What you need to know from the budget deal

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on March 10, 2015.

Capitol at night

PHOENIX — By the time the sun rose over the Copper Dome of the state Capitol on Saturday, the House and the Senate passed a budget deal behind the Republican leadership’s blitzkrieg push to get the budget out and onto the governor’s desk.

Gov. Doug Ducey is expected to sign the budget this week. He lauded the Legislature’s budget as a “fiscally-responsible” way to fix the state’s structural deficit and balances the state budget. Arizona has been facing a $1 billion budget deficit.

“If we want to see meaningful and lasting improvement in our schools and economy, government must start living within its means and practicing fiscal responsibility,” Ducey said in a statement.

“This is a budget that reflects our state’s priorities and for that we should all be proud,” he said.

Democrats blasted the cuts in the $9.1 billion budget and the speed at which Republican legislators moved to pass it.

“Arizona’s Republican leaders have avoided making difficult fiscal decisions in this budget,” said Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs in a statement. “Instead, they chose to pass that burden on to counties, cities, schools, universities, hospitals and ultimately on to the backs of middle class Arizona families and the poor.”

House Minority Leader Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said in a statement that Republicans’ quick push on the budget made sure there was “little opportunity for public comment.”

The budget passed by the Legislature over the weekend included changes from the deal introduced into both chambers on March 4. The changes reflect concessions made by Republican leaders to win votes from members and address other concerns to get the budget passed in the shortest time the Arizona Constitution allows.

Higher Education

Despite public outcry, higher education saw just a slight reprieve from funding cuts with the final budget. State universities will face $99 million in cuts, $5 million less than the initial budget deal that came out last week, but still about $22 million more than Ducey initially asked.

The ax will fall on the universities based on enrollment numbers: $53 from Arizona State University, $28.2 million from the University of Arizona and $17.2 million from Northern Arizona University.

University presidents and the Arizona Board of Regents lashed out at the cuts.

“Much has been said about ‘special interests’ in this budget debate,” Regents President Eileen Klein said in a statement. “Our interests are the students, families, employees and citizens who are fighting for a better life.”

The amendment to the main budget bill also allots $2 million to Pinal County community colleges, restoring state funding to the district. Community colleges in Maricopa and Pima counties will still lose all state funding.

K-12 funding

K-12 schools in the state will see an increase in funding by about $102 million. Democrats, however, insist that with inflation and enrollment increases, the new funding still amounts to a net loss.

The budget also removes Ducey’s proposal as a part of his Classrooms First Initiative to shift money from outside the classroom to the classroom. Schools instead are able to spend the new funds without restrictions on where to spend it.

Teachers, students, parents and other education supporters protesting the lack of more funding for schools have become a regular feature at the Capitol in recent days.


The budget increases funding to the Department of Corrections by $34 million, which is less than Ducey’s proposal to increase funding there by $52 million.

Ducey’s call for a contract for a new 3,000-bed private prison also got reduced by legislators to 1,000 in extra beds for prisoners.

The increased funding to prisons inspired protesters in their criticism of lackluster education funding. Some carried signs reading, “I’m worth more than a prisoner” and “Fund education, not private prisons.”

Medicaid and welfare

Arizona’s poor will also take a hit in the budget deal with slashes made to Medicaid and welfare recipients.

The budget reduces the amount of time qualifying Arizonans can stay on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which provides benefits for poor families, from 24 months to 12 months. This would be the shortest lifetime limit in the country.

During overnight debate on the floor regarding the TANF cut, House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, said he didn’t think anyone is happy with what’s in the budget, the cut will ensure there will be money in TANF in the future.

Lawmakers also cut state Medicaid reimbursements by 5 percent, which is a 2 percent increase from what Ducey proposed in January.

No fee increase

The budget scraps Ducey’s proposal to fund the Arizona Highway Patrol by increasing the motor vehicle registration fee by $8. Concerns were raised that the fee hike would amount to a tax increase.

The proposal was intended to stop the sweeps from the Highway User Revenue Fund, intended for roads, to the Department of Public Safety for the Highway Patrol and would have raised about $30 million.

Whipping the votes

House and Senate GOP leaders worked Thursday and Friday to round up votes from detractors within their own ranks.

When the vote came to the floor, Republican Representatives Chris Ackerley of Sahuarita, Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix and Heather Carter of Cave Creek voted against the main budget bill. Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, skipped the floor votes overnight.

In the Senate, Sen. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, voted against the main budget bill and Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, did not show up to vote.

Republicans needed 16 “yes” votes in the Senate to get the budget through. With two members of the 17-members majority breaking ranks, the deciding vote was found in Democratic Sen. Carlyle Begay of Ganado.

The Senate tacked on $1.2 million in transportation funding for Begay’s district and he provided the final vote necessary to pass the budget.

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: March 2-5

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on March 5, 2014.

Budget deal protest

Arizona students attempt to enter the Senate building with their signs to protest the state’s budget on March 5 as the Senate Appropriations Committee met.

PHOENIX — Following closed-door negotiations, Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican House and Senate leaders unveiled a budget deal this week and moved swiftly to push the budget bills through the legislative process.

Late Thursday, it appeared the GOP leadership didn’t have the votes to pass the budget deal, but negotiations continued.

The new $9.1 billion budget proposal drew strong criticism from Democrats and hundreds of protesters to the Capitol on Thursday, including Arizona State University students who marched from the ASU Downtown campus against proposed university cuts.

Budget deal highlights

Lawmakers were briefed Tuesday evening about the budget deal and details began emerging on Wednesday.

Here are some highlights from the deal:

— The new proposal raises cuts to higher education to $104 million, representing about 14 percent of state support. The cuts fall to each university based on enrollment: $56 million to ASU, $30 million to UA and $18 million to NAU.

— All state funding is stripped for community colleges in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, Arizona’s three largest community college districts.

— K-12 schools in the state will see a net increase in funding by about $78 million. The budget still recognizes the Legislature’s settlement offer of $74 million in the K-12 funding lawsuit, rather than the court-order $336 million.

— The Department of Corrections also sees an increase in funding by about $34 million, which is less than Ducey’s proposal of a $52 million increase. The new proposal also reduces Ducey’s call for 3,000 new beds for prisoners to 1,000.

— Medicaid also faces cuts with a 5 percent cut proposed to state reimbursement payments, which would likely shift the costs onto hospitals.

The House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee met Thursday afternoon to hear the budget bills. Protesters interrupted the Senate Appropriations meeting briefly, chanting “They say cut back, we say fight back.”

Friday would be the earliest the budget could pass as the Arizona Constitution requires at least three days for the budget bills to be heard.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Would you like the carry a gun into your local library? The House passed HB 2330, which allows people with valid permits to carry concealed weapons into public buildings and events. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed three incarnations of the legislation during her tenure.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, and other Democrats criticized the legislation on the floor.

“With the history of this legislation, with it having been vetoed three times before, I think we should move on to more important measures,” Friese said. He is a trauma surgeon who treated victims of the 2011 Tucson shooting.

Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, the bill’s sponsor, defended the legislation, calling it a “God-given right” for Arizonans. “This is something that we have inherently,” she said.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, voiced concerns related to the costs of the bill. An entity would be able to keep their buildings weapon-free if it provides security personnel and a screening device at entrances. The Arizona Department of Administration estimated it would cost the agency between $10 million and $16.9 million for the first year and $9.4 million to $15.7 million in subsequent years.

Revenge porn bill redux

Also giving it another try is Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, with his bill to outlaw “revenge porn” in Arizona. HB 2561 would outlaw someone who does not have consent from posting or threatening to post images or videos of someone else from a previous relationship where that person is naked or engaged in sexual acts.

Legal concerns were raised when the Legislature passed a similar bill from Mesnard last year regarding First Amendment rights.

This version passed the House unanimously and moves to the Senate for consideration.

Incentives for Apple

Ducey signed into law a bill that would provide tax incentives to Apple for bringing a $2 billion data center to Arizona.

Apple announced last month that it would be establishing a “global command center” at a facility in Mesa. The Legislature moved quickly to pass the incentives after the announcement, introducing bills in both the House and the Senate before ultimately approving the House version.

“Not only is Apple bringing significant investment and hundreds of quality jobs to our state, but its move also will create a ripple effect — boosting businesses already here,” Ducey said in a statement.

New Secretary of State website

Secretary of State Michele Reagan unveiled a revamped website for azsos.gov this week, which has been plagued with bugs in the past. Reagan said in an introduction video on the website that her office has been working for months to improve the website.

“Our goal is to reorganize the vast amount of information we provide to improve access, greater transparency and make it so you can find what matters to you most quickly and efficiently,” she said in the video.

The website, which posts vote tallies for the state on election night, had technical difficulties the last couple of elections causing frustration among those trying to report results.

Redistricting case at the Supreme Court

Top legislative leaders took Monday off to travel to Washington as the Supreme Court heard arguments in a legal dispute over who controls congressional redistricting in the state.

The case, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, centers on whether the Legislature or a voter-approved commission has the ability to control redistricting within the state. The Arizona Legislature asserts it solely has the authority in the Constitution to redraw the congressional map in the state.

In 2000, Arizona voters passed an initiative to give that redistricting power to an independent commission. Eleven other states have independent redistricting commissions.

Speaker of the House David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, and Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, made the 4,000 round mile trip and returned to Phoenix in time for the budget drama to begin.


New budget deal deepens cuts to Arizona universities

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on March 4, 2015 and in the Daily Wildcat on March 5, 2015.

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey have agreed to a budget that would deepen cuts to state universities by nearly 50 percent in a move that prompted sharp criticism from university supporters.

The new proposal would cut $104 million from Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University, which is about $26 million more than Ducey proposed in his budget in January. The $104 million would represent about a 14 percent reduction in state support for universities.

The cuts are apportioned to each university based on enrollment size. In Ducey’s proposal for $77.5 million in cuts, universities were $40.3 million to ASU, $21 million to UA and $13.1 million to NAU. It’s unclear how much more will be cut to each university under the new proposal as specifics on the new budget deal were not immediately made available.

The new budget would also strip community colleges in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal Counties of all state funding. Ducey’s budget called for cutting funding for those three community college districts by half, or about $8.8 million.

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, confirmed in an email statement that Ducey and the Legislature had struck a deal on the budget.

“Governor Ducey has reached an agreement with legislative leadership that balances the budget, practices fiscal responsibility and sets clear priorities for the state,” Scarpinato said.

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, wrote that from the details emerging about the budget deal now, it’s the “worst budget ever.”

Mark Killian, chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, said with the deeper cuts to higher education, the Legislature is “trying to kill us off.” The Board of Regents governs the state universities and sets tuition rates.

Killian said the cuts likely stem from the Legislature having a “lack of understanding about the university system.” He noted that Arizona’s university system has been performing exceptionally well in areas of research and student retention over the past few years.

“It’s counterintuitive to cut university spending as deep as what they are proposing,” Killian said. “It’s going to have a significant impact on staff and the way we deliver education.”

The Regents issued a call to action in February urging for the state to not cut more than the $77.5 million Ducey initially proposed. Killian said the universities would have been able to take that much of a cut without raising tuition, but with the increased cuts proposed he said he isn’t sure whether the Regents can hold off further tuition increases.

Eileen Klein, president of the Board of Regents, took to Twitter to criticize the budget deal, calling it a “giant step backward for our state.”

“Sometimes leaders get so focused on the deal they lose sight of what’s in it. This one should be left on the table,” Klein wrote.

UA president Ann Weaver Hart said in a statement that while she recognizes the challenges state leaders are facing to balance the budget, she is very concerned with the talk of further cuts in the Legislature.

“I continue to believe that higher education is critical for a prosperous future for Arizona,” Hart said.

The state faces a project $520 million budget deficit and a more than $1 billion deficit next year.

Since the recession, Arizona has made more cuts its universities than other state in the country. Should the new cuts be approved, cuts to state support for universities since 2008 would top $500 million.

At the same time, tuition rates at state universities have increased by more than 70 percent, according to College Board.

Last year, UA raised tuition for in-state students by 2 percent and out-of-state students by 5 percent. ASU saw smaller hikes with a 3 percent increase for out-of-state students and no change to in-state tuition.

UA also adopted a guaranteed tuition model, which allows students to pay the same tuition rate over their four years at the university.

At a January meeting of the Regents, ASU President Michael Crow said he would not increase tuition for in-state students in the face of Ducey’s proposed $77.5 million in cuts. Crow could not be reached for comment on this latest budget deal.

Issac Ortega, president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, said student leaders expected the cuts to universities to be deep. He said while the state is certainly facing deep fiscal troubles, students and universities shouldn’t be seen as “the first thing on the chopping block.”

“Half a billion dollars [in cuts] over the course of six or seven years is a pill that’s really tough for our students and our families to swallow,” Ortega said.

Ortega added that students would continue lobbying efforts to urge legislators to “invest in us,” referring to university students.

More details on the budget deal will emerge in the next few days.

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Feb. 23-26

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 26, 2015.


House Minority Leader Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, addresses education protesters on the Capitol grounds on Feb. 25.


PHOENIX — In a reminder that the biggest fights in the Legislature lay ahead, hundreds descended on the Capitol Wednesday to protest against Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed budget for K-12 schools.

Some legislators emerged to observe or address the stream of teachers, students and other education supporters, many of whom shouted chants of “No more cuts” and “Save our schools.”

Solution to Douglas, Ducey spat

Lawmakers attempted to solve another education issue in the state on Thursday.

An amendment to a bill from Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, offered a solution to the ongoing constitutional fight between Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas and Gov. Doug Ducey regarding the firing of two top Board of Education officials.

HB 2184 amends language to state that the members of the Board of Education answer to the board as a whole and not the Superintendent. Douglas would therefore not have the power to fire them. The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the bill.

Douglas said in a statement before the bill was heard that she supported the action taken by the Legislature since it would spare taxpayer dollars from being spent on “prolonged litigation.”

“Our resources are best spent supporting our children, teachers and classroom instruction, not on interagency disputes,” she said in her statement.

Mr. Ducey goes to Washington

Ducey in the meantime travelled to Washington for a meeting of the National Governors Association, which began late last week. The governor’s social media feeds kept his followers apprised of his travels in the nation’s capital.

Secretary of State Michele Reagan signed bills passed by the Legislature while Ducey was away.

When Ducey returned to the Grand Canyon State on Tuesday, he held a ceremonial signing for the civics test requirement where he was joined by Douglas.

Virtual Border Fence

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to move forward SB 1271, which would redefine language on the state’s “virtual fence” along its southern border for it to be “as close as practicable” with Mexico, rather than within one mile. The Legislature approved the construction of a virtual border fence last year that allows the state to place equipment, cameras and sensors along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill is meant keep Arizona’s equipment from interfering with federal operations on the border so it would serve to help fill in gaps along the Mexican border that the federal government does not cover.

“Long term, we provide a backup location rather than be right on the border with them for fear that our sensors will be triggered by them running around,” Worsley said.

An amendment to the bill removed a proposed $10 million to fund the fence.

We want our land back

Arizona was the last of the lower 48 states to join the union and a House panel approved a bill to move the state further away from that federal government out east.

HB 2176, heard by the House Appropriations Committee, would require the U.S. government to return all “constitutionally nonenumerated” federal lands within Arizona to the state by 2026.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, a sponsor of the bill, defined nonenumerated lands as land the federal government holds in the state that are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. Thorpe cited that 45 percent of Arizona is owned by the federal government — which it doesn’t pay the state much for — and compared the situation to a renter dictating the terms.

“Everything the cities and counties do is harmed because this huge amount of federal land that they’re not paying anywhere close to a comparable tax when it comes to private land owners,” Thorpe said.

Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said while he has concerns with some unintended consequences with the bill, he sees a lot of potential revenue for the state in timber.

House Minority Leader Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said this bill certainly carries constitutional concerns and the Legislature should instead be focusing on real ways to help fund schools and create jobs in the state. “This bill will not do that and it’s unfortunate that we’re spending time on these bills,” he said.

Aggravated assault for firearms

The House passed a bill to prevent someone from literally taking a person’s Second Amendment right. HB 2509, sponsored by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Gilbert, would make it a felony aggravated assault for a person to take or attempt to take someone’s lawfully owned firearm.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, called it a “fringe issue” and said this is already covered in current state law.

Townsend argued the bill is meant to give more consequence to taking someone’s gun. “What this bill does is send a very clear message that the taking of a firearm from a law-abiding citizen is a very serious offense,” she said.

Meanwhile in the Senate, Ward added an amendment to SB 1460 to lift bans on sawed-off shotguns, silencers for firearms and nunchucks. That amendment passed.

Update on bills

Some bills don’t make the arduous journey through the Legislature and die along the way (see: Arizona Bill). Here are updates on bills previously covered in the Weekly Roundup that didn’t make it or have been held up:

— On Monday, the Senate Rules Committee held SB 1030, the “Beer Bill,” due to constitutional concerns regarding interstate commerce. The bill from Ward, which drew intense support from microbrewery advocates, would raise production limits for microbreweries to allow them to keep their restaurants.

— A bill banning photo radar enforcement, also sponsored by Ward, failed on the Senate floor Monday in a close 13-15 vote. Ward calls photo radar — which includes red light cameras and speed cameras — unconstitutional, but many law enforcement organizations came out against the bill.

— As SB 1102, the texting while driving ban, didn’t make it through committees before the deadline, Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, continued his texting prohibition effort by proposing it as an amendment to an Arizona Department of Transportation omnibus bill on the floor. After some back and forth between Farley and Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, who has been vocal in his opposition to the ban, the Senate voted down the amendment.

Welfare drug tests yield little in savings for Arizona

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on March 4, 2015.

PHOENIX — In 2009, Arizona became the first state in the country to require drug tests for welfare recipients in effort to save the state dire-needed cash and ensure taxpayer dollars won’t go to drug users. The results, however, haven’t come to meet those expectations.

In the five and a half years since Arizona began the drug tests for adults receiving funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the state’s welfare program, 26 people have lost benefits due to the drug tests, three of whom for actually failing the drug test, according to figures provided by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which administers the program.

When applying for TANF benefits, 42 people have been asked to take a follow-up drug test and 19 actually took the test, 16 of whom passed. The other 23 were stripped of their benefits for failing to take the drug test.

The reason so few take the test is because reasonable cause is needed to require an applicant to take a drug test, said Nicole Moon, a public information officer for DES. When someone is approved to receive welfare benefits in Arizona, that person is screened by being given a three-question form, which asks if the recipient has used any illegal drugs in the past 30 days. If the applicant answers yes, then a drug test is required.

A recipient is taken off welfare benefits for a year if he or she fails a drug test or does not take a required test. More than 142,000 adult recipients have been screened since the drug tests were implemented, according to DES.

When the law passed through the Legislature, lawmakers estimated that it would save the state up to $1.7 million a year by taking people off welfare. This year, the state will spend around $45 million on TANF benefits, which goes to about 30,000 recipients, according to a Joint Legislative Budget Committee report.

The latest data available from DES calculate the total savings from 16 of those 26 recipients removed from TANF benefits which totals to less than $4,000. The costs of administering the 19 drug tests totaled to about $500, which amounts to a net savings of about $3,500.

Even when the other 10 recipients removed are added in, the savings would not get close to the $1.7 million a year the state estimated, Moon said.

“It’s nowhere near that number,” she said.

Moon added that being removed for a failing a drug test does not affect the benefits for the other members of that person’s family.

DES also runs crosschecks with the court system to look for any drug arrests for welfare applicants, Moon said. If DES finds any drug offenses, the applicant is asked to take a drug test. Law enforcement agencies say they do not report directly report any of their drug arrests to DES.

Sgt. Pete Dugan, public information officer for the Tucson Police Department, said when officers make a drug arrest on the street, it stays in their system. “We don’t send that anywhere,” he said.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, supported the drug test requirement as a House member in 2009 when it was passed through the Legislature. He said the low number of people kicked off welfare for failing drug tests doesn’t have to be viewed as a failure of the program.

“You can look at it two ways: if you want to be a pessimist, you say it’s failed. If you want to be an optimist, it’s a strong deterrent and they’re not using drugs,” Kavanagh said. “I don’t know which is true.”

Kavanagh said he hasn’t kept up with the issue in recent years. Former Republican Sen. Frank Antenori sponsored a bill in 2011 that would call for random drug testing by DES for welfare beneficiaries. That bill passed the Senate but was held in the House.

Kavanagh said there were legal concerns with that bill because a drug test is considered a search, which requires reasonable cause to perform.

The American Civil Liberties Union considers such drug tests to be unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. The ACLU’s website says these laws “single out those living in low-income communities and disproportionately impacts people of color.” Supporters counter that many companies drug test their employees and the tests keep welfare dollars from being spent on drugs.

Republican lawmakers in several state legislatures across the country are currently pushing for legislation requiring these drug tests.

Medical amnesty bill moves forward in State Senate

This story appeared on the Daily Wildcat on Feb. 20, 2015.

PHOENIX — A bill that would grant immunity from prosecution for underage drinkers who call for help cleared its first hurdle Thursday when a Senate panel voted to move the bill forward.

Dozens of college students with Arizona flag buttons that read “EMTs without MICs” packed a Senate hearing room to show support for SB 1190. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill by a 6-1 vote and it now moves to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said this measure would remove the fear underage drinkers have of a “mark on their record” that keeps them from calling 911 if someone needs medical help.

“We have had cases where people who are underage who are afraid of getting an underage drinking ticket left their friends in the emergency room with just a post-it note on them … and we’ve had dire consequences and death when that happens,” Ward said.

Critics argue that this removes discretion from law enforcement officers and prosecutors by providing a “blanket amnesty.”

SB 1190, which Ward calls the “Saving Lives, Saving Futures” bill, would give anyone under the age of 21 immunity from prosecution if they call for help from medical or law enforcement officials, stay at the scene and remain cooperative with officers. An amendment added by the Senate Judiciary Committee made clear that the immunity would apply to both the person who is calling for help and the person for whom help is requested.

This type of immunity for underage drinkers — known as Medical Amnesty, Lifeline Laws or Good Samaritan Laws — is on the books in 21 other states and the District of Columbia.

Devon Mills, who worked with Ward to craft the legislation, is a former Arizona State University student and testified before the committee that this bill would remove the “barrier of fear” that an underage drinker has when they consider calling for help for someone in need.

Mills and Ward worked on a similar bill last year that did not get a committee hearing.

Mills invoked the story of Jack Culolias, an ASU student who drowned in Tempe Town Lake after a night of drinking. He also cited a study from North Dakota State University that found students or minors in alcohol emergency situations call friends for help far more often than they call 911.

“The reason they didn’t reach out to people most equipped to deal with these situations was because they were afraid of the repercussions a citation for underage drinking could have with not only the law, but the university, their academic program … or their scholarship,” Mills said.

Mills also said this immunity could also be utilized in a sexual assault situation, where someone may fear reporting it because alcohol was involved.

Not everyone there was in support of the bill.

Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, came out in opposition to the bill because of concerns from county sheriffs and attorneys that this would take discretion away from them in those situations.

She said this bill would set “bad precedent” and suggested that the students campaign for underage drinkers to call for help regardless of what repercussions come.

“That kind of campaign could go a long way toward educating people about making sure that the people who need help have help, even if there is someone kind of consequence to you because that’s the way our role as adults in society works,” Marson said.

Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, the lone dissenting vote, said she isn’t sure immunity is the proper way to address the problem and has concerns that this bill would send the wrong message.

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Cashion, said he hopes the bill could be further amended so there would still be a diversion program in lieu of a citation for underage drinkers who call for assistance.

“I know we don’t want to put this [on somebody’s record], but at the same time we also have to understand that there are individuals out there who are going to abuse the system,” Contreras said.

The amendment approved by the committee also added language to attempt to address concerns of abuse by proscribing immunity for someone who calls for help just as a way of getting out of trouble.

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Feb. 16-19

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 19, 2015.

PHOENIX — The Legislature didn’t take Monday off for Presidents’ Day and worked through Arizona’s post-birthday week and the drama continued this week regarding the “firing” of two top Board of Education officials.

The two officials — Christine Thompson, executive director of the Board, and Sabrina Vazquez, assistant executive director — who Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas attempted to fire, returned to work Tuesday. Douglas stipulated conditions with their return, which the Board of Education rejected.

Anti-Common Core bill

Douglas’ anti-Common Core crusade was taken up by some Republican lawmakers on Wednesday.

HB 2190 would repeal and replace Common Core standards in the state, which the Board of Education adopted and refers to as the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards. The bill would also take away the board’s ability to set new standards, instead giving it to a committee of teachers, parents and members of the community.

The bill inspired hours of debate and testimony with teachers coming out for and against the standards, which have already been adopted by most states.

The committee approved the bill 5-2, down party lines.

Elections changes

The House Committee on Elections voted to approve several bills that would change election procedures in Arizona. Lawmakers heard HB 2138 that would move up the state’s primary date up from its current date in late August by three months to May

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said that by moving it up to May, it would allow interparty wounds to heal from an election and make the general election less of the sprint that it is now.

The committee instead opted to move the primary date up three weeks to early August. Active lawmakers are not able to fundraise from lobbyists while the Legislature is in session, which may have helped to dissuade lawmakers from that earlier May date.

That early August date is not set in stone, however, as the bill may be amended as it treks through the Legislature.

Another bill that would allow campaign signs to go up earlier before an election cleared the committee as well.

Dog fight in the House

A bill that would have allowed restaurants to ban service dogs died in the House Committee on Government and Higher Education with a room full of service dogs to watch its demise.

HB 2179, sponsored by Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, would have also required service animals to be registered with the state. Several people with disabilities and dogs in tow came in sharp opposition to the bill. When it was clear that the dogs had won, Thorpe voted against his own bill.

“There wasn’t any intention on my part to craft a bill that would cause concerns on the part of the disabled community,” Thorpe said.

No dogs testified before the committee.

Raising speed limit

Soon, you could be able to drive 10 mph over the speed limit on public highways with much less consequence should you get pulled over.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure approved HB 2662, sponsored by Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, on Tuesday that would set the fine for driving up to 10 mph over the speed limit at just $15. It would also not be reported to a driver’s insurance company, so speeders would not face any changes in their rates.

Two Democratic representatives voted against the measure, but it goes to full House consideration next.

Underage drinking bill

More than 100 college students packed a Senate hearing room Thursday to show support for a bill that would grant underage drinkers who call for help immunity from prosecution.

SB 1190, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, cleared its first hurdle when the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the bill approval. Ward said that by having this measure, underage drinkers would no longer have that “barrier of fear” for calling for help.

“We have had cases where people who are underage who are afraid of getting an underage drinking ticket left their friends in the emergency room with just a post-it note on them in the waiting room and we’ve had dire consequences and death when that happens,” Ward said.

Got potholes? The Legislature could be to blame for bad roads

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 19, 2015.

PHOENIX — If you’re driving a particularly pockmarked road in Arizona, you may be able to blame the bumpy ride on the state Legislature.

For the past few years, the Legislature has diverted money meant for roads maintenance in order to fund the Arizona Highway Patrol, which cities and counties say is leaving them less money for those needed repairs.

The Highway User Revenue Fund, which is the sum of several taxes and fees including the state’s gas tax and the vehicle license tax, is allotted for the purposes of maintaining roads and bridges and other transportation needs in the state. This fund totals more than $1.2 billion and last year about $89 million was taken out of HURF for the Department of Public Safety.

These “sweeps” totaled about $860 million from 2000 to 2014, according to research from the Arizona Association of Counties.

“That maintenance that needs to be done has not been able to be completed because the funds are not there,” said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. He said that over just past six years, cities have been deprived of more than $100 million that would go to road repairs.

Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said the roads have fallen into disrepair because counties and cities have not been getting the amount they should have over the past years.

State statute stipulates the way HURF is distributed: 50.5 percent to the State Highway Fund, 19 percent to the counties, 27.5 percent to cities and towns and 3 percent to cities with populations of more than 300,000.

In 2014, HURF allotted about 17 percent to counties, about 27 percent to cities and towns and about 45 percent to the State Highway Fund.

Strobeck said the Legislature can get around legal concerns because the part of the Arizona Constitution discussing the state’s gas tax says it can used to fund state enforcement of transportation laws — or the Highway Patrol.

Marson agreed said that the Legislature has made it work despite the statutory funding requirements.

“They certainly worded it in such a way that they feel comfortable with it,” Marson said.

Proposal for Highway Patrol funding

Last year, the budget approved by the Legislature reduced the amount of HURF money sent to DPS by $30 million from $119 million to $89 million.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal released last month would further reduce the HURF dollars for DPS by another $30 million and instead fund the Highway Patrol with a new revenue stream.

The budget would take the Motor Vehicle Registration fee out of the pot that flows into HURF and instead divert those funds directly to DPS. The goal is for the fee to cover about 50 percent of the Highway Patrol’s budget.

John Arnold, director of the Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, told the Joint Senate and House Appropriations Committee last month that diverting the funds meant for road repairs “has created a conflict between public safety needs and local transportation needs.”

Arnold said this measure hopes to “alleviate some of that conflict.”

The current Motor Vehicle Registration fee is $8 and raises about $35 million. In order to fund half of the Highway Patrol’s budget, it would need to be increased up in order to reach $65 million.

Much of the Highway Patrol’s budget has been dependent on the general fund — along with HURF — and the revenue stream hasn’t been reliable, said Jimmy Chavez, president of the Arizona Highway Patrol Association.

Chavez said he supports the governor’s budget decision with the vehicle registration fee and it was an idea that AHPA talked about with legislators for years. He said this would give the Highway Patrol a reliable funding source.

Chavez said the HURF money being diverted over the years has been necessary in order to keep Highway Patrol numbers at healthy levels.

“The [Highway Patrol] has needed more money” in the last few years, Chavez said. “We’ve basically been kept full. The agency has been receiving enough funding to keep us afloat and keep our manpower above critical levels.”

Marson said the governor’s proposal continues to take money out of counties because it removes one of the revenue streams flowing into HURF.

“The net effect to counties is essentially the same,” Marson said. “They found a different way of getting that money to DPS.”

Strobeck said this move by Ducey is a step in the right direction.

“We still think that the amount of money that is being diverted is excessive but it helps put HURF back to roads where they belong,” he said.

Roads in ‘poor’ condition

A 2013 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded that 52 percent of Arizona roads are in poor or mediocre condition. Seven percent of “major roads” in the state are in poor condition.

The report also determined that driving on roads in need of repair costs Arizona drivers an extra $1.16 billion a year in vehicle costs.

Cities and counties contend this is the result of that lack of funding. The state’s gas tax, which currently stands at 18 cents per gallon, is also lower than most other states.

Ducey’s budget proposal agrees and states that funding the Highway Patrol by “this method places a strain on local transportation efforts.”

Marson said the years of underfunding for roads have taken a toll that may be too much to simply repair.

“We are now at a place in terms of transportation where it’s not about maintenance it’s becoming about replacement for roads and bridges,” Marson said, “and replacement is always more expensive than maintenance.”

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Feb. 9-12

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 12, 2015.

PHOENIX — Some international news crept into the Legislature this week with the death of Kayla Mueller, the Prescott woman who was killed after being kidnapped at the hands of Islamic State militants.

Gov. Doug Ducey ordered state flags to be flown at half-staff and moments of silence were held throughout the Capitol during the week.

Official state metal

Copper is one of the five Cs of Arizona’s economy and now legislators want to make the state’s relationship with the metal official. On Monday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources heard SB 1441, which would designate copper as the state metal.

Arizona already has a state fossil (petrified wood), a state bird (the cactus wren) and state neckwear (the bola tie) so the people who brought this bill forward feel that copper’s designation is long overdue. Those who brought the bill forward, though, were fourth-grade students from the aptly-named Copper Creek Elementary School in Oro Valley and they testified before the committee.

“Copper is an integral part of our state’s economy and pride,” said Jennifer Royer, the students’ teacher at Copper Creek.

The students listed out their reasons for supporting the bill, focusing on the symbolism of copper to the state – the copper star at the center of the Arizona flag and the copper dome of the Capitol.

The committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward, which has 35 sponsors.

No. 2 for Arizona

The House Committee on Elections moved forward a pair of bills that would create a new No. 2 position in Arizona government. HB 2265 and HCR 2024 would create a lieutenant governor position for the state, subject to voter approval, and lists the details of the position.

The bills’ sponsor, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the position would reflect the federal system with the president and vice president. A candidate for governor would run on a joint ticket with a lieutenant governor candidate.

Though, beyond succeeding the governor should he or she leave office for some reason, Mesnard found other work for a potential lieutenant governor to do — heading the Arizona Department of Administration.

Currently, the Secretary of State is first in line to succession to the governor, which is how Gov. Jan Brewer initially ascended to the position in 2009.

New child safety director

At a press conference on Tuesday, Ducey announced that he fired the director of the Department of Child Safety, Charles Flanagan, and replaced him with Greg McKay, the investigator who uncovered that the agency had left more than 6,500 cases of abuse uninvestigated.

“When it comes to Arizona’s record of safeguarding children — our most vulnerable — our state government has come up woefully short,” Ducey said.

He said the state’s child welfare agency needed a new direction just about eight months after DCS was created under Gov. Jan Brewer with Flanagan, who had been in charge of the agency’s predecessor, at its helm.

McKay said he was dedicated to the issue of child safety. “Whatever has taken precedent over this mission is to be discarded immediately,” he said.

Center for Arizona Policy Day

Following up on that announcement, Ducey addressed the influential Center for Arizona Policy on Wednesday and called on them to help the child safety situation in the state. The group was behind last year’s controversial SB 1062, which critics derided as discriminatory against members of the LGBTQ community.

Ducey told hundreds of conservative and antiabortion activists that they should reengage in the child welfare, helping children who are now outside the womb.

“These are the most vulnerable in our society and are, in many situations, not being cared for properly,” he said.

Cathi Herrod, president of CAP, then proceeded to interview Ducey at the podium, asking him about his time so far as governor and prayer.

Herrod later went to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services to testify in favor of a bill that would provide for tighter regulations on abortion in the state.

SB 1318 would prohibit abortion coverage under the federal healthcare exchange and require doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to local hospitals. The committee approved the bill down party lines to the applause of those in the audience, which is prohibited during committee meetings.

Ducey, Douglas spar

On Wednesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas announced the firing of two top Board of Education officials, but Ducey responded saying she had no authority to do so.

Douglas fired back on Thursday with a statement to the media where she said Ducey now views himself as both governor and superintendent of schools.

“Governor Ducey has refused to take calls or meetings with me personally since his swearing in,” Douglas said in her statement. “Clearly he has established a shadow faction of charter school operators and former state Superintendents who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.”

Ducey responded that he was “disappointed” with Douglas.

Beer, beer, beer

Beer dominated the conversation at the Capitol Monday afternoon when microbrewery supporters descended on the Capitol to rally for SB 1030. The bill from Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, would raise production caps for microbreweries to allow them to continue operating restaurants.

“Beer puts people to work and we should be ensuring craft brewers have a path for responsible growth,” Ward told supporters holding green signs supporting SB 1030 on the Senate lawn.

The microbrewery supporters weren’t just there to back SB 1030. They also came to oppose competing legislation that would keep in place the system where producers, distributors and retailers are separate. That bill, SB 1437, sponsored by Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, also has supporters in the alcohol industry and was heard in the Senate Committee on Commerce and Workforce Development along with SB 1030.

After hours of debate and testimony, the committee approved SB 1030 and Smith held his bill in hopes of finding compromise later.

No samples were made available.

Filing deadline

Monday was the filing deadline for bills to be introduced to the House and the total came out to 670 bills along with 47 memorials and resolutions. In the Senate where the filing deadline was last week, 468 bills and 36 memorials and resolutions were introduced. This marks a slight decrease from last year’s session in the total number of bills introduced. About a quarter of bills introduced were passed in the last session.

Waning state support for colleges comes at a steep price for students

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 12, 2015.

PHOENIX — Have you heard of the Arizona Public Enterprise University? One senator wants to remake and rename Arizona State University into “an autonomous, quasi-public, nonprofit corporate entity,” with a bill introduced this session.

While Eileen Klein, president of the Arizona Board of Regents, said the governing board is not taking a position on the bill from Sen. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, she said it does go in the direction of a “public-private” model the Regents would like to see for state universities.

“It’s time to think about we design a total operational for our universities that is going to work in the long term,” Klein said.

With further cuts looming over higher education in Arizona, public universities are finding ways to rely less on the state for funding at the expense of the students they serve.

Gov. Doug Ducey in his budget proposal called for $75 million in cuts to funding to state universities, which represents about 10 percent of state support. Board officials say some legislators may propose deeper cuts beyond the Ducey’s proposal.

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, would not say if the governor would be open to further cuts to universities beyond what he proposed.

The Regents issued a call to action last week to not allow more than the proposed $75 million reduction, which Klein said came at the request of university presidents. The Board of Regents governs the state universities — ASU, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University — and sets their tuition rates.

The consequences of this decline in state funding haven’t affected state universities so much as their students.

Despite less state support since the recession, Arizona universities still spend about the same on their academic mission, said Donna Desrcohers, a higher education finance researcher with the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research.

“It’s the sources of revenue for Arizona universities that have shifted over the years,” she said.

According to data from the Delta Cost Project, a non-profit that researches higher education funding, the costs for higher education across the country have largely shift toward students. Arizona has seen one of the sharpest increases in in-state tuition costs, rising more than 40 percent in the past five years, adjusted for inflation, according to the College Board. Only Louisiana and Georgia have seen steeper increases.

This happened at the same time the state reduced higher education funding by about $400 million since the recession from a time when Arizona used to give more than $1 billion to its universities.

“Students in Arizona have been asked to take on more responsibility for the cost of their own education than in any other state,” Klein said. “Students and families can’t be the backstop to the state’s ongoing fiscal troubles.”

While Desrochers cautioned that not all students pay the sticker price of tuition with many getting financial aid and fees that are charge on top of tuition, they are bearing more of the cost burden now without state support.

The lack of state support also means universities are relying more on private donations, grants and higher tuition to fund operations. For example, legislators tried, and failed, last year to get state funding for a veterinary school for UA. A donation from the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation later funded the program.

Mark Killian, the chair of the Board of the Regents, said that the state does need to support its universities.

“The route we are on right now, we are ensuring that tuition is going to continue to climb and increase and we’re going to make it so impossible for middle class and lower-middle class families to have their kids get a college education in Arizona,” Killian said. “It is absolutely, totally insane.”

Killian said that each time the Regents vote to raise tuition, the board insulates the Legislature from criticism for cutting university funding. He says he would not vote to charge students and families more.

“As far as I’m concerned, we are done with raising tuition,” Killian said.

At a January meeting of the Regents in response to Ducey’s proposal, ASU President Michael Crow echoed those feelings, saying he would not raise tuition for in-state students. UA President Ann Weaver Hart will wait until after the budget is resolved before deciding whether to support a tuition hike for in-state students, said Chris Sigurdson, the university’s vice president for communications.

Bills have been introduced in the Legislature to reduce the tuition burden on different groups — such as National Guard members or those who were in foster care — Sen. Dial argues his bill would be a way to address rising tuition costs.

Dial said, as universities rely less on state funding, he believes this corporate model would give them more flexibility and help to keep tuition down for students.

“Let’s give them the freedom to work more like a private-public partnership … freeing them up from regulations,” Dial said.

Arizona universities are considering phasing out the current pension system for new employees to make the colleges operate less like state institutions in this move to a public-private model. Klein said the Regents do want to design a new benefits system that would be “affordable in the long term.”

“Especially in an era where we are getting reduced resources, we’re very eager to evolve from the state agency model because that is creating additional costs for us,” Klein said.

This movement away from relying on state funding for public universities in some states follows the model set by the University of Michigan more than 30 years, said Tom Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona.

The University of Michigan receives about 16 percent of its funding from the state and operates more like a private institution. “The Michigan model has been the alternative to throwing our hands up in the air and saying, ‘Well, what can we do?’” Volgy said.

Killian said that Arizona is different than others states that have gone this route with its constitutional mandate to keep education nearly as free as possible. He said that while he would like much less in cuts to universities, it’s “not the reality of what we’re dealing with.”

Killian said he believes the next step for the Board of Regents is to sue the Legislature and go to the state Supreme Court for violating the part of the Arizona Constitution that stipulates college education in the state should be as close to free as possible. This would be similar to the action taken by representatives for K-12 schools, who sued the Legislature for underfunding them.

While there is not yet support among the Regents for the action now, Killian said, he believes there will be soon.

Klein, however, said the Board has not contemplated any such action, yet. She said the Regents will evaluate whether they are upholding their constitutional mandate to keep costs low, but it is “premature” that any decisions have been made.