ADOT may be illegally charging repealed fee

Deposit Photo
Deposit Photo

More than 166,000 Arizona motorists who are now renewing their vehicle registrations are being hit up for a $32 fee that the agency may not legally be entitled to collect.

Four years ago state lawmakers authorized the Department of Transportation to levy a “public safety fee” on every vehicle at the time of registration. The new fee — the size of which was left to ADOT officials for political reasons — was designed to have motorists pick up more of the cost of the state Highway Patrol.

Amid public outcry, the legislature voted in 2019 to scrap the fee. But with Gov. Doug Ducey having built his budget on it, they agreed to allow it to continue through the current fiscal year.

That’s June 30.

But here’s the thing.

ADOT is demanding that motorists whose registrations are good only through June 30 also pay that fee, even though the funds collected will be for renewed registrations that begin July 1. Spokesman Doug Pacey said his agency reads the statute as allowing for that.

That decision angered Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale who led the fight to repeal the fee and came up with the language about exactly when it would finally expire. She told Capitol Media Services that assessing the fee on registrations that take effect in the new fiscal year was never her intent.

Michelle Ugenti-Rita
Michelle Ugenti-Rita

“I went through this thousands of times to make sure this was crystal clear,” she said. “I cannot even believe that’s their interpretation.”

More to the point, Ugenti-Rita said that, with the state now flush with cash, there’s no reason for ADOT to take another more than $5.3 million out of the pockets of the 166,793 vehicle owners who are now renewing their registrations that expire at the end of this month.

The fee was a method of raising more money, at least indirectly, for road construction and repair.

Those projects are supposed to be funded by gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees. But lawmakers, in prior efforts to balance the budget, siphoned off some of what was raised to finance the Highway Patrol.

So Noel Campbell, then a Republican state representative, came up with a plan: finance the Highway Patrol with a separate “public safety fee” — with the amount determined by ADOT — added to other registration costs. That, in turn, freed up the existing revenues for roads.

But the $32 price tag ADOT put on it resulted in an outcry, not only from residents who saw it as a hidden tax hike but from lawmakers who were told it would not be anywhere near that much.

Ugenti-Rita pushed to rescind it immediately. But with Ducey’s budget dependent on the revenues, she had to settle for a delayed repeal.

The way she sees it, anyone with a renewal before June 30, the end of the fiscal year, would be obligated to pay the fee. But anyone whose registration is good through the end of the month was exempt.

“You’ve already paid through the 30th,” Ugenti-Rita said.

And she was not pleased when she learned that ADOT was collecting it for the registrations that were effective July 1.

“It’s like dealing with a snake-oil salesman,” she said of dealing with not just ADOT but other state agencies. “There’s no support for their very advantageous interpretation.”

Nor is Ugenti-Rita willing to simply let the issue slide.

“It’s a ton of money,” she said, both from the individual perspective of the Arizonans who she said were improperly charged the $32 as well as the cash that’s going into state coffers.

What’s next, Ugenti-Rita said, will be a call to ADOT to see if she can get the problem fixed.

If she does, that could put the agency in a difficult position as it already has started billing — and collecting — for the new registrations for the period that begins July 1.

AG finds Tempe might have violated state law in lease deal

The Attorney General’s Office has found that while a lease agreement the city of Tempe signed with a hotel developer does not violate state law, another agreement signed with a regional bank branch might.

In response to a complaint filed last month under SB1487 by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, the AG’s office found that the city’s lease agreement with the developer of the Graduate Hotel was properly vetted by the Department of Revenue.

Oramel Skinner, chief of the AG office’s government accountability and special litigation unit, also concluded that the lease was tied to an ordinance the city approved prior to changes in state law in 2010.

Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)
Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)

However, Skinner wrote that the city’s agreement with the developer of the new Bank of the West branch in Tempe may violate state statute because the ordinance adopted by the Tempe City Council does not identify what site was being approved for a future GPLET lease.

In a Feb. 2 written statement, city spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said the city stands by the legality of the two lease agreements despite the AG’s ruling.

“The city of Tempe maintains that its actions related to the two specific developments were done in accordance with state law and for the benefit of the community,” Ripley said.

She said the City Council may discuss the issue in executive session during its Feb. 8 meeting.

SB1487, a 2016 law, allows legislators to ask the Attorney General to investigate whether local governments are flouting state laws. The state can withhold a city’s portion of state-shared revenue, which funds vital local government services, if the AG finds the complaint to be valid.

In his complaint, Leach argued that the Government Property Lease Excise Taxes, or GPLET, agreements offered to the two developers used rates that were eliminated in 2010 by state statute. Cities are exempt from using the new tax incentive rates for projects that were grandfathered in under the old law, but Leach argued that the grandfather clause didn’t apply to either project because neither had been approved by the Tempe City Council before 2010.

GPLETs are a tax incentive that allows municipal governments to lease publicly-owned properties to developers at a lower tax rate.

Leach also argued that the city backdated its agreement with Graduate Tempe Owner, LLC to 1970, the year the hotel was built, rather than when it became government property in early 2017. Under the previous law, GPLET rates decreased over the duration of the lease until year 50 when the rate became zero. Because the city is claiming that the hotel project was grandfathered in under the old rates the developer would receive a larger tax break, Leach said.

Leach also said the agreements were not vetted by the Department of Revenue, a stipulation included in HB2213, a 2017 law he sponsored aimed at closing loopholes related to GPLET agreements.

In his decision, Skinner wrote that Tempe submitted the lease agreement for the Bank of the West project to ADOR for review on Oct. 26 and ADOR gave preliminary approval on Nov. 30.

Skinner went on to say that though the city has not yet submitted the Graduate Hotel lease to ADOR for review, that “alone does not constitute a violation of the GPLET Rate Statute, because the lease has yet to be executed.” He added that the GPLET statute “appears to require only that ADOR receive the lease and provide a determination before the parties enter into the lease.”

As for backdating the lease agreement for the Graduate Hotel to 1970, Skinner wrote that the way the law is written, the original certificate of occupancy issued when the building was first constructed can be used to establish the property’s age when determining appropriate GPLET rates.

While the AG’s Office found that the lease agreement for the Graduate Hotel was tied to a city ordinance signed prior to changes in the GPLET statute in 2010, Skinner wrote that it was “very likely” that the Bank of the West lease doesn’t comply with state statute and the “lease’s use of the grandfathered GPLET rate structure is best understood to violate the GPLET Rate Statute.”

Skinner wrote that even though the lease agreement is tied to a city ordinance that was adopted by the Tempe City Council in May 2010, the ordinance did not specify what site was being approved for a future GPLET lease.

However, because Tempe provided an alternative, and plausible, reading of the law, the AG’s Office “cannot conclusively” declare that one interpretation or the other is correct, Skinner wrote, adding that the GPLET law is ambiguous.

“The office recognizes that there are multiple ways to read the GPLET Rate Statute concerning how a City could have authorized a lease with the grandfathered GPLET rate,” he wrote. “Although the City did not act in accordance with what the Office views as the GPLET Rate Statute’s best reading by adopting (the lease), there is enough of a question as to whether doing so violated state law to warrant proceeding to the Arizona Supreme Court in accordance.”

Neither Leach or the City of Tempe immediately returned a request for comment.

The AG’s finding means the office has to open a case with the Arizona Supreme Court, which in turn is required to make it top priority.

AG: State law does not override Tempe ‘dark money’ ordinance


Tempe can enforce its voter-approved ordinance aimed at shedding light on “dark money” spending in local elections despite a state law that appears to be to the contrary, the Attorney General’s Office has concluded.

But whether city residents can get some of the information they want on the political spending by certain charities remains unclear.

And Thursday’s decision also does not necessarily mean that other Arizona cities and towns are now free to enact their own disclosure rules.

Such moves might have to wait to see whether voters adopt a statewide ballot initiative in 2020. That proposal, if passed, would not only put a specific “right to know” provision in the state constitution but specifically overrule any state laws limiting disclosure.

The legal fight is over a 2017 Tempe law which establishes certain disclosure requirements on any individual or group that spends at least $1,000 to influence local elections.

What the ordinance seeks to find is what it calls the “original source” of funds. That means who actually put money into any organization rather than just the name of the group that spent the cash.

Violators can be fined up to three times the amount spent in violation of the disclosure.

It was adopted by voters by a margin of more than 90 percent.

One goal has been to find out who is behind groups classified by the Internal Revenue Service as “social welfare” organizations. That makes them nonprofit charities, but with the ability to spend up to half of what they raise on political races.

Those also are the groups that in recent years have been spending large amounts of cash — often more than candidates themselves – to promote or criticize candidates and ballot issues.

Last year, however, the Republican-controlled Legislature voted to block local government from demanding the disclosure of the names of donors to such charities. That mirrors an already existing state law designed to shield the names of donors in statewide campaigns.

Based on that, Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate to see if the Tempe code was pre-empted by state law.

In a formal report released Thursday, Evan Daniels, chief counsel of the agency’s government accountability unit, said the answer is “no.” Daniels said that, strictly speaking, there is no conflict between what Tempe voters approved and what the Legislature approved.

“The Legislature exercised its power to carve out exceptions to any generally applicable disclosure requirements that the state or a political subdivision may decide to impose,” he said. More significant, he said there is no evidence that Tempe voters acted in defiance of or in conflict with state law.

“Indeed, it was adopted and took effect before the state law at issue here became effective,” Daniels wrote. And he said that Tempe ordinance doesn’t specifically mention nonprofits but simply requires creation of a system of financial disclosure for city elections.

What all that means, said Daniels, is the city might run afoul of the state law if it decides to try to get information on original donors from nonprofit charities.

But even if that is the case, Daniels said, the Tempe ordinance might still be valid. He said there would need to be a separate legal evaluation of whether the city, claiming it has a right to decide issues of “purely local concern,” has the right to ignore the 2018 state law outright.

Daniels’ report does not address a similar ordinance adopted last year by Phoenix voters.

That ordinance has been in legal limbo as state law requires the governor to approve any city’s amendments to local charters. In fact, Gov. Doug Ducey sent a letter to Brnovich last month noting the attorney general was reviewing the Tempe code and asking for legal advice.

The governor won’t be getting any specific direction. Instead, Brnovich’s office sent Ducey’s attorney a copy of Daniels’ report “which we hope will assist you in advising the governor.”

But Daniels’ conclusions could suggest the Phoenix law could be struck down as conflicting with state statute, at least in part because it was adopted after – and in the face of – the 2018 state preemption.

Those same considerations also could doom efforts being weighed now in other Arizona cities to adopt their own ordinances aimed at finding the sources of “dark money” groups involved in political races.

That’s what could make the 2020 initiative so crucial.

That statewide initiative would require any organization that puts at least $20,000 into a statewide race or $10,000 into a local race to identify any individual or business that is the source of at least $5,000. And local government would be allowed to enact even more stringent requirements.

The measure needs 237,645 valid signatures on petitions by July 2, 2020 to put the issue on the ballot that year. A similar proposal did not qualify for the 2018 ballot when the number of petition signatures came up short.

Bill to broaden AG’s authority over initiatives likely dead

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich announces a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents on Sept. 8. The suit alleges ABOR is not adhering to a constitutional requirement that tuition for residents attending state universities be “nearly as free as possible.” (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich  (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

A Republican bill to give Arizona’s attorney general the authority to unilaterally change wording that describes citizen initiatives on ballots is effectively dead.

At least four Senate Republicans oppose an amendment to SB1451, adopted by GOP representatives in the House, that enshrines broad authority within the Attorney General’s Office to make eleventh-hour changes to language used to explain to voters what laws proposed through the citizen initiative process would do.

Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, told her Senate Republican colleagues Wednesday morning that she supports the underlying measures in SB1451, which add new restrictions for paid and out-of-state signature gatherers who collect petitions to propose or challenge laws on the ballot.

But Brophy McGee won’t vote for the bill if language allowing the attorney general to “accept, reject or amend” ballot descriptions remains.

Sens. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, and Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said they also don’t like the amendment.

And Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, told the Associated Press he’s opposed to the amendment.

That leaves the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Vince Leach, in a pickle. The Tucson Republican needs to get three of those Republican senators to change their minds for the bill to pass.

Instead, Leach said he expects the bill will need to be amended again.

“We are working on something to make this bill palatable for all,” Leach said.

Though Leach concurred with the House amendment to SB1451, he can always change his mind and send the bill to a conference committee, where three lawmakers from the House and Senate would meet to discuss potential changes.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, a Mesa Republican who sponsored the controversial amendment in the House, encouraged Leach to do that.

“If we can’t get (SB1451) across the finish line without taking the part out, then I would recommend he take it out,” Townsend said, adding the attorney general can affect ballot language regardless of whether the office has the power to rewrite the description itself.

“The AG can effectively, by denying the language until it comes back to his liking, it’s pretty much the same as just modifying it himself or herself … I don’t think it’s a deal breaker to not have that in there,” she said.

Townsend said her measure was simply meant to expedite the process and avoid a situation where the attorney general continuously denies ballot language prepared by the Secretary of State’s Office. Democrats said the measure would turn the attorney general into a “kingmaker” that could change language to sway public opinion on ballot measures.

Bill to force schools to sell buildings to charters sparks debate

The will of taxpayers is being evoked by both sides in the debate over a bill that would require school districts to sell property to charter or private schools when they are the highest bidders.

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, introduced House Bill 2460 to prohibit districts from accepting an offer on property for sale or lease if it is less than an offer from a charter or private school. The bill would also prohibit the district from withdrawing the property solely because a charter or private school has the highest bid.

The bill passed the House on February 15 by a vote of 34-23, and was approved by the Senate Education Committee on March 1. However, it was stricken from the Senate consent agenda on March 6 and will be debated on the floor.

Chuck Essigs
Chuck Essigs

Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said supporters of the bill point to a recent case out of the Tucson Unified School District as reason enough for the legislation. He said a charter wanted to buy a school that was up for sale for $2 million, but the district ultimately accepted an offer from a home developer for $1.6 million.

The district got $400,000 less upfront, but Essigs said the decision was in taxpayers’ favor because the district chose to sell the property to a taxable organization as opposed to a non-taxed charter school.

“Our government, a lot of times, is criticized for not making the right choice to help the taxpayers,” he said. “Well, this is a good example of the district making the right choice to benefit the taxpayers.”

Arizona Tax Research Association analyst Sean McCarthy said that was a “cheeky” argument that “falls on its face” when considered more closely.

He said the district school wouldn’t have been paying taxes on the property either, and how much future tax revenue will be generated should not fall within the confines of the sale anyway.

“If that’s the argument they want to make, does that mean they should sell not to the highest bidder but to whoever is going to put the most valuable property on it?” McCarthy said. “This is what school districts aren’t really telling you: They don’t want a competitor inside their district.”

He said a charter school could be saying the property for sale is a workable facility for its intended use – as an educational institution.

Sean McCarthy
Sean McCarthy

From ATRA’s perspective, he said the state has a widening landscape of schools propelled by open enrollment. ATRA is concerned that the state may build more school space than it needs and spend more on capital than necessary when structures may already exist. He said the problem can be mitigated by selling unused district buildings to other school operators.

But Essigs said the decision should be left to the districts.

“The state of Arizona, the last thing they would want would be for the federal government to come in and tell them who they can sell property to,” he said. “So, why does the Legislature think that they should be telling the school districts?”

McCarthy said that argument was “silly.”

“That’s a weird local control argument,” he said. “Who are the schools suing as it relates to capital?”

He said school capital finances are well within the state’s purview as demonstrated by an ongoing lawsuit against the state over capital funding,

The Arizona Education Association is a plaintiff in that suit, and its president, Joe Thomas, said Leach’s “treacherous” bill is “picking winners and losers” and providing a “handout” to charters.

Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas

“If charter schools are such a great idea, why can’t they stand on their own?” Thomas said. “Why do they need so much special legislation? And why is it almost always geared toward harming our district schools?”

Thomas said he has concerns over the ownership of the district property falling into private charter holders’ hands. If the charter school fails, he said, the owner can sell the property that was developed with public dollars for private gain.

McCarthy said that situation would not be unique to charters and would be the case with any buyer.

As in the case of the home developer that purchased property from TUSD, the property may even change hands repeatedly after the initial sale.

“The districts are looking for distractions from what their real argument is,” he said.

McCarthy said districts should ensure the buildings continue to be used as schools and get top-dollar for them.

“The taxpayers ought to be respected in that manner and not shorted because you’ve got, essentially, a political problem with having a charter in your district,” he said.

Bill to set minimum age for marriage awaits governor’s signature

(Deposit Photos)
(Deposit Photos)

Arizona is on the verge of finally setting a minimum age for marriage.

On a 20-8 margin the state Senate voted Thursday to make it illegal for anyone younger than 16 to wed.

More to the point, HB 2006 says anyone younger than 18 can get married only if she or he has been legally “emancipated,” meaning legally declared an adult free from parental control and support, or if a parent has given consent.

And in the latter circumstance, the prospective spouse of the 16- or 17-year-old cannot be more than three years older.

Already approved by the House, the measure now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey. If the governor approves, Arizona will no longer be among the half of all states that, according to the Tahirih Justice Center, sets no minimum age to marry.

The success of the bill stems from the persistence of Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, who pushed the effort — but also was willing to compromise to get final approval.

Under current law, there is no minimum age for marriage.

For younger than 16, however, it takes not just parental permission but also court approval. A judge must require premarital counseling if “reasonably available,” and conclude that the marriage is voluntary and in the child’s best interests “under the circumstances.”

The original proposal would have outlawed all nuptials for anyone younger than 18, regardless of the situation and regardless of parental OK.

“Why do we need to allow underage marriages to happen?” Ugenti-Rita asked when she introduced the measure last November. “What is the public benefit to that?”

But Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, would not even entertain such a proposal in the House Judiciary Committee which he chairs.

“I contacted quite a few people,” he said. “I think there was a consensus that simply just prohibiting marriage for under 18 with no exceptions was not a real reasonable approach.”

Facing death of her bill, Ugenti-Rita agreed to the exception for those as young as 16 with emancipation or parental consent.

That still did not make everyone happy, particularly the part about those who wed that early not having a potential spouse who is more than three years older.

“I think many of us know of situations of people who are 15, 16, 17 years old have boyfriends four or five years older than they are,” said Rep. David Stringer, R-Prescott. “They have healthy relationships and may even have healthy marriages.”

And for him, it was personal.

During House floor debate, he said his grandparents, immigrants from the Ukraine, married when he was 21 and she was just 16.

“Had they not been married, I would not be here,” he told colleagues.

And fellow Prescott Republican Noel Campbell said there are “plenty of exceptions where young girls have been married before they turn 16, happily married to a loving husband with children.”

That did not convince most of their colleagues.

Farnsworth said the three-year limit makes sense, saying it allows for situations where a high school freshman can date a senior. He said that three-year maximum means that people are not only of similar mindsets but also there is “similar power structure so you don’t start to get into the levels of abuse that you do when somebody is 35 and 16.”

There is no statewide figure of how many teens younger than 18 wed each year in Arizona, as marriage licenses are issued by court clerks in each of the state’s 15 counties.

An analysis done for Capitol Media Services by the Maricopa County Clerk of Superior Court found that 570 minors received a marriage licenses in a five-year period ending last June 23. The actual number of licenses is slightly less, at 524, as some went to couples where both were minors.

That’s out of about 20,000 licenses issued each year.

Aaron Nash, the agency’s special counsel, said that in all cases examined, all the minors were either 16 or 17 years old.

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 kills Senate bid to force supervisors to comply with subpoenas

Paul Boyer
Paul Boyer

A Republican senator single-handedly killed a resolution that could have sent Maricopa county supervisors to jail, arguing that the Senate and the county need more time to reach a compromise over a proposed election audit. 

Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, joined all 14 Senate Democrats to vote against the contempt resolution, killing it with a 15-15 vote. If it had passed, the resolution would have authorized Senate President Karen Fann to send the chamber’s sergeant at arms to arrest the five members of the GOP-controlled county board.

Supervisors have been in the county’s crosshairs since shortly after the election, when they certified election results that many legislative Republicans refused to accept. Boyer was the first Republican lawmaker to publicly state that the election was over and call for his peers to accept President Biden’s victory. 

Boyer said he had made up his mind last week to vote for the resolution, but he changed it after thinking about the contempt vote all weekend. His vote will buy more time for the two parties to work out an agreement, he said. 

“Today’s ‘no’ vote merely provides a little bit more time for us to work together charitably and as friends for the sole purpose of gaining more clarity,” Boyer said. “This is not a final determination, nor is this the end of the process.”

It took his fellow Republicans by surprise, and clearly irritated Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, who summoned Boyer to her desk to privately lecture him and then used part of her own speaking time to plead with him to change his vote. 

“I am hoping someone might change their vote and let this pass so we can move forward,” Fann said.

Boyer looked up from his cell phone and shook his head near the end of the debate as a failed Republican legislative candidate tweeted his personal cell number and urged her followers to inundate him with calls . 

Fann’s plea followed more than an hour of debate, during which Democrats stayed silent while Republicans tried to alternately cajole and coerce Boyer into changing his vote. Republican Sens. Rick Gray, Vince Leach, J.D. Mesnard, Michelle Ugenti-Rita and Warren Petersen each spent several minutes kneeling beside Boyer’s desk or bending over to talk to him.

Petersen said the county has no interest in working with the Senate and accused the board members of lying. As Senate Judiciary committee chairman, he has been most involved in the months-long court battle with the board of supervisors.

“When it comes to obstruction, lies and deception, the Maricopa County Board gets an A-plus,” he said.

Petersen also spoke directly to Boyer, asking him whether the supervisors fulfilled the subpoena the Senate issued. The supervisors maintain that they cannot legally turn over ballots because of an Arizona law that states that ballots must be kept private. Absent a court order, the supervisors have declared they will not share the materials.  

 “They thought they could peel off one of our Republican Senators. It sounds like they may have. I hope that’s not the case,” Petersen said.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, participating by Zoom because she refuses to wear a mask in the chamber, chimed in “They did.” She berated Boyer during her own comments as well. 

“If you say you’re going to vote with your caucus and you don’t, your word is never going to be trusted again,” she said.

And in a statement several senators took as an incitement to political violence, Townsend ended her speech by saying the public would take care of what the Senate wouldn’t. 

“This shouldn’t fall into the hands of the public… when they’re so lathered up. So public, do what you gotta do,” she said. 

Her on-mic comments followed an offhand utterance from Sen. David Gowan that the county supervisors should “vote right” after Boyer said no elected officials should face harassment at their homes or receive death threats. 

While the contempt resolution is dead — at least for now — the battle over legislative subpoenas and audits continues. Supervisors have asked the Maricopa County Superior Court to weigh in on whether the Senate’s subpoena is lawful, and the two parties are expected to return to court in the coming weeks. 

Meanwhile, the county’s own audits into election equipment, which began last week, continued today.  

Chaos predicted for 3 proposals that weaken voters’ power


Three legislative proposals that are each designed to independently scale back the lawmaking powers of voters could, in tandem, upend Arizona’s ballot initiative and referral system.

Several factors are standing in the way of these measures stacking on one another, but if voters approve them all, they could lead to incredibly lengthy ballots for years to come, drive up the cost of elections, and legislators would be able to make changes to voter-approved laws with only a simple majority.

Opponents of the two measures in the House and one in the Senate invoke the term “voter suppression” in discussing them, and the few supporters who have testified publicly say they want to keep voters in check and set a single-subject standard for the ballot that the Legislature faces.

At issue is the 1998 Voter Protection Act, designed to prevent lawmakers and the governor from amending or repealing voter-approved laws.

Thomas Basile, an Arizona lawyer who worked as Mitt Romney’s attorney for his 2012 presidential campaign, said he did not see any problem with what the referrals would accomplish since initiatives under the Voter Protection Act have reached the status of “super law” and made voter-approved laws “practically immune from any modifications.”

He said the two proposals in the House “would correct this pretty striking asymmetry and restore the equilibrium established by the original state Constitution.”

More voter decision making

The House has several measures that would not only remove some power of the voters, but could potentially work in unison to cause voters more harm.

Rusty Bowers
Rusty Bowers

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, wants to ask voters to put every ballot proposition approved after 2020 on the ballot again for reauthorization every 10 years. Additionally, every approved proposition from 1994 to 2018 would go through a reauthorization process 30 years after enactment. So the three approved laws in 1994 would be referred back to the ballot starting in 2024 and every 10 years thereafter. The three successful propositions from 1994 are exempting livestock from property taxes, increasing the tobacco tax and hunting on public lands with traps and poison. There have been 65 propositions approved between 1994 and 2018.

Since the Voter Protection Act was approved in 1998, that law would also be back on the ballot in 2028 under HCR2046.

“HCR2046 would give each generation of voters an opportunity to decide whether laws enacted years or decades ago still make sense under contemporary circumstances,” Basile said.

The way the language is written, it doesn’t explicitly state what would happen if voters opt to vote “no” on an effort like that, but it is assumed the law would be wiped off the books, said Joel Edman, director of Arizona Advocacy Network. .

Bowers’ proposal also has the unintended consequence of asking voters to reauthorize laws that are already outdated, Edman said, citing the 2006 proposition setting Arizona’s minimum wage at $6.75 per hour, which would go to the voters again in 2036 as an example. If reauthorized, Arizona’s minimum wage would then seemingly be set at $6.75 again – even after voters approved to raise it to $12 in 2016, Edman said.

Roopali Desai, a Democratic elections lawyer, said Bowers’ attempt is “unnecessary” at a minimum.

“It is yet another ploy to undermine the constitutional right that voters have to legislate co-equally with the legislative branch,” Desai said. “We don’t renew or look at bills that the Legislature passes every 10 years and say it was not a good idea.”

Outside of it “targeting citizen initiatives” as Desai says, she also said there’s a worry of how much this could end up costing voters in the long run, which is unfair and punitive to voters.

“There are costs associated with publicity pamphlets, printing ballots, running campaigns. It seems unnecessary that we would put more cost to the voters for something that they’ve already passed.”

Roopali Desai
Roopali Desai

Desai said just to get even one initiative on the ballot would cost millions of dollars to obtain the necessary signatures and that is not counting the money spent on the campaigns.

Voters saw in 2016 an effort to legalize recreational marijuana through an initiative in which more than $6 million went into both the yes and no campaigns and that effort failed on the ballot. If HCR2046 is approved, every 10 years millions of dollars would potentially be spent on those campaigns just to have voters keep approving laws that exist already.

But it’s not just the cost, it’s also the length of the ballot, which Desai said could lead to “voter disengagement.”

The more questions on the ballot leads everyday voters to have to understand more topics they may not completely understand for various reasons, Desai said. For average Arizonans, they don’t live and breathe this, she said.

“I would argue that’s the point of the Bowers bill,” Desai said. “That’s just another tactic for voter suppression, which is that if you just throw so much money that they can’t digest it, or understand it or sort through it, then they’ll vote no, or they’ll not vote at all.”

Basile said Bowers’ proposal would actually entail more voter decision making.

Bowers did not return a call for comment.

One Subject

The other effort out of the House is the only referendum targeting the initiative process to make it out of its chamber of origin. Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, introduced HCR2032, which when applied with Bowers’ reauthorization measure, could make things even more complicated.

Kern wants the voters to approve an effort that would require all ballot propositions be limited to a single subject, saying that is how the Legislature works.

Basile said the proposal just applies to initiatives the same single-subject rule that has always governed ordinary legislation and constitutional amendments.

“It would allow voters to evaluate discrete proposals on their own merits, rather than force them to accept or reject a hodgepodge of unrelated provisions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis,” Basile said.

If Kern’s and Bowers’ proposals were to pass, they could cause confusion over what happens to already approved laws with two subjects that need to be reauthorized. For example, Proposition 206, the 2016 minimum wage increase that also addressed sick leave, could not qualify for reauthorization if HCR2046 is also approved.

In HCR2046, when voters would have to reauthorize Proposition 206, it might be thrown off the ballot for not complying with HCR2032. In fact, one portion of the Arizona Constitution requires all acts to contain just one subject.

However, during the legal battle over Proposition 206, the Arizona Supreme Court declared that the rule only applied to acts of the Legislature, not initiatives.

Braun and Desai said it’s not so simple that these efforts could be applied together anyway.

Since neither has the other mentioned in its language – either directly or indirectly – Legislative Council Executive Director Mike Braun said there would have to be further legislative implementation for that to work.

So since Kern doesn’t have anything in the language of HCR2032 that would be retroactive or a direct correlation to “initiatives that need to be reauthorized” it could not apply to HCR2046, Braun said.

Likewise, Desai said if there is an attempt to remove a proposition from a renewal ballot because it violates the single-subject law there would likely be litigation.

Basile agreed that if both are implemented, it could lead to litigation.

“Some thorny drafting questions (and maybe litigation) might arise in particular instances, but I don’t think implementation would be all that difficult in most cases,” he said.

Simple Majority

Republican Sen. Vince Leach’s SCR1020 would ask voters to amend the Voter Protection Act, so only a simple majority vote would be needed to amend some voter-approved laws rather than three-fourths in both chambers as now required, and those changes would no longer have to “further the intent” of the original voter-approved law.

Leach’s proposal passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 13 without any testimony except from the sponsor himself, who referred to the 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act and the 2016 minimum wage increase, both voter-approved measures, as prime examples fueling his effort. The measure subsequently passed through the Senate Committee of the Whole on February 24 on a voice vote, but has yet to receive a full vote from the Senate.

The change would only apply to initiatives and referendums relating to “health and public safety,” but Leach said that interpretation is broad.

Braun said the term is undefined, but has similarities to a section of the Arizona Constitution which allows lawmakers to put an emergency clause on legislation if it is necessary for the immediate “public peace, health, or safety” of the population. That is also undefined, but Braun said case law suggests it’s for the Legislature to decide when something is needed for those reasons and can effectively apply to nearly anything the Legislature wants, as long as there’s a two-thirds approval.

“But I don’t know what a court would say about this new provision,” he said.

The referral would allow voter-approved initiatives a one-year window of being untouchable. However, any initiative that has been on the books for more than a year is fair game – so long as lawmakers can successfully argue the voter-approved law relates to public health and safety.

Court rules state must help pay for local desegregation programs

Wooden gavel

A judge has slapped down a plan by Gov. Doug Ducey to balance last year’s budget and pay for his teacher pay raises by hitting up Tucson area residents for more taxes.

Tax Court Judge Christopher Whitten said the state acted illegally in trying to say that it would be taxpayers within the Tucson Unified School District who would be solely responsible for the cost of desegregation programs. Whitten said that the legislation adopted at the behest of the governor cannot trump the Arizona Constitution.

A spokesman for the governor would say only that he is reviewing the ruling. But unless overturned it means that the state owes the school district about $8.5 million.

But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who helped push the plan, said he was disappointed by the ruling. He said that it means that taxpayers throughout the state have to underwrite the costs of desegregation programs not only in Tucson but in several other school districts throughout the state.

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

“You’re penalizing people that live in Lake Havasu City for a high tax rate in Pima County or Pinal County,” he said.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, however, had a different take on it. He said the ruling forces the state to live up to its constitutional obligations and not try to shift them to certain local taxpayers.

At the heart of the issue is a 1980 voter-approved constitutional amendment that caps primary property taxes − generally the basic operating costs of running government and schools −  at 1 percent of a home’s full cash value. That’s a figure that is supposed to represent the market value of the property.

So on a $200,000 home, the maximum primary property tax can be no more than $2,000 for all levels of government.

That cap, however, does not cover secondary property taxes, things that voters impose on themselves like bonds and improvement districts.

But the cost of desegregation programs has always been considered a primary tax.

All that’s important because that 1980 constitutional provision says once a homeowner’s primary taxes hit that 1 percent figure, the state is responsible for the excess.

What Ducey proposed in crafting his budget − and what the Republican-controlled Legislature adopted was to move those desegregation expenses into the secondary tax category. That put the additional burden strictly on the local taxpayers, saving the state about $8.5 million that otherwise would need to be spent to keep the primary taxes for the Tucson Unified residential property owners below that 1 percent cap.

Whitten in his new four-page ruling, said lawmakers can’t just do that.

The judge pointed to a section of the Arizona Constitution which spells out what is exempt from that 1 percent cap, things like those voter-approved obligations and budget overrides. That list, he said, comprises everything that is a secondary levy.

What the 2018 law did, or sought to do, is add desegregation expenses to that list.

“The statutory label of  ‘secondary taxes’ in then new (law) cannot trump the constitutional limit … found in the Arizona Constitution,” Whitten wrote.

More to the point, since desegregation expenses are not approved by voters, and not a secondary levy, the cost “is still subject to the constitutional 1 percent limit.” And that means anything above that limit has to be borne by the state as a whole.

The only reason the case got to court is that Pima County government is the agent for levying all taxes for all levels of government. And Huckelberry said he was not about to pass on those desegregation costs above the 1 percent cap to the homeowners in Tucson Unified School District.

“Our belief was that if we did that we would be levying an illegal tax, and chose not to do it,” he said.

What that decision also meant, however, is that TUSD did not get the extra $8.5 million it would have gotten had Pima County simply levied the tax that Whitten has since found is illegal.

“TUSD is short the money,” he said. “What that means is this $8.5 million now has to be paid by the state” to the school district, Huckelberry said.

This is actually the second time Whitten has slapped down efforts by the Ducey and the state to get out from its constitutional obligations to backfill local taxes when the local primary rate hits that 1 percent cap.

In 2015 legislators voted to empower the Property Tax Oversight Commission to decide how the extra funds needed for desegregation expenses should be divided among various local taxing districts. That panel could have concluded the entire obligation belongs solely to county government or even could have forced cities and community college districts to pony up some cash.

After that was struck down, Ducey and lawmakers came back last year with the effort to try to redefine desegregation expenses as secondary taxes and therefore not the state’s burden.

While Ducey would not comment, Leach said he will look for another method to keep the cost of desegregation programs entirely on local taxpayers.

“That shouldn’t be transferred to other people in the rest of the state,” he said.

Covid, unrest affect look, feel of legislative session

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather to protest at the Arizona Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather to protest at the Arizona Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The 2021 legislative session will begin January 11 in an exceedingly unusual fashion, with sharp limits on public access and increased security left over from post-election unrest.

Double rows of chain-link fencing now surround the Capitol complex, following massive protests on January 6 that resulted in a cracked window at the old Capitol Building. New security measures have already been put in place for the Executive Tower, which houses the offices of the governor and secretary of state, to limit access into the building for everyone. An Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman said they monitored the “stop the steal” protest rally at the Capitol. 

The Department of Administration, however, has already been leading an effort to beef up security measures – mostly for the protection of Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who’ve been dealing with their own threats and harassment stemming from the November election. 

Nobody will have access to the basement, seventh, eighth or ninth floors of the building without an escort. Media and members of the public used to be able to access all but the ninth floor without a security badge. Neither agency would provide specific information on the new security measures that took effect on December 14 and will remain in place indefinitely. 

“Security procedures at the state Capitol have been enhanced not for any one specific event but just to ensure the safety of the public. … Our policy is not to discuss specific security measures,” a DPS spokesman said.

The Senate told its employees to head home early January 6 afternoon and offered security escorts to their cars. Other state agencies soon followed suit.

The Arizona Supreme Court closed on January 7 at the urging of the Department of Public Safety and the Governor’s Office also alerted all other agencies to do the same. 

Supporters of President Donald Trump gather to protest at the Arizona Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather to protest at the Arizona Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Along with lingering threats of political unrest connected to the 2020 election, the Covid pandemic will upend what is normally a boisterous day of festivities. Ducey will present his State of the State Address by video from his office, rather than on the House floor in front of 90 lawmakers and their guests. 

The speech will be broadcast on the big screen in the Senate, but most lawmakers expect to watch from their offices. Senators, who will be sworn in earlier in the day, are allowed to bring two guests but most have opted to take their oaths of office without friends or family watching.

In the House, new freshmen will each be allowed to bring two family members, but no returning lawmakers will get guests. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, praised that plan as a way to balance the need for safety with allowing new lawmakers to mark a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

“You don’t get to recreate special moments like this in your life,” he said.

The field-tripping school children, advocacy groups and observers who normally fill the House and Senate galleries won’t be welcome this year, as the Senate has already adopted policies to limit attendance and the House appears likely to follow suit. 

Under a set of Covid rules produced by the Senate late last year, members of the public would only be allowed in the building to attend a committee hearing for a measure they intended to testify on. They must wear a mask and pass a temperature check to get in, and must leave immediately after the hearing concludes.

On January 6, Senate President Karen shared an even stricter set of guidelines to follow in the event that she, Majority Leader Rick Gray and Minority Leader Rebecca Rios determine that an in-person meeting would cause increased health risks. In those cases, only five lawmakers would be allowed in a committee hearing room with the rest participating by video call from their offices, and the lobbyists and citizens testifying on bills would also be given information to call in to the hearing. 

The updated rules also include incentives for lawmakers to keep their masks on: if anyone removes a mask or otherwise fails to comply with the Senate’s Covid rules on the floor or in committee hearings, the hearing or floor session will recess until the offending lawmaker complies with the rules. 

Fann and Rios also confirmed plans to bar reporters from designated press desks on the Senate floor. This will primarily affect the Arizona Capitol Times, the sole media outlet that stations a reporter on the floor during every floor session.

Instead of the press tables on either side of the Senate president’s dais, Fann intends to set up two big screens for lawmakers who are participating by Zoom. 

“We want to try and maintain that social distancing and it would be very, very difficult with the media right there in those press boxes,” she said. 

Reporters will instead be allowed to view action from a gallery overlooking the chamber, and members of the public who normally fill the gallery won’t be permitted in the building. Several lawmakers, including influential Senate Appropriations Committee Chair David Gowan and Vice Chair Vince Leach, only answer media questions in person. 

“It’s going to be easier for members who want to avoid reporters or their constituents,” Rios said.

A legislative chamber last tried to bar reporters from the floor in 2016, when then-Speaker Gowan demanded that the Capitol press corps pass background checks in an apparent act of retaliation for negative coverage in the Capitol Times. He quickly rescinded that policy under pressure from fellow lawmakers. 

The new rules would permit any member of the Senate to participate in a floor session from their offices, provided Fann approves their request 90 minutes before it begins. 

-Yellow Sheet Report Editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this story. 

CRT ban gets Senate panel’s nod


A resolution to stop schools from adopting, endorsing, or adhering to ideas known as “critical race theory” passed a Senate panel today on party lines. 

House Concurrent Resolution 2001, sponsored by Rep. Kaiser, R-Phoenix, had already moved through the House Government and Elections Committee and floor with the opposition of Democrats. It appears to be gearing up for a similar response from the Senate chamber after passing the Senate Appropriations committee 6-4.  

Kaiser told Senators in the committee he is considering some amendments which could potentially sway the votes of legislators on the floor but did not say what those amendments would be. 

Republicans are passionate about addressing the idea that white guilt is being taught in American schools, but it is not evident that this is occurring. The legislature passed a ban on CRT last year, but it was thrown out by the Arizona Supreme Court along with other legislation for being illegally included in the state budget. 

The idea of CRT in schools has been a focus of Republicans again this session.  

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, also introduced a bill this year that would ban public school employees from using public monies to fund instruction that includes, among other things, advocating for “blame” or “judgement” on the basis of race and ethnicity. The bill passed out of the Senate finance community but has not passed the Senate floor. 

If Kaiser’s legislation passes the Senate, it will go to the ballot for voter approval. 

Before the resolution was heard, 354 people signed in to support it, including representatives from conservative organizations including the Center for Arizona Policy and the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. On the other side, 607 people signed in against the bill including, the ACLU, Arizona Department of Education, Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Boards Association. 

Arizona Foundation for Individual Rights and Education Legislative and Policy Director Joe Cohn spoke against the bill, concerned that it could ban professors from presenting research papers or speaking at events on college campuses. 

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said that in supporting the legislation he thought about an article that stated 200 teachers in Arizona would teach CRT no matter what the law said.  

“Parents are pulling their kids left and right,” Leach said to the panel, although he did not provide any hard evidence. 

But he did refer to an article by the conservative media outlet AZ Free News, linking to a pledge signed by educators to teach “the truth.” The pledge is signed by teachers, librarians and other educators across the country, including some Arizonans. The pledge does not use the term “critical race theory,” but it does say that there is “structural racism” in the United States teachers don’t want to disregard and it questions how someone can teach honestly about “the nature of our society without examining how today’s racial inequality is a systemic legacy of this country’s history.”  

“The major institutions and systems of our country are deeply infected with anti-Blackness and its intersection with other forms of oppression,” the pledge states.  

The pledge does not say that one race is inherently racist, which is what Kaiser’s bill bans, however panel Democrats said that language is too vague.  

Leach has referenced this article several times throughout the session but said he couldn’t define CRT because it varies.  

“Racism is wrong but it’s wrong both ways,” Leach said, adding that he shouldn’t be considered bad just because he’s white.  

Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, spoke against the resolution, arguing that the language is too broad.  

“We don’t want to go into a place where we are denying or not addressing our histories,” Terán said. She said she doesn’t want people of color written out of history books. 

The bill stipulates that teachers are still allowed to teach about, “historical movements; ideologies or instances of racial hatred or discrimination,” including slavery and the Holocaust. 

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said the opposition was shameful because the resolution does not state that history cannot be taught.  

“We’re saying that you cannot guilt a kid because of the color of their skin.” 

The resolution’s language is definitive. It mandates specifically that schools cannot teach that one race or ethnic group is inherently “morally or intellectually superior … racist or oppressive” to another, that a group should be treated differently because of their ethnicity or race, that someone’s character is determined by their race or ethnicity, that someone is subject to blame or judgement or bears responsibility for other members of their same race or ethnic group. The resolution states that schools cannot support ideas that students should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or “psychological distress” for their race or ethnicity. Finally, the legislation bans the idea that a person’s traits, including a hard work ethic or achievement, are features of racism or oppression. 


Decade of Dem gains sets stage for nail-biter legislative races

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Ahwatukee, listens to a speaker during a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on March 8, 2017. Bowie represents Legislative District 18, which has seen a nearly 10,000 person shift in favor of Democrats since 2016. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Ahwatukee, listens to a speaker during a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on March 8, 2017. Bowie represents Legislative District 18, which has seen a nearly 10,000 person shift in favor of Democrats since 2016. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

Eight years ago, newly drawn legislative maps cost Republicans their supermajorities in the House and Senate.

This year, the final election with the districts drawn in 2011, Republicans could lose their majorities, period.

In their fifth and final outing with the current districts, Republicans in the legislative majority face a daunting set of maps. Registered Republicans might outnumber Democrats by nearly 100,000 statewide, but Democrats made significant voter registration gains in Phoenix suburbs, where a handful of districts in which Republicans held double-digit leads in voter registration in 2012 are now well within reach for Democrats.

With just one true exception — and one technicality — House and Senate seats have only flipped when fewer than 10 percentage points separate voter registration numbers for the two major parties. This year, that holds true in nine districts: five represented entirely by Republicans, two represented solely by Democrats and two with split party representation.

Rural Republican districts have only gotten redder. But while dramatic increases in registered Republican voters in Prescott and Mohave County might aid Republicans seeking statewide office, that growth does little to help build margins in the state House and Senate.

Democrats, who only need to flip two seats to win the state House and three to win the Senate, have multiple options in the Valley, as well as a perpetually close district in northern Arizona. Republicans are on the defensive, with their best — though still slim — chances for picking up seats in suburban districts they recently lost and a southern Arizona district where Democrats hold a double-digit lead in registered voters. 

The best shot: LD 28

ld-28In north Phoenix, former lawmaker Eric Meyer sees a clearer path forward for Democratic Senate candidate Christine Marsh in her race against incumbent Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee than Meyer had when he and Brophy McGee squared off for the then-open Senate seat four years ago. 

Legislative District 28, which encompasses the Biltmore area, Arcadia, Sunnyslope and the upscale town of Paradise Valley, has always been a little unusual. Meyer, Brophy McGee and then-incumbent Republican Rep. Amanda Reeve all ended up in LD28 through redistricting in 2012, when cutting off more liberal parts of central Phoenix created a district with a Republican voter registration edge of 12.4 percentage points.

Eric Meyer
Eric Meyer

Meyer won, building up votes on the geographic edges of the district where Hispanic and Democratic voters are concentrated and persuading enough of the moderate white Republicans who made up the bulk of the district to vote for him. LD28 continued having at least one Democratic representative, then gained a second House seat in 2018. 

A gradual shift in voter registration numbers began accelerating rapidly after the 2018 election, when Rep. Aaron Lieberman won his House seat and Marsh came within 300 votes of beating Brophy McGee. In the two years since, Democrats have registered nearly 5,000 more new voters in the district than Republicans, and the Republican voter registration edge shrank to 1.9 percentage points. 

Meyer, who is still active in district politics, attributes that increase in large part to a more robust and well-organized district Democratic Party. Now, LD28 Democratic volunteers work year round to keep their newly registered voters engaged, with volunteer political opportunities and social events, including book clubs and trivia nights scheduled every month. 

Donald Trump helped LD28 Democrats too, after initially providing a boost to Republicans in 2016 in his successful run for president. Suburban, white, college-educated voters who historically voted for Republicans for economic reasons dislike what they see as the bombastic rhetoric and divisive politics of the Trump administration, helping Democrats win legislative and congressional seats in 2018. 

“Right now, if the election were held today, enthusiasm in District 28 is pretty high,” Meyer said. “There’s a lot more Democrats that have been registered, so that’s in Christine’s favor. The district is more organized with volunteers, the voters are excited and the polling looks good for Christine. Everything’s looking good right now, but it depends on what happens on Election Day.”

The Southeast Valley – LD17 and LD18

In the Southeast Valley, a post-Trump suburban shift has been bolstered by an influx of new residents from other states, fueled by a booming tech industry in Tempe, Chandler, Gilbert and Mesa.

ld18In Legislative District 18, which includes Ahwatukeee and parts of Tempe, Chandler and Mesa, Republicans started the decade with a voter registration edge of 8.6 percentage points. By 2018, the district had elected a slate of three Democrats. Now, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans. 

“When I was first elected in 2016, there were about 6,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats,” said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Ahwatukee. “Today, there are about 4,000 more registered Democrats. You see a 10,000 person shift in the last four years, so I think it’s a couple of things causing it.”

Longtime Republican voters turned off by Trump were more willing to give moderate Democrats a try, voting in 2018 for Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and three legislative Democrats. And an increase of new young voters, many drawn to the mostly single-family zoning in LD18 to start their families, brought Democratic voting patterns with them. 

Bowie noted: “My district, and District 28 and District 17 which is just to the east of me, if you look at the performance from 2016, 2018 and even primary turnout from this year, you just see a really marked shift away from Republicans in those areas.” Bowie said.

LD18 Republicans struggled to find viable challengers to Democratic incumbents this year, ending up with a QAnon conspiracy theorist to challenge Bowie and former lawmaker Bob Robson and write-in candidate Don Hawker running in the House after an initial House candidate dropped out over fears about contracting COVID-19. 

ld17In LD17, changing demographics have Sen. J.D. Mesnard running scared. Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik of Chandler didn’t just flip a House seat in 2018 – she came in first place, beating out Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, by about 400 votes after he secured roughly 7,000 votes more than she did just two years before.

This year, Weninger is most likely safe. Democrats opted to stick with the “single-shot” strategy of running only one candidate in the House and asking Pawlik supporters to leave their second choice for the state House blank. 

J.D. Mesnard
J.D. Mesnard

But Mesnard is one of the top targets of state and national Democratic groups, second only to Brophy McGee when it comes to endangered GOP senators. 

LD17 had a nearly 15 percentage point Republican lead in voter registration in 2012. Now, it’s 6.4 percentage points. And independent voters who broke for Mesnard and Weninger in 2016 jumped to Pawlik in 2018, raising hopes for Democrats that Senate candidate Ajlan Kurdoglu will win the seat.

Chandler has a combination of the suburban voters who dislike the president and a growing workforce led by transplants from blue areas like California, Chicago and the Northeast. 

“I wouldn’t call it the perfect storm, but it’s quite the storm here,” Mesnard said.

The West Valley – LD20 and LD21

Across town, rapid population growth in the West Valley has moved Legislative District 20 and Legislative District 21 into reachable territory for Democrats. 

Sinema won LD20 in 2018, and the 10 percentage point voter registration lead Republicans held in the Glendale-based district in 2012 has narrowed to only 4 percentage  points. Liberal groups are spending heavily in the district to help Democratic candidate Judy Schwiebert unseat either Rep. Anthony Kern or Rep. Shawnna Bolick.

ld20They’re less bullish about opportunities to remove Republican Sen. Paul Boyer, who enjoys significant support from unions because of his dogged pursuit of health protections for firefighters. 

LD21 is a tougher district to flip, as the Republican voter registration advantage only fell from 10.1 to 9  percentage points since 2012. It includes portions of rapidly growing Peoria, but also contains the wealthy conservative retirement community of Sun City. 

Democratic hopes in LD21 are pinned primarily on the perceived strength of their House candidate, former independent Kathy Knecht. As an independent running for the Senate in the district in 2018, Knecht came within 3,500 votes of winning a seat. 

Republicans previously won the district with margins of 20 points, putting Knecht’s 4.4-point loss to Sen. Rick Gray well above expectations. This year, she has the benefit of running for an open seat and with the backing of a major party. 

The constant: LD6

Like in LD21, party registration splits in Legislative District 6 have remained relatively constant throughout the past eight years. Republicans now hold an 8.8percentage point voter registration lead, down from 10.6 percentage points in 2012.

General elections have always been close — Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen of Snowflake eked out wins over Democratic opponents by fewer than 2,000 votes in nail-biter races in 2016 and 2018, and Democratic candidate Felicia French came within 600 votes of winning a seat in the state House in 2018.

Walt Blackman
Walt Blackman

This year, Democrats see an opportunity to win seats in the House, Senate or both because of the strength of their candidates. French is now running for the Senate, and she has spent most of the intervening two years still on the campaign trail, going door-to-door to meet with voters in even the most remote areas of the sprawling northern Arizona district.

She won’t face Allen, a White Mountain fixture who managed to maintain relationships with conservative Democrats as well as Republicans and independents to win re-election. After a decade of failed runs for Congress in Tempe and northern Arizona, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers turned her sights on LD6, trouncing Allen in the August Republican primary. 

To prevent a French win, a political action committee connected with Ducey is spending tens of thousands of dollars on ads to convince voters that French is too radical for LD6. And GOP consultants are trying the same strategy in the House, where Democratic Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and independent Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott are challenging sitting Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, and former Rep. Brenda Barton. 

Southern Arizona 

In 2012, two Tucson-area legislative districts appeared to be the most competitive in the state. Democrats led in voter registration by 3.9 percentage points in Legislative District 9, which elected one Republican to the House, and by 3.4 percentage points in Legislative District 10.

LD 9 flipped permanently blue in 2014, when Rep. Randy Friese defeated incumbent Ethan Orr. Now, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 14 percentage points, and the last Republican to challenge Friese and Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley lost by about 12,000 votes. 

LD10 remains closer, and had a single Republican representative, Todd Clodfelter, between 2016 and 2018. Democrats appear unworried about their chances of keeping the district this year.

As Tucson itself grew more blue, the surrounding areas also began to shift. Democrats narrowed registration margins by nearly 4 percentage points in neighboring Legislative District 11, from a 13.2 percentage point Republican edge in 2012 to 9.4 percentage points this year. 

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, speaks before the Senate Finance Committee on March 8, 2017. Democrats have targeted Finchem even though he serves in a relatively safe district in which the Republican voter registration advantage has shrunk to less than 10 percentage points over Democrats, an historical threshold for districts to flip. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, speaks before the Senate Finance Committee on March 8, 2017. Democrats have targeted Finchem even though he serves in a relatively safe district in which the Republican voter registration advantage has shrunk to less than 10 percentage points over Democrats, an historical threshold for districts to flip. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

Winning a seat in LD11 from entrenched GOP incumbents Sen. Vince Leach of Saddlebrooke and Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley is a long shot. But Democratic political action committees have begun spending there as part of an aggressive strategy. 

Republicans with few opportunities to pick up seats this cycle are eyeing Legislative District 4, a vast southern Arizona district that contains large areas of Maricopa, Pima and Yuma counties and a single precinct in Pinal County.

Democrats still hold a formidable voter registration edge of exactly 16 percentage points, a figure that fluctuated over the past eight years from a high of 17 percentage points to a low of 15.4 percentage points. 

A Republican strategy for picking up a House seat in LD4 relies on picking off Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, who hails from the growing Maricopa County portion of the district where Republicans have proliferated in recent years. A Senate strategy is less clear.

From purple to red: LD8

The only permanent pickup opportunity Republicans had over the past few years came from Legislative District 8 in Pinal County, a one-time Democratic stronghold that has shifted steadily to the right over the past two decades. 

ld8After the 2012 elections, Democratic Sen. Barbara McGuire was the only Democrat representing LD8, though registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 6.5 points. By 2016, McGuire was out, and Republicans now lead in voter registration by 3.6 percentage points.

Pinal County Supervisor and former Senate President Pete Rios began predicting that shift nearly two decades ago, when the unincorporated community of San Tan Valley began to develop. About 80,000 people now live in what was an undeveloped desert and agricultural land 20 years ago. 

Pete Rios
Pete Rios

Rios noticed at the time that most of the people buying homes in San Tan Valley weren’t moving from out of state. Rather, they were conservative Republicans from the East Valley, who jumped at the chance to own a large home for tens of thousands of dollars less than they would pay in Mesa, Gilbert or Chandler.

Simultaneously, the southeast corner of Pinal County saw the development of the Saddlebrooke Ranch retirement community, which drew a large population of Republican retirees from around the country. 

And the old mining towns that had long been Democratic strongholds experienced population loss. As recent high school graduates fled their small towns to go to the Phoenix area or Tucson, and old miners died, the number of Democrats in Pinal County began shrinking.

“We were seeing Republicans grow by leaps and bounds in the valley of Pinal County and Democrats dwindling in the mountain area of Pinal County,” Rios said. “So, it was only a matter of time before Pinal County was going to swing and swing strongly to the Republican side.”

Republicans still play defense in LD8, with Ducey’s PAC and the Republican Legislative Victory Fund spending to help Rep. T.J. Shope of Coolidge and Sen. Frank Pratt of Casa Grande, but Democrats don’t include the district in their list of priorities. 

Pinal County is all but a lost cause for Democrats, said Rios, now running for his final term on the Board of Supervisors. 

 “The bottom line is, it’s only going to get worse for Democrats,” he said. “Republicans are going to keep growing in Pinal County.”

Dem bill adds autism to list of medical marijuana illnesses

(Deposit Photos/Uros Poteko)
(Deposit Photos/Uros Poteko)

A state lawmaker is seeking to force state health officials to do something they have previously rejected: allow the use of medical marijuana to treat autism.

The proposal by Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson, would add “autism spectrum disorder” to the list of what a 2010 voter-approved law considers “debilitating medical conditions” for which a doctor can recommend the use of marijuana by patients. Espinoza said parents want that as an option for treating some of the symptoms as an alternative to other medications.

HB 2049 also would allow the use of marijuana by those who are suffering from opioid use disorder. Espinoza said he sees the use of marijuana as far preferable to people dying in his legislative district from overdoses.

The 2010 law allows doctors to recommend marijuana to those who suffer from certain listed conditions, ranging from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS and Crohn’s disease to seizures, severe nausea and severe and chronic pain. But the law also allows state health officials to add conditions themselves − if they believe it is medically justified.

Diego Espinoza
Diego Espinoza

Parents of some children with autism made such a request two years ago only to have their plea rejected. That decision was upheld last year, with a state hearing officer concluding that the petition “failed to provide evidence that the use of marijuana will provide therapeutic or palliative benefit to an individual suffering from ASD.”

Espinoza’s bill would eliminate the need for health department approval or even medical studies by getting legislators to add autism into the list of permitted conditions in the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. But he said bypassing the department does not bother him.

He pointed out that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation earlier this year adding autism to the list of conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended.

“In Colorado there are families that actually have results based on what their children have been experiencing by taking that medical marijuana,” Espinoza said. He said it appears to be a better alternative that other medications now available that can have side effects.

“So how could you deny, especially a parent that’s willing to try that … transition into this alternative to see if that would be a better alternative for them?” Espinoza asked. And he said there’s no reason for parents to have to move to Colorado to get the drugs they need for their children.

Nor is he deterred by the lack of the kind of studies that the health department recognizes as proving that marijuana is effective in helping children with autism.

“I can share with you that I have worked with constituents in my district that their sons and daughters in that realm have had tremendous results,” Espinoza said. “I’ve actually seen in first hand.”

Still, he acknowledged that the Arizona parents who are getting marijuana legally are able to obtain it because their children are having seizures, a side effect for some youngsters with autism. And seizures already is one of the conditions for which the 2010 law already permits medical use.

The use of marijuana to help those addicted to opioids is a different matter.

There is no evidence that anyone has petitioned the health department to add that condition to the list for which marijuana use is legally permitted. But Espinoza said there is reason to believe that it is a better option, particularly in a state which had been in the midst of an opioid epidemic.

“I have overdoses in my community it seems like every day,” he said. “And so if marijuana could be an alternative to help wean them off, then why not try that?”

The idea of marijuana as a legal option to deal with addiction has come up in Arizona before.

In 2018, then-Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, agreed to language to a bill he was sponsoring to add opioid use disorder to what would allow doctors to legally recommend the drug. The measure cleared the House but faltered in the Senate.

And in 2017, as Arizona was facing an average of two deaths a day from opioid overdoses, state health officials started looking for ways to curb the abuse and addiction. State Health Director Cara Christ noted that chronic pain, one of the reasons that some people get hooked on opioids, is one of the conditions for which marijuana already can be recommended.

Still, she stopped short of suggesting that doctors start treating patients with marijuana.

“Each individual is going to be different,” Christ said, saying patients need to discuss options with their doctors.

Backers of expanding the medical use of marijuana will need to generate a great deal of support to get HB 2049 enacted into law.

That’s because the original 2010 law, having been approved by voters, can only be altered with a three-fourths vote of the Legislature. That means 23 of 30 senators and 45 of 60 representatives.

Democrats, Ducey PAC, begin election spending

(Deposit Photos)
(Deposit Photos)

Democratic PACs are beginning to spend on the general election, spreading money far and wide in an effort to support the party’s attempted takeover of the Legislature. 

Two independent expenditure groups – a type of organization that allows (sometimes anonymous) donors to funnel money into elections, so long as they don’t coordinate with candidates – have spent a combined $200,000 across the state to elect Democrats in GOP-controlled legislative districts. 

And they’re just getting started. Campaigns and PACs don’t have to report their third quarter finances for another month, so this figure just represents initial spending, an early peek at where political influencers are throwing their weight. 

If these figures are an indicator, Democratic groups see a wide-open map. 

Forward Majority Arizona and Opportunity Arizona, the two Democratic PACs spending the most so far, are allocating in the expected places: Legislative Districts 6, 17, 20 and 21, all places where demographic shifts give Democrats hope that they can nab a seat from Republicans. 

But the money is going beyond the usual suspects. Forward Majority, for example, has spent around $5,000 each opposing Rep. Mark Finchem and Sen. Vince Leach in Legislative District 11 and Reps. David Cook and T.J. Shope in Legislative District 8. 

It’s part of what communications director Ben Wexler-Waite calls “an aggressive portfolio strategy.” In other words, spending on Democratic candidates in districts where the odds are stacked high against.

LD8 has been comfortably in Republican hands since 2016, when incumbent Sen. Barbara McGuire lost a re-election bid to Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande. McGuire is now challenging Shope, R-Coolidge, for her old seat, but the district hasn’t shown that it’s trending bluer. LD11, meanwhile, is solidly Republican, and would seem a stretch for Democrats to mount a credible campaign – Republicans there enjoy a sizable 10,000-voter registration advantage. Leach and Finchem, Republicans from Tucson and Oro Valley, respectively, are among the most conservative lawmakers in the Legislature. 

Finchem, for example, is a member of the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militant organization whose members often show up armed at demonstrations for racial justice. 

 “Nobody has ever run a real campaign against him,” Wexler-Waite said, adding that it’s important that Democrats are aggressive in what they hope to be a wave year.

“I think that the conventional wisdom of the past decade is going to be radically changed,” said progressive lobbyist Geoff Esposito. “There are definitely new opportunities and investments are going to reflect that.” 

Forward Majority, a Super PAC founded in 2017, is one of the several national groups working to turn statehouses to Democratic control in 2020. Arizona is one of its four targets. Since July, the group has spent more than $120,000, primarily on House races in LD6, LD20 and LD21 – all districts that Democrats see as among the most achievable wins. 

If Democrats hold all their House seats, and pick up two of the three, they’ll gain a slim majority in an Arizona body for the first time in recent memory. 

“They’re using millions of dollars against the limited amount of money that I have,” said Rep. Walter Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake – he and former Republican lawmaker Brenda Barton are facing off against Democratic Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans. 

While it’s not quite millions, money is materializing for the Democrats. Opportunity Arizona, for example, has spent more than $23,000 on ads and mailers against the incumbent Blackman in August alone. And Evans is far outpacing both of the LD6 Republicans in fundraising, 

Generally, Republicans have been slow to respond, though there’s plenty of time for that to change.  

Conservative groups have ponied up less than $2,000 to support Blackman. In LD20, Americans for Prosperity has spent $2,525 to support Rep. Shawnna Bolick, R-Phoenix, a number dwarfed by the nearly $13,600 that Opportunity Arizona has spent in August to oust the incumbent Bolick. The trend holds for other candidates in these key districts – of all Republicans running for House in LD6, LD20 and LD21, only Bevery Pingerelli in LD21 has made it to the end of August without large spending by outside Democratic groups. 

Prominent Republicans and their bundlers have been more active on the Senate side. Arizonans for Strong Leadership, Gov. Doug Ducey’s PAC, has since July spent more than $211,000, largely for Republicans and against Democrats in Senate races in LD20, LD17 and LD6 – where it spent $42,000 on newspaper and radio ads targeting Democratic Senate candidate Felicia French, Democratic House candidate Coral Evans and Independent House candidate Art Babbott. 

The ad buys are handled by Mentzer Media, a Maryland-based firm that designs and places ads for conservative groups and is perhaps best known for handling the 2004 campaign “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. 

As of the pre-primary reporting period that ended July 18, Arizonans for Strong Leadership held just over $2 million in cash on hand, nearly a quarter of which is from a $500,000 March 4 contribution from GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons. 

Ducey is also directly helping some vulnerable incumbents through a second PAC, the Arizona Leadership Fund. Since December, Arizona Leadership Fund has given $33,500 directly to incumbents in five swing districts: LD6, LD8, LD17, LD20 and LD28. Sens. Kate Brophy McGee and Frank Pratt, and Reps. Anthony Kern, T.J. Shope and Jeff Weninger each received $5,200 from the PAC. Blackman, Bolick and Rep. David Cook of LD8 each received a single contribution of $2,500 on December 31. 

Dems pour money into ousting incumbents in red-hued LD11

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, speak with former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, at the Arizona Capitol on March 8, 2017. Democrats are spending heavily to oust Finchem and Leach in Legislative District 11, an area with a nearly 10-percentage point GOP voter advantage. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, speak with former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, at the Arizona Capitol on March 8, 2017. Democrats are spending heavily to oust Finchem and Leach in Legislative District 11, an area with a nearly 10-percentage point GOP voter advantage. PHOTO BY GAGE SKIDMORE/FLICKR

The path to a Democratic majority in the Arizona Legislature goes through a few key swing districts that by now have received no shortage of newspaper ink. But an emboldened party, kept afloat by gargantuan amounts of money, is setting its sights beyond the usual suspects, toward districts like the conservative southern Arizona bastion of Legislative District 11.

Democrats are running a single-shot campaign in that district’s House race in the form of Dr. Felipe Perez, a family physician. In the Senate, they’re championing JoAnna Mendoza, a military veteran. Both face long odds – but, as Mendoza has said, in 2020, anything can happen.

“2020 is causing people to pay attention,” Mendoza said. “In another election period, we might not have gotten that same attention.”

Few paid attention to the district before the primaries. But since, national and state Democrats have made LD11 a top target, at least on paper.

Outside spenders have taken note, especially after both Democrats outperformed expectations in the primaries – Perez, for example, received more votes than Rep. Brett Roberts, R-Maricopa. Several PACs, including the Arizona affiliate of Forward Majority, a leading national group in the Democratic quest to flip statehouses, have heavily invested in the district, mostly in the form of attacks against two of the LD11’s three incumbent Republicans – Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, and Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, both among the most conservative members of the GOP caucus.

Ben Wexler-Waite, Forward Majority’s communications director, said previously that pursuing LD11 is part of an “aggressive portfolio strategy” – investing in deep-red districts where single-shot candidates are working to unseat incumbents. In this case, Republicans have a roughly 14,000-voter registration advantage in the southern Arizona district, a roughly 8-percentage point advantage.

JoAnna Mendoza
JoAnna Mendoza

Outside groups spent in September around $38,000 and $37,000 against Finchem and Leach, respectively. Roberts remains mostly unscathed. Perez and Mendoza, meanwhile, have benefited from around $33,000 and $52,000 spent in their favor during that period, respectively.

The theory for Democrats is that Finchem, Roberts and Leach haven’t faced serious challengers from the left, and that voters might be more amenable to a Democratic candidate if they get a fuller picture of their current representation – particularly in the case of Finchem’s ties to organizations like the Oath Keepers, a right-wing group of current and former military and police officers founded by a one-time staffer of then-Rep. Ron Paul in 2009.

“We have a high number of independents in this district who just want to vote for a candidate who shows up for them,” Mendoza said.

Showing up is important. Democrats say that the district’s current Republicans, who all fall into the party’s most conservative wing – Finchem is even making a bid for House speaker to elevate the platform of that cadre – have lost sight of the need to govern.

Those conservatives have lost sight of the desires of voters in the district who may have once supported southern-Arizona moderates like former Congressman Jim Kolbe, a centrist Republican who represented the area during his tenure, said Joshua Polacheck, the newly anointed executive director of the Pima County Democratic Party.

“We believe that a lot of the people that would have been considered Republican-leaning independents are becoming truly independent,”  Polacheck said. “The Tea Party movement a decade ago, the current administration in Washington, the Q-Anon movement, the takeover of the (state GOP by Chairwoman Kelli Ward), we believe has alienated people.”

Felipe Perez
Felipe Perez

Finchem isn’t worried about increased spending by progressives in his district, saying voters in the heavily Republican LD11 share his pro-business and conservative leanings.

“At the end of the day, we’re engaged in action, action, action,” he said.

He’s also not concerned, he said, about criticism over his affiliation with a hard-right organization.

“They will make the fatal mistake that they always make,” Finchem said. “When they go negative, it turns voters in my district off. They don’t have any solutions. All they have is complaints.”

He said that anyone who’s taken an oath to support and defend the U,S, Constitution is “by definition” an Oath Keeper, and that he certainly wouldn’t be denouncing his organization if the Democrats don’t denounce Antifa and Black Lives Matter, which Finchem claims has deep ties with the Chinese Communist Party, a theory that has since been debunked. “If they want to play the socialist games of gaslighting people, fine. My constituents are smarter than that,” Finchem said.

Republican groups have marshaled around the district’s incumbents, especially Leach. Arizonans for Strong Leadership, a PAC affiliated with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, has spent $37,261 to support Leach, while the Arizona Association of REALTORS has spent heavily to support both Finchem and Leach.

Last election, Democrats saw LD11 as unwinnable, but strong returns for Dems in the primaries drew eyeballs and changed the calculus, Perez said. He hopes that a strong year for Democrats and his medical credentials might propel him to victory. What might help is between 2018 and 2020, the Democratic Party added nearly 10,000 voters in LD11, more than the roughly 7,000 new voters that the GOP registered

Perez said he’s surprised to see the volume of outside money materializing in the conservative district.

“A lot of folks are energized by electing new leadership,” Perez said. “There’s a realization that people know how directly their state government can impact them.”

Democrats have “the momentum and the resources” to play in more districts, said national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post in a statement. The organization has elevated the race to one of its top priorities in the state, adding it to a list of top races in swing districts like Legislative District 6 and Legislative District 20, which each present clearer paths to victory for Democrats – this means more campaign resources and staff for Perez and Mendoza.

Of course, the party has other priorities. Democrats only need to win two House seats to flip that chamber, and LD11 is hardly the most likely place for that to happen. But with all the money that’s flooding into the state, Charlie Fisher, the director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s Arizona chapter, said he’s not worried about misplaced priorities.

“On my side of the wall, that’s not a concern,” he said. In regards to outside groups, Fisher said he hopes “that they would make these expansion investments after these widely known core districts are fully funded.”

Dissension over masks returns in Senate, House

FILE - In this March 16, 2021, file photo, an usher holds a sign to remind fans to wear masks during a spring training baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottdale, Ariz. The Republican-controlled Arizona Senate voted Monday, March 29, to rescind its mandatory mask policy, and the House speaker made the same move on his own authority. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)
FILE – In this March 16, 2021, file photo, an usher holds a sign to remind fans to wear masks during a spring training baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and the Arizona Diamondbacks in Scottdale, Ariz. The Republican-controlled Arizona Senate voted Monday, March 29, to rescind its mandatory mask policy, and the House speaker made the same move on his own authority. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, File)

Around the time Senate employees swapped out paper signs saying masks were “required” with signs saying they were “encouraged,” new signs popped up outside the office suite shared by Sens. Rebecca Rios and Victoria Steele.  

Laminated yellow papers featuring a mask-wearing emoji and the words “please wear a face mask inside this office” are taped under their nameplates and on the door itself. After the Senate voted along party lines to eliminate its mask mandate on March 29, those pleas are all Democratic lawmakers and Senate staff say they have left to protect themselves from the airborne illness.  

“Unfortunately, now it’s every man for themselves,” said Rios, the Senate minority leader. “People will have to stay masked up and avoid people who refuse to wear masks.”  

In this Thursday, July 9, 2020, file photo, Gov. Doug Ducey speaks about the latest coronavirus update in Arizona. Ducey ordered cities and counties to scrap their mask mandates, but he will not take any action to curb their decisions to ignore the order. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File)
In this Thursday, July 9, 2020, file photo, Gov. Doug Ducey speaks about the latest coronavirus update in Arizona. Ducey ordered cities and counties to scrap their mask mandates, but he will not take any action to curb their decisions to ignore the order. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File)

A week after Gov. Doug Ducey abruptly announced that he would stop local governments from enforcing mask mandates, except in their own buildings and public transportation – Arizona never adopted a statewide mask mandate – Republican majorities in the House and Senate have done away with mask requirements but left restrictions that limit public access to the government in place. 

In the House, where a mask mandate existed solely on Speaker Rusty Bowers’ orders, enforcement stopped immediately. House Government and Elections Committee Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said during his afternoon meeting on March 26, scant hours after Ducey’s announcement, that Bowers, R-Mesa, had told him masks were now optional.   

“I have no power to mandate mask wearing, especially when the actual rule is you don’t have to,” Kavanagh said in response to a complaint from Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, about some Republicans not wearing masks.   

Across the mall, Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, took the news that the governor was blocking city mandates as a sign that she could finally leave her office, where she had been sequestered and voting by video call all session because she refuses to wear a mask.  

Townsend walked on to the floor on March 26, causing a commotion. Senate President Karen Fann told her to wear a mask “at least one more day,” and Townsend moved to the doorway, prompting Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, to insist that she needed to be escorted back to her office.  

A few days later, Townsend returned to the floor once again, this time for good. After a frequently emotional debate on March 29, the Senate voted to do away with the mask mandate entirely, but keep other Covid restrictions. 

Senate President Pro Tem Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, tore his mask off with a flourish as soon as the vote ended and gestured for a senior Republican staffer to do the same (the staffer refused). One row in front of him, Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, fired off a tweet using language from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Free at last! I just removed my mask at the legislature. Looking forward to seeing more faces and fewer masks,” he wrote. 

No vote was required in the House, where only four Republicans showed up with masks on March 29. By March 31, most Republicans had removed the plexiglass barriers separating their desks, though Democrats kept them up.  

Masks are still mandatory in the chief clerk’s office and the rules office, and are encouraged wherever else social distancing is impossible, under the House’s new policy.  

“We are basically asking people, if they come to see people who are wearing masks, they show respect and maintain social distancing,” Bowers said.   

Fann, likewise, encouraged senators to show respect for each other. She swapped floor seats with Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, and the only Republican who sat on the left side of the chamber, creating an invisible line between mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers. Fann is rarely at her desk because she presides over the chamber, and she vowed to wear a mask whenever she was there. 

It was a nice gesture, said Sen. Martín Quezada, who sits behind Fann, but it had the unintended consequence of bringing even more barefaced Republicans to his side of the room because they want to talk to Fann.  

“It’s like animals to a watering hole,” said Quezada, D-Glendale. “It just attracts more of those members over to her.”  

Quezada said he is particularly concerned about Senate staff, including the many young and not yet vaccinated pages who sit next to lawmakers on the floor and run errands for them. While Senate rules still explicitly allow employees to leave any room in which CDC guidelines are not being followed, he said no staffer in their right mind would challenge an elected official. 

One junior employee, the legislative assistant for freshman Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, was abruptly forced to resign earlier this year after talking back to Rogers about office décor and working while sick. That former employee is preparing to sue the Senate.  

“They can’t come out and give interviews,” Quezada said about Senate staff. “They can’t come out and be quoted in the newspaper, but I hear from them.” 

In this May 19, 2020, photo, then-Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, listens to debate in the House while wearing a protective mask. Shope, now a state senator, is one of few Republicans who continues to wear a mask after the Legislature dropped its mask mandate. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
In this May 19, 2020, photo, then-Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, listens to debate in the House while wearing a protective mask. Shope, now a state senator, is one of few Republicans who continues to wear a mask after the Legislature dropped its mask mandate. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

All legislative Democrats and employees but only a few Republican lawmakers have continued covering their faces this week. Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he decided to stay masked until after he gets his second dose of a Covid vaccine and waits the recommended number of days for the vaccine to fully take effect. 

Even after that, Shope said he’ll keep a mask in his pocket and be ready to put it on as needed.  

While the House and Senate have changed their mask policies, other Covid restrictions remain in place. As senators finished their work on the Senate floor on March 31, a masked-up custodial worker sanitized the bottom rung of a stair railing – continuing an intense cleaning regimen that began with Fann having pages scrub doorknobs every hour in March 2020.   

Lawmakers are still allowed to vote remotely in committee hearings and on the floor. Public access to both buildings is still limited, though Bowers said he will begin allowing a limited number of guests in the gallery. 

And in the Senate, Republicans and Democrats alike continue huddling in private rooms behind locked doors to hold caucus meetings that are legally required to be open to the public. Fann blocked Democrats from continuing to share video links to their caucus meetings and never offered the option for Republican caucuses, leaving lobbyists, reporters and interested citizens in the dark. 

Fann has blamed Covid – or, more precisely, critical coverage of how Republicans have handled Covid – for shuttering the building. 

Staff writer Nathan Brown contributed reporting. 



Ducey accomplishes ‘21 legislative goals

In a darkened and nearly empty Arizona House of Representatives floor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey delivers a remote state of the state address during the opening of the Arizona Legislature at the state Capitol Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
In a darkened and nearly empty Arizona House of Representatives floor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey delivers a remote state of the state address during the opening of the Arizona Legislature at the state Capitol Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

The third longest legislative session in state history provided more time for Gov. Doug Ducey to accomplish all the priorities he laid out in his January State of the State speech, but most of them happened before the 100-day mark.  

Ducey’s virtual speech, albeit light on policy, still hinted at what he hoped to accomplish in his seventh year as the state’s executive.  

In an ironic twist, the 2021 session began with his shortest speech, clocking in at 22 minutes and ended with 171 days of a slog session (or 246,240 minutes), behind just 1988 and 1990 and tied with 1992.   

The speech was heavy on getting through Covid – vaccines were only just starting to be given.  

Among his policy goals were enacting a covid liability bill to protect businesses and hospitals from “frivolous” lawsuits. On April 5, Ducey signed SB1377 from Sen. Vince Leach, R-SaddleBrooke. It was a carryover bill from 2020 that didn’t pass before the pandemic put the session in a delay and subsequent abrupt completion. 

Ducey also sought to cut taxes once again – and did just that when he signed the budget in June, solidifying the biggest tax cut in state history.  

He told Capitol Times that tax cut is part of why he thinks 2021 will go down as his most successful session over his seven years so far.  

Signing the budget, Ducey said, was more challenging in 2021 than it was in his first years as governor.  

“In that first year when we had a billion-dollar deficit, that’s a lot easier to budget because nobody’s going to get anything that they want, it’s all about tough decisions,” he said in a July 14 interview. 

“Tightening the belt and moving along so the economy can grow, starting the session with a $4 billion surplus, on top of the pandemic and recession, allowed everyone to come in with a to-do list and a list of needs that they would want. I had my own list and at the end we were able to reconcile them to the benefit of the people in Arizona, and our small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy.” 

Chuck Coughlin, a longtime strategist who worked for two previous Republican governors, said from Ducey’s and Republicans’ points of view, this can be called a “successful” session. 

“I think from the Republicans’ perspective, and from the Governor’s perspective, that’s inarguable,” he said. “The governor started his career wanting to nearly eliminate the personal income tax and he made more progress on that front than any other governor in the history of the state since we’ve had an income tax. So, I would agree from the partisan Republican perspective that they ran on, that it was tremendously successful for them.” 

But less so looking at it from the Democratic perspective.  

Coughlin pointed to the attempts to undo or go around the passage of Proposition 208 and school funding in general as evidence of that. 

“This dichotomy that exists between Republicans who want to fund charter schools and Democrats only wanting to fund public schools, needs to be bridged somehow,” he said.  

That’s something Coughlin said he believes needs to be resolved. Second to education funding, he mentioned water, which is becoming a more pressing issue every day in Arizona continues to see the water shortage growing.  

But, Coughlin noted, the budget made great strides in addressing water infrastructure, which he said was a win for the state.  

Another reason for Ducey’s success can be attributed to modernizing the state’s tribal gaming compact and expanding it off-reservation. Through a bipartisan cohort of lawmakers, that, too, was accomplished in April after several hiccups involving Republican lawmakers attempting to hold up the process in favor of priority legislation.  

Arizonans can begin to legally bet on sports in September.  

The gaming compact was one reason Lorna Romero, a Republican consultant with Ducey ties, provided as a reason why it was a success from the governor’s view. 

“The State of the State was a little bit more aspirational. It didn’t really go into too much policy detail, that was what made up a lot of the conversation afterwards,” Romero said. “But when he released his policy documents afterwards there were a number of different items that were large ticket items which at the end of the day ended up coming to reality.” 

She said that it may have taken a long time to reach those accomplishments, with several “curveballs” along the way, but they happened nonetheless. 

“Overall, I think he can really tout how successful he and his team were getting his agenda across the finish line,” she said. 

Through the curveballs, Romero thought Ducey handled himself well.  

“He handled it with a lot of maturity and grace,” she said, adding that everybody has an opinion of how the governor should do the job, but that Ducey “respected” the coequal branch of government.  

Ducey also pledged in his January address to expand access to broadband internet, as well as offering laptops and Wi-Fi to students who don’t have access.  Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman sponsored HB 2596, which accomplished just that. Ducey signed it in May.  

Finally, Ducey said he wanted to “eliminate unnecessary state buildings,” and the state budget included language that would work to raze two buildings near Wesley Bolin Plaza that currently belong to the Department of Corrections and other areas that are prime for future redevelopment, which could involve further consolidation.  

But through Ducey’s success, comes opposition from his biggest legislative foe over his tenure – teachers and educators.  

Voters could have the final say on up to six different veto referendums currently going through the signature collection process. The efforts relate to the massive tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits Arizona’s wealthiest taxpayers, and effort to kneecap Proposition 208, which voters approved by 100,000 votes in November and efforts to undo some divisive election changes Ducey signed into law.  

Overall, Coughlin summed the Legislature by saying, “outcomes are rarely what you expect.” 


Ducey signs bill to keep secrecy of anonymous campaign donors


Arizona cities are losing their right to demand that nonprofit groups seeking to sway local elections divulge who is financing the effort.

Gov. Doug Ducey late Thursday signed legislation which preempts local ordinances that require these groups to register as political action committees. More to the point, the measure which takes effect this summer makes any effort to identify contributions off limits.

The new law, however, could face an uncertain future.

By a margin of 9-1, Tempe residents voted earlier this year to mandate disclosure of spending on local races. That new ordinance also requires that voters be told who is behind any effort that spends more than $1,000.

But Tempe is a “charter city,” constitutionally entitled to enact laws on strictly local matters. And the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled on two separate occasions that local elections in charter cities are not subject to state oversight.

It is not known whether Tempe will challenge the new law as an unconstitutional infringement on local powers. But other charter cities, including Phoenix, are considering similar measures.

There also is currently a statewide initiative drive being pushed by former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard which would put a “right to know” provision in the Arizona Constitution to require that all sources of $10,000 or more be made public. If it makes the November ballot and is approved, it could override any state laws.

This law, pushed by Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, is aimed at gaining protection for donors to “social welfare” groups that spend money to help elect or defeat certain candidates through independent expenditures.

Ducey has been supportive in the past of allowing anonymous donations. And he himself has been the beneficiary of such expenditures.

He got elected governor in 2014 with the help of $8.2 million spent by outside groups both supporting his election and running commercials attacking Democrat foe Fred DuVal. That eclipsed the $7.9 million Ducey spent on his own, money that came from disclosed donors.

That wasn’t just a one-way street. DuVal benefited from $2.4 million in independent expenditures compared to his own $4.3 million campaign.

The governor has said he believes in transparency. But he also said there’s a valid reason to allow people to contribute anonymously to campaigns.

“I think people have a First Amendment right as well to participate and not be bullied,” he said.

That’s the same argument advanced by Leach in pushing the legislation through the House and, just this past week, by Senate Republicans in giving their own approval.

“Citizens have a right to privacy,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. “They have a right to give their money to whatever cause they deem is right.”

She also said there is as need for privacy.

“The problem is that the Left will use this information and they harass businesses,” Allen said.

Ducey signs bill to make it more difficult for citizens to put measures on the ballot


Gov. Doug Ducey has given his approval to yet another measure that will throw roadblocks in the path of Arizonans who seek to craft their own laws and constitutional amendments.

And, just for good measure, the new law also includes a procedural hurdle for would-be elected officials interested in challenging incumbents.

Existing statutes already require certain people who circulate petitions to register with the Secretary of State. That includes anyone who is not an Arizona resident and all paid circulators, regardless of where they are from.

What’s changed is that these people now must provide a residence address, telephone number and email address along with an affidavit, sworn in front of a notary public, that the circulator meets other requirements and has not been convicted of certain offenses. And that person cannot begin to collect signatures until he or she gets a registration number which must be put on any petition.

But the real key is that failure to do any of this means that any petitions collected by a circulator are not counted, regardless of whether the signatures are valid or not. Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said all this is designed to give foes of ballot measures technical grounds to knock a measure off the ballot rather than have to actually debate the merits.

“This is clearly and blatantly and expressly an effort to increase the ability of special interest groups to litigate these initiative measures on purely technical deficiencies,” he said during debate.

That point was brought home by the fact the legislation was backed by key business lobbying groups. Those are the same groups who have been pushing for changes in the law after they have been unable to stop voters from approving measures they do not like. Most recently that included boosting the state minimum wage from $8.05 an hour to $11 now, going to $12 next year.

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who sponsored the legislation, said the new requirements are necessary to protect the integrity of the electoral process.

Foes noted, however, that lawmakers are unwilling to impose the same restrictions on those who circulate their nominating petitions.

Leach conceded the point. But he said the difference is that laws approved by voters become permanent, especially with constitutional bans on legislators making changes. By contrast, he said, voters can get rid of lawmakers every two years.

This isn’t the first change in procedures that Ducey has approved.

Two years ago he signed a measure banning the practice of paying circulators based on the number of signatures they collect.

He also signed a law last year crafted by Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility, which essentially would have allowed it to ignore any voter-approved mandate to generate a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources. As it turned out, that measure failed at the ballot.

The latest actions follow the decision several years ago by the Republican-controlled Legislature to enact a measure designed to overrule a state Supreme Court decision that initiative petitions need be only in “substantial compliance” with election laws, a standard that allows for technical flaws. Now the law spells out that courts can void petition drives and keep measures from going to voters if there is not “strict compliance” with all laws.

Before sending the bill to Ducey, lawmakers added another provision requiring candidates to file a “statement of interest” with the proper election office before collecting signatures, spelling out what office the person wants and what is the political party affiliation. That puts incumbents on notice when there is a challenge.

The new law also contains a hammer: Any signatures gathered before that public statement are invalid.


Ducey signs bill to protect businesses from Covid-related lawsuits


Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that would shield businesses from Covid-related lawsuits – one of his top legislative priorities of the year that would also apply to hospitals, nursing homes and schools. 

The bill, SB1377, from Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, was more than a year in the making after the 2020 Arizona Legislature was not able to pass a similar bill due to the pandemic cutting the session short. This year, it passed along party lines in the House, and gained two Democrats supporting it in the Senate.  

Ducey said in his State of the State address in January that this is something he wanted to see completed – it was one of two priorities he actually listed in his speech. The other is to expand off-reservation gambling, which has stalled in the Senate for at least one month now.  

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

He said the bill would prevent a statewide emergency from lining “the pockets of trial attorneys with frivolous lawsuits.” 

Attorney Tom Ryan, who specializes in injury and wrongful death civil litigation, said the measure was unnecessary. 

“This is performative theater art for the uninformed masses that the governor is actually doing something to protect business for a problem that simply doesn’t exist,” he told Capitol Times 

But more than that, Ryan said he thinks the bill is unconstitutional based on a provision in the state constitution that states “the right of action to recover damages for injuries shall never be abrogated, and the amount recovered shall not be subject to any statutory limitation.” Ryan said he thinks that applies to Leach’s bill.  

Garrick Taylor, the interim president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said even though this is not necessarily been an Arizona problem yet, it doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary.  

“This is a common-sense piece of legislation that reflects the unusual times that we are living in,” he said. “It’s important because litigation is costly and a distraction from the mission of the business or entity that’s being sued, and that’s all the more the case when the litigation is of dubious variety.” 

Taylor said the American Tort Reform Association found that the Trial Lawyers Assocation, which opposed the bill, ran more than 175,000 TV advertisements costing roughly $35 million “to recruit Covid-19 plaintiffs” between March and December of 2020.  

“That is a sign that there is a segment of the trial bar that views Covid lawsuits as potentially lucrative,” Taylor said, adding that it sends a clear signal that “this is likely to be the next frontier of litigation.” 

Republicans overwhelmingly supported the liability measure because they said businesses struggled so much during the pandemic so this would provide them with protections from “frivolous lawsuits.” 

Democrats – outside of Senators Sean Bowie and Christine Marsh – opposed it because they deemed it as unnecessary given no lawsuits have existed of the nature the bill aims to avoid. The bill is also retroactive to the beginning of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, wiping out any would-be lawsuits that do not currently exist.  

“Arizona’s health care professionals and others on the front lines have worked day and night this last year to protect sick individuals and vulnerable populations,” Ducey said in a prepared written statement. “We have taken steps to protect both health care heroes and vulnerable Arizonans during the pandemic, and today’s legislation strengthens those protections.” 

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

“Small businesses need certainty under the law that if they act in good faith, they’ll be protected from frivolous lawsuits,” Leach said in a statement.  

Several consumer advocates also opposed the bill because they thought it would reward “bad actors” like the bars and clubs in Old Town Scottsdale or Mill Ave in Tempe that had a direct link to increased positive cases around Memorial Day Weekend last year. Some bars were packed every night due to a loophole in Ducey’s executive order allowing them to appear as if they were restaurants that offered dine-in services. 

Those bars included several owned by the family of Ducey’s senior health policy adviser that were eventually forced to close after severe public outcry, but now are open again after Ducey lifted all occupancy limitations and mask requirements.  

The bill now puts the onus on individuals to prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that they got Covid from that place of business.  

Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale, opposed the bill in the House because he said he thought “employers need to be held liable.”  

“This bill is stripping away their right to stay healthy and, most importantly, to work in a workplace with safety in mind and safe from getting COVID-19 during this pandemic,” he said.  

Businesses advocates were pleased with the bill signing, immediately thanking Ducey and Leach for getting this to happen.  

It’s not just an Arizona situation either. Leach cited “more than 2,000 coronavirus-related cases” across the country in his statement, but failed to list any examples locally. At least 25 other states now have a similar law.  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a similar bill two weeks ago also hammering a similar message to Ducey about so-called “frivolous lawsuits.”  

Ryan said there’s a reason why Arizona has only seen very few, if any, of these suits so far – mostly because they tend to be difficult and also expensive.  

“They are self-limiting,” he said, adding that there is a lot of “risk management” involved from a legal perspective. “The reason you’re not seeing this tsunami of Covid cases in the state of Arizona is because the vast majority of plaintiff attorneys that handle these kinds of cases look at it and say, ‘what’s the likelihood of success?’ We understand how difficult it is, and contrary to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s idea that lawyers are just out there filing frivolous lawsuits everywhere … that’s a myth.”  

Taylor said it’s not a “blanket immunity bill.” 

“Our desire is to protect truly responsible actors who are doing their best under difficult circumstances,” he said. 


Ducey won’t challenge local mask ordinances

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey arrives for a news conference to talk about the latest Arizona COVID-19 information Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey arrives for a news conference to talk about the latest Arizona Covid information Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)

Gov. Doug Ducey is not taking any action to curb the decisions of some cities and counties to ignore his directive that they scrap their mask mandates. 

And there’s no current indication he will. 

Gubernatorial spokesman C.J. Karamargin on Tuesday dismissed as “inconsequential” that several communities have decided to maintain their ordinances requiring people to mask up in certain situations. That includes not just in public buildings and transit, which Ducey has said is OK, but also in businesses and restaurants which the governor says are free to tell employees and customers they need no longer wear masks. 

Karamargin declined to say whether this effectively means that the governor has acquiesced to the arguments that cities and counties are free to ignore his edicts. 

“They’ve never enforced the mask mandates,” he said. 

But, absent a legal challenge from the governor — or anyone else — those ordinances remain on the books. 

The governor last week abolished any remaining state-imposed mask requirements at businesses. State Health Director Cara Christ said she and the governor concluded they were no longer necessary. 

Ducey, however, issued a new executive order barring any local ordinance that is in conflict. 

“This includes but is not limited to mandated use of face coverings,” the governor said. 

On Tuesday, however, the Pima County Health Department announced that as far as it was concerned its mask ordinance, enacted in December, remains in effect. 

It requires everyone to wear a mask when in public if they cannot easily maintain a continuous distance of at least six feet from others. It also mandates that businesses require customers to wear masks. 

Violators are subject to a civil fine of up to $500. 

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry acknowledged that neither the city nor the county has issued citations. But he said that doesn’t make them ineffective or irrelevant. 

“What it is, basically, is a high degree of voluntary compliance,” Huckelberry said. 

“If you rescind it, you send the message that it’s no longer necessary,” he continued. “Well, it is necessary based on public health standards and infection rates per 100,000 people.” 

Pima County is not alone. Officials in Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff also have refused to rescind their own mask directives. 

What the ordinance also is, Huckelberry said, is legal — and beyond the reach of the governor. He said counties in particular are specifically authorized to enact public health measures. 

“Our mask resolution was based on the county’s countywide public health authority as expressly given in the statutes,” Huckelberry said. “We don’t believe, at least our attorneys don’t believe, that an executive order can preempt a statute.” 

While there’s been no action by Ducey, three Republican legislators are moving to challenge the local governments who have not agreed to accede to the governor’s authority. Sens. Vince Leach of Tucson and Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale have asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich to determine the legality of the local decisions as has Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa. 

This isn’t the first time the county has used its health powers to enact local regulations. 

In January the county imposed a 10 p.m. curfew to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. But that lasted less than a month after Pima County Superior Court Judge Kellie Johnson concluded that the resolution “was adopted without statutory authority, and is in violation of the governor’s executive order.” 

Huckelberry said this is different. 

“Masks are proven statistically to actually reduce infection rates,” he said. Huckelberry brushed aside claims by some who dispute that conclusion. 

“There’s a reason why everyone in an operating room wears a mask,” he said. “Masks are proven to be very low-cost effective measures at preventing infections 

And the curfew? 

“It was just another layer” to help protect public health, Huckelberry conceded. “It did not have the scientific evidence behind it.” 

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. 

Ethics panel dismisses complaint against Rogers


A Senate panel voted along party lines Tuesday to dismiss an ethics complaint against a freshman Republican senator accused of mistreating her former assistant. 

Michael Polloni, who worked for Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, during her run for office and was hired as her legislative assistant in mid-December, said he was forced to resign on Jan. 14, three days into the legislative session, following an altercation in Rogers’ office. 

An investigative report released Monday corroborated some of Polloni’s complaints, including that Rogers yelled and swore at Polloni on Jan. 14, and that she sent him text messages about work while he was out sick with Covid. Other allegations, including that she berated him about his weight, sister’s sexuality and aunt’s political beliefs, stemmed from one-on-one conversations and Rogers and Polloni disagree on what happened. 

The three Republicans on the committee said nothing they saw met the standard of “clear and convincing evidence” required to move ahead with a hearing or disciplinary recommendations.   

“A hearing wouldn’t provide further investigation,” said Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa. “It would provide further cross-examination.”

Pace said Polloni is free to present his argument in a court, which has lower standards of evidence and could result in him receiving actual compensation. The ethics committee could only recommend disciplinary action up to and including expulsion, and Pace said nothing beyond a formal reprimand was ever on the table.

Polloni’s attorney, former lawmaker Adam Kwasman, said he will move ahead with legal action against the Senate and potentially Rogers as an individual. Polloni did not actually file a federal workplace discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making it easier for his attorneys to file a notice of claim against the Senate without waiting for federal approval.

“What they just did was a political outcome,” Kwasman said. “We’ll be pursuing a legal outcome.” 

Democratic Sens. Victoria Steele and Kirsten Engel first sought to move ahead with a hearing and then to dismiss the complaint on the condition that Rogers take a four-hour course through the Arizona Department of Administration that is required for state employees in supervisory roles. 

Senate rules define unethical behavior in part as “improper conduct that adversely reflects upon the Senate.” Steele and Engel said some of Rogers’ alleged behavior, as supported by evidence, clearly meets that standard. 

“There are assistants, pages, other people in this building who are looking at what we do here,” Steele said. “We have evidence to support Mr. Polloni’s accusation that the senator yelled, that she saw him crying, that she swore at him. I don’t want assistants in this building thinking that it’s OK for them to be treated this way.”

Rogers, Polloni and another witness agreed that Rogers raised her voice at Polloni and swore at him on Jan. 14, when she pulled him into her office to discuss office decor. In her interview with the Senate’s investigator, Rogers said she told Polloni “I will talk down to you. You work for me.”

Text messages provided to the Senate’s attorney also illustrate that Rogers texted Polloni about work during eight of the 10 days he was out on sick leave with Covid, despite him sharing that his bosses told him not to work while on leave. 

“Rather than leave Mr. Polloni alone to get well, even after hearing that he was told not to work, Senator Rogers continued to ask him to do work,” Engel said. “At one point she berated him on a Sunday for not responding to her on a Saturday.” 

Engel said the least the committee could do was recommend Rogers take a course on how to supervise employees, but the three Republicans on the committee rejected that idea.

“It appears at least one senator on the committee appears again to want to mete out some kind of punishment,” said Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke. “That is not in the purview of the committee as far as I am aware.”

Flagstaff defies Ducey, declares more closures

Coral Evans (Photo by Jenna Miller)
Coral Evans (Photo by Jenna Miller)

In apparent defiance of Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent executive order defining “essential services,” Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans is expanding the types of businesses closed in the city for now.

On Thursday, Evans issued a statement announcing changes to her original business closure proclamation, which extend the original end-date of the proclamation, April 1, to an indefinite one “until further notice to comply with” Ducey’s order.

It also expands existing business closures to hair salons, nails salons and similar businesses, starting Thursday night at 8:00 p.m. It does not apply to grocery stores or similar businesses, pharmacies and drug stores, food banks and food pantries, cafeterias, college or university restaurants or vendors at the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport.

Evans’ amendment proclamation comes three days after Ducey issued an executive order that listed which businesses could remain open in the event of a stay-at-home order delivered by his office. Ducey’s order also gave him the executive authority to deliver the order, forbidding any county, city or town from making “any order, rule or regulation” that prohibits the function of those businesses or services deemed essential.

Ducey’s spokesman, Patrick Ptak, said in a text that “the law is clear” but did not directly say that the order was in defiance with the Ninth Floor’s order. “Under the emergency declaration, the state’s guidance supersedes other directives,” Ptak said.

After Evans announced her proclamation, Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, threatened to file a 1487 complaint if necessary, which if fulfilled could take away Flagstaff’s shared state revenue. Leach criticized Evans’ action in a statement, calling it “not helpful” and “illegal.”

“We plan to take this to the Arizona Attorney General to get it overturned,” Leach said in the statement.

Days before Ducey dropped his order, Flagstaff joined Phoenix and Tucson, all Democratic strongholds led by female mayors, and ordered some bars to close, something they saw as a proactive measure in a time when Ducey and the state as a whole was waiting to make the decision. 

Not only did Evans say she was disappointed that “every freaking service in the world” was deemed essential, the order forbids her and other mayors from doing something they feel they should have the authority to do.

Now Evans said, echoing other Arizona mayors, she feels effectively powerless to keep people in Flagstaff safe and healthy.

“If I wake up tomorrow, and there is an insurmountable surge of COVID-19 in my town … and I decide everybody needs to go home for a week, so we can try to get a handle on this, I can’t do that legally anymore. I would have to call the governor and see,” Evans said. “These things are undermining what we are trying to do with cities and towns to protect our people.” 

Evans said she and other mayors are still waiting for clarification regarding the nuances of the executive order — something they have asked for since it was dropped, and the issue of what is an “essential” business, which Evans and other mayors have asked about since Ducey declared a state of emergency.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include a statement from Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak. 

Former AG revs up initiative to end ‘dark money’

The Open and Honest Coalition, led in part by Terry Goddard, announces two ballot initiatives, one to disclose dark money and one to open primaries, on Jan. 21, 2016. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Former Attorney General Terry Goddard (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Armed with volunteers and 15 months until a deadline, former Attorney General Terry Goddard launched a new bid Tuesday to end “dark money” anonymous donations to Arizona political campaigns.

The initiative would create a “right to know” provision in the Arizona Constitution requiring public disclosure of the name and address of any individual who has put at least $5,000 into influencing the outcome of any election, whether directly or indirectly.

It would apply not just to donations directly to candidates, which essentially already is covered, but also donations to political action committees which then make their own contributions to candidates solely in the name of the group.

But the more significant provision applies to so-called “social welfare groups” that now can spend unlimited amounts of money on TV ads, mailers, billboards and phone calls both for and against candidates and supporting and opposing ballot measures. That would override a law approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature exempting those groups from having to disclose their donors.

Goddard tried a very similar measure two years ago, gathering about 285,000 signatures.

But that was challenged by foes who got a trial judge to throw out the signatures of paid circulators who did not show up in court. That left the petition drive short of what was needed to make the ballot.

This time, said Goddard, things will be different.

First, he plans on using an all-volunteer army. That curtails the opportunity for legal challenges for failing to meet a new host of requirements that now apply to paid circulators.

What else is different is that those volunteers have 15 months — until July 2, 2020 — to gather the 356,467 valid signatures needed to put the measure on the general election ballot that year. Goddard figures that should be enough, given that the volunteers working last time gathered 150,000 signatures in just five months.

That, however, won’t stop the challenges expected from the same groups that filed suit last time, including Americans for Prosperity, an organization that is part of the Koch brothers network, and the Free Enterprise Club.

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

And state Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who has been at the forefront of efforts to protect anonymous donations, said he will do what he can to convince voters that allowing the government to gather that information, even if it is for public disclosure, is a bad idea.

Leach acknowledged there is evidence that at least some voters want to know who is putting money into campaigns.

In Tempe, a mandatory disclosure measure was approved by a 91-1 margin. But the legal fate of that is unclear as Leach has asked Attorney General Mark Brnovich to rule that ordinance runs afoul of Leach’s own bill to preempt local regulations of that kind.

Phoenix voters approved a similar plan with about 85 percent in favor. That has been held up while Gov. Doug Ducey, a long-time foe of expanded financial disclosure laws, exercises his constitutional right to review that public vote.

Leach, for his part, brushed aside those two votes, suggesting that the voters in those two communities are not reflective of the rest of the state.

“You don’t have that type of election in SaddleBrooke,” he said, the largely Republican housing development in Pinal County in his legislative district. “No one would run in there because there you would get 95 percent – or maybe even 99 percent – saying, ‘Absolutely not. You don’t have a right to know.’ ”

What the initiative seeks to pierce are the records of groups classified by the Internal Revenue Service as “social welfare organizations.” They can spend up to half of their revenues influencing political campaigns.

Arizona law does require them to report their expenditures. But the source of the cash is exempt.

Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia

That is what allowed such groups to put $3.2 million into the 2014 campaign on behalf of Republican candidates for Arizona Corporation Commission without disclosing who provided the dollars. Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest electric utility, would neither confirm or deny it financed those efforts.

None of that would be possible if voters approve what Goddard hopes to put on the ballot.

It is crafted so as not to apply to tiny campaign efforts. Only those groups that spend at least $20,000 on a statewide campaign or $10,000 on a local campaign would be covered.

And within that is the requirement to disclose who has put in at least $5,000. Goddard said that it is crafted to prohibit “chain donations,” ensuring that the mandate applies to the original donor, even if the cash has been run through several different organizations before winding up being spent to influence an Arizona election.

Enforcement would be left to the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

The initiative also contains something else: language designed to protect the commission’s ability to enforce the disclosure requirements.

Last year voters approved a measure which put the commission under the purview of the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council. That gave the panel, made up entirely of Ducey appointees, the power over the commission’s rules.

The initiative spells out that oversight does not extend to the commission’s ability “to promulgate rules or take necessary actions” to enforce the financial disclosure law if voters approve.

Leach said this is about more than unveiling who is behind political campaigns, saying that declaring the government can enforce some sort of “right to know” would set a bad precedent.”

“That opens up a whole host of problem areas for government intrusion,” he said. Leach said there’s a long history of protecting anonymous political speech, going back to the Federalist Papers which were written to convince states to ratify the new Constitution.

Leach also cited the historic 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court saying that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. That ruling said groups, including corporations and labor unions, can spend money to influence elections.

But he conceded nothing in that ruling bars governments from enforcing disclosure requirements. In fact, in a subsequent ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

“I don’t ever remember saying that I was always in total agreement with Scalia,” Leach responded.

“I believe I do not think the government has that right to know,” he continued. “And I would be very much against, and I will work very much against anything that says the government has the right to know.”

Leach is not the only Republican who has sought to protect anonymous donations.

During 2016 debate on the non-disclosure legislation, then-Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said voters do not need to know the source of the funds paying for the media campaigns.

“A message is a message, said Mesnard, now a state senator. “If it’s important to you to know who’s behind the message and you don’t know who’s behind the message, then disregard it.”

And Mesnard said during that debate that sometimes too much disclosure can be a bad thing.

“The end result is a registry of every person and who they donated to,” he said. “I think that is entirely dangerous.”

Goose and gander: Firm charges lawmakers hourly rate to gather signatures

A handful of incumbent Arizona legislators aren’t happy that the most prolific signature gathering firm in the state is treating them the way they treat citizens who propose or challenge laws via the ballot.

Andrew Chavez, the owner of Petition Partners, said he’s holding accountable GOP lawmakers who voted for HB 2404, a measure approved in April that ended the practice of paying circulators per signature for statewide ballot initiatives and referendums. The law, approved on party line votes by Republicans who claimed it would stamp out signature-gathering fraud, does not apply to lawmakers, some of whom pay to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot every two years.

That didn’t sit well with Chavez, who’s now using his prerogative as a business owner to deny legislators the option to pay per signature.

Andrew Chavez
Andrew Chavez

“I watched hours and hours of testimony and hours and hours of committee on the original HB 2404 and its spawns,” Chavez said. “I heard a lot of false narratives about fraud… If folks are going to use the rhetoric, they need to follow up.”

Seven incumbent Republicans have approached his firm asking for a quote for his services, Chavez tweeted Wednesday. And all seven were “upset” to learn that Chavez will only let them pay to have signatures collected at an hourly rate, the new business model used by ballot initiatives. For example, SOS Arizona paid some circulators by the hour this summer to help gather enough signatures to challenge a school voucher expansion law.

Chavez would not tell the Arizona Capitol Times which lawmakers approached him.

Some of the lawmakers who voted for HB 2404 have bought signatures to qualify for the ballot in the past. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Vince Leach of Tucson, paid at least $680 for signatures during the 2016 election.

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

Leach, who previously stated HB 2404 “restores some badly needed integrity” to the initiative process, claimed in House debates that a pay-per-signature ban need not apply to lawmakers because they can be un-elected, and that voter initiatives can’t be recalled. Those arguments ignore that fact that voters always have the option of repealing a voter-approved measure, while lawmakers can also send a referral to the ballot to repeal any voter-approved measure.

Chavez’s refusal to offer lawmakers per-signature quotes isn’t meant to be vindictive, but to hold legislators who voted for HB 2404 accountable for their statements and actions, he said.

“I never agreed with their argument, but if you’re going to make your argument, you need to stand by your argument,” he said.

Chavez is in a unique position to make sure legislators do just that. In his tweet, he repeated an old proverb heard often at the Capitol from those who opposed HB 2404: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

“I just wanted to point out the irony. I truly believe that folks at the beginning of the year didn’t understand how this was going to impact the market,” Chavez said. “We have a lot of leverage in the market, and I think the rules have changed.”

It’s now standing policy at Petition Partners to give all lawmakers quotes based on an hourly rate — Chavez noted it might be illegal to give Democratic lawmakers different rates that he denies to Republicans who voted for HB 2404. He’s also not sure if anyone will take him up on his offers to collect signatures with payment by the hour — of the seven who’ve approached him, none have accepted his quote, at least yet.

“I’m positive a few will have to,” he said. “I’m not waiting by the phone though.”

GOP Lawmaker to Tempe: Do as I say or tell it to the AG

Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)
Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)

A Tucson Republican is threatening to sic the Attorney General’s Office on Tempe if the city doesn’t update two lease agreements with developers he alleges received illegal tax breaks.

In a November 30 letter sent to Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, Rep. Vince Leach claimed that the property tax incentives offered to the developers of the Graduate Hotel and the new Bank of the West branch in Tempe are prohibited by state statute.

He threatened to file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office under SB1487 – a 2016 law that allows legislators to ask the attorney general to investigate whether local governments are violating state laws – if Tempe fails to amend its lease agreements with the two developers and address his concerns. The state can withhold a city’s share of state-shared revenue, which funds vital local government services, if the attorney general finds the complaint to be valid.

House GOP spokesman Matt Specht said Leach chose to bring up his concerns to the city first “for a more collaborative effort” rather than file a complaint.

Ken Strobeck, director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, said though he commended Leach’s good will at seeking a collaborative effort, he felt legislators were taking advantage of the law.

“It is unfortunate that the threat of SB1487 complaints are becoming the standard response when legislators have questions about municipal practices,” he said. “We believe it is much better to respond to questions and work out solutions positively without resorting to the confrontational, punitive threats contained in SB1487.”

Tempe spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said it was the first time Leach or another lawmaker had brought up a GPLET (Government Property Lease Excise Tax) concern with city officials. Though she declined to say whether the city felt it was being strong-armed by the lawmaker, she said that the city was “happy to consider input and provide information about its use of GPLETs, as it has in the past.”

In the letter, Leach argued that the Government Property Lease Excise Tax agreements, granted to the two developers used rates that were eliminated in 2010 by state statute. Cities are exempt from using the new tax incentive rates for projects that were grandfathered in under the old law, but Leach argued that the grandfather clause didn’t apply to either project because neither had been approved by the Tempe City Council before 2010.

GPLET tax incentives allow municipal governments to lease publicly-owned properties to developers at a lower tax rate.

Leach also argued that the city backdated its agreement with Graduate Tempe Owner, LLC to 1970, the year the hotel was built, rather than when it became government property earlier this year.

Under the previous law, GPLET rates decreased over the duration of the lease until year 50 when the rate became zero. Because the city is claiming that the hotel project was grandfathered in under the old rates, Leach said, the developer would receive a large tax break.

“Despite there being a significant and obvious financial incentive for the city and the lessee to pretend this incentive began 47 years ago, such an interpretation is a peculiar and likely illegal stretch of the law,” he wrote.

Leach also said the agreements were also not vetted by the Department of Revenue, a stipulation included in HB2213, a 2017 law he sponsored aimed at closing loopholes related to GPLET agreements.

“GPLET projects like this shortchange our school districts while subverting the marketplace – they’re a bad deal for everyone except the city and developers,” Leach said in a statement.

The city, however, said such projects can benefit school districts and the community.

“Our school districts continue to collect a level amount of property taxes during the term of a GPLET, and after the property goes back on the tax rolls, they stand to take in even more dollars because the improved property pays more in taxes than if it had remained vacant, underused or polluted,” Ripley said.

Leach said the city could correct the three issues by re-signing the lease agreements with both developers using the “post-2010” GPLET rates.

“This solves all three illegal actions taken by the council and will not further necessitate an Attorney General SB1487 investigation,” he wrote.

Leach asked the city to respond to his claims by December 21.

GOP lawmakers demand Ward allow audit of her election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ward did not return a message seeking comment.

But the signers said the call is merited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peoria Rep. Ben Toma agreed.

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

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

“The letter speaks  for itself,” he said.


Lawmakers who signed the email to Ward:



Paul Boyer, Glendale

Rick Gray, Sun City

Vince Leach, Tucson

T.J. Shope, Coolidge



Shawnna Bolick, Phoenix

Frank Carroll, Sun City West

Regina Cobb, Kingman

Timothy Dunn, Yuma

John Fillmore, Apache Junction

Mark Finchem, Oro Valley

Quang Nguyen, Prescott Valley

Becky Nutt, Clifton

Joanne Osborne, Goodyear

Kevin Payne, Peoria

Beverly Pingerelli, Peoria

Bret Roberts, Maricopa

Ben Toma, Peoria

Justin Wilmeth, Scottsdale

GOP lawmakers question lack of tax conformity details in Ducey budget

FILE - In this May 8, 2018, file photo, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during an interview in his office at the Arizona Capitol. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Republican lawmakers Tuesday balked at Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to keep tax conformity out of his executive budget and then squirrel away its potential revenue windfall into the state’s rainy-day fund.

In a joint meeting of the House and Senate money committees, lawmakers from Ducey’s own party had sharp words for the governor’s budget director on his plan to conform Arizona’s tax code to changes enacted in federal law, which would have the effect of raising state revenue, but not count the money in his budget assumptions.

Reading between the lines, lawmakers seemed suspicious that Ducey’s plans to keep conformity revenue out of the budget could thwart their attempts to use the money for other purposes, including giving it back to taxpayers.

Conformity is quickly snowballing into one of the more contentious issues this session as Republicans are divided on what to do with any funding that could come from adhering to federal tax changes.

Tax conformity revenue is not included in Ducey’s proposed budget. But the governor plans to deposit any windfall from conformity into the state’s rainy-day fund. That’s on top of the $542 million Ducey proposes putting into the reserve account to boost the rainy-day fund to $1 billion.

Republican lawmakers have other ideas, but they could be stymied by Ducey’s reluctance to count conformity revenue in the budget. Budgeting for conformity gives lawmakers the chance to refund upwards of $170 million to Arizona taxpayers.

In the committee meeting Tuesday, GOP lawmakers didn’t hold back when questioning Matt Gress, Ducey’s budget director. Most made it clear they thought any conformity windfall should either go back to taxpayers or be used more effectively than shoring up the rainy-day fund.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, pressed Gress on why tax conformity isn’t included in the executive budget, to which he replied the Governor’s Office didn’t count any revenue windfall from it because the number is a moving target.

Budget analysts predict conformity could generate somewhere between $170 million and $230 million, but even they admit they aren’t sure of the full fiscal effect of conformity.

“The executive is very concerned about the wide array of estimates on what conformity could produce. No one really knows,” Gress said.

Cobb fired back: “I think we’re also uncomfortable that we’re already putting $1 billion into the rainy-day fund and now we’re adding on top of that.”

The Governor’s Office wants no more than $200 million of any potential conformity windfall to go into the state’s rainy-day fund, Gress said.

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said he understands that it’s hard for budget analysts to nail down the effects of conformity and that lawmakers may never fully know the effect of conforming to the federal tax changes.

But any additional revenue should go back to taxpayers, he said.

“I understand that we’ll never know. I appreciate that we’ll never know. But I do know that the people of Arizona are expecting their taxes not to go up,” he said.

Arizona conforms its tax code to the federal tax law, which in the past, has been more a matter of the state Legislature acting as a rubber stamp on federal tax changes. But this year is different because of federal tax changes in late 2017 that eliminated a laundry list of deductions.

Effectively, the state could broaden its tax base by adopting the federal changes, while still keeping the state tax rates the same, and see a revenue windfall.

The Governor’s Office estimates 75 percent of Arizonans will still receive tax refunds if the state conforms.

The Legislature has a chance to do something big by conforming and issuing refunds to taxpayers, said Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria.

“It could be literally the biggest thing that we’ve ever done down here as far as me as a voting member in my seventh session,” he said. “I think we could have that big of a positive impact on citizens.

It’s unclear what happens if lawmakers and Ducey hit an impasse and do nothing on conformity.

Somewhat coming around to the idea of the state keeping any such conformity windfall, some lawmakers proposed alternatives to putting the dollars into the rainy-day fund.

Livingston questioned why, when the Governor’s Office decided to refinance the debt on buildings the state sold off during the Great Recession, they didn’t think to pay off all the buildings early, which could have resulted in annual interest savings of $85 million.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, pressed Gress on why the governor’s budget doesn’t contemplate paying down debt, such as a $930 million rollover of K-12 public school expenses.

Gress said that the governor is all about ensuring education funding promises can be kept.

“We prioritized the budget stabilization fund because we believe that it is the most important tool we have to protect the 20×2020 plan,” Gress said, referencing the pay raises Ducey promised teachers last year.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, agreed, adding it’s more politically palatable to pull money out of the rainy-day fund in the event of a recession, as opposed to paying down the rollover now, only to roll it back during an economic downturn.

“We should do both, but I would first get the rainy-day fund up to 10 percent or something else,” Kavanagh said.

GOP lawmakers seek to nullify Hobbs in election litigation

From left are Katie Hobbs and Mark Brnovich
From left are Katie Hobbs and Mark Brnovich

Republican lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday to strip Secretary of State Katie Hobbs of some of her powers.

Measures approved by both the House and Senate Appropriations committees would take away her power to defend state election laws and give it to Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

It even prevents her from being able to get legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office. And it also would remove her purview over the Capitol Museum located in the historic Capitol.

But they insist it’s not personal, not a power grab and not punishment for her political stance, even as several said how unhappy they are with things she’s done.

It does, however, come as relations between Democrat Hobbs and Republican Brnovich have apparently reached a new low. It was disclosed Tuesday that she has filed more than a dozen complaints against Brnovich and staffers with the State Bar of Arizona, the organization that polices attorney conduct and has the ability to punish those who violate ethical rules.

A spokesman for the Bar said he is legally precluded from providing specifics. And there is no timeline for conducting any investigation and releasing any findings.

But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said the move by Hobbs only adds to why the Republicans in the legislature are moving against her. And he used them to respond to arguments by Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, that the action to remove some her authority was political.

“I don’t know what’s more political than the secretary of state submitting charges against almost the entire upper echelon of the attorney general,” he said.

“I would say the unprecedented attack on the attorney general, the chief deputy and many high-level attorneys is uncalled for,” Leach said. “This is really disconcerting and should be disconcerting to the people of Arizona.”

“She’s the one acting politically,” added Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria.

A spokesman for the State Bar said he can only confirm that a complaint was filed. And neither Hobbs nor Brnovich provided any immediate details.

And with no timeline on how long that inquiry would take, that leaves GOP lawmakers making the moves it can, using the state budget as their tool.

The actions spell out that the attorney general and not the secretary of state has the sole authority to defend the state when election laws are challenged. It also precludes the attorney general from providing any legal advice to the secretary of state, instead giving her $100,000 to hire a single legal adviser.

“This is a more efficient way of doing this,” said Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the House panel.

But Democrats noted this isn’t a permanent change. Instead, it’s only for the coming state fiscal year. And that means it will expire after Hobbs leaves office in 2023.

Cobb acknowledged that a lot of this has to do with how Hobbs chooses to defend — or not — state statutes being challenged in court.

She said there have been instances where Hobbs and Brnovich have started on the same page, defending the changes enacted by the Republican-controlled legislature.

“And during the litigation, half way through the litigation, she’s decided to go the other direction from the AG’s office, from what they’ve been helping her with,” Cobb said. Then, on top of that, Hobbs is billing the state when she hires outside counsel to make those legal arguments.

And sometimes Hobbs actively opposed what Brnovich was arguing.

That’s the case with the challenge to the 2016 law on “ballot harvesting” where lawmakers voted to make it a felony for someone to take anyone else’s filled-out ballot to a polling place.

Brnovich sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court after a federal appellate court voided the law. But Hobbs urged the justices, who are still considering the matter, to uphold that ruling and void the statute.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, pointed out that Hobbs, like Brnovich, is elected directly by voters.

“The secretary of state is entitled to her own opinion of the law,” he said, pointing out her role as the state’s chief elections officer. And Friese said if her views differ from that of the attorney general she should be entitled to hire outside counsel.

Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said there’s more to the move than that.

“I really believe that this is not about policy but politics,” she said. And Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, called it “politically driven.”

It also comes as Hobbs, who is expected to announce a run for governor in the 2022 election, has been vocal about what she considers a “sham audit” of ballots being conducted by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott.

Republicans are not stopping with the question of election laws.

A separate provision takes away the authority Hobbs now has over the Capitol museum, the parts of the old Capitol building with historic displays. That would now be under the purview of the Legislative Council, essentially legal staff that advises lawmakers and helps draft legislation.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the transfer would ensure that better use can be made of the building by lawmakers. But Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, said this appears to be a reaction to the fact that Hobbs in 2019 chose to hang a “gay pride” flag from the balcony of the building.

“Oh, I have an issue with that,” Kavanagh said.

“I don’t think we should politicize government buildings,” he continued. “But that’s not what this is about.”

Cobb agreed, saying the flag incident was “done a long time ago.”

Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, said he wasn’t buying any of what he saw as excuses by Republicans for what they were doing.

“I learned a long time ago when smart people are saying things that don’t make sense there’s something else going on that’s not being talked about,” he said.

GOP senators have doubts about tourism bill

One of the Welcome to Arizona signs unveiled by the state in 2019 that the Arizona Office of Tourism wants legislative permission to market to raise money.

A measure to let the Arizona Office of Tourism sell goods and services to raise money is drawing opposition from some Republican lawmakers who see it as “a scandal in the making.” 

HB 2381 is being pushed by Debbie Johnson, the agency’s executive director. 

She said her office gets inquiries by people wanting to buy some of the artwork produced to promote Arizona tourism. Only thing is, Johnson told lawmakers, there is no legal authority to do that. 

Debbie Johnson

What the legislation would do, she said, is give the go ahead. More to the point, Johnson said it could raise $10,000 to $20,000 a year “to start,” with the dollars raised being focused on getting people to visit rural and tribal areas. 

But it is that “to start” issue that Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said gives him concerns. 

His concerns and those by Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, were enough to at least temporarily derail the legislation which had been set for Senate floor debate on Wednesday. Whether it comes back — and in what form — remains to be seen. 

Leach said during floor debate this isn’t the first time government agencies have come to the legislature looking for new ways to raise money. 

Consider, he told colleagues, that they gave the go-ahead years ago for universities and local governments to enter deals to erect commercial development on public property. That means the development is exempt from property taxes for some period. 

Leach said that what was supposed to be a targeted economic development tool has ballooned, to the point where many buildings in downtown areas of many cities and those built on university property are not on the tax rolls. 

And he said that HB 2381 is “that nose under the camel’s tent” for unchecked expansion of the powers of the Arizona Office of Tourism. 

“This is a very dangerous bill,” added Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert. 

“I don’t think people really grasp what’s happening with this,” he said during Wednesday’s Senate session in terms of what he sees as giving unchecked authority to the agency. “But, folks, this is a scandal in the making or future scandalous headlines in the making.” 

That’s not the way that Johnson presented the issue to lawmakers during hearings earlier this year. 

She said her agency has created various pieces of art about Arizona. Perhaps the best known was the 2019 unveiling of a series of colorful Welcome To Arizona signs that were erected on state highways. 

“We’ve had so many people reaching out to buy posters and promotional items we’ve had made,” Johnson said. “But, unfortunately, we’re not able to sell those right now.” 

The problem, she said, is that there is no dedicated fund into which to put the money. What HB 2381 would do is clarify that the agency can not only produce, own, sell and license artwork but that any cash generated would go into a newly established “tourism development fund.” 

But the verbiage in the measure has been creating questions. 

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, openly wondered why the Office of Tourism needs permission to sell not just goods but also services. Johnson assured her that was simply to be able to arrange to have an outside firm print up things like T-shirts. 

And Johnson said that allowing her agency to own the “intellectual property” simply would allow it to license its use by others. 

Butler ended up voting for the measure when it went through the House. But Leach said he’s not quite ready to provide such broad authority to a state agency, not after he believes lawmakers were burned by universities saying they need just a little bit of leeway for commercial developments on public property. 

What’s needed, he said, is to “tighten this up a little bit.” But, as currently crafted, Leach said it’s not acceptable. 

“You could drive all the Penske rental trucks through the gaping hole here,” he said. Leach said he wants “guardrails” before voting for it. 

Petersen said the language in the measure, at least as it stands, is unacceptable. 

“Basically, we’re going to give somebody taxpayer dollars and allow them to purchase, buy things, run businesses,” he said. But Petersen said it’s not like a business. 

“They don’t have the risk that a normal taxpayer has when they’re using their own money,” he said. “They’re using the taxpayers’ money to do this.” 

All that, Petersen said, is “not appropriate use of government funds.” 

There was no immediate response to the Senate’s decision to shelve the issue for the time being either from Johnson or Rep. Steve Kaiser, R-Phoenix, who is the sponsor of the measure. 




Groups challenge proposed ballot measures in court


Business groups are trying to keep Arizonans from voting on proposals to hike taxes on the most wealthy and give hospital workers a pay hike.

One challenge, filed by a group financed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, alleges that the legally required 100-word description given to initiative petition signers about the effects of the tax increase to generate nearly $1 billion a year for K-12 education fails to adequately describe how it works. Foes contend that those who were asked to put the measure on the November ballot were never told it was an entirely new tax and how it would result in “a near-doubling” of the marginal tax rates owed by many businesses.

If that claim sounds familiar, it should. The chamber used it successfully two years ago in its bid to keep a similar measure off the 2018 ballot.

The other from a group financed by the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association contends that the initiative process was flawed because it never identified as Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West as its sponsor and source of its funds.

Foes of this measure also claim that the 100-word description on petitions is “highly misleading.”

David Lujan, the director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress and the author of the tax plan, said the challenge by the chamber is “disappointing but not surprising.”

David Lujan
David Lujan

“The chamber has continually shown that they’re more interested in protecting well-paid CEOs rather than helping Arizona schools,” he said.

The proposal imposes what the initiative calls a 3.5 percent “surcharge” on incomes above $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples. Put another way, it would only be the earnings above that point that would be affected.

Challengers say that obscures the fact that people in that tax bracket already are paying a 4.5 percent state income tax on earnings at that level.

“Yet by saying the initiative ‘establishes a 3.5 percent surcharge’ on this income, the summary gives signers the misimpression that the income is currently untaxed,” wrote the attorneys for Arizonans for Great Schools and a Strong Economy, the chamber-financed group formed to fight the initiative.

They said it should have been portrayed to petition signers as an 8% tax rate on incomes above the threshold.

“A voter might be willing to tax their fellow citizens 3.5% but not 8%,” the attorneys are telling the judge. They said that should be listed as an 80 percent increase.

Lujan, however, said there’s nothing misleading about it.

For example, Lujan said, a couple earning $501,000 would pay the same tax as now on the money they earn. Then, there would be an additional 3.5% levy on $1,000 — the amount at which the tax kicks in, or $35.

Challengers also contend there are other misleading statements in that 100-word description, like the claim that the money would be used to “hire and increase salaries for teachers.” But they said the actual texts reveals the cash could be spent on those who “support student academic achievement,” a definition they say could include custodians and bus drivers.

There also is a claim that the measure would have a harsh effect on small businesses whose income tax is reported on their owners’ individual tax forms.

But Lujan said that ignores the fact that the tax is imposed not on the gross income of a business but only on what the business owner brings home, after paying all expenses like employees salaries, rent and utilities.


The measure the hospitals are seeking to quash would guarantee 20% raises over four years to certain hospital personnel, impose new infection-control standards on hospitals and put a provision in Arizona law designed to ensure that individuals with pre-existing health conditions can purchase insurance at affordable prices if the federal Affordable Care Act ultimately is voided by the courts or repealed by Congress.

Attorneys for the hospitals, in attempting to keep this off the November ballot, are relying in part on what appear to be technical issues with wording and the failure to define some of the terms.

hospital-featuredBut the lawsuit also takes aim at the claim that the measure, if approved “sets new minimum wages for direct care workers at private hospitals.”

“A reasonable voter would interpret ‘direct care workers’ to mean that wage rates will be adjusted for those directly involved in the care of patients such as a physician, nurse, or an imaging technician,” wrote attorney Brett Johnson.

In fact, he said, the text of the initiative instead refers to “direct care hospital workers.” And it defines that to include nurses, aides, technicians , janitorial and housekeeping staff, food service workers and nonmanagerial administrative staff — but not doctors.

Johnson also finds fault with the claim that the initiative, if approved, “prohibits insurers from discriminating against pre-existing conditions.” But he said that doesn’t make it clear that it would apply only to health and disability insurance and not things like life or property and casualty insurance.

“This broad overstatement is fraudulent and/or would cause a significant danger of confusion to a reasonable person,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also takes aim at the wording of another provision designed to protect patients from “surprise out-of-network bills” they receive after it turns out that someone who cared for them in the hospital was not actually part of their insurer’s health care network.

Holly Ward, spokeswoman for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said a measure like this is a bad idea in these “extraordinary times,” mentioning that staffers “are working tirelessly to care for everyone who comes in for care.”

“We don’t need to drive costs up for hospitals and ultimately patients,” she said.

Rodd McLeod, spokesman for the initiative, said the fact that the hospitals are going to court is telling.

“This lawsuit is just an admission by the hospitals that they’re not going to be able to convince Arizonans to vote against affordable health care at the ballot box so they’re going to try to deny voters a chance to have a vote at all,” he said.

McLeod also took a separate swat at state Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who signed on as a plaintiff with the hospitals. He said that Leach opposed legislation pushed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer to expand the state’s Medicaid program.

“So it’s no surprise to see him standing with millionaire CEOs and against ordinary families that get stuck with surprise bills,” McLeod said.

Leach declined to comment.

Both lawsuits now head to Maricopa County Superior Court where judges will consider the merits of the arguments. But in both cases the final decision is likely to come from Arizona Supreme Court.

House panel moves bill to lower minimum age to be elected


Arizona lawmakers don’t want to share their power with 18 year olds.

But they might agree to let those at least 21 join their ranks.

On a 7-6 margin Monday the House Appropriations Committee agreed to ask voters in November to repeal existing constitutional provisions which require that candidates for statewide and legislative office to be at least 25 years old. As approved, that would mean someone as young as 18 could not only run for the Legislature but could even become governor with enough votes.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, who crafted the measure, said that’s fine with him.

“In my philosophy, if you allow them to drive a tank and give them a gun to go fight overseas, they should be eligible to run for office,” he said. “I think they’re mature enough.”

But the version of HCR 2036 that the committee approved is unlikely to be the final version. Several lawmakers agreed to go along only after Kern agreed to offer an amendment to change that minimum age to 21 when the bill goes to the full House.

At the heart of the debate is when is someone mature enough to make laws and policy.

Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said he has seen research that the frontal lobes of the brain do not fully develop until at least the early 20s — 30 for men.

“That’s the part of the brain that handles restraint and forward thinking and all of that,” he said.

“I’ve seen 18-year-olds mature, very mature,” Kern responded. “I’ve seen 50-year-olds very immature.”

And Kern said it’s not like his measure automatically would mean the House and Senate might be overrun with teens.

First, HCR 2036 could take effect only if the constitutional amendment clears not only the full House, where it heads next, but also the Senate. Then it has to be approved by voters.

And even that that point, Kern said, none of this guarantees that someone younger than 25 actually could get elected.

“I’m going to trust the voters to allow their vote to count,” he said.

But the possibility of 18-year-olds in the Legislature — and even possibly a teen-age governor — proved too much for some like Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson. He told Kern he was voting for the measure only if the final version ends up being no younger than 21.

Ditto Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, who was 25 when first elected.

“I didn’t screw up too badly,” he quipped, saying that “young people have good ideas.” But Cardenas said he could support the measure only if the minimum age were set at 21.

Even setting the minimum age for election at 21 is going to generate opposition.

Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he presumes those who crafted the Arizona Constitution a century ago had a good reason to decide that lawmakers and elected officials should be at least 25. And Bowers said that’s back in the days when 14-year-olds might have been providing for families.

“I could talk about protests and all the kind of fun things that we in the exuberance and intoxication of youth carry out,” said the 65-year-old Bowers. “But I think there is some sobriety that comes with age.”

There is a question of how different state government — and state laws — would look if there were younger people in the Legislature, or running the state as governor.

Kern, who is 56, acknowledged that, at least on social issues, younger voters tend to be more liberal than many older voters — Kern, himself, included. But he said he’s not bothered by the kinds of legislation they might support, including legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

“But I do know some 18-year-olds that are on the conservative realm, too,” he added.

“They wouldn’t all just be kind of Left,” Kern said. “Not all of them. Probably most of them.”

Kern’s proposal does not stop with the executive and legislative branches of government. His measure, if adopted by lawmakers and approved in November by voters, also would eliminate the mandate that judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and all superior courts be at least 30.

That change, however, would be unlikely to put teens into black robes. That is because there is another provision in state law which requires judges to have been admitted to the practice of law, meaning they need at least a law degree.

Kern is not the first one to link military service to political influence. The constitutional right to vote for 18-year-olds nationwide came in 1971 amid arguments of “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.”

House passes measure to keep cities from banning ‘dark money’

State lawmakers voted Tuesday to block any efforts by Arizona cities and counties to find out – and inform the public – who is funneling money into local elections through nonprofit groups.

On a 33-25 margin the Republican-controlled House voted to prohibit local government from requiring  organizations declared to be tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service from registering as political action committees, even if they are putting money into races.

More to the point, it would preclude any requirement that these so-called “dark money” groups identify donors. And it would bar local governments from auditing the books of these groups or requiring them to respond to subpoenas, even if there were allegations that they were violating campaign finance laws.

HB 2153 now goes to the Senate, which also is dominated by Republicans.

The legislation comes two years after lawmakers voted to grant more anonymity to donors to organizations that are putting money into independent campaigns for statewide and legislative races. Foes of disclosure have now turned their attention to local races.

Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)
Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who has championed this measure, conceded that no Arizona community has so far sought to impose such reporting requirements on nonprofit organizations. Instead, he argued, it was designed to get out in front of the issue before some community could approve measures like one that exists in Santa Fe, N.M.

But the legislation does not exist in a vacuum. It comes as voters in Tempe are set to vote next month on a proposal to require that any group spending at least $1,000 on independent campaigns to disclose their donors. HB 2153, if signed into law, would preempt such an ordinance.

At the heart of the debate is a contention by Leach and other supporters that requiring disclosure could result in individual donors being harassed.

Rep. Ken Clark, D-Phoenix, said the measure is badly flawed.

He said an organization can qualify for nonprofit status from the IRS if it does not spend a majority of its funds to influence elections. But Clark said that has no meaning when there are major donors on both the Left and Right who have deep pockets and still can spend multiple millions of dollars to influence elections without endangering that nonprofit status.

Clark said this isn’t just about disclosing on TV commercials and mailings what group has paid for it, along with the ability to find out who is behind that group.

“It’s about the money that that organization, many organizations can spend to intimidate lawmakers at all levels,” he argued.

“It is very cheap,” Clark said. “And now it’s going to be even easier with this bill to hide it.”

But the real issue comes down to what most Republicans and multiple business groups contend is the right of individuals and businesses to influence elections anonymously.

The lone exception to that all-GOP support during Tuesday’s debate was Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott.

“I believe in anonymity,” he told colleagues. And Campbell said he believes that people have a right to give however much they want to political campaigns.

“But I also believe a citizen should take a step forward and own what he believes in,” he said, saying that’s why he supports disclosure. Campbell said lawmakers should do what they can to fight “dark money.”

“I think it pollutes our system,” he said. And Campbell said he disagrees with the historic 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision which opened the door to corporations having the right to spend money to influence elections.

“If it was up to me, only a living human being could give money,” he said.

Of some note is that both sides cited the writings of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“There are laws against threats and intimidation,” the now-deceased justice wrote in that 2010 ruling, saying that allowing corporations to give does not mean that they — or anyone — have a constitutional right to do so anonymously. “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts foster civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

But Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, hung her vote to allow donors to hide their identities on comments Scalia made two years later while discussing that earlier ruling and political commercials.

“I don’t care who is doing the speech, the more the merrier,” the justice said in 2012.

“People are not stupid,” Scalia continued. “If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.”


Lawmakers want AG review of eviction moratorium

Eviction Notice Letter on Front  Door

Two state lawmakers are asking Attorney General Mark Brnovich to rule that expanded eviction protections approved last week by Pima County supervisors is illegal.

In a formal complaint February 9, Republicans Vince Leach of Tucson and Bret Roberts of Maricopa contend that counties have no inherent power to interfere with otherwise valid residential leases. And even if they did, they argue, what the supervisors enacted is pre-empted by state law.

Strictly speaking, the two legislators are not asking Brnovich to overrule the ordinance. In fact, he lacks the legal authority to do that.

But they are taking advantage of a state law that not only allows the attorney general to review the legality of a law but also, if he determines the action is illegal, order the state treasurer to withhold half of the county’s state aid if the measure is not rescinded.

Central to the legal battle is the decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to block evictions during the pandemic. Congress has since extended that moratorium through the end of March.

But the focus of that has to do with the inability of tenants to pay rent. It does not bar evictions for other reasons.

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

The February 2 vote by the Pima County supervisors is designed to plug some of what sponsor Matt Heinz told Capitol Media Services are “legal loopholes” in that CDC moratorium.

Unable to evict tenants due to nonpayment of rent due to the pandemic, Heinz said they are citing people for “material breach of contract.” That, he said could include things like failing to trim the hedges or having more pets than stated on the lease.

And the trend, Heinz said, is on the rise. He said data he got from constables shows that more than one out of every five eviction complaints now being filed claim “material breach.” Before the pandemic, Heinz said that figure was closer to one out of every 20.

The new ordinance, he said, “gives the constables an additional tool to be a decent human being.”

In their letter to Brnovich, the two GOP lawmakers say all the reasons that Pima County is citing for its moratorium ordinance are irrelevant, charging the county has no such power.

“A prerogative to dictate the permissible parameters of eviction proceedings or nullify the terms of private lease agreements is nowhere found in the functions assigned to county governments,” the complaint reads.

They acknowledge counties do have some powers to act in a state of emergency. But they point out that Gov. Doug Ducey, when he declared his own emergency, specifically precluded local governments from enacting any rules or regulations that conflict with or are in addition to those he has approved.

Even if there were not a pre-emption, Leach and Roberts contend that the county’s emergency powers do not extend to the ability to impose a moratorium.

“At most, the relevant statutes authorize counties to adopt measures urgently necessary to contain the physical spread of disease, secure health and medical services for affected individuals, supply necessary medical equipment, and otherwise ameliorate immediate threats of human life,” the complaint said. “Nothing in those provisions contemplates that a political subdivision may unilaterally conscript private property for an indefinite period without compensation, or effectively extinguish judicial enforcement of remedies guaranteed by state law.”

Rep. Bret Roberts (Capitol Media Services 2020 file photo by Howard Fischer)
Rep. Bret Roberts (Capitol Media Services 2020 file photo by Howard Fischer)

Heinz, however, said he believes the ordinance is on solid legal ground given the county’s ability to protect public health and prevent the spread of disease.

He said many who are evicted end up either living on the street or get crowded into shelters. In both situations, Heinz said, that creates a situation where Covid is more likely to spread.

Anyway, he noted that the ordinance is only temporary. It is set to dissolve at the end of March, the same time the CDC moratorium expires.

Health issues aside, the legislators contend that the county action directly conflicts with a provision in the Arizona Constitution which prohibits the taking of private property without just compensation.

“In essence, the moratorium converts private property into public housing, with lessors shouldering the substantial costs of sheltering defaulted tenants for as long as the Board of Supervisors dictates that they do so,” they said.

Leach and Roberts acknowledged that the tenants do remain financially liable for the accrued rents. But they called that “illusory.” They said eviction remains the only effective remedy when someone does not pay rent, as many tenants are “judgment proof,” without assets to pay.

Last year, the Arizona Multihousing Association asked the state Supreme Court to void an eviction moratorium enacted by Ducey, arguing it exceeded his emergency powers.

Attorney Kory Langhofer who prepared the legal filing argued that Ducey had created “an indefinite economic welfare and redistribution program, rather than a public health measure to contain the COVID-19 contagion.”

But a majority of the justices refused to consider the challenge, allowing the governor’s order to remain in effect until it expired in October. Only Justice Clint Bolick said the court should review Ducey’s action.

A separate action filed by Gregory Real Estate and Management fared no better, with a trial judge upholding the legality of the governor’s moratorium.

“The rational basis of mitigating the spread of COVID-19, by promoting physical distancing through the delay of evictions, exists and supports (the executive order),” wrote Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury.

Lawmakers who lost primaries plan next steps

An old watchtower bell was mounted on the sidewalk in front of the state Capitol in Phoenix in 2021.  (File photo)

Twenty-two lawmakers lost their races this year for various offices and won’t return to the Capitol for at least two years.

Nine House Republicans, nine House Democrats and four Republican senators were knocked out of the running, several in surprising upsets from political newcomers.

Nearly all the legislators say they will spend some time focusing on their other jobs and families, but don’t rule out another run down the road.

House of Representatives

Morgan Abraham

Rep. Morgan Abraham, D-Tucson: “I can’t see a situation where I run for the lege (Legislature) anytime soon but there’s other offices,” Abraham said. He wants to go back to being an “involved citizen” in the meantime.

Rep. Richard Andrade, D-Glendale: Andrade is a locomotive engineer who was already on vacation in Hawaii by the middle of August. He’ll take a break from the Legislature but plans to run again as a Clean Elections candidate. “My opponent was able to pull it off because he had a lot of outside help like special groups, special interests,” Andrade said. He hopes that using Clean Elections funding will boost him and he won’t turn to organizations that he said disappointed him “immensely.” He lost his race to fellow legislator Rep. Diego Espinoza, D-Tolleson.

Rep. Walter Blackman, R-Snowflake: Blackman said in no uncertain terms that he will run for office again, but maybe not for a seat in the Legislature. “I’ve been asked to run for the Senate in my district, and so we’ll see. We’ll see, but I definitely am running,” he said. Blackman lost a congressional bid to Trump-endorsed newcomer Eli Crane.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers

Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa: Bowers is hard at work traveling on behalf of the state. He wants to make a trip on his own to Romania and Kazakhstan outside of work, and paint pictures of Romanian haystacks. Bowers is the best-known artist in Arizona politics and decorated the House with his own paintings and sculptures. His vacation plans are no indication that he intends to leave politics behind. “I’m very, very concerned about the direction my party has taken. Obviously, I’m not a ‘member in good standing anymore’ because I didn’t want the Legislature to take away the right of citizens to vote,” he said of being censured by Republican Party Chair Kelli Ward. Bowers said he wants to have an impact on the future of the Republican party. “I am a victim in a district against three competitors who used tactics and said things about me and my morality and my stature and my reputation that was disgusting. … It’s a vicious bunch of people,” Bowers said. His primary opponent David Farnsworth was endorsed by Trump after Bowers testified to the January 6 congressional committee about former President Trump’s efforts to overturn Arizona’s election results.

Judy Burges

Rep. Judy Burges, R-Sun West City: Burges said that she’ll be in her 80s when she runs again and she’d have to “give it some thought,” but in the meantime she’s going on a vacation to Hawaii for the first time. “I’m really looking forward to it,” she said on August 16. Burges wants to continue working for the Republican Party whether she runs again or not. “You can’t be busied out the Legislature and come back home and do nothing,” she said.

Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction: Fillmore said he will never leave politics and that his election isn’t over. He said he believes that he only lost due to problems in Pinal County on Election Day that included a shortage of ballots and is considering legal action. For now, Fillmore said he is in the mountains of Oregon “recuperating” by “drinking incessantly” and camping in a motel.

Joel John

Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye: “To be frank, I don’t think I’ll run any time in the near future. I would like to run again, but the Legislature is a huge commitment for someone who runs a business and has kids at home,” John said. He has an agricultural business to run and takes care of his children.

Rep. Sarah Liguori, D-Phoenix: She wants to remain in politics and hasn’t decided whether she’ll run for the Legislature again. “This time last year, I didn’t know I was going to be at the Legislature. So, this time next year, I don’t know what my life is going to be like,” she said on August 15. Liguori is interested in putting her experience in real estate behind her and focusing instead on politics in Phoenix. She was appointed rather than elected to this term and lost to fellow incumbents Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix.

Rep. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix: Meza said he’ll keep working at his own business and potentially come back into politics later. “I’ve never been through this before, because I always win by large amounts,” Meza said.

Joanne Osborne

Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear: “I will be doing what I always do and try and be a part of my community, and have my small business, and be a mom and a grandma,” Osborne said. She is not sure whether she’ll come back but said that may depend on what happens in Arizona. “We’re doing well as Arizonans, and I hope nobody screws that up,” Osborne said.

Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, D-Cashion: Sierra said he may run again, but now he’s hunting for a job in the private sector and considering moving to Washington, D.C., with his wife. “We have kids who live out-of-state and one of them is getting married. We’d love to be near grandchildren,” he said. In terms of his work, Sierra said he wants to remain “politics adjacent” with community relations and marketing.

Rep. Christian Solorio, D-Phoenix, Solorio’s spokesperson (and sister) Diana Solorio said that he will continue to work in the community and combat homeless issues but has not committed to another politics run.

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen; Rep. Shawna Bolick, R-Phoenix; Rep. César Chávez, D-Phoenix; Rep. Daniel Hernandez, D-Tucson; Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa; and Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, did not respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, Bolding and Bolick all competed and lost in the primary race for secretary of state. Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro-Valley, won that Republican primary.


Tyler Pace

Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa: Pace didn’t promise to run again, but he said the 2022 session was “probably” not his last time serving in the Legislature. “I have no plans running for office in this next election cycle. Other than that, I’m not entirely sure, but it won’t be the end,” Pace said. Pace has his own business to manage and is considering getting a cabin or a beach house to enjoy. He also said he’s not planning to collaborate with Robert Scantlebury, who beat him in the primary election for Legislative District 9.

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Apache Junction: “I have given ten years plus of my life to serving the people of this state and country. I’ve sacrificed my children’s childhood, my career before politics, to some degree my health due to the high level of stress and many other things, and right now my focus is my children and my family and then I will decide,” said Townsend. She used to work full time as a doula but said she probably won’t go back to that now. “I’ve given every last fiber of my soul to this state for a long time and now it’s time to turn and focus forwards,” she said. Fellow Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, beat out Townsend in the primary.

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson: Leach still hasn’t conceded his Legislative District 17 race to victor Justine Wadsack. He had two friends file a lawsuit against Wadsack claiming that she actually lives outside of the district she ran in and is asking that her name be removed from the general election ballots and replaced with Leach’s. “If you’re going to represent the district; you should live in it,” Leach said on Thursday.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, did not respond to requests for comment.


Leach sics AG on Tempe over allegation of illegal tax breaks

A Tucson Republican has followed through on a threat to ask the Attorney General’s Office to investigate whether Tempe broke the law in signing two lease agreements with developers he alleges received illegal tax breaks.

Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)
Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)

Rep. Vince Leach filed his complaint with the attorney general on January 2 despite a scheduled January 11 meeting to discuss his concerns with Tempe staff.

Leach put the city on notice in a November 30 letter that he intended to file the complaint and asked for a response to his claims by December 21, and a House GOP spokesman said Leach chose to bring his concerns to the city first “for a more collaborative effort” in finding a solution.

In a January 2 written statement, Tempe said Leach’s complaint was misguided based on a misunderstanding of Government Property Lease Excise Taxes, or GPLETs, a tax incentive that allows municipal governments to lease publicly-owned properties to developers at a lower tax rate.

The statement, sent by city spokeswoman Nikki Ripley, said Leach filed the complaint “before getting the facts.”

“It is unfortunate that a member of the Arizona Legislature has decided to use misunderstandings about GPLET and misinformation about Tempe’s use of state statutes to employ a tactic to threaten the city revenue distribution that keeps cities and towns afloat and able to provide critical services to residents such as police and fire protection,” the statement said.

House GOP Spokesman Matt Specht said Leach “had an obligation” to file the complaint with the AG’s Office after the city failed to take “corrective action” in response to the November 30 letter.

The complaint, filed under SB1487, a 2016 law that allows legislators to ask the attorney general to investigate whether local governments are flouting state laws, calls into question the city’s use of GPLETs.

SB1487 allows the state to withhold a city’s portion of state-shared revenue, which funds vital local government services, if the AG finds the complaint to be valid. The Attorney General’s Office has 30 days to investigate the complaint and if it determines the city’s ordinances violate state law, the office will work with the city to ensure the leases come into compliance.

In his complaint, Leach argued that the GPLET agreements offered to the developers of the Graduate Hotel and the new Bank of the West branch in Tempe used rates that were eliminated in 2010 by state statute. Cities are exempt from using the new tax incentive rates for projects that were grandfathered in under the old law, but Leach argued that the grandfather clause didn’t apply to either project because neither had been approved by the Tempe City Council before 2010.

Leach also argued that the city backdated its agreement with Graduate Tempe Owner, LLC to 1970, the year the hotel was built, rather than when it became government property in early 2017.

Under the previous law, GPLET rates decreased over the duration of the lease until year 50 when the rate became zero. Because the city is claiming that the hotel project was grandfathered in under the old rates, Leach said, the developer would receive a larger tax break.

Leach also said the agreements were not vetted by the Department of Revenue, a stipulation included in HB2213, a 2017 law he sponsored aimed at closing loopholes related to GPLET agreements.

Tempe’s January 2 press release said the city’s agreement with the developer of the Bank of the West does not waive property taxes for the duration of the GPLET, and that the agreement was vetted by the Department of Revenue.

As for the Graduate Hotel development, the city said it passed a resolution in 2010 that allowed the property to fall under the grandfather clause for future use of GPLETs. The resolution was passed before changes were made to how GPLETs can be used under state statute, the city added.

The lease agreement with the developer has not been finalized, but will be submitted to the Revenue Department for review when it is, the city said.

“The city of Tempe has responsibly, selectively and legally made use of the limited development incentive tools that are allowed by Arizona state law,” the city’s written statement said.

This is the eighth SB1487 complaint that the AG’s office has investigated since the law was enacted in 2016. Leach recently filed another SB1487 complaint with the agency, asking Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate whether the town of Patagonia’s new ordinance limiting the number of times heavy trucks can drive on town roads violates the Arizona Constitution, the Nogales International reported.

Lobbyists navigate lawmakers’ bad behavior, professional relationships


In 2018, at the height of the Me Too movement, investigators for the House of Representatives dismissed a lobbyist’s allegations of harassment against a state representative because the lobbyist sent friendly text messages after the alleged incident occurred.

The mental calculations she described in a sworn deposition made public earlier this month are all too familiar: Looking past an offensive comment or off-color joke, because the fight wasn’t worth it. Pretending an unwanted romantic advance never happened. Marshalling colleagues and meeting in public places to avoid being alone.

At the Capitol, where relationships are everything and the caprice of a single lawmaker can derail months of policy work, lobbyists must balance representing clients and fighting for policy positions with the costs of not calling out bad behavior.

And as women at the Capitol and across the country grow more empowered to speak out about behavior that would have been ignored in years past, some male lawmakers have responded by doubling down on a boys’ club mentality, granting greater access to male lobbyists than their female counterparts out of a stated wish to avoid even a whiff of impropriety.

Tory Roberg
Tory Roberg

In some instances, lobbyist Tory Roberg said, lobbying for issues she cares about means putting up with a lot in the hopes that it will someday get a bill across the finish line.

“In order to serve our clients, we have to build up relationships,” Roberg said. “I have to weigh whether keeping this relationship is worth it to pass a bill.”

Mental math

Not only lobbyists but also female lawmakers have to manage balancing acts.

Other representatives often don’t listen to Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, when she speaks on the floor of the House. On the evening of February 26, a few of her Republican colleagues went further than simply ignoring her, instead joking and guffawing over a sexual innuendo they perceived in her remarks.

Blanc ignored them and continued speaking. She said later that it was another example of an uneven power dynamic she can’t stop thinking about.

“I’m continuously reminded that it’s a power dynamic, and my colleagues across the aisle have all the power,” she said. “If I feel this way and I’m an equal, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a lobbyist — a female or a male lobbyist — in this power dynamic.”

Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist at the progressive firm Creosote Partners, said she thinks often of a piece of advice Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared: It helps sometimes to be a little deaf.

Ginsburg’s mother-in-law advised her on her wedding day to tune out small thoughtless or unkind words, and it’s a strategy she used in the workplace as well. Tuning out offensive jokes and comments helps at the Capitol, Rodriguez said.

“There are definitely things that I don’t laugh off, but that I have to pretend not to hear,” she said.

For lobbyists representing clients whose issues don’t align with the prevailing view at the Capitol, finding votes often means putting up with unacceptable behavior, Roberg said. Roberg represents the Secular Coalition of Arizona and often advocates for issues unpopular with the GOP majority.

“It’s just really hard when you’re already the underdog in a fight,” she said. “If you have an opportunity to get into someone’s office, you have to take it.”

“I’ve never crossed any lines,” she quickly added.

Blurred lines

High-profile scandals involving lawmakers and lobbyists — from the seemingly consensual relationship between Rep. David Cook and an agricultural industry lobbyist who supported his bills, to accusations of harassment levied against Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and former Rep. Don Shooter — draw attention to the uneven power dynamic between lobbyists who push for bills and the lawmakers who control their fate.

Barry Aarons, the de facto dean of the Arizona lobbying corps, said those incidents are the exception, not the rule.

“Every year or couple of years, there’s an incident or two that pops up unfortunately and all of us [lobbyists] tend to take the spatter on it,” he said. “Basically, the ethical level of the Arizona Legislature and all of us involved in it is relatively high, with the exception of a couple of lapses that have occurred over time.”

Barry Aarons
Barry Aarons

Aarons said he teaches his staff to be “extremely cautious when socializing” with lawmakers and their staff, and prohibits romantic relationships between his employees and lawmakers. The employees also aren’t allowed to drink with lawmakers “on company time,” he said, but he rejected a suggestion that lobbyists stop buying drinks for lawmakers.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we think that we can’t have a casual meal and refreshments,” Aarons said. “If you want to ban [drinking], ban it. It’s not a lobbying technique.”

Complicating matters is a lack of clear, industrywide ethical standards for lobbyists, paired with the Legislature’s lack of a formal code of conduct.

The American League of Lobbyists has a code of ethics it urges members to comply with, but the code doesn’t get into murky matters like relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists. Other states, including Colorado, have their own professional lobbyist associations that regulate lobbying ethics and seek to prevent harassment at state capitols.

Matt Benson, a former Arizona Republic reporter who now lobbies for Veridus, said lobbyists and reporters have similar difficulties navigating ethical boundaries with lawmakers. Both reporters and lobbyists operate more casually than people in most jobs, he said.

Reporters have relationships with sources they talk to during regular business hours and after hours over dinner or drinks, he said.

“Being a lobbyist isn’t so much different,” Benson said. “Lobbyists interact with other lobbyists, with staff members, and with legislators during the day and sometimes off hours, and there’s nothing inappropriate about that, provided that you stay between the bright lines.”

Veridus follows a code of common sense, Benson said, adding that formal enforced ethical guidelines regulating lawmaker-lobbyist relationships are hard to imagine. And trying to craft rules will only muddy waters, he said.

“What would that look like? One drink is OK, but three and you cross the line?” he said.

If anyone on his team feels uncomfortable with a specific lawmaker they have to meet, another employee will tag along, Benson said.

“Clearly there have been some incidents that have come to light – not just this session, but in past sessions. I don’t know that that necessarily means the system is broken. What it speaks to is the fact that we’re dealing with human beings and they make mistakes and I don’t know that you eliminate that by putting a set of rules on paper.”

Former Republican lawmaker Maria Syms acknowledges people are flawed and said doing nothing about it at all won’t solve the problem. When Syms was in the House, she was one of the most outspoken members calling for a formal code of conduct in the wake of Shooter’s expulsion and asking to “get the frat house out of the state House.”

Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley (Photo by Rachel Leingang/ Arizona Capitol Times)
Maria Syms

Syms said she even provided examples from another state legislature that could be used as a starting point, but nothing ever happened.

Syms said the longer the rules governing relationships, which need to be as objective and ethical as possible, continue to be vague or non-existent, the worse the problem could get.

“Lawmakers and lobbyists are saying we can self-regulate, but that’s not enough,” Syms said. “It’s a lot easier to not have a code of conduct for that when these things come up because you can pick and choose whose actions and what actions are appropriate or inappropriate depending on the political climate at the time. These scandals keep coming up and we have some work to do.”

The Pence policy

Longshot Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster found an Arizona fan in Sen. Vince Leach last summer, when Foster told a female reporter she couldn’t accompany him on a day of campaign events unless she brought along a male colleague.

“I’m not going to ever put myself in a position where a female could come back and say that I made advances on her, I tried to assault her and there’s no witness there to say that did not happen,” Foster told NPR.

Leach shared a version of the story on his campaign Facebook page, adding that he agreed totally with Foster’s position.

“This has been my policy going back probably 20 years,” Leach said via text. “Have forgotten the mentor that gave me this advice. Same policy for constituents and lobbyists and others I meet with. It seems to have worked well so far and see no reason to change.”

Foster and Leach follow the “Billy Graham rule,” named for the late evangelical preacher, which prohibits spending time alone with anyone of the opposite gender other than a spouse. Another notable adherent is Vice President Mike Pence, who refuses to dine alone with a woman or attend events with alcohol unless his wife is with him.

Leach’s announcement last summer surprised some of his female colleagues and lobbyists, who couldn’t recall if they had met alone with him. And knowing that a male lawmaker treats women differently because of their gender is really uncomfortable, Rodriguez said.

“Now every time I see him I wonder, ‘how do you view me?’” Rodriguez said.

Leach is far from alone in refusing to meet alone with female lobbyists, Senate President Karen Fann said. She even had a male representative, who she declined to name, who turned down a woman who asked to catch a ride with him to Tucson but told Fann he would have readily agreed if a man had asked him.

Other male lawmakers make sure to have an assistant come in to meetings with female lobbyists, or keep the door open during those conversations out of “self-preservation,” Fann said.

“It is sad that we have gone so far with trying to be careful about not being perceived as anything that, yes I do believe that some of the female lobbyists are unfortunately not getting the same equal (treatment) as a male because of the fact they are female,” she said.

Slow changes

Discussions of sexual harassment at the Legislature, as in the nation at large, reveal generational differences between the Baby Boomers and older Gen-Xers who entered a male-dominated arena and the younger women who expected a more equal playing field. Fann, who also owns a highway construction business, noted that she has been dealing in a male-dominated world her entire life.

“You just get in and you roll up your sleeves and you do it,” Fann said. “Those of us in our generation, our whole lives we’ve had to work a little harder just to show that women can do as good a job — if not better — than men in some areas.”

When Stacey Morley started working as an intern at the Senate in the mid-90s, there was an unwritten rule that female interns shouldn’t go into certain male members’ offices alone.

“We all knew what happened, but no one ever really said anything,” she said. “And there were a lot more affairs between lobbyists and members. All that kind of stuff used to be a lot more common and accepted, whereas now it’s very hush hush.”

Morley, now the government affairs director for Stand for Children, said she has never been put in a position where she felt harassed — something she attributes in large part to her own brash personality and inappropriate sense of humor. For instance, Morley said, she loved Shooter, the former lawmaker who was ejected from office.

“He was like a dirty old man,” Morley said. “He never made me feel uncomfortable, but that’s probably because my standards are way lower than most people.”

She said she could see where younger or more sheltered lobbyists, who come from a different background than she did, could feel very uncomfortable at the Legislature.

“Not to say that I haven’t flirted with members to get my bills passed, but I never felt like anything was expected of me,” she said. “I’ve just had a different experience about it.”

Lela Alston
Lela Alston

Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said she’s dismayed that the Legislature hasn’t yet solved the problem of sexual harassment. Everyone at the Capitol should be able to do their jobs without fear, she said.

“Whether you’re a lobbyist or a reporter or you’re a page or you’re a staffer, you should be able to pursue your careers free from any kind of that expectation and you should have no concerns about members’ behavior,” Alston said. “I’m particularly offended if young women are compromised in their ability to do their jobs, perfect their professional skills, be able to rise to their highest level of potential in their chosen career. That should not be hampered by gender.”

After the AzScam scandal in 1991, the Legislature brought a nationally recognized expert on ethics to train lawmakers on ethical behavior. It might be time to do that again, Alston said, or at least adopt and enforce a code of conduct.

“We’re not a court of law by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have the ability to say what should and should not go on in our own little realm right here,” Alston said. “And we should all have the expectation that those rules of conduct should be maintained, that there’s no wink-wink, nod-nod going on, that we have these rules but we don’t really mean it.”

Maricopa County taxpayers treated to feud of 2 Republicans

Drama Word On Stage Representing Broadway The West End Or Acting

Maricopa County’s lame-duck treasurer sent county homeowners letters suggesting they complain to state Sen. Vince Leach about wasting taxpayer money, in the latest salvo of an ongoing feud between the two Republicans. 

Treasurer Royce Flora and Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, have been at odds since 2019, when Leach shepherded legislation that requires every county to mail detailed tax statements to all property owners. Flora’s predecessor stopped mailing detailed statements to owners with a mortgage in 2016, reasoning that it would save hundreds of thousands of dollars because lending companies, not the homeowners, send tax payments to the treasurer in those cases.

Leach’s Pinal County-based legislative district does not extend into Maricopa County.

Flora made sure Maricopa County property owners knew exactly who was to blame for the extra mail and included Leach’s legislative email address and phone number on tax statements.

“Mr. Leach refused to allow for anyone to opt out or elect to receive this notice by email,” he wrote. “This unfunded mandate cost the taxpayers of Maricopa County over $500,000 this year alone.”

Royce Flora
Royce Flora

Flora, his deputy Russell Pearce and his spokesman Ron Bellus did not return phone calls. Leach apparently pocket-dialed the Arizona Capitol Times and then declined to respond either directly or through a Senate spokesman. 

Maricopa County property owners who have already received their property tax statements were surprised to see Leach’s name. His Democratic opponent, Joanna Mendoza, shared reactions from voters who found it ironic that Leach trumpets his belief in “limited taxation” and “free markets” but sought to require Maricopa County to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on mail. 

Leach’s allies in the Arizona Tax Research Association, a fiscally conservative group that supported the initial law, speculated that Flora’s actions should be illegal. 

“If you look up ‘petty’ in the Arizona political dictionary, you will see a picture of our soon-to-be former county Assessor Royce Flora,” political consultant Trey Terry tweeted with a photo of his tax statement. “This purely political use of taxpayer dollars is unethical & unprofessional, and I’m glad to have voted for his opponent. Good riddance.”

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

Rep. John Allen, the Scottsdale Republican who defeated Flora in the primary and will face Democratic political newcomer Dan Toporek in November, voted for Leach’s 2019 law. So did nearly every other lawmaker: only four liberal senators voted against the measure. 

Leach and Flora also clashed over Maricopa County’s implementation of the law last fall, mere weeks after it took effect. Maricopa County opted to send postcard-sized notices telling property owners to visit the treasurer’s webpage to view detailed tax statements.

That wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Leach, who claimed Maricopa County was thumbing its nose at state law. 

“This childish move is a clear attempt to undermine the intent of the law and does little to inform taxpayers of their tax bill,” he said in a statement at the time. “What they did was a waste of time and taxpayer money. Maricopa County residents deserve transparency.”

Mass subpoenas to be tested in challenge to energy measure

power-lines-620Opponents of a ballot measure to increase Arizona’s use of renewable energy have the right to subpoena more than 1,600 individuals who gathered signatures to get the proposed law on the ballot.

But there are several ways backers of the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona initiative could argue in trial, set to begin on August 20, that there’s not a good reason to compel those individuals to show up in court, according to some elections attorneys.

There’s high stakes over the subpoenas thanks to a 2014 law that requires judges to toss signatures from circulators who don’t show up in court.

The law, adopted as an amendment pushed by Secretary of State Michele Reagan, then a state senator, places the burden on circulators and the committee they work for to ensure that signature gatherers show up in Maricopa County Superior Court, where legal challenges to statewide ballot initiatives are heard.

Failure to show means a judge must invalidate all the signatures collected by that individual.

Attorney Brett Johnson, an attorney for GOP lawmakers Vince Leach, John Kavanagh, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Glenn Hamer and others challenging the Clean Energy initiative, told the court he plans to subpoena nearly all those who gathered signatures for the initiative, since they all registered with the Secretary of State’s Office and signed paperwork acknowledging they might be subpoenaed.

Election attorney Andy Gordon said it’s “pretty transparent” what Johnson’s strategy is.

“If you subpoena someone to show up and they don’t show up, all their signatures are automatically disqualified. That’s what they’re trying to do,” Gordon said. “Their hope is that the people don’t show up.”

What remains to be seen, Gordon said, is how the court will handle all those subpoenas — and what arguments Jim Barton, the attorney for the Clean Energy campaign, will make to dispute that all the 1,600 subpoenas are necessary.

Barton’s effort to quash the subpoenas pre-trial failed, as the court ruled the plaintiffs may subpoena however many signature gatherers they choose. The judge has also acknowledged the logistical challenges that issuing so many subpoenas presents.

That could be an opening for Barton to make the argument that some of the subpoenas weren’t necessary and the judge shouldn’t disqualify signatures even if an individual doesn’t make it to trial, Gordon said.

“I think that’s the argument you need to make because of these peculiar statutes, and because you’re dealing with kind of fundamental constitutional rights to the initiative,” Gordon said. “They should have to make a particularized showing, at least when you subpoena 1,600 (individuals), that there’s some reason to think there’s really underlying problems, other than just a ploy to disqualify the signatures.”

Roopali Desai
Roopali Desai

Attorney Roopali Desai, who worked with Gordon in 2016 to subpoena dozens of circulators in two initiative challenges for the first time under the 2014 law, said there may also be an argument that the statute requiring judges to toss signatures for no-show circulators is, on its face, unconstitutional.

“It may just be, as a statutory impediment on the citizen initiative process, not counting voters signatures simply because a circulator doesn’t show up — there’s a disconnect between the impact to the voter who signs the petition versus this burdensome requirement that was put into statute by the Legislature,” Desai said.

Barton has hinted at arguments he might might make in trial. Issuing subpoenas just to see if a individual will show up “is contrary to the purpose of that (subpoena) power being granted to attorneys,” he said.

“When you subpoena someone to trial, you are compelling them to appear, presumably for a reason. And I think just to see if they show is not a good reason,” Barton told the Arizona Capitol Times. “It’s not what the subpoena power is for.”

Johnson has argued in briefs that subpoenas are necessary because “there is no other source for this witness information.”

And a spokesman for Arizonans for Affordable Electricity, a group formed to oppose the Clean Energy initiative, said that individual signature gatherers can best shed light on signatures those opposed to the initiative think should be invalidated.

The spokesman, Matthew Benson, wouldn’t say whether Johnson plans to call every signature-gatherer who complies with the subpoena to the witness stand.

“I’m not saying we will or we won’t,” Benson said. “I’m saying we reserve that right.”

“From our campaign’s perspective, the circulators are primary sources of information about these petitions,” Benson added. “No one’s in a better position than they are to address peculiarities with these petitions that we have identified.”

Desai said Barton might be on to something by arguing that there’s a disconnect between the Rules of Civil Procedure, which specify when and how subpoenas are issued, and the law as written in 2014.

When Gordon and Desai were hired to challenge an initiative to cap the pay of top hospital executives, they were cautious in who they subpoenaed. Though they identified more than 300 signature gatherers with potential issues on their petitions, Desai said they only subpoenaed about 80 individuals.

Desai said they thought it frivolous to issue subpoenas for individuals when there were other ways to easily prove in court a signature was problematic and should be invalidated.

“You have to give people notice of what it is that you want. It has to be within a particular time frame. And then you have to have these specific procedures to have them show up,” Desai said. “The statute just seems to completely obliterate, or pay no attention, to the service rules.”

That could be a path to argue that the statute requiring signatures to be tossed should be overruled by the courts, Desai said.

Medical pot proposal forces patients to pay for drug prevention

medical marijuana

A Tucson Republican lawmaker wants people who are legally entitled to use medical marijuana to pay for a program to discourage drug use among others rather than lowering the excess fees they pay the state.

Rep. Vince Leach introduced HB 2066 which would let the state Department of Health Services use what it does not need to run the program for “education, awareness and prevention messaging.” He said the state is not doing enough.

Separately, Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, wants to take $5 million out of the funds to give to law enforcement agencies “for crimes related to drug trafficking and distribution.” His proposal is SB 1061.

There’s plenty of money to spend: At last count the health department had amassed more than $40 million.

And that situation is likely to continue. Figures obtained by Capitol Media Services show the state collected $24.9 million in fees last year from patients, caregivers, dispensaries and growers. Expenses during that same period to run the program were $11.2 million.

That annual surplus — and the ever-increasing bank account — exist solely because the $150 annual fee set by the health department after voters first approved medical marijuana in 2010 is bringing in far more than needed to administer the program. Will Humble who was health director at the time, acknowledged he underestimated how many people would qualify to be certified by the state to purchase the drug.

In fact, Humble was preparing to reduce the fees when he quit following the 2014 election of Gov. Doug Ducey.

But current Health Director Cara Christ has shown no interest in following through. So two patients have filed suit to force her to do so.

If either or both measures become law, that would undermine that lawsuit because it would cut into and possibly eliminate the surplus that the litigation hopes to have refunded to patients in the form of lower fees.

Central to the question is whether medical marijuana patients should be subsidizing anti-drug efforts.

Attorney Sean Berberian, who is pursing the legal action to reduce the fees, said it’s not right to force patients to pay more than necessary.

Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)
Rep. Vince Leach (R-Tucson)

Leach, for his part, is not sympathetic to that concern. More to the point, he’s not convinced that all the people who are getting the drug legally really need it for legitimate medical purposes.

“If you break down the number of people that have (medical marijuana) cards, the preponderance, by far, is ‘chronic back pain,’ ” he said. And Leach sniffed at the fact that only those with a doctor’s recommendation can get the drug.

“We know there’s only a limited number of doctors issuing the vast majority of these,” he said. Leach also said he’s not convinced that the doctors are actually reviewing the medical records of patients — something they’re supposed to do — before issuing the recommendation that allows people to get the state-issued card to purchase and use the drug.

So from Leach’s perspective, if they want to use marijuana — something he and lawmakers are powerless to stop since the law was approved by voters — they should contribute to the cost of keeping others from taking it up. And he wants a “meaningful” campaign, “not just putting some sign up on a billboard.”

“We’re obviously not doing a good job of educating people about the harmful effects of drugs, whether they be alcohol, whether they be medical marijuana, whether they be opioids,” Leach said.

He also wants an extensive — and expensive — campaign to keep children from consuming the drug, whether intentionally or by accident.

“We should be spending more and more and more of the dollars that are coming in, the dollars that are available, to make sure that our children in school aren’t taking what they think are gummy bears or strawberries or candy when in fact it is medical marijuana,” Leach said.

Along the same lines, Leach also has introduced HB 2064 which would make it illegal to acquire, possess, manufacture or sell marijuana that is package or labeled “in a manner that is attractive to minors.”

That would outlaw cartoons on the label. Also forbidden would be putting any sort of symbol or celebrity image “commonly used to market products to minors.”

And the packaging could not have a design, brand or name that looks like a candy bar or anything else that minors might buy.

All three measures could have a significant hurdle.

Because the 2010 law was approved by voters, the Arizona Constitution allows changes only with a three-fourths vote of both the House and Senate. And even if Leach or Farnsworth can get that margin, any change is subject to the separate constitutional requirement that it “furthers the purpose” of the original law.

No date has been set for a hearing on any of the measures.

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 tally favors GOP, but control of Senate still hangs in the balance

Voters drop off ballots as volunteers look on at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Phoenix. In Arizona, Maricopa County, the nation's second-largest voting jurisdiction, a steady stream of cars go in and out of the parking lot to deliver ballots at the drop box location. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Voters drop off ballots as volunteers look on at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Phoenix. In Arizona, Maricopa County, the nation’s second-largest voting jurisdiction, a steady stream of cars go in and out of the parking lot to deliver ballots at the drop box location. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated as more results become available. This story was first published Nov. 3 at 8:46 p.m. It was updated at 10:31 a.m. and then at 8 p.m. on Nov. 4. 

Senate Republicans this afternoon re-elected the chamber’s leaders for the next two years even as three races that could decide the Senate majority remained too close to call. 

Assuming the GOP holds on to its majority, Sens. Karen Fann, Rick Gray and Sonny Borrelli will keep their positions as President, Majority Leader and Majority Whip, respectively.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, postponed a leadership election scheduled for Thursday afternoon in hopes that their party mates who are challenging incumbent Republicans in Legislative Districts 17 and 20 would pull ahead. 

Both caucuses assume Democrats will have picked up one seat in Legislative District 28 by the time votes are finalized, but it will take another pickup to tie the Senate and a third to flip it. 

A round of late-arriving early ballots counted Wednesday proved promising for Republicans, as vulnerable incumbent Sens. J.D. Mesnard and Paul Boyer built on narrow leads they gained at dawn today. Meanwhile, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee drew closer to Democratic challenger Christine Marsh and Republicans in three other districts seemed assured of victory. 

Last night’s early results, which reflected mailed ballots, heavily favored Democrats, but Republicans began to make up ground hours later and throughout the day Wednesday, as ballots cast in person on Election Day or dropped off at polls since the weekend were tabulated.

Competing rhetoric from national parties over the use of mail ballots, as Democrats urged early and postal voting to avoid crowded polling places in a pandemic and Republican President Donald Trump spread unfounded claims of fraud by mail voting, led to a major gap in how ballots were cast by partisan voters. Close races may be decided by a third group entirely: voters who received early ballots in the mail but chose to drop them off in person on Election Day.

“It’s so hard to predict, but I think the predominant view is that they should be somewhat more reminiscent of Election Day, in which case that’s good news for us,” Mesnard said. 

AJ Korduglu
AJ Korduglu

Mesnard surpasses Kurdoglu

An influx of outside spending and an increasingly moderate East Valley voter base boosted political newcomer Ajlan “A.J.” Kurdoglu to an early lead, but Mesnard rallied as Maricopa County reported more results from Election Day voters.

By Wednesday evening, Mesnard held 51.1% of the vote. 

“I’m not going to declare victory until every vote is counted, but I’m definitely more optimistic this morning than I was yesterday,” Mesnard said this morning. 

Mesnard was considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent after LD28’s Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, thanks in large part to rapidly shifting demographics in his district. Kurdoglu doesn’t have a political past, but his personal story as a Turkish immigrant who fell in love with Arizona and found his American dream spoke to voters and donors from across the country. 

And Mesnard, who has long championed reducing or eliminating limits on campaign finances, found himself on the wrong side of a handful of political action committees with bottomless wallets. PACs spent an unheard-of $1.3 million on attack ads, plus another $300,000 to boost Kurdoglu. The roughly $1 million spent by pro-Mesnard forces didn’t compare. 

Boyer reverses course in LD20

Sen. Paul Boyer holds a narrow lead over challenger Doug Ervin and may eke out a win in a district that also appears likely to send a Democrat to the House for the first time. 

Boyer now has 50.8% of the vote. 

A high school teacher, Boyer has long frustrated fellow Republicans with his stubborn insistence on fighting for causes he believes in — including expanded legal rights for victims of childhood sex abuse and workers’ compensation for firefighters who obtained cancer on the job — even if his stands come at the expense of easy passage of the state’s budget or other GOP priorities. Along with Brophy McGee and outgoing Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, he occasionally formed a bloc of senators who could work with the Democratic caucus to exact concessions from Republican leaders. 

National Democratic groups spent heavily in 2018 in the race between teacher Christine Marsh, left, and Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee in Legislative District 28, but were unsuccessful. Democrats again are targeting the district.
National Democratic groups spent heavily in 2018 in the race between teacher Christine Marsh, left, and Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee in Legislative District 28, but were unsuccessful. Democrats again are targeting the district.

Marsh leads Brophy McGee in LD28 

Brophy McGee picked up more votes than Marsh in tonight’s count, but it may prove too little, too late, to preserve Brophy McGee’s 10-year career in the state Legislature. 

Marsh now leads with 51.9% of the vote. 

“It’s close, but the other races that I’m looking at are closer,” Brophy McGee said just before heading to bed around 10 p.m., before the second round of results. “I know that this batch of votes heavily, heavily favored Democrats, so I did expect to be down. I was hoping I would not be so far down.” 

This was a rematch for Brophy McGee and Marsh, and Democrats who came close in 2018 stepped up their efforts this year. By midday Election Day, more Democrats had cast ballots in the race than Republicans, and Brophy McGee needed support from Democrats and independents to pull off an unlikely win.

Over the past few years, Marsh has built a national profile among liberals, while Brophy McGee has doubled down on bills and task forces for hyperlocal issues, from a methadone clinic in the west side of her district to the proliferation of short-term rentals in Paradise Valley. 

Brophy McGee and Marsh both hail from the moderate wings of their own parties, but outside groups on both sides of the aisle spent huge sums to make the opposing candidate look extreme. Pro-Marsh forces poured $827,000 into the race, pro-Brophy McGee groups spent $823,000 and the candidates themselves both raised and spent sums in the middle six figures. 

Brophy McGee said she wants more focus on massive sums of out-of-state money from political action committees and individual donors that flowed into the state to benefit Democrats. 

“My goal, however this turns out — and it does not look good for me — is that Arizona continues to be guided by policymakers who actually care about and know the state,” she said. “And I am very concerned that this is becoming a hideous partisan divide.” 

Rogers reverses split in LD6

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Wendy Rogers’s lead grew over Democratic challenger and retired Army Col. Felicia French. Rogers now holds 53.7 percent of the vote. 

Legislative District 6, which covers a largely rural swath of Northern Arizona, may not seem as obvious a target as the suburban Phoenix districts. But French’s close finish in a House race in 2020, combined with the uncanny ability of LD6 Republicans to make national headlines for all the wrong reasons, bolstered Democratic hopes of taking the district.

Despite trouncing Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, in the Republican primary, Rogers had little support from establishment Republicans in the district. Gov. Doug Ducey and the PAC he controls were all in, though, spending hundreds of thousands to paint Rogers as a moderate candidate focused on district needs — in conflict with her own partisan messaging and focus on national issues. 

Late updates favor Leach

A Democrat winning in the deep-red portions of Pinal and Pima counties was always a long shot, but Marine veteran Joanna Mendoza had more of a shot than anyone has in years. Mendoza was buoyed by late endorsements and cash infusions from national Democratic groups, and Republican forces had to divert resources to defending Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke.

Mendoza took an early lead, but Leach pulled ahead with 53.2% of the vote after later results. 

Republicans defeat challengers in LD8

Where other districts were trending more Democratic, Legislative District 8 has only become steadily more conservative. 

Former state Sen. Barbara McGuire, who represented the district until 2016, is falling behind in her bid to return to the Senate.

Current House Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, leads with 56.9% of the votes counted so far. 

Once a top priority, liability measure flounders

In this file photo, a flag flies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Congress has a measure to protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits, but has yet to act on it, and Gov. Doug Ducey is content to wait on the federal measure rather than call the state Legislature into special session to pass liability legislation. PHOTO COURTESY ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL
In this file photo, a flag flies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Congress has a measure to protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits, but has yet to act on it, and Gov. Doug Ducey is content to wait on the federal measure rather than call the state Legislature into special session to pass liability legislation. PHOTO COURTESY ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL

Republican lawmakers and business lobbyists who described protecting businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits as their top legislative priority are waiting on Congress to act after months of being unable to reach a deal on a state-specific bill. 

Federal lawmakers aren’t expected to return to Washington until after Labor Day on September 7, and how long it will take to pass legislation on civil liability — or any other parts of the next COVID-19 relief package — is unknown, as the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate have been at an impasse since early this summer.

In the meantime, business interests are eager to see action on a civil liability measure, whether from Congress or from the Arizona Legislature in a special session. No Arizona businesses have yet reported lawsuits from employees or patrons who contracted COVID-19, but actions have been filed across the country and schools and businesses have reopened with waivers asking patrons to sign away their right to sue. 

Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman Garrick Taylor said quick legislative action to provide broader protections for businesses will help them reopen safely. 

“The reason we were considering some sort of action in a special session and why we believe it’s important for Congress to act is because you want to encourage businesses that are good actors to reopen with confidence and not be looking over their shoulder constantly in fear of predatory lawsuits,” he said. “Action and clarity sooner rather than later would be preferable, but there’s never a bad time for good policies.” 

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

Lawmakers adjourned in May with the expectation that they would be back in a special session in a matter of weeks to address the damage the COVID-19 pandemic and associated business shutdowns did to the budget, and to pass a bill protecting businesses from lawsuits that GOP drafters assumed needed just a little fine-tuning. 

Nearly four months later, fiscal fears appear to have been unfounded: state budget analysts announced last week that the state ended fiscal year 2020 with a positive balance of $377 million instead of the projected shortfall of $190 million, and they now estimate the total deficit at the end of fiscal year 2021 will be just $62 million — a far cry from the $1 billion deficit budget analysts feared at the start of the pandemic. 

And the liability measure still doesn’t have the support it would need to pass even if Gov. Doug Ducey agreed to call lawmakers back to a special session.

Republican lawmakers have left drafting the bill up to a single senator, Vince Leach of SaddleBrooke. Leach has not returned calls or texts throughout the summer – when the Arizona Capitol Times caught up with him in person last week he said only that he had nothing new to report. 

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry has played a coordinating role in helping Leach draft his version of a liability measure, which Taylor and chamber lobbyist Courtney Coolidge said smoothed out wrinkles in a version of the bill drafted by Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, that was shared with lawmakers near the end of the regular session but never formally introduced.

“They’re fairly similar in the sense that they don’t cover gross negligence,” Coolidge said. “The Leach bill does have provisions to help with our health care providers to provide liability coverage for them, which the Farnsworth bill did not.”

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

Requiring plaintiffs to prove “gross negligence” means people who contract COVID-19 while working, shopping or studying at a business, nonprofit agency, church or school would have to meet a much higher burden of proof than someone who sues after falling and injuring themselves. 

Liability language included in draft legislation introduced by U.S. Senate Republicans would go even further, requiring plaintiffs to list all other places they visited and people they were in contact with for the 14 days before the onset of symptoms and explain why each of those people or places didn’t cause the disease. 

Ducey Chief of Staff Daniel Scarpinato said liability legislation is a pressing issue, particularly in the context of reopening schools. However, the Governor’s Office doesn’t plan to call lawmakers back to pass a liability measure. 

“In the immediate, we’d like these liability issues addressed at the federal level,” Scarpinato said. “At this point, there’s no special session on the horizon, but some of this can be done retroactively.”

Ducey’s office will work with lawmakers next session on a liability bill if Congress hasn’t taken action, Scarpinato said. But waiting until January could mean the executive branch would have to deal with a House, Senate or both in the control of Democrats — who haven’t been invited to participate in crafting liability bills. Democrats are saying they would be open to voting for such a measure if they had a hand in drafting it and could ensure it protected businesses acting in good faith from frivolous lawsuits while not providing legal cover to businesses flagrantly flouting safety regulations.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, said he had an initial conversation with Leach about the measure right before lawmakers adjourned sine die but hasn’t heard anything since. Democrats can’t vote for a bill if they’re not involved in crafting it, he said. 

“Any time you want support from the other side of the aisle, the other side of the aisle has to have as much time invested into that legislation as the other side, and that goes for verbiage too,” he said. “So, if that’s something that somebody really wants to do, everyone needs to be there at the drafting from start to finish.”


Panels advance budget bills, GOP holdouts seek compromise

american dollar banknotes forming and the map of Arizona State and white background

Budget bills cleared their first hurdle Tuesday after a day of arm-twisting and political maneuvering, but problems getting it passed persist.  

One Republican in the House voted against every budget bill, while a fiscal hawk in the Senate skipped the appropriations committee in protest after Senate leaders added another Republican to negate her “no” vote.  

And still others are determined to vote against the budget, or at least some of its components, in its current form, leaving Republican leaders to cajole and coerce reluctant representatives demanding more or less spending before they can end for the year. 

Budgets are put together with compromises, so this must be a very good budget because we’ve got people mad on both sides,” said Sen. Vince Leach, the Saddlebrooke Republican who serves as vice chair of the Senate appropriations committee.  

Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, who is leading a group of Republicans who want additional spending cuts, voted against every budget bill in the House Appropriations committee. However, he said he liked much of what was in the bills and plans to talk with House leaders to find an agreement that will satisfy him and the rest of the holdouts. 

“I’m hopeful that Republicans will be able to reach a deal and produce a better budget by the time this comes to the floor,” he said. 

Hoffman’s group, which he said represents a quarter of the 31-member House Republican caucus, has said it wants to nix tens of millions of dollars in the budget for road repair, state parks and pay raises for state employees, as well as spending $7.5 million on election issues, including watermarked ballots and future legislative reviews of election results. 

Across the mall, there was a conspicuous silence each time the Senate Appropriations committee’s secretary called on Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita for her vote. The Scottsdale Republican stayed away from the Senate today, after GOP leaders responded to her explanation that she couldn’t support the $12.8 billion spending plan as a fiscal conservative by appointing Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray, R-Sun City, to the committee to vote “yes” and cancel out Ugenti-Rita.  

Another Senate Republican on the committee, Kelly Townsend of Mesa, threatened to vote against a budget bill that contained policies for K-12 education because it would allow school boards to require students and staff to wear masks 

But after Senate leaders pulled her aside and explained it was too late to amend the bill in committee, Townsend agreed to join fellow Republicans in moving it forward, with a caveat that she will vote against it if it isn’t amended on the floor. 

“The final say about what goes on the face of a child should be the parents, not the school board, not the cities, not the county board of supervisors,” Townsend said. “In order for me to vote ‘yes’ for this on the floor, there’s going to have to be an amendment that allows an exemption not only to not wear a mask but not be shamed.”  

A plan to cut about $3 billion in taxes in the next three years proved particularly testy in both the House and the Senate, as Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said he won’t vote for it unless he gets his questions about it answered. 

“Until I get the answers and I feel comfortable about the people … that I represent in Arizona and this state, I’m not voting for this bill,” he said. 

Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, voted to advance the bill out of committee but said she will need to have her questions about how to hold cities harmless answered if she is to support it on the floor. 

“Like I said from the beginning, there is a way for us to be able to handle this and do it, and I look forward to that continued discussion,” she said. 

Sen. Paul Boyer, a Glendale Republican who has been the leading advocate for cities and towns in discussions of the flat tax, said he asked House and Senate leaders and the governor to meet with the League of Arizona Cities and Towns to discuss ways to protect city budgets, but no one bit. Because cities and towns receive 15% of state income tax revenue under a decades-old agreement that barred municipalities from enacting their own local income taxes, any cut to state income taxes will also affect cities. 

Proponents of the tax plan contend that cities will benefit from increased growth spurred by lower taxes, and that taxes on recreational marijuana and online sales tax collected following the Supreme Court’s Wayfair decision will increase city revenues. But the League argues that those funds already belonged to cities and don’t make up for losing income tax revenue – instead, cities and towns want to see an increase in the proportion of income tax revenue shared with cities and towns, from 15% to above 18%.  

League legislative director Nick Ponder told the Senate committee that cuts to city revenues will affect police and fire budgets.  

“This vote will be one you take home to your community,” he said. “It will be what your mayors and council members talk about when you go to shared events.” 

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who is largely responsible for crafting the flat tax proposal, said he would “work with my members here to try to get this done – hopefully tomorrow.” 

However, other lawmakers doubt that a deal will come together by Wednesday, when the Senate and House both plan to come to the floor at 10 a.m. 

“I don’t believe these bills will pass,” said Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma. “I have no crystal ball here, but I really hope for the sake of Arizona that both sides of the aisle will come together. … I want to be part of the budget. I don’t just want to pick it up and say ‘That’s not right for me. That’s not right for my constituents.” 

Pima County tax hike proposal gets Senate panel’s approval


A proposal to let Pima County voters decide whether to double their transportation taxes cleared a key hurdle Wednesday despite a plea by one area senator to his colleagues to quash the plan.

Current law allows the county’s Regional Transportation Authority to impose a one-half cent sales tax for road projects. HB 2109 would empower the board to seek a full penny when it asks voters in the next few years to extend the levy.

The 5-3 vote by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Public Safety came despite arguments that Pima County should not be permitted to increase the burden on taxpayers because it has not properly spent money it already is getting for roads. That includes claims that the county has spent its share of state highway funds on everything from a bowling alley to soccer fields and a memorial for the victims of the 2011 attack that killed six and seriously wounded Gabrielle Giffords.

County Manager Chuck Huckelberry had his own take on the assertions.

“When you can’t win an argument with logic, you just make stuff up,” he said.

Huckelberry said the Golden Pins bowling alley on Miracle Mile was purchased with general fund dollars to convert it to a county service center. The memorial, he said, is being constructed solely with private donations, though the county did the archaeology work because it’s on county property.

And those soccer fields, he said, are financed by taxes on rental cars, hotel rooms and revenues from events.

Huckelberry also said foes are confusing unrestricted cash the county gets from vehicle license fees with the Highway User Revenue Fund dollars which can be spent only on specified transportation projects. He said it would be illegal for the county to use HURF dollars on anything else.

And Mike Racy who lobbies for the RTA pointed out that a special audit of existing county bonds, ordered by the Legislature, found that the money raised was spent in accordance with what voters authorized.

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

That did not deter Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who told committee members that it makes no sense to allow an even higher tax on Pima County residents – even one they would have to approve at the ballot box – given what he said is an already high debt and questions about where already-approved dollars have gone.

He also claimed that Pima County’s total long-term debt equals about 70 percent of the total debt of all counties statewide.

That’s true, Racy acknowledged, but said it paints only part of the picture.

He said that $1.2 billion figure for the Pima debt – one he said is out-of-date anyway – reflects on the fact that Pima County actually has more people living in unincorporated areas than any other county. That means the county is responsible for funding urban-style improvements, like parks, which in a place like Maricopa County are more likely to be handled by one of the dozens of incorporated communities.

The fight has pitted key elements of the business community against some Republicans. That includes not just Leach but Supervisor Ally Miller and Christopher King, an elected GOP precinct and state committeeman and a member of the party’s state executive committee.

“This is not just wrong,” he told lawmakers. “It is pure evil.”

That divide is likely to play out again on the streets of Pima County if the measure authorizing a vote on a higher tax gets approval of the full Senate where it now goes.

But the proposal also picked up opposition from the town of Marana. Lobbyist Lourdes Peña said that representatives of her community were not directly involved in the stakeholder meetings that led to this legislation.

And there was something else.

“While we understand the needs for additional funding, we understand that this bill could potentially enable a significant tax increase for our taxpayers in our town,” Peña said. “And we cannot support a proposal that does not outline or provide us any insurance of what the spending plan will be moving forward.”

As to the first half of that argument, Leach said that adding a half-cent to the road tax would raise the overall sales tax rate in Marana to 8.6 percent. And on top of that, he said, the town is facing some costs for dealing with pollution that ruined two wells, with the $15 million cost of that expected to add another four-tenths of a cent on top of that.

Ted Maxwell, president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, told senators they need to focus on what is – and is not – in the legislation.

“This is not a tax increase and this is not enabling Pima County government,” he said. “It’s enabling the Regional Transportation Authority” which is composed of elected officials from all governments within the county, all having an equal vote on the board when it comes to creating a plan for how tax dollars will be spent.

Maxwell said that any plan has to get approval of not just the RTA board but also the county supervisors. And then it goes on the ballot where there would be two separate votes, one for the higher levy and one to approve the spending plan.

“What we’re asking for is self-determination,” he said, pointing out that 13 of the other 14 counties in the state already have this authority.

Robert Medler, vice president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, argued that a higher tax is needed to improve the economic health of the area.

“We have to create wealth in our community,” he said. “But it doesn’t just happen.”

Medler said that the chamber and allied entities have regular interactions with corporate officials who are involved in selecting sites for new or expanded businesses.

One of their big issues, he said, is having a sufficiently trained workforce. But Medler said that is, in many ways, a national problem.

“And the second is our roads and our infrastructure system, why they don’t pick our region,” he said, with those site selectors instead choosing areas where both are better.

In choosing to vote for the plan – and against what Leach had argued – Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said it sounds to him like any problems that do exist are with Pima County. He said all indications are that the separate RTA is functioning well.

But Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said that’s missing the point. He said that what appears to be happening is that the RTA wants the ability to increase what it can raise in taxes amid questions of whether Pima County is spending its own money properly.

“I believe we’re not dealing with the responsibility of government to use taxpayer money wisely,” Farnsworth said.

Political newcomer among leaders in campaign fundraising for legislature

Political newcomer Aaron Lieberman, a Democrat running for the House in Legislative District 28, far out raised the competition in just 30 days.

Lieberman, a first-time candidate, reported raising $127,284 from more than 180 contributors since he started collecting campaign contributions on June 1, according to his campaign finance report filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

Not only is that more than what the three other candidates in the LD28 House race raised during the second quarter of 2018, it’s also more than what was raised by any other legislative candidate during the same time period.

To date, only incumbents Kate Brophy McGee, Heather Carter, Sean Bowie, Karen Fann, Vince Leach, and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who all launched their campaigns months before Lieberman did, have raised more money than him.

Aaron Lieberman
Aaron Lieberman

Campaign finance reports for the second quarter of 2018, which spans April 1 to June 30, were due July 16.

Lieberman’s campaign coffers were heavily bolstered by out-of-state contributions from a large built-in national fundraising network of people in the education and health fields in which he used to work.

Lieberman, whose background is in early childhood education, started an early childhood education nonprofit called Jumpstart with three others during his time at Yale. The organization provides language and literacy programming to preschool-aged children in underserved communities in 14 states and Washington, D.C.

Following his time at Jumpstart, Lieberman started his own company, Acelero Learning, which helps communities run Head Start programs.

He also served as the CEO of the Phoenix Spine Surgery Center, which his brother owns, for two years, and he now works as a consultant for various education organizations.

Lieberman said the relationships he built during his time at these organizations helped boost his fundraising numbers.

“I spent 20 years working closely with a broad group of people to help improve the lives of underserved families. I reached out to that group, close friends and relatives, told them this is what I’m working on now and they were more than willing to help based on my track record,” he said.

Out-of-state contributions include a $5,100 contribution from Melissa Polaner, executive director of iMentor NYC, a volunteer mentoring organization, and a $5,000 contribution from Steven Dow, executive director of CAP Tulsa, an early childhood education group.

Lieberman also received sizable contributions from valley contributors, including $5,100 from Matthew Pittinsky, CEO of Scottsdale-based Parchment Inc., which provides transcripts, diplomas and certificates digitally; $4,000 from relative Amy Lieberman, a social worker at a local school district, and $2,550 each from physicians Yara Vargas Ortiz and Tutankhamen Pappoe.

He also raised $18,700 through personal and family contributions, including $5,100 he self-funded.

Lieberman moves into the next reporting period with $119,041 on hand after spending $8,242.

Kathy Petsas, a Republican candidate for the House in LD28,  who began collecting campaign contributions just a few weeks before Lieberman, reported raising $53,965, including $10,600 she funneled into her campaign coffers, during the second quarter.

Petsas reported receiving $2,750 from political action committees, including $500 each from the Cox Political Action Committee, Realtors of AZ PAC and the Arizona Chapter of NAIOP Inc AZPAC.

Her biggest contributions came from family members John Pappas, who contributed $5,100, Angeline Pappas, who contributed $4,500, and Nicholas Petsas, who contributed $1,000.

After spending $8,104, Petsas is left with $45,860 on hand.

Incumbent Reps. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, and Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, reported raising $30,031 and $20,105, respectively, during the second quarter of 2018.

To date, Butler has raised $103,749 while Syms has raised $87,011. They move into the primary election with $76,772 and $64,048 on hand, respectively.

Politicians weigh in on ballot measures

This April 11, 2018, photo shows a sign directing voters to an early-voting location in Surprise, Ariz. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs settled a lawsuit with the Navajo Nation by adopting an elections procedure that allows counties five days to fix early ballots that don’t match signatures on file or are missing signatures. PHOTO BY ANITA SNOW/ASSOCIATED PRESS
This April 11, 2018, photo shows a sign directing voters to an early-voting location in Surprise, Ariz.  PHOTO BY ANITA SNOW/ASSOCIATED PRESS

If you get your advice from Gov. Doug Ducey you’re going to want to vote against at least three of the four measures expected to be on the November ballot.

The governor has submitted statements in opposition to proposals to legalize recreational uses of marijuana, increase taxes on the wealthy to help fund education, and a third with various provisions relating to hospitals and health care.

But he took no position on a fourth ballot measure to give judges more discretion in sentencing.

On marijuana, the governor called what is expected to be on the ballot as Proposition 207 “a bad idea based on false promises,” saying the experience from other states shows it will lead to more highway deaths, dramatic increases in teen drug use and more newborns exposed to marijuana. Anyway, Ducey said, the current system of medical marijuana, approved by voters in 2010 “is serving the people who need it for health-related reasons.”

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey

Ducey is not alone, particularly on the issue of whether Arizonans should be able to legally buy and possess marijuana for personal use. The Secretary of State’s Office got dozens of arguments from foes.

All those arguments will be placed into publicity pamphlets mailed to the homes of all registered voters.

So will the handful of arguments in favor of the measure, including one from former Gov. Fife Symington III.

“Today the evidence is overwhelmingly clear: criminalizing law-abiding citizens who choose to responsibly consume marijuana is an outdated policy that wastes precious government resources and unnecessarily restricts individual liberty,” he wrote. “A far more logical approach would be to respect the right of adults to choose to consume marijuana while regulating and taxing its production and sale.”

He has at least a passing familial interest in the issue: His son, Fife Symington IV, is managing director of Copperstate Farms, which operates what is believed to be the largest medical marijuana cultivation facility in the state. And those already involved in medical marijuana are going to get first crack at the expanded recreational system if voters approve.

The pamphlet actually contains two arguments by Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, one in favor and one against.

Humble told Capitol Media Services his organization sees the issue through a pair of lenses.

On one hand, he said, there are members of his organization who support the idea of “criminal justice reform,” getting rid of state laws that make it a felony to have any amount of marijuana at all.

Will Humble
Will Humble

“But, on the other hand, there is good evidence that these retail marijuana laws increase access to people under 21,” Humble said. “It’s harmful to adolescents.”

He said voters will get to read both perspectives.

“I’m probably going to vote for it,” Humble said, saying there’s no reason to make felons out of people who have small quantities of marijuana. “Even if they don’t do time for it … part of it is going through being arrested, paying the fees for the court, suffering through the criminal justice system, paying for all those classes they make you take.”

On the other side are Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall and Sheila Polk, her Yavapai County counterpart. The measure also is opposed by Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, whose organization is financing much of the campaign against the initiative.

The proposal to increase income taxes on the state’s top earners, Proposition 210, also drew lots of comments.

Most of the support comes from members of the education community like Joshua Buckley, president of the Mesa Education Association.

“A decade of cuts to education have hit hardest on our state’s most vulnerable population – our children,” he wrote.

And Steve Adams, co-president of the Tempe School Education Association, said the funding is needed to make up for cuts made during the past decade.

“Now is the time for smaller class sizes,” she said. “Now is the time to pay certified teachers a professional salary. Now is the time for all Arizona students to have access to a qualified school nurse, counselor, librarian and support staff who keep them safe and healthy.”

The measure would affect only the top 4% of earners in Arizona, raising the rate only on earnings of more than $250,000 a year for individuals and $500,000 for couples filing jointly. It is billed as raising $940 million a year for K-12 education.

Close-up of child's abacus in classroom.“That’s a whopping amount, especially considering that our economy is recovering from recession and high unemployment,” Ducey wrote. And he said there is no guarantee how much of this actually would wind up in the classroom.

Various business groups also have taken positions against the measure. And state Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said the measure “will result in a huge drag on the overall economy.”

“If we can’t grow the economy, we can’t invest in schools and raise teacher pay,” he argued.

The health care measure, Proposition 208, pulls some of the same interests together in opposition.

It would require a 20% pay hike for hospital workers, impose new infection-control standards on hospitals, provide protections for insured patients against “surprise” medical bills for out-of-network care, and guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can get affordable health insurance.

Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called it part of a “radical agenda” by “out-of-state special interests.” That refers to the fact the measure is being financed by a California chapter of Service Employees International Union.

Glenn Hamer
Glenn Hamer

“Dramatically increasing health care costs at a time when the Arizona economy is struggling with double-digit unemployment rate and record jobless claims will devastate hardworking families and delay the state’s economic recovery,” he said.

But it has support from groups ranging from the Arizona Faith Network and Living United for Change in Arizona to Poder Latinx and the Sky Harbor Lodge 2559 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The lone item Ducey has not weighed in on is Proposition 209, designed to partly reverse laws on mandatory prison terms imposed in 1978 and modify the 1993 “truth in sentencing” law that requires criminals to serve at least 85% of their term before being released.

It also would end the ability of prosecutors to “stack” multiple charges committed by someone before arrest to allow them to have the person designed a repeat offender.

State lawmakers actually approved that change last year only to have it vetoed by Ducey because of what he said where “unintended consequences that may raise from this legislation.”

Dawn Penich-Thacker and Beth Lewis, co-founders of Save Our Schools Arizona, argued that the state now spends more on incarcerating people than in state aid to colleges and universities.

“By emphasizing rehabilitation, reintegration training and smarter sentencing, the Second Chances Act addresses the other side of the school-to-prison pipeline that holds back too many Arizona families,” they said.

But Polk, the Yavapai County attorney, said voters should not dismantle the sentencing code.

“It will, once again, allow many very serious and repeat offenders to serve only half of their sentence before being released back on our streets and into our communities,” she said. And Polk said the current laws ensure that people are sentenced based on their crimes and not “who you are, where you live, and who your sentencing judge is will determine your sentence.”

Preliminary Senate budget defies Ducey’s priorities


A budget proposal from Senate Republican leaders woefully fails to meet Gov. Doug Ducey’s biggest spending and saving priorities, and has isolated some rank-and-file GOP senators who’ve vowed to vote against it.

Draft budget spreadsheets obtained by the Arizona Capitol Times show that senators are unwilling to meet Ducey’s primary objective of boosting the balance of the rainy-day fund to an excess of $1 billion.

Meanwhile, some Republican senators were flabbergasted by a lack of willingness to spend on everything from health care, including $1.6 million the governor requested to end a freeze of access to Arizona’s version of the children’s health insurance program, and higher education, where the Senate provides no new funding to Arizona’s three public universities, compared to the $35.1 million Ducey requested.

“I think it’s the worst budget I’ve seen since 2015,” said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican. “I hate it.”

Ducey’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the governor has been tweeting about his priorities to save and moderate new spending ever since budget documents leaked from the Senate.

“Arizona has learned from the mistakes of the past. We’re not going on a spending spree. We’re making targeted investments in the #ThingsThatMatterAZ,” Ducey tweeted Thursday afternoon.

Across the board, Senate GOP leaders proposed less in spending than Ducey desired, including:

  • $10 million less than the $20 million Ducey sought in grant money for schools to hire resource officers and counselors.
  • $5 million for a teacher’s academy, for which Ducey requested $21 million.
  • $10 million for a Pima Community College aviation center, half of the $20 million Ducey sought.
  • $400,000 to hire new staff at the state Board for Charter Schools, half of the $800,000 Ducey proposed.
  • Zero dollars for the governor’s results-based funding model, a program that provides extra money to high-performing schools, for which Ducey requested $59.7 million.
  • Zero dollars for new school construction, for which Ducey sought $141.3 million in fiscal year 2020.

There’s at least some common ground. The Senate budget provides most of the $35 million the governor requested to provide pay raises to employees at the Arizona Department of Corrections. And there’s $40 million for the first phase of Ducey’s proposal to expand Interstate 17.

But rather than save and spend, Senate Republican leaders focused on a plan to pay off debt while sitting on a cash balance of nearly $500 million.

Senate President Karen Fann has repeatedly stated that paying down debt is a top Republican priority, as lawmakers hope to realize long term savings on interest they would otherwise owe from the sale and lease of certain state-owned property during the Great Recession

Sen. Vince Leach, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, attributed the large cash balance to senators taking a three-year look at the state budget.

“When you get cash in the front, it’s like payday,” the Tucson Republican said. “You get your check and there’s cash on the first and you have to make sure there’s cash on the 30th.”

Leach said there’s consensus for the Senate’s spending plan within the chamber’s Republican Caucus, and cautioned that the budget draft is just a “good start.”

“The Mona Lisa picture, when it was half-painted, didn’t really look very good,” he said.

If Leach and other GOP Senate leaders are counting on consensus among their own members, some senators have made it clear they’re already short the 16 votes they’ll need to approve the spending plan.

Sen. Paul Boyer already announced his opposition to any budget unless lawmakers agree to his proposal to expand opportunities for victims of childhood rape and sexual abuse to sue their assailants.

Brophy McGee told the Capitol Times she won’t support any budget without the funds necessary to ensure Arizona’s KidsCare insurance program will go on once the federal government stops providing 100 percent of the funding necessary to run the program. Lawmakers previously adopted a trigger that freezes KidsCare if federal funding drops below 100 percent – later this year, the federal government will cover only 90 percent of those insurance costs.

All it takes is $1.6 million to cover the difference, but the Senate’s budget provides no funding. Brophy McGee couldn’t fathom why.

“I need to understand how we got to this place,” she said. “I am concerned that the views of all caucus members are not represented.”

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said he won’t vote for the budget if senators go along with Ducey’s plan to change the state’s tax code. Mesnard has been negotiating with Ducey’s staff for months over how to provide some relief to Arizona taxpayers who are impacted by changes in federal tax code, signed into law by President Trump in 2017.

“I told them I’m off the budget. I will not support that. It makes our tax code more progressive,” Mesnard said of Ducey’s plan.

web_mesnard_8699Mesnard said he agrees with Ducey’s proposal to eliminate certain income tax deductions and create new tax credits for dependents and charitable giving. But Mesnard and other Republican lawmakers want to alter the state’s tax brackets.

In early April, Mesnard proposed eliminating three of the state’s five tax brackets, documents show. It’s the best way to provide tax relief for those who used to rely on itemized deductions, he said.

“There has to be an acknowledgement in my view that much of the elimination of deductions or capping deductions happened at the federal on the itemization side. So increasing the standard deduction is fine, but that’s not helping those who are actually enduring most of the tax increase,” Mesnard said. “Collapsing the brackets helps to mitigate that.”

Rep. Ben Toma said he’d be shocked if Ducey’s plan for tax conformity is approved in the Senate given Mesnard’s opposition. And he’d be shocked if all 31 Republicans in the House supported it, either. He certainly won’t.

Lawmakers estimate a $155 million windfall from income taxes Arizonans already filed for this year. The conformity plans would go into effect in 2020, and would provide some relief to taxpayers when filing their 2019 income taxes.

The Senate plans to use that windfall, plus another $35 million in the budget, to buy back certain state buildings. Spending $190 million now would save the state $50 million in interest payments over the next decade, according to budget analysts.

Senate and House Democrats aren’t pleased with the Senate Republican proposal either, and hinted that their own budget priorities may hew more closely to Ducey’s wishes than those of GOP lawmakers.

“Our values are very much aligned with what’s in [Ducey’s] budget: KidsCare, [District Additional Assistance], rainy-day fund. Those issues that were important to the governor are also important to us,” said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma.

Sen. Sean Bowie said Democrats in his chamber are unified against the Senate budget, at least the version that leaked on Wednesday. Democrats won’t stand for a budget that shorts funding for new school counselors, the Phoenix Democrat said.

“There’s a lot wrong with it,” Bowie said. “It doesn’t fund a lot of our priorities.”

Fernandez said she hopes the budget leak is far from a finished product.

“It looked like a really rough draft, very preliminary – hopefully. Maybe that’s wishful thinking because I don’t want to see any of the education [funding] zeroed out or lowered,” she said.

Mesnard said that the budget, as it was leaked, is in fact in the early stages given that it’s “very narrow in who it’s trying to please” – and that’s certainly not Democrats.

The budget is probably aimed mostly at pleasing Sen. David Gowan, a Sierra Vista Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, “and maybe some of the leadership,” Mesnard said.

The reaction from rank-and-file Republican senators is telling, Mesnard added.

Redistricting panel finishes legislative maps

Members of the Independent Redistricting Commission voted Wednesday 3-2 to adopt maps that are likely to preserve the Republican edge in the Arizona Legislature for the rest of the decade. 

The 3-2 vote came over the objections of Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman, the two Democrats on the panel. Erika Neuberg, who is a political independent and chairs the commission, sided with the two Republicans. 

Based on voter registration, the plan creates 13 likely “safe” districts for Republicans and 12 for Democrats. At least four of the other five have registration differences of only a few points which Neuberg said makes them politically competitive. 

Lerner, however, reads the available data, including results of prior elections, to effectively give Republicans a 17-13 edge. And that, she said, is unfair given that Republicans currently control just 16 of the 30 Senate seats and 31 of 60 House seats. 

She made some efforts before Wednesday’s vote to alter several lines in ways she said would create more competitive districts. That included redrawing the lines in north Phoenix in a way that she said would better unite the Deer Valley community and make the district more evenly split politically. 

But those were rejected by Neuberg who said that she would entertain only minor alterations. 

Lerner’s frustrations, which she expressed multiple times as the final legislative and congressional maps were being crafted, finally boiled over Wednesday when it became clear that Neuberg would side with Republicans David Mehl and Douglas York. 

She said that Neuberg has sided with Republicans more often than not on changes sought to the maps. 

Neuberg has not disputed that but said it has to do with a “fundamental difference that we have in terms of interpreting our constitutional mandate.” And that includes Neuberg’s argument that while the panel is required to create as many politically competitive districts as possible, that is only to the extent that it does not interfere with other guidelines like following political and geographic boundaries as well as what she interprets as “communities of interest.” 

That explanation didn’t wash with Lerner. 

She pointed specifically to how draft maps sought to create a legislative district that encompassed the Tucson suburban communities of Marana, Oro Valley and Casas Adobes. As crafted, that would have been a politically competitive district. And she said it kept the district within specific school districts, reflecting that requirement for honoring communities of interest. 

What emerged in the final map as Legislative District 17 excluded Casas Adobes and instead extended a line around the Catalina Mountains to pick up Republican areas of east Tucson and Tanque Verde. 

And if that wasn’t bad enough, Lerner said there is evidence that Republican Sen. Vince Leach, who lives in the southern Pinal Saddlebrooke subdivision and currently represents the area, was involved in behind-the-scenes lobbying to have the Southern Arizona Leadership Council propose — and the commission to adopt — the design of LD 17 to make it a safe Republican district. 

There were other tweaks made to the legislative maps designed to help GOP incumbents. 

One change sought by Republicans on the commission moved the unincorporated community of Liberty, outside of Buckeye, from Democratic dominated Legislative District 23 into safe Republican Legislative District 25. Among the approximately 600 residents affected are Republican state Sen. Sine Kerr. 

And a line was moved just Wednesday to put Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff into safely Republican Legislative District 7, moving her residence on West Historical Route 66 out of heavily Democratic Legislative District 6. 

Republican David Mehl, who pushed the change, initially declined to answer questions about the reason. But when pushed, he sidestepped the question, saying it was done to help efforts by Watchman to improve the percentage of Native American voters in LD 6. 

Lerner did not dispute that it did help strengthen Navajo voting strength. But she said that’s not the entire story. 

“He came over to me and he said, ‘I’d like to make this change for a friend of mine who asked me to make this change,’ ” she recalled of her conversation with Mehl. Lerner said she agreed. But she pursued the matter a bit. 

“I said, ‘Don’t tell me if it’s for an incumbent,’ ” Lerner continued. “And he said, ‘Then, I won’t tell you.” 

Those political considerations were not unusual before 2000 when state lawmakers — and specifically, the majority party — crafted the decennial changes in the legislative and congressional lines. 

That year, however, voters created the Independent Redistricting Commission with the specific goal of trying to remove some of the political influence. It requires lines be drawn based on factors like equal population, honoring geographic and political boundaries, protecting communities of interest and creating as many competitive districts as possible to the extent that does not harm the other criteria. 

And the constitutional rules for its operation specifically say “the places of residence of incumbents or candidates shall not be identified or considered.” 

The moving of lines to accommodate candidates, Lerner said, gets added to what she said was a legally flawed process. 

“This map does not meet the constitutional criteria, one of which is the partisan bias,” she said. 

But Lerner stopped short of saying that the maps are subject to being challenged in court. 

“I have no idea,” she said. “That is not my purview.” 

The Arizona Democratic Party and the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, however, wasted no time in putting out their own criticism and raising the specter of litigation. 

“These maps do not reflect the increasingly competitive nature of our state,” the statement read. “We will examine every legal remedy available to fight for fair and competitive maps.” 

Neuberg, for her part, said there’s a reason that so many of the districts have a Republican slant. And the reason, she said, is the federal Voting Rights Act which the commission is legally bound to follow. 

It forbids changes in election laws — and district lines — that dilute the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice. And given the voting patterns of Hispanic and tribal communities, Neuberg said that required the commission to effectively pack those minority districts with Democrats. 

“When you honor the VRA and you take out what is a huge proportion of the Democratic population because it happens to align with those minority interests, we’re left with a state that is so disproportionately R-leaning,” she said. 

Mehl said he was pleased with the result. 

“I think this map is a terrific map for the state of Arizona,” he said. And he specifically defended how LD 17 was crafted, saying it creates “balanced representations” with two districts that represent the core of Tucson. 

York said the maps do their best to combine communities of interest, even those separated by distance. He specifically cited LD 23. 

“The community of interest in San Luis, Somerton share interests with the Hispanic farming communities of Avondale and Glendale,” York said. And he said it made sense to combine Yuma in LD 25 with the Buckeye area based on “the economic driver of agriculture.” 

But Lerner said some communities of interest were ignored, citing the refusal of her colleagues to put the Verde Valley community into a legislative district with Flagstaff as it has been for the past decade. Instead it was combined with the rest of Yavapai County. 



Rep. Roberts resigns, cites family reasons

roberts21-22Rep. Bret Roberts is resigning as of Sept. 30.

Roberts, R-Maricopa, has represented District 11, which includes parts of Pinal and rural northern Pima counties, since 2019. He announced his resignation Wednesday evening in a tweet and in a short letter to Speaker Rusty Bowers, without giving a reason. Roberts didn’t immediately return a call Wednesday.

“For all those inquiring, after much consideration this decision was made merely on the basis that it is best for our family,” Roberts tweeted after several users asked why he was stepping down.

In his resignation letter, Roberts said it was an honor to serve.

“I wish you nothing but the best going forward, and I am confident that the House will continue to do the people’s work on behalf of all Arizonans.”

Roberts’ replacement for the 2022 session will be named by Pinal County supervisors, who will either pick from three candidates recommended by the district’s precinct committeemen if there are more than 30 committeemen in the legislative district, or appoint a citizen panel to recommend three names for supervisors to choose from otherwise.

In a written statement, Bowers called Roberts “a strong, consistent champion for the House Republican Caucus and residents of Legislative District 11. I appreciate his service to the House and the State of Arizona. He will be missed.”

Roberts’ seatmate, Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, is running for election to Secretary of State rather than his House seat. District 11 Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, has filed to run for re-election. One Democrat and two other Republicans have filed statements of interest to run for House in the district.

Retired Marine takes early lead in LD11 Dem primary

JoAnna Mendoza
JoAnna Mendoza

Retired Marine JoAnna Mendoza is winning the chance to take on Sen. Vince Leach, R-Oro Valley.

Mendoza has a lead of nearly 14 percentage points in early voting results over retired teacher Linda Patterson. It’s an uphill fight to November, as Legislative District 11 is dominated by Republicans.

Mendoza told the Arizona Capitol Times she caught election results at home, while watching cartoons and eating takeout with her young son — a very different environment than what she would have expected in a pre-COVID-19 election cycle. Her campaign will continue as is despite the tough odds of winning a race as a Democrat in LD11. 

“Our campaign has always been about people and our communities,” she said. “Those were always my intentions for running, and we’re still keeping that message. People in our district deserve elected leadership who care about them, who are going to take the time to listen.”

Mendoza grew up in an impoverished family of  farmworkers in Eloy, enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 and then served in the Marine Corps for the remainder of her 20 years in the military, including two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.

Patterson, a retired high school principal from Oregon who moved to Tucson in 2004, contracted COVID-19 during a mid-March campaign event and spent nearly a month sidelined by the illness.

The two candidates clashed during their primary campaign, with Patterson criticizing Mendoza for running with traditional financing and Mendoza accusing Patterson of racism after Patterson referred to undocumented immigrants as “those people.” Patterson said in a now-deleted Facebook post Mendoza “pulled the race card on me by taking a remark out of context” when she spoke up about it during a Zoom meeting.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include additional remarks in which Patterson defended herself against accusations of racism. 

Sen. Leach drops request to probe Tucson’s vaccine mandate


Tucson is no longer in danger of being financially penalized for its vaccine mandate program. 

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, has withdrawn his request that Attorney General Mark Brnovich investigate whether part of the city’s policy of requiring all employees to be inoculated runs counter to state law. The move most immediately means that Tucson avoids the threat of having Brnovich order the state treasurer to withhold more than $100 million in state revenue sharing dollars. 

But Leach told Capitol Media Services on Monday the underlying issue is far from dead. He said that other pending federal litigation over vaccine mandates overshadows — and could ultimately affect — his specific complaint about the refusal of the city to grant religious exemptions to any worker who seeks one. 

Leach isn’t the only one who apparently has given up on forcing Tucson to alter its policies. An aide to Gov. Doug Ducey said there has been no follow up to a complaint sent to the city last month by Anni Foster, the governor’s legal counsel, warning Tucson that what it was doing runs afoul of a new state law that took effect on Sept. 29. 

All of that means Tucson can continue its mandate without fear of financial penalty — and it need not alter how it deals with requests for religious exemptions — at least for now. 

At the heart of the issue is the decision of the council in August to require the city’s more than 4,000 workers to be vaccinated or face a five-day unpaid suspension. 

The city stayed enforcement in September after Brnovich said the move would violate a new state law banning vaccine mandates by government agencies. 

Since then, however, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper voided that statute, ruling it — and some others — had been illegally enacted. That decision was upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court. 

But what was not before Cooper and not overturned was another provision that says all employers “shall provide a reasonable accommodation” when a worker seeks an exemption based on a claim of a “sincerely held religious belief.” 

Foster, in her letter to the city, said the problem with the city’s policy is it says that employee may “request” a religious accommodation, and that that there will be an “interactive process” to “determine precise limitations.” She contends the statute really gives the city no choice. 

Leach then used that letter to demand Brnovich to investigate. He echoed Foster’s contention that once a worker makes an assertion of a sincerely held religious belief, the city cannot question it. 

What gives Leach his power is a 2016 law that not just allows lawmakers to demand an inquiry but forcing Brnovich to investigate within 30 days. More to the point, that law says if Brnovich finds a local law or policy is contrary to state law, he can order the state treasurer to withhold certain revenue sharing dollars. 

But Tucson was not giving up without a fight. 

In a letter to the attorney general’s office, City Attorney Mike Rankin said the section of law that both Foster and Leach are citing simply doesn’t apply to the city. In fact, he said, it can’t. 

It starts, he said, with the fact that the language about providing an accommodation to workers who claim a religious exemption itself has an exemption if doing so would pose more than a minimal cost “to the operation of the employer’s business.” 

“The city of Tucson — and any municipal or county government — is not engaged in a ‘business,’ ” Rankin wrote. 

And there’s more. 

He pointed out that lawmakers tried to ban cities from imposing any sort of vaccine mandate, at least until that law was struck down. 

“How can the legislature have intended the law to require the city to provide a religious accommodation for a requirement that … the legislature intended to prohibit the city from imposing in the first place?” he asked. 

And Rankin suggested that if Brnovich pushed the issue, he could wind up back in court. Rankin said that, as the city sees it, the language on religious exemption was as illegally enacted — and is as void — as the other provisions that Cooper already declared illegally adopted. 

Leach, in explaining his decision to withdraw his demand for an investigation, said it became clear that the legal issues are far too complex to try to get a definitive ruling from Brnovich within the 30-day window in which the law requires him to act. 

“It wasn’t going to be a clear picture,” he said. 

Tucson Mayor Regina Romero told Capitol Media Services the provision at issue never should have been enacted in the first place. 

“I wish that our state legislators and governor would spend as much time on the numerous issues facing our state, including the current rise in COVID-19 cases, as they do trying to micromanage the city of Tucson,” she said. 

“They knew this was a futile effort all along without any legal merit,” Romero continued. Stop wasting our time and taxpayer dollars.” 

Romero said that as of the council meeting last week, 88% of city workers were vaccinated. When adding in those who received exemptions, that brings compliance up to 98%, leaving just 86 employees in violation. 

“The city of Tucson’s vaccine policy has proven to be overwhelmingly effective in increasing our vaccination rate and protecting the community we serve,” she said. 

Leach said the withdrawal of his complaint doesn’t mean Tucson gets to keep its vaccine mandate. He pointed out there are other cases about vaccine requirements pending in federal court. 

Those lawsuits, however, challenge various actions by the Biden administration. That includes a vaccine mandate for federal employees and contractors as well as a new rule by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandating either vaccination or regular testing of workers of any company with more than 100 workers. 

But even if the challengers win, neither is likely to affect the city’s own decision or force the council to rescind its own mandate. 

What that leaves is the possibility that lawmakers will try to re-enact the ban on vaccine requirements for government workers when the legislature convenes in January. 

In voiding that requirement in September, Cooper never reached the legal question of whether lawmakers have the power to preclude such local orders. Instead, she concluded only that the method they used to approve the ban was unconstitutional because they tacked it on to unrelated legislation and did not properly inform the public of its insertion into the bill. 


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 passes bill to regulate public school property sales

Lockers in empty high school corridor

Five years ago Tucson Unified School District sold a no-longer-needed building to a developer for $1.6 million, $400,000 less than offered by a Christian school.

On Tuesday, state senators voted to block Tucson schools – and any other district – from doing that ever again.

The 17-12 party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate came over the objections of Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. He said these decisions should be left to local school boards who can best determine the needs of the community.

But Quezada acknowledged that at least part of the reason he is opposed is because it effectively puts a school district in the position of helping a competitor for students and the dollars that come with them.

HB 2460 actually has its roots in the desire of the Desert Christian School in Tucson, which had been conducting classes at a local church, to find its own home. John O’Hair who was headmaster of the school in the 2008-2009 school year told lawmakers during a hearing earlier this year that he had his eye on some property at Wrightstown and Harrison roads on the city’s far east side.

As it turned out, he said, the Tucson district was selling off its no-longer-needed Wrightstown Elementary School, about a quarter mile up the road. O’Hair said it made more sense to buy that property and upgrade the school rather than build a new one from scratch.

O’Hair said he approached district officials with an offer of $2 million, only to be ignored for a year and a half.

“We had to get going,” he said, with the school going back to the original property.

What annoyed O’Hair is that a year later the district ended up selling off the 9.2 acre parcel — for $1.6 million for residential development.

“It was frustrating,” he told lawmakers.

The legislation which already has passed the House and now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey, would spell out that when a district offers a building or even part of a building for sale or lease, it cannot accept an offer from a potential buyer or tenant “that is less than an offer from a charter school or private school.”

Nothing in HB 2460 requires a school district to sell or rent to anyone. But the bill says that once a property is offered for sale a lease, the district cannot pull it off the market “solely because a charter school or private school is the highest bidder.”

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, the sponsor of the legislation, was undeterred by the prospect that the former public school could end up in the hands of an organization that would, in effect, erect its own sign and seek to enroll some of the students in the neighborhood who otherwise would be going to public schools. He said it’s just the way the world works.

“You go to auto malls and you see every day the sign truck is there and taking down ‘Chevrolet’ and putting up ‘Ford,’ ” Leach said.

“That happens every day in the business world,” he continued. “You see every day an office building that’s got ‘Cigna’ on it and the next day it’s got ‘State Farm’ on it.”

And Leach said once a school district has declared a building vacant and no longer needed “you should sell it to the highest bidder.”

That mandate drew concerns from Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix. She said she has no concern if the sale to a specified buyer will be “good for kids.”

“We have to be fair,” she said. “We can’t just come in forcing the public school district to take something that may not be the best for kids.”

That drew a sharp reaction from Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.

“Districts can’t decide that,” she said.

“They can’t decide that that is not going to be good for kids because they’re afraid of the competition,” Allen said. She said the legislation is simply a requirement to allow charter and private schools to participate in the bidding “and not be excluded because of the prejudice against charter schools among the districts.”

Anyway, Allen said, the legislation does not require accepting a bid from a charter or private school if district officials have a legitimate reason.

“If you don’t want a high school there because you’ve got grade school kids close, and you don’t want to sell to them for that, that would be a reason,” she said, one that would remain legal even if HB 2460 becomes law.

And Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who supports the legislation, said there is another escape clause of sorts in the legislation.

For example, he said, a district could decide to accept a lower bid from someone who plans to make the property into a community center. The only thing that HB 2460 would bar, Smith said, is refusing to sell solely because of the identity of the buyer.

Leach also reassured colleagues that nothing forces a district to sell a vacant building. He said they can hang on to them if they have reason to believe that a change in the neighborhood will result in a future need for the building as a school.

Tucson Unified School District took no position on the legislation during various hearings. Lobbyist John Kelly said the district was not interested in interceding as it has no plans to sell off other buildings.

In 2011, however, when several charter schools were sniffing around some closed TUSD properties, then-Superintendent John Pedicone said he did not like the idea of negotiating with them.

“When you consider selling to an organization that may be in competition with you, that requires careful consideration because you lose that asset, and sometimes a fast dollar may not be the best investment,” he said at the time. “We have to balance the value to the district and the value to the community.”

There was no immediate response from Gabriel Trujillo, the district’s current superintendent.

Senate passes new restrictions on initiative circulators

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)
(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Republican senators voted Wednesday to impose new requirements on initiative circulators in a way one Democrat said is designed to make it easier for special interests to quash future ballot measures.

Existing laws require certain people who circulate petitions to register with the Secretary of State. That includes anyone who is not an Arizona resident and all paid circulators, regardless of where they are from.

SB 1451 would mandate that these people provide a telephone number and email address. It also says that when petitions are filed with the Secretary of State that they must be grouped by circulator.

But the real key is that failure to do any of this means that any petitions collected by a circulator are not counted, regardless of whether the signatures are valid. Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said that amounts to “disenfranchisement.”

“In all the committee hearings, no one has attempted to argue that the signatures that would be tossed out as a result of this bill aren’t 100 percent valid,” he argued during floor debate.”

“Nobody testified that the voters who signed the initiative petitions did not intend for the valid signatures to help put that proposal on the ballot and give all Arizonans an opportunity to vote for it,” Quezada continued. “This is clearly and blatantly and expressly an effort to increase the ability of special interest groups to litigate these initiative measures on purely technical deficiencies.”

The measure is being pushed by Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, who did not defend it during Wednesday’s vote.

But this isn’t the first bid by Leach, backed by business interests that tend to oppose voter-crafted ballot measures, to impose new regulations.

Two years ago he pushed through a measure banning the practice of paying circulators based on the number of signatures they collect. And this year he is sponsoring a measure to require that circulators get signatures in all 30 legislative districts.

GOP lawmakers have added other requirements, including one that overruled a state Supreme Court decision that initiative petitions need be only in “substantial compliance” with the laws, a standard that allows for technical flaws. Now the law spells out that courts can void petition drives if there is not “strict compliance” with all laws.

Leach also was a plaintiff in a lawsuit financed by Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent of Arizona Public Service, that sought to keep a measure off the ballot last year that would have increased the amount of electricity that utilities have to produce from renewable sources. That lawsuit failed, though voters eventually rejected the initiative.

Quezada specifically mentioned that lawsuit Wednesday, saying that the court hearing the case had five days of arguments, admitted 5,500 exhibits and subpoenaed 1,180 witnesses – only to have the challenge fail.

What all that suggests, he said, is this new bill “is clearly a demonstration of a search for purely technical reasons to disqualify circulators.”

This measure has the backing of the state and several local chambers of commerce who have been unable to stop voters from approving measures they do not like. Most recently that included boosting the state minimum wage from $8.05 an hour in 2016 to $11 now, going to $12 next year.

Wednesday’s 17-13 party-line vote sends the measure to the House.


Senate to consider school district consolidation proposal


Saying too much money is wasted on duplication, state lawmakers took the first steps April 2 to force consolidation of the more than 200 school districts in the state.

And the combinations could occur without voter approval.

The proposal by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, would eliminate any separate elementary and high school districts that now exist. Instead, they automatically would become unified districts no later than July 1, 2024.

But HB 2139, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, does not stop there.

It would require every school board in the state to annually determine how much money could be saved by not just unification but also with consolidation with other adjacent districts.

In fact, it spells out that in the smaller population counties, those with just three supervisors, there could be no more than three school districts. Most counties with five supervisors could have up to seven districts while Maricopa County could have no more than 20.

Fillmore’s bill provides a carrot for governing boards that can come up with their own consolidation plans without taking it to voters, allowing them to spend more money than would otherwise be allowed for up to three years.

But balking appears not to be an option.

HB 2139 says if the governing boards don’t come up with a plan by June 30, 2022 to unify and consolidate, then the county school superintendent is directed to come up with a plan. And it spells out that any such plan “shall be executed without an election.”

The issue, Fillmore said, comes down to dollars and cents.

“When people have said to me that schools have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money,” he said. “What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely.”

Fillmore, who is a business owner, said it comes down to running the state education system more like that.

“If we did some consolidation, got rid of the redundancy, duplication and excess waste in the districts, we could have the opportunity to save … I believe hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. In fact, he prepared his own study pegging the total savings at $506 million out of about $7.8 billion now spent each year in state and local funds for operation and maintenance.

Fillmore said this isn’t just a way of cutting state spending, saying his legislation would allocate 25 percent of whatever is saved for teacher salaries.

What is bothering some of the foes – and even some of the supporters – is the mandate.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, said voters in his area have made decisions about how they want their schools organized. He said there are some unified school districts and a high school district and several elementary districts, with voters in some areas preferring smaller districts versus huge unified districts.

“I would be concerned about circumventing voters and circumventing the taxpayers when they’ve clearly made decisions of whether they want to be unified or not unified,” Bowie said.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she has no problem with the idea of having school boards study the benefits of consolidation. But Carter, who agreed to support the measure said she won’t vote for it when it gets to the floor if the mandates remain.

Fillmore said that mandate is only partly true.

“In my bill, I’ve given them the opportunity to go out for a vote if they want to,” he said, with the financial reward of consolidation and unification without going through that process.

But Fillmore said that it’s going to take more than a simple nudge to get the desired results.

He pointed out there already are opportunities for school districts to unify and consolidate. And there even are some financial incentives for those who pursue that path.

“But they don’t,” he said.

Efforts to force the issue have been discussed for more than a decade.

In 2001, for example, a Senate panel approved a measure creating an independent commission empowered to consolidate the more than 200 school districts in the state to no more than 90. Those that refused would be denied state aid.

It died after officials from some smaller districts argued against the presumption that small is bad and wasteful.

Five years later a special School District Redistricting Commission created by the Legislature proposed at least forcing a vote in each district on consolidation. But that failed to produce the desired results.

But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said it is worth pursuing what Fillmore is proposing.

He said there is little evidence that the state – and the students – are better served with more than 200 districts, citing the experience in Utah which has half as many districts, spends less per student and still has higher test scores.

Fillmore said if the consolidation takes place it will be a net political benefit.

“After my bill is done and these schools are consolidated and they’ve saved that money, that argument can never be used by people like me as a Republican that the schools have too much money because the schools will have made the adjustments necessary,” he said.

The measure now goes to the full Senate where it faces an uncertain future.

By the numbers:

Elementary school districts — 97 with 434 schools

High school districts — 15 with 70 schools

Unified districts — 95 with 707 elementary schools, 143 high schools and 73 combined schools

Accommodation districts — 8 with 5 elementary schools, 9 high schools and 7 combined schools

– Source: Arizona Department of Education

Some GOP lawmakers vote solid red, support caucus bills

The following story is the fifth of five to be published over two weeks based on voting data the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting pulled for the 2017 legislative session. The nonprofit group analyzed the number of floor votes that each lawmaker cast the same as every other lawmaker. The result is a first of its kind look at voting patterns between Arizona legislators, revealing alike votes and disparities – some known anecdotally, others not seen before – between lawmakers, at times regardless of party affiliation. Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting set a minimum threshold of 230 alike votes in the House of Representatives and 435 alike votes in the state Senate to gauge how often lawmakers vote alike with one another.

The threshold could be expanded or shrunk, but think of the analysis like a microscope: zooming in too close, or not far enough, won’t reveal anything of interest. Finding the right magnification, or in this case, the right threshold of alike votes in each chamber, produces significant results and visualizes alike votes among legislators.

It’s a numbers game at the Arizona Capitol. Lawmakers need 31 yes votes in the House of Representatives and 16 votes in the Senate to get bills approved.

Nothing makes that task easier for GOP-sponsored bills than a reliable Republican.

Representatives like Vince Leach, R-Tucson, and Don Shooter, R-Yuma, and Sens. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix and John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, are among the Republicans most faithful to their own caucus when it comes to voting, according to an analysis by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

In graphs depicting the voting patterns of the 2017 legislative session, their deep red dots indicate a propensity for voting alike with members of their own GOP caucus, and a distaste for bipartisan voting. That’s a contrast to some Republican lawmakers, and Democrats, who are lighter shades of red and blue, indicating they don’t always agree with legislators in their own party.

Their party loyalty can be ascribed to a variety of reasons: their seniority at the Capitol, and their positions as committee chairs. In the House, Leach and Shooter are “kind of in another layer of the leadership team,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, a Coolidge Republican who serves as speaker pro tem.

[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each representative HERE.]

In the case of Kavanagh and Shooter, heading the powerful Appropriations committees gives them a de facto leadership role since they control the committee that gets a first say on annual budget proposals, Shope said.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Sen. Don Shooter (R-Yuma) (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

For Shooter, it’s simply a matter of being a “team player” in the Republican Party.

“It’s a team, and that’s the reason I traded (seats) with (Sen. Steve) Montenegro,” said Shooter, who swapped chambers with Montenegro in the 2016 elections – the two represent the same Legislative District 13. “It wasn’t particularly good for me, but it was good for the team so I took one for the team,” he added.

While Shooter also said he casts votes on behalf of the team, that doesn’t mean he’s not voting his conscience or is taking orders from leadership.

“I don’t do a damn thing I don’t want to do,” Shooter said.

It’s actually the caucus that drives leadership, and not the other way around, Kavanagh said.

[Use the interactive data tool created by AZCIR to discover the alike votes between each senator HERE.]

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, smiles as he addresses the legislature in the Arizona House of Representatives at the Arizona Capitol Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Phoenix. The Republican lawmaker wants the state constitution amended to allow cuts to public employee pensions and increases in employee contributions if the systems are badly underfunded. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, smiles as he addresses the legislature in the Arizona House of Representatives at the Arizona Capitol Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“There is no party line. Leadership does a lot of things, but they don’t sit down and decide what we vote for and we all fall in line,” he said. “Leadership has to agree with the caucus, not vice versa.”

With that in mind, Kavanagh attributes his reliably-red voting pattern to a simple truth in Arizona politics.

“We’re a red state, and we’re a conservative, red chamber, and I’m a conservative member,” Kavanagh said. “So it makes sense that I would be solidly conservative and vote with the caucus.”


Find out more about your lawmakers’ voting patterns below:

Swing-district Dems use divergent vote tactics in Legislature

House Dem leader crosses aisle more often than party colleagues

Moderate GOP lawmakers exist in name only, study finds

Small group of Republicans buck their party, vote their conscience

Speaker, some lawmakers resistant to Ducey’s push to end legislative immunity

Rep. Paul Mosley, R-Lake Havasu City, during a traffic stop in La Paz County March 27, in which he allegedly was clocked driving at 97 MPH in a 55 mph zone. The text is a transcription of the audio from the body cam video of the deputy.
Rep. Paul Mosley, R-Lake Havasu City, during a traffic stop in La Paz County March 27, in which he allegedly was clocked driving at 97 MPH in a 55 mph zone. The text is a transcription of the audio from the body cam video of the deputy.

A proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey to abolish so-called legislative immunity is getting some negative reaction from some lawmakers who enjoy its protections — and would have to vote to put it on the ballot for voters to repeal.

Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa)
Rep. Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa)

“It was put here for a reason, by the people, in the constitution,” said House Speaker Rusty Bowers.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez said there are legitimate reasons that lawmakers need protections from being arrested in certain circumstances.

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said the few lawmakers who have abused the immunity have paid the price.

And Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, who has been at the Capitol longer than anyone else, said Ducey’s call to repeal the provision reflects a misunderstanding of exactly what it says — a misunderstanding she said is apparently shared by some legislators who have tried to claim it.

“They think they have carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted,” Alston said.

That occurred last year when Rep. Paul Mosley, R-Lake Havasu City, claimed legislative immunity when he was stopped for speeding. The deputy even has videotape of Mosley claiming he has driven as fast as 140 miles an hour because his legislative immunity allows him to do that.

Not true, said Alston, first elected to the Legislature in 1976.

What it actually says is that lawmakers cannot be arrested during the legislative session or in the 15 days leading up to the session unless they are charged with treason, a felony or “breach of the peace.” Nothing immunizes them from being arrested and prosecuted after the session is over.

The same provision also says lawmakers are not subject to “civil process” during the same period.

Ducey, in his State of the State speech Monday, referred to the provision as “legislative immunity.”

He said one reason people hold members of Congress in contempt is that they exempt themselves from many of the laws they pass.

“Let’s show the people of Arizona that their elected leaders will live under the same laws as every man and woman in this state,” the governor said.

Bowers, however, said he sees no reason to repeal the protection simply because some lawmakers have acted badly and then sought to escape being held accountable.

Leach said the whole idea of the protection is to keep a police officer or sheriff’s deputy from detaining one or two lawmakers whose votes are needed.

“You could render it nonfunctional,” he said of the Legislature if a member were kept away.

Anyway, he said, those who have abused the immunity have paid the price in bad publicity — and more.

“One member didn’t return,” he said, referring to Mosley who lost his re-election bid last year.

Fernandez agreed that the purpose of the provision is to ensure that lawmakers can get to the Capitol without being delayed.

“It wasn’t for me to get out of running a stop sign,” she said. And Fernandez said the fact that a few people have sought to misuse it is insufficient reason to eliminate the protection entirely.

Some lawmakers, however, side with Ducey.

“We’re no better than any of our constituents,” said Senate President Karen Fann.

She said that at one time — anywhere from 50 to 100 years ago — there were “games” played where a legislator might be stopped en route to a vote.

“I don’t think that’s an issue any more,” Fann said. “So it’s about time we got rid of all that.”

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, agreed, saying the days are long past when law enforcement would try to block a lawmaker from coming to the Capitol.

The issue of legislative immunity comes up from time to time.

Rep. David Cook
Rep. David Cook

In December, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, stopped for drunk driving, gave police his House ID card rather than his driver’s license. But there is no indication that Cook claimed he could not be arrested.

Cook later apologized on his Facebook page. And Bowers sanctioned him by abolishing the newly created County Infrastructure Committee that Cook was to chair.

Cook couldn’t say whether he would be comfortable losing legislative immunity.

“I really don’t understand what that legal term means because I wouldn’t, I just don’t know,” Cook said. “I’ll study it a little bit.”

In 2012, Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, claimed legislative immunity to avoid facing charges of domestic violence. He ended up resigning as it appeared his colleagues were going to have him ousted.

A year earlier, Scott Bundgaard, then a Republican state senator from Glendale, was seen by police fighting physically with his girlfriend alongside a Phoenix freeway. When police sought to arrest both, Bundgaard claimed legislative immunity from arrest, allowing him to avoid jail while his companion was locked up for 14 hours.

Before she was governor, Jan Brewer, then a state lawmaker, escaped being charged with drunk driving in 1988 after the vehicle she was driving rear-ended a van on the freeway. While police reports say she failed the field sobriety test, she was not given a breath test after a DPS officer concluded she was entitled to immunity.

In 1995, then state Rep. Phil Hubbard, D-Tucson, argued he was entitled not to be ticketed for driving 14 miles per hour over the speed limit on Interstate 10 because he was en route to a legislative hearing.

And eight years earlier, then Rep. Bill English, R-Sierra Vista, was arrested on a charge of drunken driving. English initially claimed immunity but eventually dropped that defense, was convicted, and paid a $373 fine.

The Breakdown, Episode 6: Details, details


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

After two weeks in one crisis or another, lawmakers really got to work last week, and our reporters dug in.

Whether we’re talking about the Arizona Attorney General’s Office spending about 100 hours on each SB1487 complaint – ouch – concern over Senate President Steve Yarbrough’s STO plan – oh boy – or the battle to be the 8th Congressional District’s most conservative GOP candidate – oy – the Devil’s always in the details.

And this session has only just begun.

Tucson under gun again for vaccine mandate

Tucson again faces a possible financial penalty for its vaccine mandate one day after a senator dropped his request to investigate the city.  

Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, on December 1 asked the Attorney General’s Office to look into Tucson’s mandate under a 2016 law that not just allows lawmakers to demand an inquiry but forcing the attorney general to investigate within 30 days. The law says if the attorney general finds a local law or policy is contrary to state law, he can order the state treasurer to withhold certain revenue sharing dollars. Townsend believes that the city is violating a section of the law protecting employees from vaccination by using religious accommodation. 

Kelly Townsend

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, also filed a complaint against Tucson, but he withdrew his request on November 30. Leach said that although he still believes the mandate violates the law, an investigation by the attorney general would only be overshadowed by an existing federal court case on the same issue. He also said that the 30-day investigation required by the law would not be sufficient to tackle such a complicated legal question. 

Tucson required all city employees to be fully vaccinated against Covid by December 1. According to the city manager, 98% of employees complied with only 86 people unvaccinated without exemption or accommodation. Several other unvaccinated employees did get a religious exemption. Those who do not comply face suspension and termination. 

This is Townsend’s second complaint against Tucson’s mandate this year. The attorney general agreed in its first report on September 7 that Tucson violated state law.  

The law says, “If an employer receives notice from an employee that the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances prevent the employee from taking the COVID-19 vaccination, the employer shall provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship and more than a de minimus cost to the operation of the employer’s business.” 

Attorney General spokesperson Katie Conner sent a link to the complaint form but would not comment further. Attorney General Mark Brnovich has been very vocal about opposing similar vaccine mandates and is currently engaged in a lawsuit against the Biden administration to prevent the vaccine mandate on private employees. 

Townsend did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin wrote a response letter to Leach’s complaint on October 27, calling the religious exemption law a violation of the Arizona Constitution that does not even apply to Tucson but only to private employers engaged in a business. Even if the statute did apply, Rankin said, the mandate already provides religious accommodations, and the city ordinance controls the policy so the Legislature should not be able to interfere.  

“While there is not a particularly high bar for establishing a claimed ‘sincerely held religious belief,’ it certainly requires something more than just sending a note to your employer that says “about that vaccine requirement: no thanks. It’s against my religion.”  

The attorney general’s report will reach one of three conclusions. If the report finds no violation, there will be no further action. If the report finds Tucson may have violated the law, then an action will be filed by the attorney general in the Supreme Court. Finally, if the report finds Tucson has violated the law, the city will get a written notification and has 30 days to resolve their violation.  

If Tucson does not resolve the violation after 30 days, the attorney general will notify the state treasurer who will withhold and/or redistribute money from Tucson. This could mean a serious multi-million-dollar loss. 


Wadsack recall effort fails

A group aiming to recall Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, failed to collect enough signatures by today’s filing deadline, and ultimately did not turn in their signatures to the secretary of state.

Organizer Rolande Baker said her group didn’t fall short because of a lack of appetite for the recall in Legislative District 17 but because they didn’t have enough time to collect signatures.

The Wadsack recall effort began on May 8 and had until Sep.5 to collect 30,981 signatures.

Baker declined to say how many signatures the group did collect. “Thank you for the question, but the number is irrelevant because we didn’t make the mark,” she said in a text. “What would have been relevant would have been to make the mark. We made the decision early on not to speak of the number unless we DID make the mark. I applaud every one of our volunteers for the extraordinary work done during the hottest summer on record.”

Wadsack is confident that she has plenty of support in her district.

“The voters of LD17 don’t want me recalled they want me RE-ELECTED and that’s why not a single signature was turned in. I look forward to serving this beautiful district for years to come,” she said in a text.

“I guarantee you I have more petition signatures to get back on the ballot for Re-election, than they collected to recall me!”

Wadsack is a freshman senator who raised eyebrows in her first legislative session by filing controversial bills to ban certain drag shows, ban books that use “pronouns,” and instruct cities to destroy homeless encampments.

Those bills (and a few others) are listed by the recall effort as the main reason Wadsack – who they call “too extreme” – should be recalled. None of those bills became law.

The group also accuses Wadsack of blocking her constituents on social media and being unresponsive to their attempts to communicate.

Baker maintains that the community has enough people who would want to recall Wadsack, but said timing was 100% the reason they couldn’t get the recall across the finish line.

“Yesterday we were at the Labor Day Picnic at Kennedy Park, not even in LD#17. We had people come to our tent all day, ALL that were in LD#17 DID sign, others WANTED TO AND WERE VERY BUMMED that they COULD NOT when they found out that they were NOT in her district. That happened to us EVERY time we were somewhere getting signatures throughout the 120 days. The word is out about Justine Wadsack and why she must be defeated in November of 2024 and NOT JUST in LD#17,” Baker said in a text.

So far, three people have filed to run for senator in Legislative District 17: Wadsack, former Sen. Vince Leach and Democrat Amy Fitch. The district is heavily Republican and not considered competitive.

Wadsack beat Leach by 2,168 votes in 2022 and survived a residency challenge from his supporters shortly thereafter. Leach was a longtime lawmaker who served in both the House and Senate and now aims to regain his seat.

Democratic consultant and former Executive Director at Pima County Democratic Party Adam Kinsey said he doesn’t think Wadsack is secure in her seat. “Collecting over 30,000 signatures for a recall is difficult for a well-funded organization, and nearly impossible for an all-volunteer effort like this one. But the fact that the recall fell short doesn’t mean Wadsack is safe,” he said in a text.

Kinsey compared Wadsack to former lawmaker Mark Finchem, who lived in her district and ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in 2022 despite high voter turnout.

“I sincerely hope and frankly I expect Sen. Wadsack to take a victory lap and to double down on the extremism that makes her so vulnerable. LD 17 voted against MAGA candidates in ‘22, and I suspect they’ll do so again next year,” Kinsey said.

The district which stretches across northern Pima County and southern Pinal County leans Republican, with 67,267 registered GOP voters at last count compared with 51,041 Democrats.

There are, however, nearly 54,000 who have registered as politically independent.

Recalls are often not successful, at least in part because of the number of signatures required to even call an election. It translates to 25% of the people who turned out in the prior election.

The last legislator successfully removed from office was Senate President Russell Pearce in 2011. That, however, followed his sponsorship of SB 1070 and other far-reaching and controversial legislation to have the state get involved with finding and deporting those not in the country legally.

Even if a recall election against Wadsack had been called, the earliest it could have been held is March 2024 — or possibly as late as May.

And there’s also the fact that a successful recall petition drive would only have scheduled an election, with Wadsack’s name automatically on the ballot against whoever else sought to run against her. And if none of those foes could outpoll her, she would get to keep her job.

Next November, voters will decide for themselves whether they think Wadsack is “too extreme” for the district as Baker’s group says, or whether they stand by their decision to elect her last year.

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.