”

For Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, the first bill of the year was a rerun of marijuana legislation he tried to pass last year that was killed by Senate Democrats. His would allow the Department of Health Services to inspect any nonprofit medical marijuana dispensary during its normal business hours, without providing advance notice of an inspection.

Arizona’s Medical Marijuana Act, approved by voters in 2010, put the Department of Health Services in charge of operating the program and inspecting dispensaries and their “infusion kitchens,” where marijuana edibles are produced. But because of the advance notice clause, Department officials have been unable to inspect those kitchens. 

Any attempt to modify a voter-approved initiative takes a three-fourths majority in both legislative chambers and can only be done to further the intent of the law. Before re-introducing the bill, Borrelli told the Arizona Capitol Times he expects it to pass now that the public knows more about how inspections work.

“Hopefully the Democrats understand what the bill is now,” he said. “I guess Senator Borelli was a visionary.”

Arren Kimbel-Sannit contributed to the reporting of this story.

Gambling bill stalls in senate as politics take shape

Arizona Diamondbacks left fielder Tim Locastro dives but cannot get to a ball hit for a single by Seattle Mariners' Sam Haggerty in the third inning of a spring training baseball game on March 15, 2021, in Surprise. Current legislation would allow for betting on sports, but the measure is currently stalled in the Senate.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Arizona Diamondbacks left fielder Tim Locastro dives but cannot get to a ball hit for a single by Seattle Mariners’ Sam Haggerty in the third inning of a spring training baseball game on March 15, 2021, in Surprise. Current legislation would allow for betting on sports, but the measure is currently stalled in the Senate. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

A top legislative priority for Gov. Doug Ducey to expand off-reservation gaming is stalled in the Senate after the House voted 48-12 to approve a mirror bill on March 4. 

The bills from Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, and Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, appear to be getting hit from Democrats and Senate Republican leadership when strong bipartisanship is needed to pass the legislation because several Republican senators already said they won’t support the measures.

Sean Bowie
Sean Bowie

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, might be a key holdout vote. He told Arizona Capitol Times he and other Democrats in the Senate have some reservations about giving their support to a key Ducey priority while many controversial election bills are advancing through the Legislature. The gaming bills have an emergency clause attached to them, which means two-thirds is needed for immediate enactment, but can still pass with just 16 votes. 

“I’m looking for more from the Governor’s Office in terms of being willing to work together and there’s a lot of bills that we don’t like – particularly around voting rights,” he said. “We would like to have a conversation and more of a working relationship around [how] some of these bills are bad public policy and we would obviously not like to see them get signed into law.” 

While he hasn’t seen any indication from the Governor’s Office that Ducey is willing to kill controversial election bills in exchange for support on sports betting, Bowie said he’s hopeful the two sides can work together. Bowie, who represents a swing district, is the most bipartisan Democrat in the Senate and has a good working relationship with Ducey, so his support is crucial to get enough Democrats to vote for either gaming bill. 

Shope’s effort is currently in limbo since Senate President Karen Fann has yet to remove it from the Appropriations Committee after Chairman Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, held it in a maneuver to try to force through his historic horse racing bill that would include Shope’s measure as an amendment. 

Karen Fann (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)
Karen Fann (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

Historic horse racing is considered a “poison pill” to Native American tribes and does not have the broad support of Ducey, tribes or Democrats. What’s more, Fann said Shope’s measure is also a poison pill of sorts considering it does not match up with the current gaming compact that bars off-reservation gaming. Fann said she didn’t think the poison pill provision was enough of a reason to not support Gowan’s bill, SB1794.

Fann also hasn’t assigned Weninger’s bill to a committee, likely waiting to see if she can ensure enough Democrats support whichever gets to the floor. Nine Republicans in the House voted against the House version. Bowie speculated it could be a couple of weeks before there is any movement on gaming legislation, so Democrats’ immediate focus is on the controversial election-related bills they want Ducey or the Legislature to kill.

Fann told Capitol Times she is going to sit on the sports betting bills until she and other senators can learn more about what the gaming bills will do and their ties to the gaming compact negotiations. 

“Members just needed more time to understand … we were not a part of the negotiations so we have had to slow the process down,” she said. 

Anni Foster, Ducey’s general counsel and key figure in the ongoing negotiations, said in committee on Shope’s SB1797 that the Governor’s Office met with about nine lawmakers.  Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he was one, as were other members of House and Senate leadership. 

Fann said that was mostly true and added that Ducey’s office said their door would be open for anybody who had questions.

“With all the Covid restrictions and full schedules it’s just taking time for everyone to feel knowledgeable,” Fann said. “The bills refer to the compacts. Our members not only had to understand the bills, but also what was in the compacts. We do not want to get in the position of ‘you have to pass it to know what’s in it.’” 

Meanwhile, despite overwhelming support from House Democrats, three Democrats still held out. Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson said he didn’t support it because he had several unanswered questions about what the bill would do. He said his understanding is that Democrats mostly voted in favor of it because the tribes support it. 

“I think the tribes feel that they get more and more leverage with the banks if they have a new compact that’s gonna last 20 some years and not an old compact that has a clock ticking on it,” Friese said. He was referring to the current compact approved on the ballot in 2002 that is about to expire for some tribes as early as 2023. “They get better leverage with their loans and interest rates, which I get, but as I said on the floor, I object to marrying this bill to the compact. This Legislature should have nothing to do with those negotiations, and the governor took the easy path.” 

Friese said he thinks Ducey told the tribes to whip the Democratic votes for him and Ducey would give them a new compact in return. Friese also said he wasn’t in favor of the sports owners being the ones who will likely get all available licenses. Ultimately, Friese said he let the tribes know he was uncomfortable with the language and wouldn’t support the bill. 

“I am my own legislator,” he said. 

David Lujan, director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, said he recently started to follow the bills and gaming compact and doesn’t understand all the Democratic support outside of the fact that the tribes support it. He said he doesn’t know what would even happen if Democrats said “no” considering they hold all the cards and can try to bargain with Republicans and Ducey for their votes. 

“I think it’s good for the tribes. I think certainly they can use the revenue, but I don’t think the state should be using it to pay for tax cuts,” Lujan said. “I don’t see the harm in holding those votes out until [Democrats] know that this is a good deal for Arizona and so, to me it seems like they should be slowing this down and taking a closer look at it and asking more questions,” he said.

Ducey’s office did not comment on the Senate hold up. 

GOP lawmaker proposes slew of regulations on medical marijuana

This September 11, 2018, file photo shows a marijuana plant at in the coastal mountain range of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has suggested the Legislature, instead of the voters, legalize recreational marijuana. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Saying he doesn’t trust the industry, a top Senate Republican wants an outright ban on the use of certain chemicals on the marijuana that Arizonans smoke, eat or drink.

Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli said he appreciates that lawmakers last session finally approved a plan he has been pushing to require that there be testing of medical marijuana for pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals before the product can be sold to patients. That testing is supposed to start no later than Nov. 1, 2020.

But the Lake Havasu City lawmaker said there’s a flaw of sorts in the whole plan: how the standards for acceptable levels will be set by a special panel.

“The people that are involved in that board, they’re all in the industry,” he told Capitol Media Services. “So, basically, it’s the fox watching the hen house.”

That’s not exactly true. Half of the 12-member panel are industry representatives, with a seventh being the owner of an Arizona-based cannabis testing laboratory. But there also is a patient, a caregiver for a medical marijuana patient, a laboratory scientist, a health care provider and a representative of the Department of Public Safety.

Still, Borrelli said an outright ban on certain chemicals makes better sense than subjecting medical marijuana patients to a risk.


The legislation will get a fight from the Arizona Dispensaries Association.

“I’m not saying that a zero tolerance is unacceptable for some things,” said Pele Peacock Fischer, lobbyist for the organization. But she said that pretty much everything has at least trace levels of various chemicals. And Fischer said that’s why deciding what is and isn’t acceptable is best left to experts.

SB 1015 would maintain the testing requirement for everything from microbial contamination and heavy metals to pesticides, fungicides and residual solvents. But the new language would specifically ban the use of any pesticide at all except for those that the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act say are so benign as to not require regulation at all.

That list of what is permissible includes things like castor oil, cinnamon oil, garlic, lemongrass oil, rosemary, sesame and white pepper.

Borrelli, in seeking to block other chemicals, has a specific product in mind: Eagle 20. It’s a fungicide. What it also is, the senator said, is prohibited for use on tobacco “because it’s a heavy carcinogen.”

“But there’s nothing to prevent them from using it in marijuana,” he said. And that, Borrelli said, is a problem as far as he’s concerned.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he and other veterans serving in the Arizona State Legislature know how challenging it can be to transition from the military to civilian life. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)
Sonny Borrelli. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)

“Can you imagine somebody who’s a cancer patient?” he said.

Cancer happens to be one of the conditions for which the 2010 voter-approved law allows a doctor to recommend the use of medical marijuana. That recommendation entitles the patient to a card issued by the Department of Health Services allowing them to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of the drug every two weeks.

“Now they’re going to be taking something that could possibly be making them sicker,” Borrelli said.

Nor is he confident that the process being set up to create standards is sufficient.

“Suppose that board that we put together this year comes up and says, ‘Well, you’re allowed to use Eagle 20 (in) a certain amount?”’ And Borrelli said he can see that happening, what with pressure from the operations that cultivate the drug.

“That anti-fungal pesticides are necessary because all these growth facilities are indoors,” he said. “So they want to be able to mitigate the mold that’s being put on the marijuana.”

Fischer said her organization supported the legislation approved earlier this year that requires testing. But she said it’s quite something else to simply decide that certain chemicals are strictly forbidden.

She also said that the panel is looking to standards that already exist in other states that have legalized marijuana. The key, she said, is balance.

“That group is looking to put together a testing regime that is extremely safe for patients but also something that works in the industry so the labs can meet the demand, dispensaries can make it,” Fischer said. “When you put any new standards in place it has to be able to be implementable.”

Anyway, she said, it’s necessary for the state to come up with standards for marijuana: There are none in federal law as possession of the drug remains a federal felony.

Fischer also said that there is a safeguard of sorts in the existing law that has the panel recommend standards for acceptable levels of other chemicals in marijuana. She said the Department of Health Services has ultimate review power over any standards recommended by committee members.

Opposition from the industry aside, Borrelli has a bit of a political hurdle to overcome to get approval for the outright ban.

Because the 2010 law was approved by voters, any alteration can be made only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. That means Borrelli’s bill needs bipartisan support: Republicans hold just 17 of the 30 seats in the Senate and 31 of 60 House seats.

More Changes

Borrelli has some other ideas of changes he said are needed in state regulation of medical marijuana.

SB 1016 and SB 1017, taken together, are designed to ensure the Department of Revenue has access to certain records of medical marijuana dispensaries.

The issue here, he said, is whether these dispensaries are collecting – and, more to the point, remitting – the state sales taxes they are supposed to be charging.

Under normal circumstances, Borrelli said, the tax-collecting agency can go in and look at the books of any business to be sure that what they’re reporting matches what’s actually being sold.

But that 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act has very specific confidentiality provisions. And what that means, he said, is that the Arizona Department of Health Services, which monitors dispensaries and keeps close track of the number of ounces of marijuana each sells cannot share that information with the Department of Revenue.

“It’s about accountability,” Borrelli said.

He said the argument about legal use of marijuana has often been that it should be treated like alcohol.

In the case of bars, the senator said, the Department of Revenue can go in, check the inventory, check the purchase orders and pretty much figure out how much alcohol has been sold “to make sure that nobody’s cheating.”

But he said marijuana dispensaries can tell state tax officials that they have sold 200 pounds of the drug in that month. But if in fact they sold 2,000 pounds, the only people who know that are state health officials, who are statutorily precluded from sharing that information with the Department of Revenue.


GOP pushes ‘vague’ ballot security measures

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, on the floor of the Senate in 2020. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, on the floor of the Senate in 2020. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES

Last-minute amendments to Arizona’s $12.8 billion budget codify election security concerns could pose trouble for the election officials required to carry out the new provisions from Trump supporters who say they believe the election was stolen and there is a deep bias against conservatives. 

A set of amendments from Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, and Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would create new rules for watermarked ballots, set up a taskforce to investigate “algorithmic bias” on social media websites and allow the Legislature to hire someone to investigate voter rolls. 

A third, from Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, assigns a Senate committee to review the Senate’s ongoing audit of 2020 elections and recommend legislative action, up to and including calling the Legislature into special session to address any issues. That came as news to the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Juan Mendez of Tempe. 

The budget amendments, and accompanying election legislation moving through the House and Senate as a condition of Townsend’s vote, all respond to complaints from conservative voters and elected officials, and they didn’t include input from county officials who run elections. 

One key component of Borrelli’s amendment got its start months ago, when Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, now an announced Republican candidate for secretary of state, invited lawmakers to a basement conference room to shine blacklights on mock ballots and hear a pitch for making ballots more like money, with measures to add watermarks, holographic foils and security inks. 

Finchem and fellow House Republicans were unable to pass bills mandating the new ballot designs, but Arizona Association of Counties Executive Director Jenn Marson said Finchem told her his goal was to eventually make these ballot changes mandatory. Only Authentix, the company that helped him with his basement presentation, meets the requirements to provide the paper.  

Currently, Arizona’s 15 counties use different types of ballots, different election equipment and don’t even all have the same paper. Some counties have skinnier or shorter ballots than others. And at this time, counties don’t know if their existing equipment could tally votes with all the suggested security measures on the paper.  

Additionally, counties would need to have another machine, or multiple machines, to verify the security measures. Borrelli’s amendment says anti-fraud measures need to include at least three of 10 different types of safeguards, such as security ink, bar codes or stealth numbering, and counties need to know if machines can do all 10 or if they’ll need to get different machines depending on which measures they choose.  

Adding more things to check before counting ballots would also delay election results, Marson said. For example, one unsuccessful piece of legislation this year would have required adding privacy envelopes for ballots. Even assuming it took just a second to remove the privacy flap, that would end up adding 525 hours to the time it took to process ballots in Maricopa County, which had roughly 2.1 million ballots this year.  

“However long this counter measure verification step takes, even if it’s only a second, the bigger the county, the longer the time it’s adding to the front end before we can even start tabulation,” Marson said.  

Another piece of Borrelli’s amendment would require county recorders and the secretary of state to tell the auditor general, an investigator who works for the legislative branch, about every voter registration program or event, including the political affiliation of any of the events and programs. Recorders would also have to note whether they used third-party data to conduct the programs. 

The provisions were clearly targeted at former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, both Democrats who Republicans have accused of encouraging voter registration solely for Democratic voters, or those likely to become Democrats. 

But as written, the amendment doesn’t make much sense, Marson said. For one thing, it only says the secretary of state and county recorders have to report their attendance at events, but what if a deputy recorder or an employee of a county’s elections department – separate from the Recorder’s Office – goes to an event to register voters? 

And the language doesn’t explain what constitutes a “voter registration event.” If a county recorder speaks at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on a topic unrelated to voter registration but has a stack of voter registration forms in case anyone wants to register to vote, would that count as a voter registration event? 

“It’s so vaguely written, we’re unsure how we could adequately comply,” Marson said.  

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, amended the budget to allow someone selected by the Legislature to inspect voter rolls and prepare a report on “federal-only” voters. Arizona requires voters to provide proof of citizenship to vote, but the federal government only requires attestations of citizenship – so people who register to vote without providing documentation like a birth certificate or passport can vote in federal elections but not state elections.  

And while it’s not directly connected to elections, Borrelli’s amendment aims to investigate whether social media networks are providing in-kind contributions to Democrats by stifling Republicans.   

One current Republican representative, Jake Hoffman, has been banned from Twitter for allegedly running a troll farm. Other sitting Republican lawmakers have had temporary suspensions or had Facebook and Twitter add warnings to their posts when they shared misinformation about elections or Covid. 

“There are some that lost followers,” Borrelli said. “They’ve shrunk. They have 10,000 followers, and the next thing you know they get on, they log on and a whole bunch of them are gone because they’ve changed, the algorithms are already in the computers so that way a certain candidate or certain subject always goes to the top.” 


Groundwater regulation new conflict in water management


Farmers and Gov. Doug Ducey say they are willing to change their stance against government oversight and regulation to protect the state’s dwindling water supply – and they’re willing to let the largest water users write the rules.

This shift in thinking comes as the Legislature convenes Jan. 13 and lawmakers will likely have to address what to do with a growing demand for water, just one year after they passed the Drought Contingency Plan, which doles out water from the Colorado River. 

Now, the new urgency is managing Arizona’s groundwater. 

In areas in Arizona where groundwater is unregulated, any landowner who can afford it can drill as much and as deep as they wish, take as much water as they want and are not required to report their usage to the state. But their water must be for a “beneficial use,” per statute, which includes agriculture.

But that usage in these areas, which sit outside of areas where groundwater usage is tracked and regulated, known as active management areas, has gone unchecked by the government for decades. Nobody knows exactly how much groundwater is left or how long it will last.

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

This growing problem is prompting discussion between water stakeholders in the Legislature and in those areas, who are working to ensure there is enough water to grow responsibly and sustainably for generations.

That, coupled with projected shortfalls in the Colorado River and longer, hotter and drier summers, people living in these areas are worried and are asking the government to step in.

The problem has caught the attention of Gov. Doug Ducey, who has cultivated a legacy as the deregulation governor. Ducey said he’s concerned about reports of a dwindling supply in these areas and is willing to approve regulations water users in these places want.

“I am open minded to regulations that protect and steward our water future,” Ducey said. “I’m concerned about some of the reports that we have received, and we’re working to provide the best possible policy going forward, both from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation, and some of the decisions that they make on behalf of the state water management future.”

Ducey said late last year that “positive growth” in areas bring challenges to allocating water responsibly and that the situation is nuanced and Arizona’s water feeds agricultural products that ship around the world.

“Agriculture is a big industry,” Ducey said. “We have not only family farms, but we have people that come in with some corporate farming. If those products are exported to the benefit of Arizona, that’s one thing – water is different.”

His open mindedness takes the form of working closely with the Department of Water Resources and the establishment of the Governor’s Water Augmentation Innovation and Conservation Council following the passage of the Drought Contingency Plan in January 2019.

Through that and through several stakeholder committees organized by the Legislature, Ducey and lawmakers are letting people who use the most water in unregulated counties come up with solutions that work for them. Once those solutions are found, the state is expected to craft laws that will make implementing those processes, which build on long standing water policy, easier.

Enough Water

The state’s 1980 Groundwater Management Act was shepherded by former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and it restricted irrigation on new farmland in urban areas and required builders there to show a 100-year water supply before making new subdivisions, among other efficiency standards. Since its passage, it’s been trumpeted as a historic piece of policy that pushed the state to conserve water where it was growing the most: Phoenix, Prescott, Pinal, Tucson and Santa Cruz management areas.

Areas like La Paz County and Mohave County, which are currently being examined by Legislative committees, weren’t included at the time.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute, said that while she thinks there is enough water to go around, the real issue is about where the state is growing. 

She said the state should continue to grow where water supplies allow, like what the Groundwater Management Act intends.

‘Land of the free’

Managing that growth will have to be community-centric, Porter said, as some places might not be able to afford, or might not find feasible, more expensive solutions. Ducey and the Legislature say they are aiming to work with water stakeholders, usually powerful business interests, to hash out the hard work and set precedent for how other areas of the state facing similar problems should move forward.

Ducey said his staff is working with ADWR to find these solutions, which those involved in water stakeholder discussions say will differ by county because none of them use water the same way or take them from the same sources proportionately.

But for now, ADWR’s hands are tied because in order to suggest or implement any new regulation in these areas, it needs to document how much water these megafarms are taking and how much water is left. The department is working to provide a model to committees that study groundwater usage in Mohave and La Paz counties.

Regina Cobb
Regina Cobb

Those committees, which include members of local government, mining, farming, business and agriculture stakeholders, are chaired by Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu city. The groups, which do not include conservationists, plan to meet sometime during the 2020 legislative session to review ADWR’s data and again after the coming legislative session to suggest legislative fixes.

Cobb has said in the past that because these are the interests who use water the most in these communities, they, collectively, have conservation in mind. She characterized the committees as “kind of like DCP for groundwater in each of the communities.”

The committees will consider what residents and water stakeholders in those counties have already asked for: more regulation, expansions of active management areas, other irrigation non-expansion areas and to tax groundwater or to require everyone to meter usage and charge users accordingly.

Cobb said these counties have no real mechanism to regulate water usage and have become a target for hedge fund groups that effectively mine water.

“[Farmers] want to be the land of the free,” Cobb said. “The problem is now they see that by not having any restrictions at all, we have opened ourselves up to vulnerability – we’re vulnerable to all of the water mining companies coming in. So, when they’re looking at that, [farmers are] saying, ‘I want it open for me, but I don’t want it open for everybody.’”

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said when she threw out the idea of metering wells at a community meeting “it wasn’t very popular.”

“People who own land believe the water rights belong to the property underneath,” she said.

Complicating any solution politically is the fact that one of the larger operations is using Arizona groundwater to grow hay to ship to Saudi Arabia to feed cattle there. In the meantime, some area residents report that their existing wells have gone dry, forcing them to drill even deeper.

“We have to stand up to that,” said Fernandez who has been one of the key legislative players in shaping Arizona water legislation. She said there should be some way to distinguish between families that live in the area and corporate farmers, “people who don’t have a vested interest in the area.”

“But who makes that decision?” she asked.

Capitol Media Services contributed to this report. 

How an Arizona official is making Cochise County a “laboratory” for election skepticism

Recorder David Stevens speaks at a Cochise County Republican Club event in 2022. Also at Stevens’ table was friend and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, in the Western hat. Photo Courtesy of Kaylee Nix

This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

David Stevens had never supervised a ballot count. He didn’t know how he would count nearly 50,000 ballots by hand, who would help, or where he would find enough space to do it.

But that didn’t dissuade him.

Less than a month before the November election, Stevens, the Cochise County recorder, told the county supervisors he would be happy to try.

Arizona GOP leaders had spent two years promoting unfounded claims about compromised vote-counting machines, and were scouring the state for a county that would willingly hand-count ballots. They found it in Cochise County, where Stevens grasped onto the idea, devised a plan, and stoked the sentiment starting to take hold locally.

The Republican recorder propelled the proposal to illegally hand count all midterm election ballots, thrusting a rural Arizona county known for historic mining towns and natural beauty into months of chaos, court hearings, and national headlines. Cochise’s two Republican supervisors bore the brunt of the backlash — threatened with jail time and, even now, facing a citizen-led recall effort. But the initial effort would have hit an abrupt stop without Stevens, who mostly remained behind the scenes.

Stevens, an affable former state lawmaker, is originally from Illinois but has spent enough time in rural Arizona to adopt a slight drawl and a penchant for Western wear. He has close connections with GOP state leaders who have worked to upend voting — including former Republican secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem — and a keen willingness to spread doubts about election security, experiment with proven processes, and test the boundaries of state law.

Together with the supervisors, Stevens allowed the county to become a test case for how to disrupt elections in 2024, according to local Democrats and officials at nonprofits focused on guarding elections.

“The fact that you have conspiracy theorists tinkering with the core functioning of systems that have worked so well is deeply, deeply alarming,” said Jared Davidson, counsel at Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit, who said the events that played out in Cochise County boosted Arizona’s status as a “laboratory” for elections.

For his part, Stevens is more than willing to keep tinkering.

Finchem, whose campaign centered around the idea that elections are rigged, and Stevens both said they have been close for many years and share many views, such as a belief that mail voting and voting machines are insecure.

As recorder, Stevens plans to pursue a $1 million state grant orchestrated by Finchem to test high-tech security features on ballot paper, an idea that many election administrators consider costly and unnecessary.

Votebeat found that Stevens is a director of a Finchem-run nonprofit now called the Election Fairness Institute. It posts untrue statements about elections on its website and says it will rely on researchers who have become known for spreading false claims of widespread election fraud.

Stevens said that his initiatives and proposals are focused on improving transparency and security of elections. He runs his office in a nonpartisan and open manner, he said, and has defended the parts of the county’s election system he trusts.

Now, whether by design or default, Stevens is on the verge of gaining more power over how Cochise County’s elections are run.

Cochise County, elections, Maricopa County, Meta, Trump, Twitter, Richer, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Lake, Gates
Lisa Marra, elections director for Cochise County

Lisa Marra, the elections director who defended the system and refused to hand over ballots for an illegal hand count, is resigning because of what she said is harassment and a hostile work environment. This is likely her last week. Stevens acknowledged he might be asked to serve as interim elections director and said he would be willing.

Meanwhile, a Republican supervisor may propose reorganizing Cochise’s election administration altogether, which Marra understood to mean moving her duties under Stevens. Arizona law divides election duties between recorders and county supervisors. That means Stevens currently controls only early voting and voter registration. If supervisors give him oversight of the elections department, he would also take control of ballot design, ballot security, ballot counting, and Election Day procedures.

Bisbee resident Margot Walker said Marra’s presence this fall reassured her, but she now is worried about the future of her county’s elections.

“It’s very disconcerting to watch democracy go down the tubes,” she said, “And people are blindly following, with no basis in real information as to why.”

Flying under the radar

Low profile aside, Stevens has been making his doubts about the election system known since shortly after the 2020 election.

He’s not often quoted in the media. He doesn’t have public social media profiles. He has little to no public persona, said Elisabeth Tyndall, the county Democratic Party chairwoman.

“He has really flown under the radar in the county, as far as the election denialism,” she said. “Those of us who pay attention and read and see the connections have known that it is there.”

Stevens is a longtime resident of Sierra Vista, a city of about 45,000 near the Mexican border that includes a U.S. Army base, Ft. Huachuca. It’s by far the largest city in the county and its political power base, even though Bisbee, 30 minutes east, is the county seat.

As a state representative from 2009 to 2017, Stevens sponsored some bills that would change voting, but nothing as extreme as Republican proposals today. He wanted to cut down the nearly four-week early voting period by about a week, for example, and repeal an act that created rules for campaign finance donations and a nonpartisan commission meant to improve the integrity of elections.

After a career in information technology, he said he spent his four terms in the Legislature focused on improving transparency and technology in government.

In 2016, he won his race to replace the Democratic county recorder who had been in office for more than four decades, telling voters he would concentrate on cleaning up the voter rolls. He says he has succeeded in that, removing more than 30,000 people who had died or moved elsewhere. He won a second term unopposed.

After the 2020 election, as other Republican recorders in the state defended the security of elections, Stevens took a different path. He said he defended his own county’s election but couldn’t defend elections elsewhere in the state. In fact, he told the Arizona Daily Independent a few weeks after the election that he supported putting Arizona’s electoral votes on hold to look into potential vulnerabilities in Maricopa County’s election.

“Take several ballots that only have Trump ovals filled out, and feed them through the machine,” the paper quoted Stevens as saying. “If votes are reported for Biden you have a problem somewhere.” He didn’t note that Arizona law already requires counties to check that machines are counting votes accurately with a test before and after the election, and through the post-election partial hand-count audit.

On conservative radio, he criticized Maricopa County’s uncooperative response to the state Senate’s partisan and dysfunctional 2021 audit of the county’s election, and said the county needed better security practices. He also repeated a false claim that the county deleted election files.

Stevens said he prides himself on working with Republicans and Democrats and going to both parties’ events.

“I enjoy getting out in the public on Saturday afternoon, put a little shine in the boots, wear my cowboy hat, and go out there and try to answer every question they got,” Stevens said.

‘Happy to do it’

When hand-counting all ballots came up, Stevens publicly downplayed his role in promoting the plan.

“Let me start out with, I was asked to produce this presentation,” he said in October at the first work session where the supervisors publicly discussed the idea. “Happy to do it.”

The movement to hand-count ballots began shortly after Trump falsely claimed he lost the 2020 election because the machines that counted ballots were rigged in favor of Joe Biden.

In April 2022, as the primary election approached, Finchem and gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake filed a lawsuit claiming that the machines used to count votes in Arizona were inaccurate and insecure and asking the court to order that all ballots be counted by hand. That lawsuit was eventually dismissed, and the court ordered sanctions against the candidates’ attorneys.

Just after the August primary election, though, GOP leaders and activists began a campaign to push the hand-count idea, and county supervisors across the state received thousands of automated emails asking them to go ahead.

Judd, Crosby, election, ballots, hand counts, Lorick, Brrnovich, Maricopa County, Pima County Superior Court, Cochise County
Peggy Judd

By late September, Stevens was trying to find a way to make a hand count happen in Cochise County, according to a Sept. 23 email obtained by Votebeat that Supervisor Peggy Judd sent to hand-counting advocates. “Along with Representative Griffin and David Stevens there is quite a flurry of investigation in what CAN be done to create a more confident electorate,” Judd wrote at the time.

Recorders in Arizona do not oversee ballot counting and results. That’s the responsibility of elections directors, who report to county supervisors. Stevens knew this, he told Votebeat in October, but he thought it was a good idea to have a public discussion about hand-counting ballots because he had heard from a lot of voters who liked the idea. He told voters to contact the supervisors and ask for a work session.

The supervisors had Stevens give a presentation on the topic, even though tabulating ballots is not part of his job. That’s because they knew that Marra would not be a willing participant, Judd said in an interview at the time.

During his presentation, Stevens made the idea of hand-counting all races on all ballots sound simple. He said that the county would proceed with the normal machine count, but then do a full hand-count audit after. He acknowledged it would cost money to hand-count ballots, but said machines cost money, too. He said it would take more people and more space, but described it as “very doable.”

Cochise County Board of Supervisors, hand count, ballots, Judd, Brnovich, voters, voting, tabulation, lawsuit, Lorick, investigation
Tom Crosby

Supervisors then pursued the full hand-count audit, despite warnings from the county attorney that it would be illegal. The two Republicans on the three-member board, Crosby and Judd, voted to move forward.

“Stevens was never like, ‘That’s not a good idea,’ ” Tyndall, the county’s Democratic chair, said. “He just jumped in with both feet, without really any plan on how to do it, or where. It was very confounding from my perspective.”

Election researchers and consultants generally advise against hand-counting ballots, because machine counts are proven to be more accurate and efficient. Doing a full hand count alongside a machine count could cast doubt among voters about the accuracy of the election, as well.

Hand-counting the 47,284 county ballots cast in November certainly would have taken weeks, potentially delaying the statewide certification deadline. Stevens would have also had to find a space large enough for hundreds of workers, recruit bipartisan teams willing to volunteer, and organize 24/7 security.

The secretary of state’s office sued the supervisors over the plan, including Stevens and Marra as defendants. They testified for different sides, with Marra stating it would be against the law to do a full hand count and Stevens defending the supervisors’ decision, saying that the Election Procedures Manual allowed them to do it.

In a court brief and testimony four days before the election, he outlined his plan, which he said included more than 300 volunteers and four potential locations. He said the county sheriff would help with security.

“I have a high level of confidence,” Stevens said. “At a basic level, it is a very simple process.”

When the judge asked him if the results of the hand count would be used as the final election results if the results were different, Stevens said he “would be bound to report what the audit produced.”

“What happened after that would be out of my hands,” he said.

The judge ruled that the full hand count would be illegal, citing in his order an Arizona Supreme Court decision that said, “when public officials, in the middle of an election, change the law based on their own perceptions of what they think it should be, they undermine public confidence in our democratic system and destroy the integrity of the electoral process.”

Stevens believes the judge “threw out” a line from the election procedures manual that would have empowered the supervisors to expand the hand count. That line says that “counties may elect to audit a higher number of ballots at their discretion.” But that’s in a section related only to early ballots, not all ballots.

Former Republican state Sen. Frank Antenori, who lives near the small Cochise County community of Dragoon, said the judge was wrong and the full hand count would have been legal. He said he knows Stevens as someone who follows the law.

“I don’t know if he champions anything other than doing it by the book,” he said.

Despite the ruling, Stevens, the day after the election, began preparing to move forward with an expanded hand count anyway, though something just short of a full hand count. He did so even though the supervisors had not publicly discussed this idea since the judge’s ruling. As concern spread about Stevens’ attempt, Marra reassured the public that the ballots were locked up.

“Security is safe in the ballot cage in warehouse under camera,” Marra told Votebeat the weekend after the election. “He does not have access to that building. Access is strictly limited.”

The expanded hand count never happened. The supervisors moved on to their next hurly-burly: refusing to certify the election results.

‘One of my best friends’

Finchem, Lake, election, governor, secretary of state, lawsuit, hand counts, ballots, sanctions, attorneys,
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Kari Lake confer last year on the House floor.  (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

As the supervisors missed their certification deadline, Finchem and Lake were claiming fraud and refusing to concede their races.

“New election, recall everyone, overwhelm the polls,” Finchem tweeted the day of the certification deadline. “A disgrace,” he wrote when Maricopa County voted to certify its election. “Hey, look at this crime scene!” he wrote when Secretary of State Katie Hobbs canvassed the state election, including a manipulated photo of Hobbs and other state officials in orange jumpsuits.

Stevens said he doesn’t think Finchem’s views on voting are “that extreme.” He met Finchem while serving in the legislature.

“He is one of my best friends,” he said.

Finchem and Stevens share an inclination for cowboy hats and election doubts, but project different personas. Stevens is a towering man, standing 6-foot-5 but is soft-spoken and accommodating. Finchem, in contrast, is combative and rambling.

Finchem described Stevens as a man of fidelity and integrity. “He is always open to new ideas looking at how the electoral process functions,” Finchem said. “This is one small area of the relationship we have. He is trustworthy and that’s rare.”

In early July, Stevens was listed as a co-host for a fundraising event for Finchem at the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, along with the hotel’s owner, according to an event flyer obtained by Votebeat. The event does not show up on Finchem’s campaign finance reports for that period, so there’s no mention of who paid for the decorations, food and drinks. Finchem did not respond to a question about who hosted the event, and the hotel owner did not return a phone call.

Stevens told Votebeat he was not a co-host of the event, he didn’t even attend, and he did not approve of his name being on the flyer.

“My name was attached to it without my knowledge.” Steven said. “I tried to get it off, but it was too late. I did not attend that fundraiser.”

A handful of protestors showed up to the event to demonstrate outside, and Finchem later posted a video of him walking out and yelling at the group, “Say hi, all you Marxists. Say hi.” Protestors told Votebeat the ballroom set up for the event was nearly empty.

Stevens said he doesn’t believe it’s ethical for recorders to support or run political campaigns, and he didn’t campaign for Finchem or endorse him.

But in September, the Arizona Daily Independent published a story about how Stevens publicly opposed Finchem’s rival Adrian Fontes, titled “County recorder says Adrian Fontes spread misinformation and fostered chaos.”

“As someone who has dedicated their entire life in service of the State and our nation, and who understands the importance of election integrity, I cannot remain silent and allow the voters of Arizona to cast their ballot for someone who regularly thumbs their nose at our laws and standards,” Stevens said in the article, referring to Fontes.

Stevens told Votebeat that if Finchem won, he would have considered becoming his chief technology officer. Finchem confirmed he wanted Stevens in that role. Instead, Stevens is now considering a run for state representative or senator in 2024.

Generally, election administrators who are elected face outside pressure from political parties, said Mitchell Brown, an Auburn University political science professor who studies election administration, but it’s their job to remain “neutral public servants.”

For the most part, they do, she said. But those who are considering running for higher office may be more tempted to court their party’s favor and get onboard with their party’s platform, Brown said.

“It’s an inherent tension for some people,” she said.

Finchem, Stevens, and an election nonprofit

Finchem and Stevens have a new initiative. Since 2018, Stevens has been listed as a director for a nonprofit Finchem runs. He said he serves in a consulting role and has not yet been paid for any work he has done for the nonprofit.

The nonprofit’s purpose has changed over time. At first, it was called Pathway Research and Education and its website said the focus was research on energy, education, tax, infrastructure policy, and land management. An archived version of the website from June to September 2022, which no longer exists, says it was trying to raise $1.6 million to support what it calls a multi-state national bus tour “to provide reality-based understanding of current threats to America in their local areas.” It told visitors to send checks directly to Finchem’s PO box in Phoenix.

Sonny Borrelli

Recently, the nonprofit changed its name to Election Fairness Institute. Republican state Sen. Sonny Borrelli and state Rep. Leo Biasiucci were added as directors. Finchem said it will focus on looking at the relationships between people and defects in the elections process. He did not elaborate further.

The current website has numerous posts that repeat false claims about 2022 elections, including one headline that says, “10 Million Mail Ballots Unaccounted for in Nov. Midterms.” It says the organization will rely on research from Seth Keshel, an activist who has repeatedly made unfounded claims that his analysis of election data proves fraud.

Asked what the organization’s mission is, Stevens said, “There are a couple visions,” including “potentially a nationwide voter registration-type repository.” He said he sees no conflict in serving on the board and in a consulting role.

Leo Biasiucci

The website asks for donations to be sent to a post office box in Phoenix “to execute on our mission of examining ‘vote-by-mail’ affidavit envelope signatures for validity and professional signature match, to fund our daily operations including a limited staff and qualified professional subcontractors.”

The most secure election, Stevens says, would not involve any mail-in or early voting and would tally results by hand. He worries that he has no control over the ballots when they are out of the county’s custody, and he said he has found a few instances where the U.S. Postal Service has failed to properly track and deliver all ballots.

If people criticize him for not standing up for the security of elections, he said, they haven’t been listening to him. “I tell people that I don’t believe we had any issues in Cochise County whatsoever,” he said. “And I am more than willing to try to prove that. I have said that multiple times. I guess they want to ignore that comment.”

Asked if he was willing to say that Trump lost in 2020, he acknowledged Trump lost. But he quickly added that he can only be sure about Cochise County.

“I saw the videos of what they did in Pennsylvania and in Georgia, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t in charge of it,” he said. “I was in charge of it here.”

Experimenting with ballot security

Stevens is also pursuing an idea he and Finchem have been talking about since late 2020, he said, which is adding security features to ballot paper, such as watermarks or unique ballot identifiers.

Stevens gave Finchem a county ballot, to which a company added security features, for Finchem to use in a demonstration of the technology to state lawmakers. In October 2021, Stevens and Finchem went to Dallas for an event Finchem hosted called the Ballot Integrity Summit.

The state legislature last year approved $1 million in this year’s budget for a trial, specifically allowing county recorders to apply, even though elections directors, not county recorders, oversee the design of ballots or ordering ballot paper in Arizona.

The only recorder to apply: Stevens. He was awarded the grant and is starting to make a plan, he said.

Stevens said he also would be OK with hand-counting the county’s ballots in the future. Asked if he supports getting rid of the county’s tabulation machines, he said, “I’m willing to have that debate.” He and Finchem both believe that companies that manufacture such machines should make their source code public, something experts say would create new security vulnerabilities.

“They have been accurate to this point,” he said. “I have no problem testing them. I prefer to view the software.”

Protect Democracy’s Davidson said the type of experiments Stevens supports could have real consequences, such as the threat that a full hand count of ballots would make it impossible to meet statutory deadlines for certifying elections.

‘I can fill the role’

As Marra exits, Stevens may take control over parts of the system he wants to examine, such as the type of ballot paper the county uses and how ballots are counted.

The county has until Wednesday to respond to Marra’s resignation letter. After that, Marra can leave, and could potentially sue. The longtime deputy elections director retired in January. There’s only one other employee in the elections department, and that person has been there less than a year.

Before Marra’s resignation, Judd had proposed a Feb. 7 meeting to discuss hand-counting ballots, along with “better practices involving possible re-organization of responsible parties.” Her request appears to have been postponed or canceled, though.

Marra interpreted that request as the supervisors’ attempt to give Stevens control over much of her work. The discussion during that work session, her lawyer wrote, would continue to give the false impression the county’s elections had problems under her watch.

“The working conditions at Cochise County have become so intolerable and deteriorated to the point that Ms. Marra is compelled to resign to protect her health and safety,” Marra’s lawyer wrote in the resignation letter.

Stevens said he isn’t so concerned about the future of the department without Marra. He has six years’ experience in elections. He can handle whatever comes up, he said.

“I’m confident I can fill the role and get the job done.”

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.


Judge rules against Senate in records dispute

Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, center, Ben Cotton, right, founder of digital security firm CyFIR, and Randy Pullen, left, the former Chairman of the Arizona Republican Party and Arizona Senate Audit spokesperson, depart after announcing their findings to the Arizona Senate Republicans hearing review of the 2020 presidential election results in Maricopa County at the Arizona Capitol Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Phoenix.   (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A judge on Tuesday rejected a Senate claim that some of its records about the audit are not public.

In a 13-page order, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah said he would not accept the arguments by Kory Langhofer, the attorney for Senate President Karen Fann, that he should just accept the Senate’s assertions that the documents at issue are protected by “legislative privilege.”

“The court finds that the Senate has not carried its burden of overcoming the legal presumption favoring disclosure,” the judge wrote. “The record as it stands does not establish that the documents are privileged and that the Senate is entitled to withhold them from the public on that ground.”

But Hannah offered Langhofer and the Senate an “out” of sorts.

The judge told them that they are free to give the documents to him. And then he will decide, after reviewing them privately, whether they are public.

“Otherwise the Senate must disclose the documents forthwith,” he said.

Most immediately, Hannah ordered the Senate to turn over several specific groups of items:

– A string of text messages between Fann and Phil Waldon , described an an “election security analyst,” who the judge said appears to be little more than an informal adviser;

– The draft contract that Fann signed with Shiva Ayyudurai, after the audit started, to separately look at the signatures on ballot envelopes;

– Communications between Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, and audit liaison Randy Pullen regarding the conduct of the audit;

– Three emails between Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, and Republican Reps. Leo Biasiucci, also of Lake Havasu City, and Mark Finchem of Oro Valley.

But the ruling eventually could end up setting the stage for disclosure of a flood of documents that the Senate has so far refused to produce. Langhofer told another judge looking at the same issue of privilege that the Senate has about 1,000 documents it considers not subject to disclosure.

In his ruling, Hannah said there is some precedent for legislative privilege. For example, he said, requiring full disclosure of all communications among lawmakers and even among their advisers could “chill” legislators from their deliberations.

But he said that is narrow.

“The legislative privilege does not apply to everything a legislator says or does that is somehow related to the legislative process,” Hannah wrote. “The shield extends only as far as necessary to preserve the integrity of the legislative process.”

Then there’s the state’s public records law.

“The Arizona Legislature has enacted a strong policy favoring public access to information,” the judge said. More to the point, he noted that lawmakers applied that policy to themselves.

What that leaves, Hannah said, is who gets to decide. And he said that can’t be left to lawmakers to determine which of their own records are public and which they can withhold.

“The courts, not current members of the legislature, are responsible for defining the scope of the legislative privilege by balancing the public interest in legislator confidentiality against the robust disclosure policy of the public records law,” the judge said.

“The most important factor that an Arizona court must weigh against an assertion of privilege is the public’s interest in access to information,” he continued. “The balance between the two policies determines the scope of the legislative privilege.”

And there’s something else.

“In close or doubtful situations, the public records law prioritizes public access over legislative secrecy,” Hannah said.

That, then, leads to how to resolve these issues.

The judge said it starts with the fact that whoever is opposing disclosure has the burden of establishing the existence of some privilege. Then, if there is an adequate showing, the burden shifts to the entity wanting the documents.

In this case, it is Phoenix Newspapers Inc., which operates as The Arizona Republic, which filed suit.

Hannah said there is an option for what courts call “in camera” reviews by judges to determine which records fall within a legitimate exception and which do not. But even that idea got a fight from Langhofer who said the fact that these are legislative records makes such review less possible.

In fact, Langhofer argued that the newspaper has to make “a substantial showing” that the Senate’s assertion of privilege was “clear error” before it can ask the court to “commandeer” the materials for review.

“No Arizona case says anything remotely like this,” Hannah said.

The judge also noted that the newspaper has offered several “reasonable, fact-based arguments” that the Senate does not have a valid privilege claim for most of the documents it sought to shield. And he noted that, even without his intervention, the Senate gave up the claim on 19 of the 25 specific records being sought, all of which “demonstrates the potentially broad merit of PNI’s objection to the Senate privilege claim.”

A separate demand for public records, this one filed by American Oversight, is pending in front of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Kemp. On Tuesday the judge set a hearing for Nov. 2 on whether he should hold Fann and the Senate in contempt for failing to produce the records he has ordered surrendered.


Judge tosses Borrelli’s request to void Hobbs’ victory

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, on the floor of the Senate in 2020. PHOTO BY HOWARD FISCHER/CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES

A judge has tossed a bid by the incoming state Senate majority leader to throw out the results of the governor’s race over his claim that Maricopa County illegally uses computers to review signatures on ballot envelopes.

Mohave County Superior Court Judge Lee Jantzen said Friday that lawyers for Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, waited too long to serve the defendants, including Katie Hobbs, the governor elect, informing them of the challenge and their right to appear in court to defend themselves. The judge said the fact that the summonses had incorrect dates did not excuse the delay.

Jantzen also refused to give Borrelli’s attorneys more time to serve those summonses now. He said that, having delayed the matter already, there was no way to resolve the case by the deadlines set in law to deal with election challenges.

The case is not entirely gone.

Jantzen told the attorneys they are free to pursue their claim that Maricopa County is violating state laws about how signatures on ballot envelopes must be reviewed. But the judge outright rejected a contention by Ryan Heath, one of Borrelli’s lawyers, that an eventual ruling months from now against the county on the issue – assuming he sided with the senator – would allow him to order Hobbs removed from office.

There was no immediate response from Borrelli.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, Borrelli contends that Maricopa County has illegally delegated to “an unproven software program” run by a private company the required process of comparing ballot signatures to those on file. Early ballots can be counted only if there is a match.

Borrelli also contends that even if a final decision is made by a human, they are influenced by the preliminary conclusions of the computer of whether there is “high confidence” or “low confidence” in whether the signature matches.

The basis for Borrelli’s bid to void Hobbs’ victory is his contention that his vote and those of other residents of heavily Republican Mohave County, which does not use signature-verification software, were diluted because of illegal votes being tallied in Maricopa County.

That, he said, affected the race for governor where Hobbs outpolled Lake in Maricopa County by 37,638 votes. And that enabled the Democrat to be declared the winner by 17,117.

Only thing is, Borrelli’s lawyers had still not gotten around to legally informing the defendants – Maricopa County, the Secretary of State’s Office, and Hobbs personally as governor-elect – about the lawsuit when the case came to Jantzen on Friday.

Andy Gaona, representing the Secretary of State’s Office, and Alexis Danneman, representing Hobbs, did show up voluntarily on Friday.

But there was no one from the county whose ballot-review practices are at the heart of the case. And Jantzen said it was too late to start the case now, given that state law requires a hearing to be conducted by Dec. 22.

And there’s something else: the complexity of Borrelli’s claim.

“Even if this case were to go forward, this is a case that would require expert testimony and expert analysis from both sides for me to make any determination,” Jantzen said. “I wouldn’t know what artificial intelligence is and how it works unless I had a lot of things to review and read.”

All that, the judge said, would take more time than allowed to quickly resolve a simple election challenge.

Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer told Capitol Media Services that there was no use of computers this year to divide ballots into those “high confidence” and “low confidence” batches of whether the signatures matched. And Richer said Borrelli “didn’t bother asking any of the 100-plus people who worked on signature verification in Maricopa County prior to filing his lawsuit.”

In tossing out the challenge to Hobbs’ election on Friday, Jantzen did not set a date for Borrelli to pursue the balance of his claim where he asks the court to declare that the use of “unproven and opaque third-party computer software” at any point in the signature-validation process is illegal.




Lawmakers jockey for leadership roles in House, Senate

(Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
(Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

The day after the November 6 election will be followed by another kind of vote, as elected Arizona senators and representatives will meet with their fellow Republicans and Democrats to choose leaders for their respective parties.

Some of those leadership races are all but decided, but others may hinge on who gets elected, and who doesn’t, when voters head to the polls.

Those elected leaders of the House of Representatives and Senate will be responsible for shepherding policies through the Legislature in 2019, and just as importantly, will have the power to block the passage of bills they oppose. The House speaker and Senate president are responsible for assigning bills to committees and scheduling bills for votes on the floor of each chamber.

And caucus leaders help set agendas for Republicans and Democrats, while also serving as a unifying force to keep their respective party members working in concert to back those agendas.

Republican and Democratic caucuses in both chambers will cast leadership votes on November 7, less than 24 hours after polls close on election night.

Arizona House of Representatives
Arizona House of Representatives

House GOP

Rep. Rusty Bowers of Mesa is considered a shoo-in to serve as the next House speaker, though he’s not running unopposed. Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley claims he’s one of the “serious contenders,” while Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott has flirted with running for the post.

Rep. Anthony Kern of Glendale is locked in a two-way race to serve as the GOP majority leader against Sen. Warren Petersen of Gilbert, who’s running for the House this election while also seeking a leadership post. Kern claims to have 18 votes in his favor, enough to win the chamber assuming the 35 member Republican Caucus doesn’t grow in size.

Reps. David Cook of Globe and Becky Nutt of Clifton are the two Republicans running to serve as majority whip. Sen. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican running for the House, recently dropped out of the race for whip and threw his support behind Cook.

House Democrats

Reps. Reginald Bolding of Phoenix and Charlene Fernandez of Yuma are locked in a battle to lead the House Democratic Caucus. Bolding can boast of a slate of supporters, having teamed up with Rep. Diego Espinoza of Tolleson, who would serve as assistant minority leader, and Rep. Kirsten Engel of Tucson, who would serve as whip. Fernandez, the current whip, has the mutual support of Rep. Randy Friese, who would like to continue to serve as assistant minority leader.

Reps. Athena Salman of Tempe and Richard Andrade of Glendale are also running for whip, though Fernandez has not endorsed either candidate.

Fernandez said she’s expecting more legislative success from Democrats in the next session: “We had like six bills that went to the Governor’s Office, which is ridiculous. We have great ideas and we represent more than 40 percent of Arizona,” she said.

Bolding said the Democrats are assured a greater voice next session because they’ll have a larger caucus.

“It’s a foregone conclusion that we pick up seats in the House. The question is how many,” he said.

Senate-2Senate GOP

The only contested leadership race among Senate Republicans is perhaps the closest of the year. Sen. Karen Fann of Prescott said the race for president is too close to call, especially considering several Senate races in traditionally Republican districts may be closer than usual. Her opponent in the leadership race, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, is by his own words “running scared” to get elected to the Senate in Legislative District 17.

Assuming both are elected to the Senate, the winner may be decided by comparing the number of re-elected senators to the number of House members crossing over. Fann would presumably have the upper hand attracting votes from senators she served with the past two years, while Mesnard may have the loyalty of representatives who served under his leadership in the House.

Fann said it’s a “shame” Mesnard decided to run for leadership at all, noting that a freshman senator has never served as president, but Mesnard argued he’s the best choice because of his experience leading the House. He also cites his prior work as a Senate research staffer.

“This is a historically unique situation happening in the Senate, which makes it all the more important for someone who has both leadership experience at the highest level and intimate familiarity with the Senate… to step in,” Mesnard said.

As for the other GOP leadership posts, Sen. Rick Gray of Peoria is running unopposed to serve as majority leader, while Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City is the lone candidate for whip.

Senate Democrats

Sens. David Bradley of Tucson and Martin Quezada of Glendale would like to lead the Democrats, but both are preparing for an even better outcome for the traditionally minority party in the Senate – the possibility of a split chamber, or perhaps the Democrats winning enough seats to hold a majority.

Bradley’s pitched himself as a seasoned legislator about to serve his last term in office, offering his guidance in a letter sent to all Democrats, and independents, running for the Senate. Quezada, who served as co-whip the past two sessions, said he’s “in great shape” to step up and serve as minority leader, though he’s also focused on how to negotiate a split chamber.

While Bradley acknowledged that he’d be happy to serve as Senate president, Quezada said he’s focused on other positions of power.

“My ultimate goal is a fair and equal division of power,” Quezada. “I don’t think the Senate president has to be a Democrat. It could be a Republican. But I think a Democrat should have a powerful chairmanship if that were the case.”

Rounding out the field of leadership candidates are Sen. Lupe Contreras of Avondale, who serves as co-whip with Quezada, and Rep. Rebecca Rios of Phoenix, who’s running for her second stint in the Senate. Those two would occupy the positions of assistant minority leader and whip, though it’s unclear who’d serve in which capacity.

Legislature passes opioids package

(Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
(Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

State lawmakers voted late Thursday to adopt changes in laws on opioids despite what some said are flaws and concerns by others that the plan won’t do much of anything to deal with the drug abuse epidemic.

The unanimous approval came just hours after the Republicans who control both the House and Senate picked apart the package that Gov. Doug Ducey presented to them Monday and asked that they give final approval in three days.

It wasn’t just the rush to make massive changes in Arizona law that concerned a few lawmakers who pointed out that many of the key provisions do not even take effect until next year. The bigger fear is that some of what’s in the package has not been well thought out.

One complaint deals with a provision designed to ensure that doctors do not provide larger doses than appropriate.

It absolutely prohibits giving patients more than 90 “morphine milligram equivalents” a day unless they fall into certain excepted categories like cancer patients and those in hospice. Doctors can prescribe such doses in other cases — but only if they first consult a board-certified pain management specialist.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said that raises all sorts of concerns, ranging from who picks up the cost of the consult for patients without health insurance to how long it might take to get that second opinion, especially if the specialist actually wants to see the patient.

“It’s probably going to be a long wait,” said Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix.

The bigger question, Allen said, is having the state looking over the shoulder of medical professionals.

“Here’s a doctor who’s practiced for years, knows that patient, and now they have to get a second opinion,” she said.

“It’s kind of an insult to them,” Allen continued. “So I don’t like that at all.”

Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, worried over a provision that will require all prescriptions for opioids to be done electronically. That is designed to cut down on forged paper prescriptions.

But Gray questioned whether that’s technically feasible, particularly for rural doctors.

“Some of this software isn’t even developed yet,” he said. Gray said it took the state of New York two years to get a similar system in place.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, called the requirement an “unfunded mandate, saying that setting up the system could cost doctors up to $20,000.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said he had a problem with the concept of imposing an entirely new regulatory scheme on all doctors. Smith said he believes there are just a small number of “bad doctors” who are causing the problem by overprescribing highly addictive opioids.

“If you’re going to overburden the doctors you’re still not going to solve the problem,” he said.

Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, agreed, saying the state is pushing ahead with new regulations that don’t address the underlying reasons of why people abuse drugs.

“Whenever government solves problems it doesn’t seem to work out too well,” he said. “I hope we’re realizing there are some things government can’t solve.”

That question of regulation also got the attention of Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, who openly wondered whether all the new laws and restrictions might have an unintended effect.

“I don’t want to restrict the ability of good doctors to do their job and force that patient (who needs painkillers) to black tar heroin,” he said.

Borrelli also said the bill is lacking a crucial provision: a state-run needle exchange program to keep addicts from sharing needles and possibly spreading HIV, “and then we have another epidemic.”

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Campbell, worried about provisions which require veterinarians to report to police if they believe clients are seeking opiates for themselves instead of their pets. That same section then allows police to demand reports, all, Campbell said, without a court order.

“This is what we call a fishing expedition,” he said.

All the concerns — and the unanswered questions — also go to the question of why Ducey called a special session, insisting that lawmakers go from their first real look at the bill on Monday and final approval by the end of the day Thursday. Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, pointed out that many of the key provisions do not even take effect until next year.

“If we’re not implementing this until 2019 I don’t know why we’re voting on this this afternoon,” he said. Even Majority Leader Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, conceded the risks of such rapid action.

“Sometimes when we rush through legislation there are consequences,” she said.

Not everyone saw the issue that way.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said there is evidence of a real crisis, citing figures showing there has been a 74 percent increase in opioid deaths since he became a lawmaker in 2013.

“It’s highly addictive and it’s killing people,” he told colleagues. “I don’t know why we’re suddenly getting weak knees.”

And Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said she has no problem with new state laws, saying that whatever kind of self-regulation that is supposed to be going on in the medical community isn’t working, “forcing the government to step in and save some lives.”

Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, did not dispute any of the concerns or contentions of his fellow Republicans. But he urged lawmakers to adopt the plan now, saying any flaws can be fixed next year.

Even Smith, despite his concerns, said he’s willing to push this through.

“I think it’s important to make a statement,” he said.

Medical marijuana consumer-protection bill introduced

A Lake Havasu City senator says he still has yet to be convinced that marijuana has any legitimate medical uses.

But Republican Sonny Borrelli said Monday the fact remains that voters did approve legalizing the drug for medical uses in 2010 and more than 150,000 Arizonans have state permission to buy and use it. So he figures it’s the state’s obligation to ensure that buyers are getting a product that’s not tainted and, in fact, has the amount of psychoactive THC that buyers are promised.

SB 1420 would give the state Department of Agriculture the same authority over marijuana as it now has over other plants offered for sale for consumption. That would give agriculture inspectors the power to inspect the cultivation facilities where marijuana is grown.

More to the point, Borrelli wants what is being grown tested for what operators are using on the plants.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City
Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City

“It’s the Wild West,” he said of the current state of marijuana regulation, with no rules on pesticides and other chemicals being used on the plants.

For example, he cited a fungicide marketed as “Eagle 20.” Borrelli said federal regulations prohibit its use on tobacco “because it’s a heavy carcinogen.”

But those same federal rules are silent on use on marijuana, meaning it can be used.

“Well, I think the person that’s buying that stuff, they need to know there’s a heavy carcinogen in there,” Borrelli said. “If you’re a cancer patient, would you want to be taking medicine that could make you even sicker?”

Nothing in the legislation would ban any specific chemical. But it would require that when the marijuana is sold at the dispensary that buyers are made aware that it was used in the production.

“I want to concentrate on customer safety,” he said.

Moldy marijuana is a slightly different question.

Borrelli said he’s been told it can be treated to get rid of any fungus rather than retailers having to toss out the plants entirely. At that point it could be offered for sale — along with information on how it was treated.

But Borrelli’s legislation also has what might be considered the consumer fraud provision.

“If they’re going to advertise there’s 20 percent THC and it’s only 5 percent, they need to relabel it,” he said.

If approved, the measure would have another benefit for the more than 150,000 individuals who now have state-issued ID cards allowing them to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks: More cash in their pockets.

The original 2010 voter-approved legislation did not set a fee, leaving that up to the Department of Health Services to charge enough to administer the program. In fact, the law bars the proceeds from being used for anything else.

The agency currently charges patients $150 for one of the cards, a fee that has to be paid every year.

“It’s kind of hard to justify when they’re sitting on $40 million,” Borrelli said, with current Health Director Cara Christ having refused requests to lower the fees, even in the face of a lawsuit by medical marijuana users.

Christ won the first round when Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry said she lacked the legal authority to declare the fees excessive, even with the health department running the program with a huge surplus.

SB 1420 would lower that to $50 for the first year and $25 for renewals.

His legislation also would give $2 million out of that health department account to the Department of Agriculture to start administering then program.

The measure is being approached cautiously by the Marijuana Policy Project, the national organization that put the initiative on the 2010 ballot and worked to get it approved.

“In principle, additional safeguards that prevent contamination with molds and pesticides is something we support,” said spokesman Morgan Fox, saying he wants to ensure they are “not too onerous for caregivers in practice.”

But he said he wants to review it further before taking a position.

“I’m particularly curious to see if there would be additional or unintended requirements or restrictions that come with medical marijuana being defined as an agricultural commodity,” Fox said.

It also appears to have the cautious support of Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery who has waged repeated unsuccessful efforts to have the Arizona initiative voided because it runs contrary to federal law where possession of the drug remains a felony.

“Unless and until the federal government takes action we have an obligation to ensure the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act is truly operated as a system for people who have a medical basis for using marijuana,” he told Capitol Media Services. “Replicating the protections the users of any other type of medicine would have is a reasonable and responsible course of action.”

Because the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act was enacted by voters, it can be amended only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. Borrelli already is moving to get that margin, getting another 78 of the state’s 90 lawmakers to sign on in support, including Senate President Steve Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard.

But it also would have to survive a possible veto by Gov. Doug Ducey who said as recently as last week that he has seen no evidence that marijuana has any legitimate medical uses.


Most medical marijuana bills go up in smoke; Senate OKs 1

(Deposit Photos/Uros Poteko)
(Deposit Photos/Uros Poteko)

Legislators have introduced a swath of bills aimed at amending the state’s voter-protected Medical Marijuana Act, but getting the necessary votes to pass has proven difficult.

Five of the 14 bills introduced this session made it to the floor for a vote in their original chamber while the rest never received a committee hearing.

Democrats in both chambers introduced bills seeking to decrease the $150 cost to obtain a medical marijuana card, with one House proposal going as low as $15. Others sought to expand the list of qualifying conditions for which people can obtain a card.

Republicans wanted to further define what the Medical Marijuana Fund can be used for, while one measure made it a class 6 felony, punishable by a $10,000 fine, for a listing service to display the contact information for a dispensary without verifying that the dispensary has a registration certificate.

Because the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act was approved by voters in 2010, it’s protected from most legislative efforts to meddle with the law. The act can only be changed by a three-fourths majority vote in the House and Senate and the change must further the law’s intent.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)
Rep. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)

Of the five measures that made it to the floor – all introduced by Republicans – only SB1420, sponsored by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, obtained the necessary three-fourths majority to get out of the Senate. The bill proposes to give the Department of Agriculture the authority to test marijuana as the agency does other edible crops,

Borrelli’s bill, which was approved by a 27-3 vote, now moves to the House. It has been assigned to the Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs Committee and Appropriations Committee.

Other attempts to amend the voter-protected Medical Marijuana Act have so far failed to clear the House, including three bills sponsored by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson.

HB2064, which would prohibit medical marijuana dispensaries from packaging or labeling products in a manner that is attractive to minors, failed 41-15, three votes shy of the needed 45 votes, but may be reconsidered.

HB2066, which would require the Department of Health Services to use the Medical Marijuana Fund for education, awareness and prevention messaging twice failed on the floor, with the final tally at 35-22.

HB2068, which would prohibit a registered medical marijuana patient from possession or using medical marijuana if they’re on probation or parole, failed 34-22.

A fourth Leach bill, HB2067, which would make it an act of unprofessional conduct for a licensed health professional to knowingly make a false statement in a written medical marijuana certification submitted to DHS passed in the House 35-25 and has been referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Because the bill did not seek to amend the Medical Marijuana Act it did not need at least 45 votes to pass.

Assistant Minority Leader Randy Friese, D-Tucson, said unlike Borrelli’s bill, Leach’s bills didn’t further the intent of the Medical Marijuana Act, and he found them restrictive.

Rep. Jay Lawrence, R-Scottsdale, chairman of the Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs Committee, said he will give Borrelli’s bill a hearing. He added that the bill isn’t anti-medical marijuana and only seeks to improve the program.

“I think Mr. Borrelli’s bill does have a chance because it deals with an area that isn’t opposing medical marijuana, it is merely saying let’s make it as healthy as possibly can be,” he said, adding that he supports the bill.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, who worked closely with Borrelli to draft SB1420, said the testing aspect of Borrelli’s bill was popular, even with lawmakers who don’t support medical marijuana. Roughly 80 of the 90 legislators originally signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill, he said, is poised to get the necessary 45 votes to move out of the House and onto the governor’s desk.

(Photo by Luige del Puerto/Arizona Capitol Times)
(Photo by Luige del Puerto/Arizona Capitol Times)

Kevin DeMenna, a lobbyist for the Arizona Dispensaries Association, said the association is pleased by the process by which Borrelli worked on the legislation and by the conversation on the Medical Marijuana Act that occurred as a result. That’s why Borrelli found success in the Senate while legislative efforts in the House floundered, DeMenna said.

“It continues to be driven by an inclusive process – stakeholders, meetings, outreach to law enforcement and to the industry, and clearly the comfort level of working in that environment, it distinguishes Senator Borrelli’s process and the bill,” DeMenna said. “The other measures are one off. If we’re going to do this, it needs to be done in a comprehensive way.”

Because of its popularity, Democrats are now looking to use Borrelli’s bill as a vehicle to further amend the Medical Marijuana Act and create a comprehensive medical marijuana legislation.

Friese said he’s hoping to amend SB1420 to include provisions regarding the packaging of medical marijuana products. Borrelli’s bill currently says items shall be dispensed in childproof containers.

In case the provision is not included in the final version of the bill, Friese motioned to reconsider Leach’s packaging bill because it’s something the caucus feels strongly about, he said. It has not yet been placed on the calendar.

“We want to try to use (SB1420) as a comprehensive vehicle, but I didn’t want Mr. Leach’s bill to die completely just in case we can’t get some of those provisions in the other bill,” he said.

Cardenas said Democrats want to add autism spectrum disorder and opioid addiction to the list of qualifying conditions.

However, some worry that amending the bill will spell doom for Borrelli’s chances of getting SB1420 through the House.

Borrelli said SB1420 may not be a massive, consensus package of marijuana law changes, but it tries to tackle “the low hanging fruit.”

“The things that are obvious, let’s tackle them right now, and tackle other things later,” he said.

DeMenna said his organization will do nothing to amend Borrelli’s bill – the association is pleased with Borrelli’s leadership on the issue and doesn’t want to impede his efforts to get SB1420 approved in the House. But that’s not stopping the group from trying to find another bill to address issues like the cost of ID cards.

“The Arizona Dispensaries Association, working with other major stakeholders, has for months been trying to develop a comprehensive, almost menu like approach to updating the AMA,” DeMenna said.

He said he’s optimistic something can be done this year.

And even if not, there’s value in working out the details now and perhaps addressing it in future legislative sessions, he said.

Ben Giles contributed to this report.

New horse racing law could lead to lawsuit


The owners of the state’s largest race track are weighing whether to sue to block a new law about who is entitled to get televised signals for out-of-state races.

Vince Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise, tells Capitol Media Services the law signed last week by Gov. Doug Ducey endangers its ability to continue to get signals from several tracks. That’s because the company that provide the signals, Monarch Content Management, has said it will withdraw from the Arizona market if it must comply with a new state law requiring it to also share those signals with all the off-track betting sites operated by Arizona Downs.

Francia said such a move would have a major impact on Turf’s revenues, with 44 percent of its revenues coming from those who wager on the races provided to Turf by Monarch and from revenues from other Monarch sites where people bet on live races from Turf. That translates out to close to $4 million a year.

“It’s something we would not be able to survive,” he said.

But Ann McGovern, general manager of the newly opened Arizona Downs in Prescott Valley said all she wants is fairness.

File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)
File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)

What’s behind the spat is a last-minute provision added by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, to an unrelated measure dealing with horse racing at Tucson’s Rillito Park. The additional language spells out that any simulcast of live racing brought into Arizona from another state “must be offered to each commercial live-racing permittee in this state and additional wagering facility in the state.”

The essence is simple: If Monarch wants to continue providing signals to Turf it also has to serve Arizona Downs and its OTB facilities – including facilities in the Phoenix area, and at the same rate.

The move drew fire from Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who said the state should not be getting involved in the spat and dictating contract terms. But the Senate approved it anyway and Ducey signed it into law.

It is set to take effect Aug. 27. In the interim, Francia said Turf is examining its legal options, saying there are doubts about its constitutionality.

He’s not the only one. Monarch President Scott Daruty, whose teletrack signals are at the heart of the fight, also is consulting with attorneys about challenging the act.

One issue, said Daruty, is the 1978 federal Interstate Horseracing Act which is designed to ensure that states do not use their own laws to interfere with interstate off-track wagering. Then there is the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution that has its own limits on the ability of states to interfere in matters of interstate commerce.

But McGovern said all the new state law does is ensure that brokers like Monarch provide equal access and equal treatment to anyone who wants to buy the signal.

And Tom Auther, one of the co-owners said there’s nothing illegal about the new Arizona law, saying similar statutes exist in other states. The real danger, he said, would be to allow Monarch — or any signal provider – to cut deals with one track for exclusive access to OTB signals that would put every other track in the state out of business.

Daruty, for his part, said it’s not that simple, saying Monarch has had a relationship with Turf for decades, long before Arizona Downs reopened for OTB last year and began live racing last month.

It starts with selling Turf and its OTB sites the signals from the tracks owned by the Stonach Group, Monarch’s parent company. That includes California’s Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park in Florida.

Monarch also sells signals from other tracks its parent company does not own.

Finally, it sells the signals from the more than 130 days of live racing at Turf to other tracks.

“It’s been profitable for them, it’s been profitable for us,” Daruty said.

He said Monarch also has been selling its signal to Arizona Downs for teletrack wagering at its Prescott Valley facility. What it is not willing to do, Daruty said, is sell to Arizona Downs’ six OTB sites, including three in the Phoenix area that he said are close to OTB sites operated by Turf, two of them within one mile.

“We’re a business and we want to see our product distributed successfully,” he said. “And we don’t think that sort of marketplace works.”

He compared it to someone wanting to set up a McDonald’s franchise, telling the corporation they know it’s a good location because it’s across the street from an existing McDonald’s.

“They’re going to tell you to get lost,” Daruty said.

“They’re not going into new markets and creating new distribution for our product,” he said. “What they’re really doing is, I believe, going out and trying to just cannibalize or just cherry-pick off of the business that Turf Paradise has and hope that they can attract some of it over to their location.”

McGovern said that’s not true – and not just because her company also has OTB sites in Lake Havasu City, Flagstaff and Pinetop-Lakeside.

“Any wagering dollars have been incremental to previous wagering dollars,” she said, adding to the overall total amount that people are betting rather than simply redividing it. McGovern also said she has studies about the overall wagering at Turf Paradise since Arizona Downs begin off-track betting a year ago.

“And their handle has gone up as well,” she said. “We have the data to show that.”

That, however, still leaves the question of whether the state can, or should, be in the business of telling Monarch and other signal providers that they have to serve all or serve none.

McGovern said there’s no reason for Monarch to object, especially since it is technically acting as a broker for horsemens’ groups across the country who actually own the rights. And she said expanding the places where people can wager is in the best interests of the horsemen.

“We’re going into markets that are going to allow them to make more money for their horsemen and for their business,” McGovern said.

“We don’t have any reason to want to cannibalize Turf Paradise’s OTBs,” she said. “We want them to be successful,” saying it will “strengthen the overall industry.”

The other question that remains is the threat by Monarch that it would pull out of Arizona entirely rather than be forced to sell its signals to the Arizona Downs OTB sites. It’s a warning that Daruty made earlier this month in a letter to Ducey, just days before the governor signed the bill.

Daruty told the governor that allowing Arizona to impose such a mandate and continuing to operate here would set a “dangerous precedent,” setting the stage for lawmakers in the more than 35 other states where Monarch operates to impose similar requirements.

Francia said that would still leave Turf with signals from other tracks.

But he said that those who wager at the track and its 55 OTB sites happen to like — and wager on — the races that Monarch offers, endangering the 44 percent of its handle coming from those races.


Old tactics, new territory as lawmakers embrace partisan COVID-19 framing

From left in this photo from Rep. Anthony Kern’s Twitter account are Kern, R-Glendale, Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, as they point towards a clock at a Phoenix restaurant to mock a Phoenix order for restaurants to close at 8 a.m. to lessen the spread of COVID-19.
From left in this photo from Rep. Anthony Kern’s Twitter account are Kern, R-Glendale, Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, as they point towards a clock at a Phoenix restaurant to mock a Phoenix order for restaurants to close at 8 p.m. to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

In any other week, Rep. Anthony Kern’s dinner choices wouldn’t have mattered to anyone but the most fervent crusader against lobbyist influence. This week, depending on who you ask, he’s either a hero fighting government overreach or the face of irresponsibility. 

The Glendale Republican and the lobbyist who bought his dinner on Tuesday night, former House staffer Brett Mecum, headed over to the Capital Grille to meet up with three other Republican lawmakers: Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley and Sens. David Gowan of Sierra Vista and Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City. 

The four crowded close, grinned broadly and pointed up at a row of clocks showing the time: 8:15 p.m., 15 minutes after Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego had ordered all restaurants to close to diners to alleviate the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s 8:15 p.m……. Do you know where Phoenix Mayor @KateWGallego is?” Kern tweeted, adding hashtags for “resist” and “freedom of assembly.” 

Anthony Kern
Anthony Kern

Kern has since deleted the tweet, which encapsulates the diverging political philosophies at the Capitol that have made governing in the era of coronavirus so difficult. The GOP-led House and Senate consider the virus serious enough that the House suspended its rules to allow remote voting and both chambers are hurrying to pass budget bills this session.

But Republican lawmakers, including some in leadership, have also dismissed calls to close schools as “pure politics” and orders to shut restaurants as government overreach, theorized that the illness will disappear once the weather warms up and shared conspiracies that the “deep state” is using the coronavirus to expand government’s power. 

“Lighten up guys, it’s a little humor,” Kern said. “It’s 8:15. What, the virus only comes out after 8 o’clock? I mean, come on.”

During floor debate in the House on Wednesday, Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, referred to the small number of people in Arizona who have tested positive for the virus so far, expressing that figure as an infinitesimal percentage.  

So far, only 15 people have tested positive in the state — but more than 100 tests are pending, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. And that doesn’t capture all the people who might need tests but can’t access them, for any number of reasons.  

“It takes an immense amount of privilege to minimize how devastating coronavirus is,” Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, said to Grantham. 

Senate Minority Leader David Bradley put it differently. 

David Bradley
David Bradley

“They’re nuts,” he said. “Put that down. It’s sad that science has no standing with some of these people.” 

The partisan dimensions of the issue go beyond Twitter. Despite the high stakes and repeated pleas for bipartisanship, negotiations over a spate of emergency bills to help Arizonans respond to the virus are familiar, if not downright routine: Democrats make demands and take advantage of brief political opportunities, Republicans brand those demands as unreasonable, a clash ensues, the dust settles and the cycle repeats. 

 “Is there bipartisanship? Absolutely not,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. She said that Republicans have brushed aside a list of Democratic policy prescriptions that bolster social safety nets. 

“They’re calling this ‘pork.’ I know what pork is, and this is about our constituents, human lives,” Fernandez continued. 

The playing field appears more level in the Senate, a rare feat. In the upper chamber, two Republican senators have pledged not to return for the duration of the outbreak, opening a window for Senate Democrats to push their demands and for Republican leadership to embrace a spirit of bipartisanship. 

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, appealed to Senate Democrats and Republicans to put politics aside in the face of an impending crisis, coming together as a Senate to pass a strong budget that includes some requests from Democrats. In that light, she introduced a bill to address one request from Democrats: allowing workers to receive unemployment benefits if their working hours are slashed but they’re not formally laid off. 

“I’m hoping that our Senate members, Rs and Ds alike, are going to step up, show some leadership, show responsibility and get something good together,” she said. “If it’s different than what they have (in the House), we can get it out of here and send it over there and say ‘OK, here’s what we’ve got.’” 

But the partisanship of normal budget negotiations doesn’t just go away, even in extraordinary situations. Senate Republicans returned to the floor on Wednesday to adjourn for the day while their Democratic colleagues were still in a caucus meeting receiving a briefing on budget bills, which most rank-and-file members — and Democratic policy staff — hadn’t had a chance to read. 

Senate Republicans including Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, questioned the need to even wait for Democrats to consent to the bills proposed Wednesday. If the minority caucus isn’t on board by the end of the week, Republican leadership should just put the bills up for votes and let them fail if they’re going to fail, he said. 

“Then hit pause,” he said. “And they can go explain to their constituents why they voted to let government shut down. People need a government.” 

– Yellow Sheet editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this report



Photo radar ban a bust again, fails to get hearing in 2 Senate committees

photo radar620

Another year, another failed effort in the Legislature to ban red light and speed enforcement cameras statewide.

HB2208, sponsored by Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, was never heard in the Senate, despite a last-ditch effort to revive the bill.

Grantham’s bill would have prohibited municipal and state police from using photo radar equipment to catch red light runners and speeders.

Part of an annual effort at the Arizona Legislature to bar the use of photo radar and red light cameras, this is the second time Grantham has introduced legislation seeking to outlaw traffic enforcement cameras.

Last year, the freshman lawmaker’s measure got through the House but failed to receive a hearing in the Senate.

This year, HB2208 barely managed to scrape by in the House, 31-27, with Republican Reps. Doug Coleman, of Apache Junction, Maria Syms, of Scottsdale, and Bob Thorpe, of Flagstaff, voting against the measure.

But unlike last year, Grantham told his colleagues that he’d been assured the bill would get a “fair hearing” in the Senate this time around.

That wasn’t the case.

The bill, originally assigned to the Senate Transportation and Technology Committee, never received a hearing. It was withdrawn from the committee on March 21 after Chairman Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, failed to schedule it on the agenda, and was referred to the Appropriations Committee.

Committees met for the last time last week, however, the Appropriations committees in both chambers met one last time this week, giving several measures a new lease on life.

But despite a second chance in the Senate, the bill was not heard in the Appropriations Committee. Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said while he would have given it a hearing because he is in
favor of banning photo enforcement cameras, staff only transferred the bill to Appropriations in case it could be used as a vehicle for another bill.

Grantham said while some lawmakers were hoping he would offer it up as a “striker,” or an amendment that strikes the entire content of a bill and replaces it with the language of another bill, he wasn’t willing
to do that.

“I’m not looking to offer it up as a vehicle for something else. That’s not why I ran the bill and that’s not what the bill was for,” he said. “I want the bill to be heard in its present form for what it is.”

Grantham said he is frustrated with the fate of the measure, and he added that the Senate played “hot potato” with his bill by moving it from one committee to another.

He said he’s unsure why Worsley has been unwilling to give it a chance, adding that Worsley has never given him a reason.

Worsley did not immediately return a request for comment.

Next year, Grantham said, he’s considering introducing a concurrent resolution and referring the question of whether to ban photo radar systems to the ballot.

“I think a lot of people would be in favor of banning them, if you put it to the voters,” Grantham said.

Another bill targeting photo radars, SB1110, fared a different fate. It was unanimously approved by both chambers and transferred to the Governor’s Office on March 28.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, would require police to review evidence captured by a photo enforcement system to determine whether a traffic violation occurred before a citation is issued. Photo enforcement companies would be prohibited from determining if the driver disobeyed traffic laws, and a violation of the requirement would be a class 1 misdemeanor.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Sen. John Kavanagh’s area of representation and incorrectly stated he was unaware HB2208 had been assigned to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he chairs.

Rally cry to decertify election grows louder

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, speaks before the Senate Finance Committee on March 8, 2017. Finchem is one of a handful of lawmakers and many President Trump supporters calling for the decertification of the 2020 election in Arizona. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

Supporters of Donald Trump are peppering Gov. Doug Ducey with demands that he decertify the election even though he says there’s no legal authority for him to do that.

Ducey press aide C.J. Karamargin reported that the governor got about 300 emails each day on Saturday and Sunday calling for him to act.

“It is more than we receive on vaccines, masks, border issues, refugees,” he said. “This tops the level of constituent interest those issues have.”

And those demands come despite the governor’s statements, repeated most recently Friday following the release of findings from the Senate-ordered audit of the 2020 Maricopa County returns, that there is no way to do what they are demanding.

The move comes on the heels of a recount of Maricopa County ballots which showed that the results were accurate and the Democrat outpolled the incumbent Republican. In fact, the hand count actually increased Biden’s lead by a bit.

But Trump supporters are hanging on other conclusions by Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, that there are discrepancies between other numbers the county reported and what the auditors were able to find. These range from 23,344 mail-in ballots received from someone at a prior address to 9,041 more ballots returned from voters than were received.

And, along with other questions raised, those raising objections point out that there are enough of these questionable votes to more than overcome the 45,109 margin of victory by Biden in the state’s largest county — and, by extension, overturning the 10,457 edge the Democrat had statewide.

Then there are questions of whether election files were deleted.

County officials provided a point-by-point rebuttal of the findings.

But this clearly isn’t over. And the main thrust has been to decertify the election.

Among the loudest voices is Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who is running for secretary of state.

“We’ve got false numbers,” Finchem told Steve Bannon, a former Trump aide, in a televised interview. And that, he said, allows Arizona to “reclaim” its 11 electors.

“There is no law that allows for decertification,” Karamargin said. “It’s simply not possible.”

Finchem, however, remains unconvinced

“I don’t think that Ducey knows what this document means,” Finchem said, holding up a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution. And it starts, he said, with the Tenth Amendment which says that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.

“At the same time, there is a legal doctrine that says a right of action cannot arise out of fraud,” Finchem said. “Well, they signed a fraudulent document based on bad numbers,” he said, meaning the certification of the election signed Nov. 30 by Ducey, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

Nor is he swayed by the hand count which supports the official count, saying that is irrelevant if there were counterfeit ballots.

“And that’s exactly what happened here,” Finchem said.

Sonny Borrelli

He is not alone.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, is echoing the same sentiment.

And Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, produced a memo from Matt DePerno, a Michigan attorney running for attorney general there, who said that the legislature has the authority to recall state electors or decertify a national election “upon proof of fraud.”

“Importantly, this does not require proof of all of the fraud,” said DePerno, whose candidacy was just endorsed by Trump.

Others, including Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who hired Cyber Ninjas to review the election results, aren’t buying it.

“There’s really nothing in the Constitution that says we can decertify,” she said, though Fann conceded that won’t stop any legislator from proposing such a resolution.

“I mean, look at the legislation we do sometimes,” she noted.

But, legal issues aside, Fann said this just isn’t going to happen. And it starts with the fact that it would take 31 votes in the House and 16 in the Senate to approve such a measure — the exact bare margin that Republicans have in each chamber.

“And you and I both know we don’t have 31 and 16 votes for anything right now,” she said, with several Republican lawmakers already having disassociated themselves from the whole audit. That includes Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the Government Committee, disavowing the whole audit after saying that Fann “botched” it.

Karen Fann

Even among GOP lawmakers, Fann said some are likely to balk at such a move until “they are 100% sure that we have information that would have changed the results.” She said the only way that could happen is if Attorney General Mark Brnovich, to whom she has sent the audit report, verifying the audit report.

And even that might not be enough.

“There’s going to have to be a jury that rules or a court that rules,” and comes up with a finding that there were votes cast that affected the outcome of the election.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, reached a similar conclusion last year when he denied permission for Finchem to have a special hearing of his Committee on Federal Relations to see if the Republican-controlled House could overrule the public vote and choose its own electors to send to Washington, presumably supporting Trump. He said Arizona law is clear and that the electors are selected by the certified voter count, what occurred Nov. 30.

“What happened on the 30th was the culmination of a process,” Karamargin said. “And that process saw election results being certified in each of Arizona’s 15 counties,” many of which Karamargin pointed out are Republican counties.

There was a proposal earlier this year by Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, to allow the legislature to override the popular vote and choose electors. But it failed to even get out of a single committee.

– –

The push to decertify Arizona’s election results actually is part of a broader national strategy.

Denying Arizona’s 11 electoral votes to Biden, by itself, would not change the outcome of the November race. But Trump supporters are pushing similar audits — and decertification maneuvers — in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both states that went for Biden.

The aim is to reduce his electoral margin below the required 270, a move that would throw the vote for president into the U.S. House.

What makes that critical is that the vote in the Democrat-controlled House would not be by individual members.

Instead, each state delegation gets one vote. And that would give Republicans 26 votes

Potentially more interesting is that the Senate gets to select the vice president, with each senator getting one vote. With a 50-50 tie — and presumably Vice President Harris unable to cast the breaker — that leaves a deadlock if there is no deal to provide a majority to either.



Republicans still claim fraud as count continues

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally outside the Arizona state capitol Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Phoenix. Democrat Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump to (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

More than a week after Election Day, and as it became increasingly clear that Donald Trump would lose both the presidency and Arizona, a vocal cadre of elected Arizona Republicans continue to propagate  claims of election fraud.

They’ve largely shifted away from last week’s claims that Maricopa County’s use of Sharpies invalidated ballots, and have moved on to suspicions of malign “glitches” in voting machines and calling for an audit and hand recount of every ballot cast in the state, a message shared by the lame duck president of the United States. 

“From 200,000 votes to less than 10,000 votes. If we can audit the total votes cast, we will easily win Arizona also!” Trump tweeted November 12 in response to an Arizona Republic headline reiterating something Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan data analysts have been saying for days – he just won’t be able to catch up with President-elect Joe Biden with the number of votes left to count in Arizona.

Arizona Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich said the same during an appearance on Fox News on November 12, during which he also sought to dispel rumors of fraud in Arizona election results. 

“There is no evidence, there are no facts that would lead anyone to believe that the election results will change,” Brnovich said. 

Others have been less resolute. 

As protests raged outside the Maricopa County elections office in the days after the election, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, initially set out to quell concerns about fraud. In a November 6 statement, she wrote that she expected county recorders to oversee the election in an ethical and transparent manner and that Brnovich would investigate any issues.

“Please remain patient and have trust in our Arizona election process,” she wrote.

Just three days later, Fann sent Secretary of State Katie Hobbs a letter asking for an independent investigation into the tabulation of votes in Arizona. 

“To be clear, I am not claiming that fraud was involved in Arizona’s election, but many others are making that claim,” Fann wrote to Hobbs. “I believe it is imperative that we do everything we can to satisfy Arizonans that their votes were lawfully counted and the election was completely legitimate.”

In a response, Hobbs scolded Fann for encouraging claims of fraud.

“To be clear, there is no ‘current conspiracy’ regarding elections in Arizona, outside of theories floated by those seeking to undermine our democratic process for political gain,” Hobbs wrote. “Elected officials should work to build, rather than damage public confidence in our system. As we’ve seen in recent days, even efforts ostensibly aimed at knocking down misinformation can actually amplify it.” 

The “many others” Fann alludes to include members of her own Senate Republican caucus. Likely Sen.-elect Wendy Rogers has been the most vocal,  claiming that the U.S. is a “banana republic where a few cities can steal an election in the dead of night with fraudulent ballots and fake voters.” 

Some, like Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, pointed to Republican legislative victories as potential proof of fraud in the presidential count. Sen. J.D. Mesnard’s office, cell and campaign phones have been inundated with calls since Borrelli and Michael Ward, the husband of Arizona Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward, publicly questioned how the Chandler Republican could be winning his district by roughly 7,000 votes when Trump is losing the same legislative district by about 7,000 votes. 

The simplest answer, of course, is that Mesnard represents a swing district. Two years ago, his district voted for Democratic U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, and split its legislative representation between two Republicans and one Democrat. 

But Borrelli and others claim those disparities in vote counts for Trump and down-ballot Republicans are proof of problems in tabulating votes in Maricopa County. 

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Casa Grande, tweeted November 11 that he believes “it’s wise to conduct an independent audit of our election process” and called for a hand count. He joined a chorus of House Republicans, led by Senator-elect Kelly Townsend, in sewing doubt about the integrity of the election. 

Townsend has been an ever-present fixture of the “Stop the Steal” protests that materialized in front of county and state elections offices, rallying the crowd, leading them in prayer or relaying information. The first day, she even tried to quell some suspicions of fraud, but the furious protesters shouted her down. 

“That first night, they were not having it,” she said.

Since, she has continued to put forth various theories of elections malfeasance, tweeting, for example, that “they” – a seeming allusion to Democrats – would seek to “undermine our Republic,” because we can’t expect honesty from “those promoting an anti-God, anti-Christ agenda.” 

Most recently, she has circulated a Google Form that the RNC and Trump campaign are using in elections litigation that asks voters if a poll worker overrode their vote or “pushed the green button” for them. 

Townsend, however, insists that she’s not fanning the flames of misinformation – though she concedes that she’s not always right, either. 

Rather, she framed herself as a conduit between the Capitol and an angry and conspiratorially minded electorate, a sort of peacekeeper who’s willing to wade into a “Stop the Steal” rally to clear the air. 

She said that when voters have questions, she calls up Scott Jarrett, an elections official with the county, to set the record straight. 

“That calms people down,” she said. “It’s been good, educating the voters.” 

But Townsend admits that she has also helped spread conspiracies, if unknowingly. 

Last week, she posted on Facebook that a Maricopa County Recorder’s Office staffer told her “they are verifying spoiled ballots caused by the Sharpie incident right now and the only observers there are Democrats.” 

By law, each party can designate people to observe the counting process. 

“The person at MCTEC said, ‘If you guys cared so much about this, you should get someone in here,’” she said.  She took this to mean that no Republicans were observing the count. 

Ironically, it was the Trump campaign that put a stop to that misinformation. A representative later called her to say that a Republican attorney had in fact been observing the count, but had stepped out briefly when Townsend called the county. 

“It would have been better had I known that part of it,” she said.



School districts, lawmakers clash over teacher pay

A woman holds a sign that reads "Gov. Ducey... is this what you had in mind when you mandated the civics exam?". She joined thousands of protesters at Chase Field before marching to the Arizona Capitol on April 26. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
A woman who holds a sign joined thousands of protesters at Chase Field before marching to the Arizona Capitol on April 26. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona lawmakers, roundly criticized this year over poorly funded public schools, want to make one thing clear: They’re not the ones responsible for giving teachers raises.

“We don’t set teacher pay. That’s a district decision,” House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said in April. “We’re in the resource business.”

Both statements are technically true. For nearly four decades, Arizona legislators have mostly avoided meddling in the affairs of local school districts, where governing boards, superintendents and principals are given autonomy to spend the funding they receive from the state as they see fit.

That’s not by mistake. Arizona state statute clearly spells out the nature of how the state funds K-12 public schools. A section labeled “purpose” adopted in 1980 details that before, Arizona legislators were responsible for allocating revenues for specific programs such as special education or transportation to individual schools districts.

Instead, the state adopted a block grant system that provides school districts a lump sum, a pot of money that covers a school’s operating expenses. It’s up to district leaders to decide how much of that lump sum is needed for each expense.

And so it has been, at least until the last two years. As the debate over school funding peaked  at the Capitol, beginning in 2017 and culminating in a historic teacher strike in May, some Republicans have expressed an interest in taking a more active role in dictating how dollars are spent in school districts.

Led by Gov. Doug Ducey a year ago, the state budget included a line item that bypassed the authority of local school officials to legislate roughly $34 million be spent on teacher pay.

The results were disastrous, and Ducey has since backed away from that maneuver. But as criticism continues to mount against Republican lawmakers, some are still angling for more say in local school spending matters.

Local control

A part of the problem is messaging. Ducey in April turned the budget upside down by proposing a 20 percent pay raise for Arizona teachers by 2020. The plan was marketed by the Governor’s Office and by Republican lawmakers as a spending package to boost teacher salaries.

But the nature of how schools are funded in Arizona means Ducey, nor any lawmaker, can legislate such a raise into being. It’s local governing boards that decide how to divy up the lump sum of state funding, and the $272 million is simply another part of that pot of money.

Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said that was purposefully designed for two reasons. Arizona has traditionally favored “local control,” a belief that decision-making is best left to those who know best — local leaders at a level closest to where the decisions will have an impact.

“It had a lot to do with local control, but also — and this was never stated or written anywhere — but it allowed the legislature to not have to get into a fight over how the money’s being spent,” Essigs said of the funding formula adopted in 1980. “Now basically the Legislature can say, ‘That’s on your local governing board.’”

That’s exactly how Ducey and lawmakers responded in 2017, when criticism over school funding first began to peak.

Looking for a scapegoat, the governor accused school officials for the woes of Arizona teachers, whose average salary is among the lowest in the nation. Ducey claimed the problem was that school administrators weren’t budgeting properly, not that the state wasn’t giving districts sufficient funding.

The governor doubled down on that narrative with a Republican-approved budget deal that included a line item for teacher pay raises, a maneuver that bypassed the state’s budget formula for funding K-12 schools.

The plan flopped. School officials rightfully recognized the unreliableness of that funding mechanism. And while they followed the legislative directive to provide the money to teachers, they distributed those dollars as bonuses or stipends, not a raise.

That way, if the Legislature’s desire to fund the line item for higher teacher pay waned, schools wouldn’t be left holding the bag for higher salaries.

Teachers didn’t buy into Ducey’s narrative, either, Essigs said.

“(School officials) can’t spend money that doesn’t exist,” he said. “I think that’s what really changed, and that’s why 50,000 teachers went to the Legislature.”


In January, Ducey was already showing signs of change after chastising local school leaders the year before. His State of the State address praised school officials, and his proposed budget eliminated the line item funding mechanism, opting instead to fold the “raise” of 2017 into the funding formula for schools.

Future raises as part of Ducey’s plan to boost teacher pay 20 percent by 2020 will be funded through the formula as well, ensuring they’re protected from the whims of state lawmakers and boosted each year to adjust for inflation.

That meant giving up the legislative authority to dictate how the additional money for teacher pay is spent.

The budget includes a legislative intent clause, which states that lawmakers want the $272 million in Ducey’s plan in fiscal year 2019 to go to teacher pay. But there’s legally nothing to stop a school district from spending the money elsewhere, if it’s needed.

Ken Hicks, chief finance officer at Peoria Unified School District, said in April that despite the realities of state law, most school officials will try to honor the will of the Legislature.

“We normally try to follow laws and follow intent and follow funding,” Hicks said. “As business people in schools, we follow anything.”

At least one school district is carving a different path. Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo told the Arizona Daily Star he’ll spread the money around to give raises not just for teachers, but all “educators,” including support staff and even janitorial workers.

That means teachers at TUSD won’t get the 9 percent raise that Ducey promised.

That’s why lawmakers like Warren Petersen, a Republican senator from Gilbert, wanted more than just legislative intent.

“There’s a narrative right now that the Legislature dictates teacher salaries and how much money goes to teacher salaries,” he said. “That is not the case.” But if that’s what people want to believe, “then maybe it is time for the Legislature to do what people think is already the case and dictate salaries.”


Along with Republican Sens. Steve Smith, Judy Burges and Sonny Borrelli, Petersen lobbied for language with more teeth. Intent was not enough, they said, to ensure the money would be spent by local officials as the Legislature saw fit.

Petersen said he doesn’t want to take away the executory functions of superintendents to make decisions at the local level, but given the circumstances — the teacher strike — he wanted to go further to make sure those dollars get into teachers’ pockets.

“The battle for teacher pay was won at the Capitol, but the war has to be won at the school districts,” he said, adding that TUSD is a perfect example of how that war may be lost. “The ultimate accountability is the voters of the TUSD. If the voters are OK with using money that was tagged for teacher pay for other things, and heaven forbid admin costs, that’s where the buck stops.”

Essigs said the war is already over. Enough legislators acknowledged the problem is funding provided by the state, not the decisions of local school officials.

And in Tucson, where the superintendent is bucking the Legislature’s intent while the ink on the budget is still drying, educators seem fine with the decision.

Democratic Sen. David Bradley, whose district includes parts of TUSD, said a recent trip to a TUSD kindergarten class leads him to believe that the school employees are OK with sharing the money allocated for teacher pay with other school staffers.

The teacher introduced Bradley to multiple school personnel who aren’t defined as a teacher by Ducey, and therefore wouldn’t benefit from the additional funds intended for teachers if TUSD officials followed the legislative intent.

Their response underscores the message from the #RedforEd movement, which wasn’t solely about teacher pay, Bradley said — it was about better funding for all sorts of educators.

“My initial sense is that because that was kind’ve the talking point, the fact that the superintendent is kind’ve heading in this direction, there seems to be some acceptance of that,” Bradley said.

Senate approves horse racing bill despite sponsor’s objections


The Senate passed a bill Wednesday regulating horse racing simulcasts over pleas from the original sponsor to kill it.

Rep. Mark Finchem gave up his public lands management bill for a strike-everything amendment that would let one racetrack, Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson, show simulcast races on more days than currently allowed, provided the horsemen’s organization agrees. But after the Senate approved a floor amendment that would require the Arizona Racing Commission to  approve simulcast agreements, the Oro Valley Republican texted Sen. J.D. Mesnard “Kill it there, please.”

Wednesday’s 18-11 Senate vote was the Legislature’s latest foray into an ongoing feud between the state’s three horse racing tracks: Rillito, Prescott Valley’s Arizona Downs and Phoenix’s Turf Paradise. The simulcast company that operates in the southwest provides signals for Turf Paradise at both its track and offsite betting facilities, but it doesn’t provide off-track betting simulcasts for the other two tracks’ networks.

To that end, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, sponsored a floor amendment that would require simulcasts to be offered to each track and betting facility under the same terms. He described the amendment as prohibiting “anti-competitive or deceptive” practices.

That’s not an issue for the Legislature, Mesnard said on the floor.

“Any deceptive practices are not OK, but I think we’ve got to be careful because this amendment is injecting us into the contractual agreement between private entities,” Mesnard said. “What this boils down to for me is the state telling an entity that has an agreement, has a contract, you have to serve all or none.”

Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, agreed. He noted the horse tracks have been participating in meetings with the racing commission, and said they should work issues out among themselves and come back to the Legislature next year if needed.

“It’s too big of a stick for us to come down and do this on a bill,” he said.

Mesnard and Livingston votes against the bill.

During testimony on the bill in front of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee earlier this year, a lobbyist for Turf Paradise said they wanted to proceed with meetings.

But Arizona Downs co-owner Tom Auther said the meetings were going nowhere because Turf Paradise benefited from the status quo.

“If we go to the legislature, they say we’ve got a stakeholders meeting, work it out there,” he said. “If we go to the commission, they say ‘You’ve got a bill in the legislature, work it out there.”

Kelsey Lundy, a lobbyist who represents Turf Paradise, said the meetings did not result in an agreement because Arizona Downs did not negotiate.

Auther urged lawmakers to consider adding something like Borrelli’s amendment to the bill. So did Leroy Gessmann, president of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

The two other companies that provide simulcasts — NYRA, which handles New York tracks, and TwinSpires, which shows races in the Midwest — both provide signals to all three Arizona tracks, Gessman said.

Borrelli said the state already regulates horse racing and has anti-trust legislation, and he didn’t see any issue with addressing a monopoly through his amendment.

“Horse racing is already highly regulated,” Borrelli said. “There is a commission. This just gives the commission control of making sure everyone is playing fairly.”

And although the bill’s original sponsor, Finchem, texted Mesnard to ask that the bill be killed and sent Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, a text saying he planned to ask to retain the bill when it returned to the House, Borrelli said he was confident Finchem would come around because of new information that came to light since Tuesday night. Borrelli had not responded to inquiries about what that new information by our deadline.

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously reported Turf Paradise is the only track that receives simulcast signals from the simulcast company that operates in the Southwest. The simulcast signal is available at all three tracks, but the company doesn’t provide off-track betting simulcasts to two tracks’ networks. The corrected version also includes a statement from Turf Paradise’s lobbyist. 

Senate committee approves bill to legalize nunchucks

Good news for Arizonans who fashion themselves as the next Bruce Lee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 on Thursday to remove the ban on nunchucks.

Formally known as nunchaku, they are defined in state law as “two or more sticks, clubs, bars or rods to be used as handles, connected by a rope, cord, wire or chain, in the design of a weapon used in connection with the practice of a system of self-defense.” More to the point, Arizona law puts them in the same category as bombs, automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns, meaning it’s a crime to possess them.

Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, said Arizona was one of four states that banned the devices, formally known as nunchaku, amid various fears that they were being used by gangs to commit crimes. The bans all appear to have been enacted in the 1970s as martial-arts movies were popular, with Bruce Lee becoming a bit of an icon for the genre.

But Gowan, who is a martial-arts instructor, said a ban makes little sense given that Arizona law allows people to carry guns, even when they are concealed. And he derided the idea that Arizona should outlaw something just because it could be used as a weapon.

“Under that thought … you might as well take the bats away from baseball, take the crowbars away from anybody (that) changes their tires,” Gowan said.

And there’s something else.

Last December a federal judge voided a similar ban in New York state ruling that nunchucks were protected under the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he agrees with that logic.

“The Second Amendment, the right of people to keep or bear arms, does not exclusively mean it’s a firearm,” he said.

The three Democrats on the committee remained unconvinced, voting against SB 1291 but without explaining why. The measure now goes to the full Senate for debate.


Senate committee passes resolution to repeal state’s minimum wage

Some Arizona lawmakers wonder if voters have changed their minds about boosting the state’s minimum wage.

Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake)
Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake)

A resolution sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, would ask voters to undue much of Proposition 206, a citizen-driven initiative that boosted Arizona’s minimum wage from $8.05 to $10 in 2017, $10.50 in 2018 and eventually to $12 by 2020. Allen’s resolution would also repeal mandated paid sick time and and a provision that allows domestic violence victims to take paid sick leave to handle issues caused by the violence.

Allen, who in the past has described the notion of minimum wage as “morally flawed,” wants voters to freeze the minimum wage at $10.50, repeal state laws requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, and adopt a new law prohibiting cities, counties or towns from adopting their own minimum wage if it’s higher than the state’s.

Mandating a minimum wage is like “pulling money from one person to give to another person,” she told the Senate Commerce and Public Safety Committee on Monday.

Sen. Sean Bowie (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)
Sen. Sean Bowie (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

Democrats on the committee, all three of whom voted against the resolution, argued that the people wanted a higher minimum wage in 2016 and they haven’t changed their mind. Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, noted that more than 60 percent of voters in his Legislative District 18 voted for a higher minimum wage.

“I have a lot of confidence that the voters would make the same decision if it were in front of them,” Bowie said.

Over 58 percent of voters statewide approved the ballot measure in 2016, when polling suggested it would pass with ease and virtually no opposition mounted against the measure. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce launched an opposition campaign, but invested less than $50,000 into defeating Prop. 206 while proponents of the measure spent millions of dollars.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)
Rep. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City)

Still, Republicans like Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City argued that it’s no big deal to ask voters if they still feel the same way. The resolution passed on a 5-3 partisan vote.

“This is why these things are written on paper and not in stone,” Borrelli said, rebutting criticism that by passing the resolution, the Legislature isn’t listening to the will of the people. “Sending this back to the people is also the will of the voter, and we’re not taking away their right to speak up.”

If the resolution is approved by the full Senate and the House of Representatives, the Secretary of State would be required to put the question on the ballot in November during the General Election.

Senate leadership scramble, 3 eye presidency

From left are Sens. David Gowan, J.D. Mesnard, Warren Petersen

The Senate is preparing to select new leadership next year in both parties, and three Republicans seem confident that they can win the presidency.

Sens. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, have started campaigning for the position of Senate president.

President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, has held the position since 2019, but she is retiring after this year. Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray, R-Sun City, is also retiring, leaving a large opening in leadership.

On the Democratic side, Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, and Senate Assistant Minority Assistant Leader Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, are also leaving the Senate after this session.

The Republicans are a little further ahead in selecting new leadership. Gowan, Mesnard, and Petersen each say they are feeling good about their prospects, with Gowan and Mesnard both implying they’ve taken the lead.

Of the current 16 Republican senators, only eight besides Gowan, Mesnard and Petersen are running for their Senate seats again. At most, seven will return as Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, and Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, will run against each other in the Legislative District 7 Republican primary.

Gowan, Mesnard and Petersen are all Senate and House veterans who currently chair committees. Gowan chairs Appropriations, Mesnard chairs Commerce and Petersen chairs Judiciary. Gowan and Mesnard have also each served as speaker of the House, but none of the three have had leadership roles in the Senate yet.

Of the senators who hope to return to the chamber next year, no one will say who they are supporting in the race yet.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, and Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, are both interested in being majority whip next session. Borrelli has held that title for the past four years and said on April 20 that he should have the votes. “I don’t know if Senator Kerr would want to give up the chairmanship,” Borrelli said, referring to Kerr’s role as chair of the Natural Resources Energy and Water Committee. Kerr is also the chair of the Ethics Committee, but it rarely meets. Usually, senators in leadership roles don’t chair committees, but there is no rule against it.

The Senate president has control over Senate proceedings, decorum and the signing of, “All acts, addresses, joint resolutions, writs, warrants and subpoenas issued by order of the Senate, and decide all questions of order.” The president also assigns members to committees, determines who chairs those committees and can cancel or reschedule the meetings. They also appoint their own “president pro tempore” who serves in the president’s place if need be.

Current pro tem Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tuscon, is gunning for majority Leader next year. Majority Leader Rick Gray, R-Sun City, is leaving the Legislature after this session.

No one has announced an interest in being pro tem, but that’s a good incentive that candidates for president can offer to members for their votes. As is the promise of committee chairmanships.

The Democrats haven’t gotten far in the discussion of Minority leadership, but eight Democratic senators will run for re-election. Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Tempe, is leaving but said that the Senate Democrats want a veteran in leadership, and not an incoming freshman.

Sens. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, and Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, said they want to be in Senate leadership next year, but not necessarily in the role of minority leader.

In addition to the positions of minority leader and assistant minority leader, minority whip is also opening up. None of the other Democratic senators have voiced an interest in leadership or an endorsement of other senators who are interested.


Senate panel approves per diem bump for lawmakers

A proposal to more than triple daily allowances for lawmakers from far-flung counties cleared a key legislative hurdle on Monday.

The Senate Government Committee approved the bill sponsored by Sen. Sonny Borrelli, a Lake Havasu City Republican who lives roughly 200 miles from the Capitol and said he’s seen his Phoenix rent double during his eight years in office. 

“Rural Arizona, we’re out of pocket,” Borrelli said. “If we want to encourage future legislators to come in after we’re gone, we have to make sure they can afford to do it.” 

File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service)

Lawmakers cannot vote themselves a raise — any increases to their $24,000 annual salaries must be approved by voters, who routinely reject legislative pay raises. Voters have seen 18 ballot measures on legislative raises since 1972, but only approved two. The last successful pay increase was in 1998. 

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, the only committee member to vote against the measure, said legislative pay is “insulting,” but hiking per diem is not the appropriate way to handle it. 

“This is the wrong way to be addressing the problem,” Mendez said. “I would hate for this to pass and everyone to think this solves our problem.” 

Rural lawmakers now receive $60 daily, compared to a $35 allowance for in-county lawmakers. That’s on top of their $24,000 salary and reimbursement for travel to and from the Capitol. 

Per diem rates drop dramatically after the 120th day of session, to $10 for Valley representatives and $20 for rural ones, as an incentive to get lawmakers out of the Capitol. Borrelli’s bill would eliminate the requirement that per diem rates plummet late in session. 

As introduced, the bill would tie per diem rates for both rural and Maricopa County lawmakers to the average annual rate for federal employees traveling to Maricopa County. Rural lawmakers would receive the full rate, now set at about $189, while in-county legislators would get 30% of that sum — now about $57.

That’s a much smaller allowance for in-county lawmakers than provided for in a bill Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed at the end of last session, which would have raised allowances for Maricopa County legislators to nearly $100 per day. In his veto message, Ducey said there was “a strong case to be made” for giving rural lawmakers more, and that any changes should be made after the 2020 election. 

Borrelli amended his bill during Monday’s committee hearing to keep the rate for Maricopa County lawmakers at $35 per day. His amendment, and the bill itself, still must be approved by the full Senate. 

Rural lawmakers run their cars into the ground every few years and struggle to make rent, Borrelli said. Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said she rented a room from a family in 2018 and shared a bathroom with their teenage son, but paid $200 more in rent in Phoenix this year so she wouldn’t have to continue sharing a bathroom with a stranger. 

“I’m living on ramen soup,” she said. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I love this work.” 

If passed, the bill would take effect on  Jan. 10, 2021, rather than the general effective date, complying with feedback from Ducey’s veto of last year’s attempt to hike per diems

Borrelli’s bill enjoys wide support in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of 20 lawmakers have signed their names to it. But Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, is not among them.

Fann said she cautioned senators against pushing for an increase for Maricopa County lawmakers. 

“I told them all, ‘You saw what the governor wrote last year when he vetoed that bill, so if you want to get a different answer then you better do something different and listen to what he said,’” she said.

Senate panel OKs far-reaching election bill

Auditor General Lindsey Perry gives public comment on Senate Bill 1629 which would require the Auditor General’s Office to conduct election audits every election cycle. (Photo by Camryn Sanchez/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Senate’s most comprehensive bill to revamp election laws passed through Senate Government Committee Thursday with overwhelming Republican support.  

This session, Republicans have introduced dozens of election-related bills in the House and Senate.   

SB1629 requires biannual election audits on Maricopa and Pima county, gives the power of running these election audits to the Auditor General’s office and affects other elements of elections such as election officer training rules. The bill is sponsored by 13 out of the 16 Senate Republicans and was filed on January 31. 

Sen. President Karen Fann, R-Prescott and Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, are staunch supporters of the bill and they are two of its sponsors, but they said they do not know what total appropriation will be required to bring it to life, which concerns Democrats. 

Two amendments were added to the bill that were adopted today including one from Borrelli that appropriates $4.6 million to the Auditor General’s office and 35 full time employee positions to do the required audits. 

Borrelli is the prime sponsor of this bill and said in committee, “we’re going to be leading the way and setting the gold standards for other states to handle this,” before voting ‘yes’ to pass it 4-3 on party lines. Borrelli is a supporter of the controversial audit of the 2020 presidential election in Maricopa County and supports decertifying the election in Trump’s favor. 

The current Arizona Auditor General is Lindsey Perry and she had no involvement in the 2020 audit. Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, opposed the bill, calling it an overreach of election oversight and saying he also opposes the unspecified appropriation to the secretary of state’s office to maintain a ballot image portal. 

Perry spoke at Thursday’s hearing about her possible new role and signed in as “neutral.” She said that the $4.6 million appropriation is sufficient for her office to conduct these election audits, but also testified that auditors would have to be pulled from other assignments and new, less experienced auditors would have to be hired, which is difficult as they have a staffing shortage that could affect other non-election related audits. Perry also said that this is not a function her office has handled in the past. 

“We audit. We are not elections experts,” she said.  

Quezada said he read “between the lines” and interpreted Perry’s testimony to mean her office is unprepared for the task of auditing county elections, but Republicans on the committee did not feel the same and said that she would be able to perform this role successfully. 

The Senate Republicans have the 16 members needed to pass this bill without any Democratic support, but they may not have the 16 votes. All eyes are now on Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who has spoken against revamping election laws and the audit in the past. He did not say yet if he supports this bill but mentioned some concern over the possible appropriation.  

Senate votes to keep secretary of state from overseeing elections they’re in

elections, Ducey, Hobbs, Lake, Finchem, Mayes, Hamadeh, ballots, hand counts, election deniers
(Photo by Pexels)

The Republican-controlled Arizona Senate voted Tuesday to require that the state’s top election official not participate in overseeing elections in which he or she is on the ballot – leaving the proposal one vote away in the House from heading to Democratic governor and former secretary of state Katie Hobbs’ desk.

The proposal by Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson, has its roots in unfounded complaints by some losing Republican candidates in the 2022 election that Hobbs put her thumb on the scale for Democratic candidates while serving as secretary of state. Those who accused Hobbs of having a conflict of interest include losing governor’s candidate Kari Lake and Mark Finchem, who lost his bid to replace Hobbs as Arizona’s top election official to Democrat Adrian Fontes.

All Democrats in the Senate voted against the measure on Tuesday, as did all House Democrats when House Bill 2308 passed out of that chamber in February, saying the proposal was prompted by baseless conspiracy theories.

Republican supporters, however, said it was needed to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest by the secretary of state.

But secretaries of state have had the same election duties for decades. And the issue only arose after a Democrat held the office.

Bennett, elections, residency
Ken Bennett (Bill Clark/Pool via AP)

An amendment tacked on before debate on Monday by Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, watered down the House-passed bill slightly.

It now would allow secretaries to continue performing their constitutional duty to certify election results. But it still would require that they not participate in certifying election machines and other responsibilities of the office.

“One of the most important things we do as elected officials is avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest,” Bennett said Tuesday. “And we have rules that require us to admit conflicts of interest when they do exist.”

Bennett is himself a former secretary of state who engaged in partisan politics while in office.

He never faced conflict concerns or complaints while performing his election oversight duties in a race where his own name was on the ballot. But he did draw some scrutiny in 2012 when, after agreeing not to endorse political candidates, he agreed to co-chair the presidential bid of Republican Mitt Romney.

Bennett noted that his amendment means any secretary can still preside over the required election results canvass, the formal counting of votes.

“It simply says that the other aspects of the election, which the Secretary of State’s office performs, should be performed by other people in the office, not personally by the secretary whose name is on the ballot,” Bennett said.

The Senate amendment means the House will have to vote on the bill again before it heads to Hobbs for a signature – or a veto.

Democrats said the measure was another example of GOP lawmakers embracing conspiracy theories rather than pushing back against unfounded allegations that undermine public trust in the state’s elections.
The secretary does write the rules that counties use to run elections, though that is something that requires the consent of the attorney general and governor. The secretary also certifies and runs accuracy tests on election equipment.

Mendez, Kaiser, zoning, bill, Senate
Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe

But it is each of the state’s 15 counties that do the bulk of the election administration in Arizona.

“If we were really concerned with faith in our elections, we would take up our responsibility to explain how elections really work, instead of entertaining conspiracy theories that this proposal is built on,” said Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, said removing the secretary’s ability to do the job they are elected to do because his or her name is on the ballot that election “begs the question of what their job is.”

“But more fundamentally, this bill is stemming from conspiracy theories,” Sundareshan said. “These theories are unfounded, there (has) been no evidence to support the necessity for this bill. And more to the point, there are plenty of statewide elected officers who also have played roles in the elections that are not contained here.”

Finchem leveled multiple accusations against Hobbs in a lawsuit he filed after he lost to Fontes by more than 120,000 votes in November’s election.

Among his allegations was that Hobbs should have stepped away entirely from her duties as secretary of state.

He cited her actions in 2021 to have Twitter flag some of his tweets as misinformation. That, Finchem said, led to the suspension of his Twitter account and unfairly influenced the election.

He also alleged that Hobbs failed to ensure the proper federal official signed a certificate that qualified a laboratory that certifies election equipment.

The suit was dismissed in December. And Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Melissa Julian last month sanctioned Finchem for filing the suit, saying it “was groundless and not brought in good faith.”

Finchem has since filed an appeal.

On Tuesday, Mendez pointed out that the proposal from Jones and the arguments for HB 2308 were very similar to those raised in Finchem’s lawsuit – the ones that the judge said were not brought in good faith.

“By extension (that) would mean that this proposal is groundless and not brought in front of us with good faith,” Mendez said.

But Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he agreed with Bennett about the appearance of a conflict.

“This removes the conflict of interest and the theory of a conspiracy,” Borrelli said.

Senate, Maricopa County reach deal on audit dispute

Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates said Friday he believes that settling the dispute with the state Senate was preferable to the potential loss of nearly $700 million in state funds should the case wind up in court. With him is supervisors Chairman Jack Sellers. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Maricopa County will avoid losing nearly $700 million in state-shared revenue and the Arizona Senate will be able to pose the questions it has about previously withheld materials that it subpoenaed for its review of the 2020 election results in the county. 

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and the Arizona Senate came to an agreement Friday to resolve the state attorney general’s finding that the county violated state law by not turning over routers, splunk logs and certain administrative passwords subpoenaed by the Senate in January and July. 

The settlement, signed by Senate President Karen Fann, board Chairman Jack Sellers and their legal counsel, states that the county and the senate selected a special master to handle the process of answering the Senate’s questions about the routers and splunk logs. That’s in lieu of turning the materials over to the Senate and its contractor, Cyber Ninjas. 

The whole purpose behind obtaining the routers was to see if the election equipment had been connected to the internet at any time during the tabulation, a situation that could have resulted in vote tallies being altered. Fann said the routers, which direct computer traffic, would show if that had occurred. 

Fann and the county each claimed victory. 

Fann said it is no longer necessary to give the routers to Cyber Ninjas, the private firm she hired to audit the 2020 returns in Maricopa County. 

The supervisors, in turn, believe it is a victory because it ensures that the routers won’t wind up in the hands of Cyber Ninjas, a firm headed by Doug Logan who said even before the audit began that he believes the election results were fraudulent. More to the point, the supervisors said giving that access to an outside firm could result in sensitive private and law enforcement information being compromised. 

“It’s very important for people to understand that the Cyber Ninjas will not have access to the routers,” board Vice Chairman Bill Gates said during the supervisors special meeting, which started at 4:45 p.m. Friday. 

Gates said that the settlement avoided costly litigation while also keeping data on the county’s routers safe. The county has repeatedly withheld the routers over security concerns. 

In exchange, Fann, R-Prescott, will inform Attorney General Mark Brnovich that the county has fully complied with the Senate’s subpoenas and no further action is needed from him. 

They chose former U.S. Rep. John Shadegg, a Republican, to serve as the special master. He will hire a team of one to three computer technology experts to help answer the Senate’s questions, according to the agreement. Those team members will have to sign a confidentiality and nondisclosure agreement.  

The county will pay all costs for Shadegg and his team’s employment. The board also agreed that the county would drop its efforts to have the Senate reimburse $2.8 million the county spent to replace voting equipment that may have been compromised during the Senate’s audit. 

The final report from the Senate contractor Cyber Ninjas is set to be released on September 24. 

“We’re certainly not giving up the rights to take action once the audit report is released next week. We will always protect the rights of our voters,” Sellers said. 

Fann painted the agreement as a victory for the Senate, saying it gave them the data needed to complete its review. 

“We got everything we need and more,” she wrote on Twitter. “Maricopa County goes home with its tail between its legs.” 

Supervisor Steve Gallardo, the lone Democrat on the board, was the only supervisor to vote against the settlement. He said he didn’t think this was the end of the dispute between the county and the Senate and that the board was “dealing with unhinged people” who couldn’t be trusted. 

“The folks that are trying to find a smoking gun — if it’s not in the routers, they’re going to go somewhere else,” he said. “But this whole issue of trying to challenge the election will not stop.” 

The supervisors faced a September 27 deadline to resolve the subpoena issue or face loss of state-shared revenue, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich said in an August decision. Their options were to either turn over the requested materials or negotiate a settlement with the Senate or through the courts. 

Brnovich’s involvement was spurred by a request from Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, to investigate the county’s noncompliance. Borrelli’s request took the form of a 1487 complaint, the mechanism lawmakers have to seek investigations of local governments when lawmakers believe the latter’s actions contradict state laws. 

Capitol Media Services contributed to this report. 

Senator sics attorney general on supervisors

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said he and other veterans serving in the Arizona State Legislature know how challenging it can be to transition from the military to civilian life. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)
Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is investigating whether Maricopa County broke state law by refusing to comply fully with Senate subpoenas, and it could cost the county tens of thousands of dollars. 

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, sought to use a 2016 law allowing lawmakers to request attorney general investigations of any local government that could break a state law to punish Maricopa County. Under the law, the state’s top law enforcement officer must investigate the complaint and direct the state treasurer to withhold state shared revenue from a city, county or other local jurisdiction that broke the law. 

Borrelli’s request is a novel use of the complaint process, which has most commonly been used against liberal cities that attempt to pass ordinances such as plastic bag bans. Instead of going after a new county ordinance, he wants Brnovich to state that the county violated state law by not complying with a Senate subpoena. 

Maricopa County declined to provide passwords, routers and network logs requested by the Senate for its ongoing review of the 2020 election, saying it didn’t have access to administrator-level passwords on its election equipment and that turning over routers and network logs would hamper county operations, including endangering law enforcement. Besides, the county argued, election equipment was never connected to those routers in the first place.  

The Senate already has a recourse for forcing compliance with a subpoena: a majority of senators can vote on a resolution to hold county supervisors in contempt. But a February contempt resolution proved that the Senate did not, and still does not, have the votes to hold county supervisors in contempt and send the sergeant at arms to arrest the supervisors.  

Senate President Karen Fann also could return to court to force the county to abide by the Senate’s subpoenas, which eventually worked in February. County officials sought a court order because Fann’s initial subpoenas for ballots appeared to contradict a state law governing the storage of ballots after an election, and handed over nearly 2.1 million ballots after a judge ruled the subpoena valid.  

Borrelli, a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, said during an appearance on right-wing television network One America News that Fann supported his complaint after her attempts at diplomacy failed.  

“When diplomacy breaks down, what happens? They always send in the Marines,” he said. “Well, I guess you can kind of do the math on that one.”  

While Brnovich’s office is investigating the Borrelli complaint, the attorney general has not commented on requests from Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to investigate aspects of the Senate’s audit and reported attempts by Arizona Republican Party chairwoman Kelli Ward, as well as President Donald Trump and his allies, to interfere with certifying the election.  

A Brnovich spokesman on Monday would not confirm whether Brnovich is looking into the requests from Hobbs, but noted that state law requires an investigation of Borrelli’s complaint and public disclosure along the way. Criminal investigations, in contrast, are typically kept under wraps until they’re complete.  


Short legislative session threatens multitude of ballot proposals

A sign points to a local polling station for the Arizona Democratic presidential preference election Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
A sign points to a local polling station for the Arizona Democratic presidential preference election Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

An early adjournment to the Legislature to avert the spread of COVID-19 would effectively kill a host of proposed ballot referrals.

There are more than a dozen referendums that could make it onto the ballot come November if they pass votes in the House and Senate, but none of them have advanced through both chambers.

A few have made it through the chamber from where they originated, but await their fate in the second chamber. But all of that may be rendered moot if lawmakers decide to pass a “skinny budget” and get out of Dodge.

Senate President Karen Fann has thoroughly suggested sine die will not happen because there is far too much to do outside of the budget, and there’s no way of knowing where COVID-19 will take them in two weeks or even longer.

The Prescott Republican said she favors passing the budget and then going into an indefinite recess, but no session adjournment.

“We need to leave options open if we need to come back in two months and do something else because there might be something new that we’re not even aware of right now that we will need to address,” she said.

If the Legislature does opt to adjourn though, they would have to abandon efforts like the position of lieutenant governor, who would run on a ticket with the governor, changes to the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, and attempts to independently scale back voters’ power, thus having to wait until the 2022 election cycle. And by then, the makeup of the Legislature could look different and be out of Republican control.

nuttEstablishing a lieutenant governor is one of few ballot referrals this session that has bipartisan support, as it passed through the House with a 40-20 vote. The measure, HCR2020, comes from House Majority Whip Becky Nutt, R-Clifton, and would put the lieutenant governor as the governor’s running mate, and give that person oversight of the Arizona Department of Administration, among other duties.

The presumptive gubernatorial nominees must pick their second-in-command no later than 100 days before the election. And in the instance of the governor having to abandon his or her seat, the lieutenant governor would become next in the line of succession, instead of the secretary of state, as it is now the case.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, has made his best strides yet when it comes to getting ample marijuana testing for pesticides. An attempt that would need three-fourths vote in both chambers as a bill, but only a simple majority to land on the ballot for voter-approved changes.

His latest, SCR1032, would propose medical marijuana and other products to be tested for pesticides and it also establishes an additional tax. Borrelli’s measure is also supposed to get a mirror effort in the House in the form of House Speaker Rusty Bowers’ HCR2045, which originally proposed to limit the potency of medical marijuana at 2% THC, but that clause has since been removed. Both measures passed out of their chamber of origin, Borrelli’s with some bipartisan support.

What was looking like a lengthy ballot come November may end up being on the shorter side this year due to the widespread of COVID-19, which doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. It has already had an impact on signature gathering and campaigning, and, on how lawmakers plan to proceed, ballot referrals could be a virus victim.

Spending 2020: From $1B windfall to survival


When they returned to work in January, Arizona lawmakers faced a financial situation colleagues everywhere would envy: an extra, unbudgeted $1 billion.

At the time, their biggest challenge appeared to be deciding how to spend that windfall. Should they slash taxes? Build roads and bridges? Pour more money into education?

Then spring hit, bringing with it a wider spread of a disease that had once been an abstract threat on foreign shores. Arizona, and the United States at large, hunkered down and the economy ground to a virtual halt.

Almost overnight, that $1 billion surplus became an estimated $1.1 billion deficit.

“At the beginning of the session, we were all talking about how we were swimming in money,” Sen. J.D. Mesnard said. “We have enough, if you add up everything right now, to tread water. If it gets much worse, we could sink.”

The Chandler Republican, who spent last fall crafting an ambitious plan to cut about $300 million in taxes, primarily through property tax adjustments, is one of many lawmakers who shelved spending plans when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

While he still supports tax cuts in principle and maintains that Arizona’s previous revenue cuts positioned the state to have a strong economy that could weather downturns — though his Democratic critics would say the opposite — Mesnard does not plan to push for his original tax package or any other tax cuts when the Legislature reconvenes. At this point, the state shouldn’t be doing anything to increase or decrease revenue, he said.

“As much as I was pushing for tax cuts, it’s hard for me to see that because it does have an economic impact right away,” Mesnard said.

The staunchest advocate for tax cuts in the House, meanwhile, says there still might be an opportunity to put some money back in the hands of taxpayers, albeit at the expense of extra cash in state coffers. Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, was the champion of an omnibus tax proposal that would have cut revenues by   $161 million in the 2021 fiscal year alone.

That proposal, like many others, “is probably not on the table,” he said, citing changing needs in the age of coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean the underlying principle is dead.

“We have to seriously consider helping certain businesses and taxpayers survive,” he said.

But diminishing state revenues in any manner isn’t in the cards for Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who as chair of the House Appropriations Committee plays a significant role in setting spending priorities for the state. To be fair, neither is increasing taxes – a proposal that would be anathema for the majority of Republican lawmakers.

“When you’re coming back [to the Legislature], you’re coming back to just focus on the deficit, to focus on COVID,” she said.

Tucson Rep. Randy Friese, Cobb’s counterpart on the committee, is among the chorus of Democrats who see the majority’s fondness of tax cuts as something that has crippled Arizona’s ability to cope with crises both financial and epidemiological. He said that to start, no option should be discounted — even tax increases, however sacrilegious they may be in Arizona politics.

“Revenue generation needs to be on the table,” Friese said.

Either way, it’s clear the Legislature’s focus during its eventual return will be on righting the ship. Budgetary priorities from the good old days are looking increasingly unlikely to move forward, including plans favored by Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Project Rocket,” a Ducey plan to invest around $44 million in per-pupil funds for low-income and poorly-performing schools, might not be possible to pull off this session, said Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa.

“I hope that we can keep it in the mix, but obviously we don’t know at this point,” Udall said.

Udall shepherded the bill through her own House Education Committee and through an occasionally hostile Appropriations Committee, where Democrats and Udall’s fellow Republicans expressed misgivings. But by the time COVID-19 hit, the legislation was still awaiting a full hearing in the House.

Now it looks like it’ll be stuck in limbo, at least until next session.

“Unfortunately for many members, there are a number of bills that just aren’t going to make it to the finish line,” said House Speaker Pro Tempore T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge.

Some of these bills were personal and won’t be relinquished easily. Senate Majority Whip Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, pushed for a $19 million appropriation to help build an 80-bed care center for veterans in Kingman. Similar centers exist in Phoenix and Tucson and are being built with state funding in Flagstaff and Yuma, leaving the Mohave County area the one part of the state without a dedicated veterans’ home.

Borrelli, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, said he will continue to advocate for state funding for the veterans’ home as soon as the state can afford it. But for now, all he and the veterans in western Arizona can do is wait, he said.

“We’ll just weather this storm,” Borrelli said. “We need to make the state well again before we start spending on things that are really not that hot.”

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, is pinning her hopes on the federal government. Allen and Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, introduced bills to allocate $15 million toward constructing a bridge over Tonto Creek, following a tragic Thanksgiving incident in which three children drowned after being washed away by flood waters.

Residents of the rural community of Tonto Basin now have two options to reach basic services on the other side of the creek – crossings through the riverbed, which becomes treacherous during a monsoon or after snowmelt, or by driving more than 70 miles on a forest road that can also become impassable during bad weather.

Legislative funding for a bridge over the creek was in drafts of the fiscal 2021 budget before COVID-19 forced lawmakers to abandon their original budget plans, pass a pared-down version and get out of Phoenix, Allen said. Now, with state dollars unlikely and Gila County unable to cover the full cost of a new bridge, Allen is stepping up her advocacy for the project to receive federal grant dollars.

“I will continue to see what I can do for funding this bridge,” Allen said. “I’m just heartsick because it was in the budget.”

Allen’s not alone in hoping the feds step up. Shope said he’s still waiting to see whether Congress will pass a fourth stimulus package, which could free up extra funds to help pass smaller proposals from the session — expanding access to broadband in rural Arizona, for example. But national Republicans and Democrats have been so far unable to reconcile different visions for how the plan should take shape.

“To the extent that exists, there may be some things we can do,” Shope said.

Higher-than-expected revenues at the start of the year raised Democratic politicians’ hopes for their own budget requests. Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, passed a bill out of the Senate that would have increased to $250 the meager $75 monthly stipend the state makes available to grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives who take in children their parents can’t care for anymore.

Gov. Doug Ducey called for doubling the stipend to $150 in his State of the State Address, and some increase was likely to appear in the budget. Alston also had reason to believe another issue she has long pushed for — expanding property tax subsidies for low-income seniors who risk losing their homes because they can’t afford their property taxes — could make it this year because Cobb expressed interest in including that $5 million appropriation in the budget.

Both requests are now dead, at a time when Alston fears her constituents in a high-poverty central Phoenix district, and Arizonans across the state, will most need the extra help. Grandparents who may have been working part-time jobs to help pay for the children they didn’t expect to raise are losing those jobs, and low-income seniors face losing their houses, Alston said.

“A month ago, I saw a silver lining on some of these issues,” she said. “And now to imagine it’s not going to happen at all, it’s very emotionally wearing on me.”

State, marijuana industry push for better kitchen regulation

Deposit Photo
Deposit Photo

As a renewed effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Arizona ramps up, substantial issues identified by state auditors still hover over the existing Medical Marijuana Program and solutions aren’t quite as clear as some might suggest.

Under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act approved by voters in 2010, the state Department of Health Services is responsible for operating the state’s program. Industry insiders have given the department credit for its work on an industry that is still new, but a state audit released on June 19 was less than flattering.

Among the findings, auditors noted that state inspectors haven’t been inspecting “infusion kitchens” producing marijuana edibles for ongoing food safety compliance. Those kitchens are licensed as food establishments, which can be subject to unannounced inspections. But they’re typically housed within dispensaries, which are licensed separately, and state law does not allow DHS to inspect marijuana facilities without providing advance notice.

But whether the state’s failure to perform kitchen inspections is due to dubious business practices, bureaucratic malaise or something else entirely is not clear.


DHS Director Cara Christ told the Arizona Capitol Times state inspectors tasked with enforcing the rules of AMMA have been unable to witness an operating kitchen to date.

Explaining why exactly seems to be as difficult as actually performing the inspections.

According to the audit, DHS “does not inspect infusion kitchens for ongoing food safety compliance because facilities typically close” when inspectors arrive for scheduled visits.

Cara Christ
Cara Christ

Christ said dispensaries have claimed the kitchens are simply not open.

And Arizona Dispensaries Association Executive Director Tim Sultan said, “It’s just serendipitous that they happen to be showing up and the lab’s not operational.”

The latter didn’t sound entirely implausible to Stacy Pearson, a campaign consultant working on a 2020 ballot measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use. The effort to usher in recreational marijuana at the ballot is expected to launch by the end of July.

Pearson said the infusion kitchens aren’t typically daily operations. They churn out pre-packaged marijuana edibles, like brownies and gummies, that have a shelf-life like any other mass-produced goodie. That means they don’t need to run all the time.

Still, she said figuring out a way to get dispensary inspectors into facilities when they’re operating shouldn’t be an issue  – it’s simply a matter of knowing the production schedule.

“The industry itself wants that to happen. That most certainly should be happening,” she said.

Steve White, the president of Harvest Health and Recreation and one of the movers behind the 2020 ballot initiative, agreed DHS should be able to inspect kitchens and contends they are. He said he knows a handful of operators whose kitchens have been inspected.

“They can come see ours if they want to,” White said, noting his kitchen would operate for just two days a month.

And White suspects that inspectors’ ability to do their job will become clearer. That’s because the state audit came at an unintentionally good time, Pearson said.

The campaign behind the 2020 initiative hopes to have the language circulating by the end of July, but it’s not yet complete. Pearson said that means they have time to “do better, to get better language.”

“We’re hoping to clarify some of that vague language from AMMA and give DHS all of the tools it needs and all of the authority it needs to solve any of the problems that came up in the audit,” she said.

That includes the authority DHS needs to inspect infusion kitchens

“There’s no reason that a kitchen that produces THC-infused products should be regulated any differently than a kitchen that produces sugar-infused products,” she said. “Whatever we need to do to clarify DHS’s authority on that, we’re open to doing that.”


The audit made the solution sound simple. Auditors recommended DHS conduct unannounced food safety inspections of infusion kitchens similar to ones done for other licensed food establishments.

The current opinion of the state Attorney General’s Office has been that DHS cannot follow that recommendation without violating the law for dispensary inspections.

Kevin White
Steve White

DHS would need explicit statutory authority to perform unannounced inspections, approval it could get from the Legislature with a three-fourths vote. The AMMA is shielded from legislative amendments under the Voter Protection Act.

White said that’s a broad proposal, but generally speaking, the industry is supportive of oversight.

“Of course, in theory, we would be supportive of that,” he said when asked specifically about unannounced kitchen visits.

And Sultan said his members would not stand in the way of such legislation, but would rather commit to complying with the rules whatever the government decides those might be.

Democratic lawmakers are on board, too.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said her caucus would happily help get the three-fourths vote necessary to close the loophole, noting that they supported new marijuana testing requirements, and don’t want to put medical marijuana patients’ health at risk as the audit suggested.

Christ actually pointed to the new testing rules as a potential solution in and of itself in an interview with Capitol Media Services.

Christ pointed out that a new law eventually will give her department the authority to inspect everything that’s being sold out of state-licensed dispensaries. And that includes not just the unprocessed leaves and flowers but anything made from those items, including those coming out of kitchens.

“I don’t know that it’s going to help us with the inspection piece, because it just doesn’t touch that,’’ she said. “But what it will do is allow for analysis of the product before it’s used.’’ And that, she said, is more than exists now.

White contested that point, too.

“Harvest Health and Recreation has spent millions of dollars on testing since the inception of the company. Most responsible operators do not sell untested products,” he said. “The issue is one of regulatory oversight rather than results-based analysis.”


File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)
File photo of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City (Cronkite News Service Photo by Jessica Boehm)

For those keeping score: Democrats have said they’d support a bill to close the kitchen inspection loophole, while industry insiders have said they wouldn’t resist such legislation, and those working on a campaign to legalize marijuana for recreational use believe inspectors’ authority could be clarified in new language possibly bound for the 2020 ballot.

But that’s not enough to convince everyone there might be a path forward.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, remains among the skeptics.

Borrelli noted he already had a bill to close the inspection loophole.

Senate Bill 1222 would have removed language in the Medical Marijuana Act stating that the department must give “reasonable notice” before inspecting a dispensary. Instead, the bill would have required dispensaries be open to inspection during business hours. That bill would have applied to dispensaries themselves, not just the kitchens.

“The problem is that reasonable notice,” Borrelli said. “DHS can go into everything from a Burger King to an abortion clinic unannounced – but not a dispensary.”

And he was both outraged and dubious of Democrats’ and industry folks’ pledge to support a fix in the wake of the state audit, noting that when his proposal came up in the Senate, not one of them supported it.

“Democrats killed the bill,” he said. “The Medical Marijuana Act was written by the industry to protect the industry. … The industry was the one that blocked any kind of reform.”

That “maybe they won’t be obstructing any kind of medical marijuana reform” moving forward is good, he said, because he’ll be running his bill on unannounced dispensary inspections again.

And he scoffed at the idea that he might try instead to pass a watered down version focusing on kitchen inspections, for which there appears to be support.

He’s not actually convinced those who stood against his bills before won’t fight back, even if they’re now saying otherwise.

“They said they’re willing to learn and listen and work with somebody? Um, it took us three years to finally get some type of reform through,” Borrelli said, referring to the new marijuana testing requirements. “So, you know what? I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.