Sponsors consider changes to controversial open meetings bill

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

PHOENIX — Open government advocates found hope late this week after the governor reopened his daily calendar for public inspection and the legislature began discussions to change the language of a bill that allows most state business to be conducted behind closed doors.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, the sponsor of SB 1435, said the bill will be amended so people would know the legislation’s true intent, which she believes is being misrepresented in the media.

“Hopefully we’ll amend it and then see how that works,” Allen said. “I’m just not sure what the [new] language is going to be, yet.”

The bill would change the definition of open meetings to allow members of an elected board to discuss pending action in private. Only when they take action, such as a vote, would they have to be in the public’s eye.

Arizona’s open meeting law currently requires that any time a quorum of an elected body meets to “discuss, propose or take legal action,” that meeting must be in public.

No hearing has yet been scheduled for the bill. “It’s going to happen pretty soon or it won’t happen,” Allen said.

This comes on the heels of criticism over Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to remove the visitor logs from his office. Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Ducey, said the logs were first removed because they were inaccurate, but they have since been returned.

“We recognized that some information is better than none,” Scarpinato said. “It was a response to wanting to be as transparent as possible.”

Dan Barr, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, said the actions represent government officials’ desire to have less transparency in conducting their business.

“They view openness as a sort of bother to them,” Barr said. “There’s a cynicism there that people are just not going to care.”

He added that he is unaware of any other action being taken across the country that is quite as “drastic” as Allen’s bill.

“Usually these types of bills try to cut back on the requirement of notice or seek to expand the definition of what you can discuss in executive session, but to simply rewrite the open meetings law and say that anything than other than when you’re taking a vote on an issue doesn’t have to be open to the public is pretty extreme,” Barr said.

David Bodney, a media law attorney at Ballard Spahr, said that by not letting the public see the process of how officials consider actions, it like getting the cake without being able to see any of the ingredients.

“This thwarts the public’s right to monitor the activities of government by forbidding public access to the deliberations of their elected officials,” Bodney said.

Editorial boards across the state have denounced the bill. Paula Casey, executive director of the Arizona Newspapers Association, said the bill would gut the state’s open meetings law as it is now and ANA is in opposition to SB 1435.

Allen and supporters argue that it would allow smaller governing boards in rural areas of the state to discuss business without being caught up in the requirement to meet in public.

Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado, a co-sponsor of the legislation, also said the intent of the bill has been misconstrued in the media since it was introduced.

“A lot of people are voicing concern about transparency in the government and we definitely understand that,” he said. “We’re getting feedback from different stakeholders and different legal opinions on how we could better address what our underlying goal is.”

Allen said she has also been getting a lot of feedback and when she sends a lengthy explanation to those who are concerned, they respond “Thank you, I see what you’re doing.”

Allen, who served on the five-member Navajo County Board of Supervisors, said she understands how tricky it is for these smaller member boards to discuss their business. She said, for example, on a three-member board, if two members meet in private and discuss official business, they would be in violation of the open meetings law.

“I feel like that restrictiveness affected my ability to be a good public servant and to be able to be fully involved in my job,” she said.

Late last month, House Republicans received similar criticism when they voted on a rule change that would allow for closed caucus meetings. The vote on the rule change fell down party lines with Democrats in strong opposition, saying that the move shuts the public out and harms the democratic process in the Legislature.

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Feb. 2-5

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 5, 2015.

PHOENIX — The Super Bowl and its more than 114 million viewers have put Arizona behind them but the good economic news didn’t stop when the fans left.

Apple announced Monday it would add a $2 billion global command center in Mesa at a facility that used to house a glass supplier for the company. Gov. Doug Ducey called a press conference with legislative leaders and other officials to tout the news.

Warning label for initiatives

The House Committee on Elections on Monday passed a bill that would put a disclosure on the ballot reminding Arizonans that should they approve propositions, those measures will be difficult to undo.

The proposed warning label, HB 2072, would remind voters that no changes can be made to a voter-approved ballot measure except by a three-fourths vote of the Legislature in accordance with Proposition 105 — another voter-approved measure.

“It’s deceptive to not fully inform the electorate about the ramifications of their votes,” said Rep. Michelle Ugenti, R-Scottsdale, the House Elections committee chair and the bill’s sponsor. She said she has brought similar legislation before.

Jen Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, said the 48-word disclosure could force some counties to adopt longer ballots than they usually print and carries cost concerns. She suggested that the disclosure be put up at polling places, which Ugenti quickly shot down.

The committee approved the bill down party lines with its four Republicans voting in favor and its two Democrats opposed.

Put the phone away

A Senate committee wants you to put that phone down and pay attention to the road while you’re driving. The Senate Committee on Government voted to move forward SB 1102, which would proscribe Arizona drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel.

Members debated amendments which delineated which specific actions on a cell phone would be banned by the bill. While there is time for the bill to be amended again, the committee voted to change the bill so it would prohibit sending messages but not reading them.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said when he first brought the bill forward in 2007, it was one of the first of its kind to be proposed in any state. Now, Arizona is one of two states not to have any laws prohibiting texting while driving.

Farley also brought the family of Arizona Department of Safety Officer Tim Huffman to testify to the committee. Huffman was killed in 2013 on Interstate 8 near Yuma by a driver who was looking at Facebook on his phone at the time of the crash.

The bill would ban texting but not reading on the phone while driving. Forty-four states ban texting while driving, while 13 ban use of hand-held devices.

The bill still has to clear three more committees — Transportation, Rules and Public Safety, Military and Technology — before it could be heard on the Senate floor.

Prison proposal

Two of the biggest chunks of the state budget — schools and prisons — were presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday and senators questioned whether the state needs another private prison.

Charles Ryan, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, presented a proposal to add a new 3,000-bed private prison, which Ducey supports, as the state’s inmate population is expected to grow. Prisons would see an increase in funding under Ducey’s budget proposal.

Democrats have taken to social media to urge fellow legislators to prioritize schools rather than prisons after Ducey’s proposal. Republican Sen. Kelli Ward of Lake Havasu City echoed those concerns.

“My constituents would like to see us prioritize teachers and kids over criminals,” she told Ryan. Ward said the department needed to find places to cut.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, came to the defense of Ryan and the proposal saying the vast majority of prisoners in Arizona are violent, repeat felons or sex offenders — people who shouldn’t be released.

Some Democratic senators suggested that the projected surge in inmates could be housed in county jails, which was recently suggested by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Red light camera ban

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Military and Technology voted to move forward a bill that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from using a photo enforcement system to ticket red light runners and speeders.

Law enforcement representatives testified to the committee against the bill, SB 1167, saying red light cameras decrease accidents and speeding at the intersections where they are placed, especially in school zones. Opponents to the bill testified just the opposite – that red light cameras cause more rear-end collisions.

Ward, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the crux of the issue is that drivers’ privacies are being violated when the cameras record their actions.

“It’s unconstitutional to invade the privacy of people who are not breaking the law,” she said.

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Cashion, the only member of the committee to vote against the bill, argued that cameras are recording everywhere, even during legislative committee meetings. “Where do we draw the line?” he said.

Kavanagh, who is a former law enforcement officer from New York and another sponsor of the bill, said photo enforcement takes the discretion out of the hands of officers.

Measles and the border

Prior to the lengthy photo enforcement debate in the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Military and Technology, Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles offered another possible cause for the recent measles outbreak affecting Arizona and California.

While national debate swirls around the consequences of the anti-vaccination movement, Voyles testified before the committee that our “open border” to the south could be the culprit behind the diseases’ resurgence.

“No one has even brought up the point that we have opened the border,” he said. “For years we had had measles completely contained here in the U.S.”

A calendar from the Legislature

While legislators continue to work four days a week for about three months out of the year at the Capitol, a few of them want to set aside some dates this upcoming year for a variety of reasons. Here’s a calendar of the days and months of awareness and appreciation from legislative proposals:

Feb. 22 week – National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

May – Brain Tumor Awareness Month

Aug. 20 – Concussion Awareness Day

September – General Aviation Appreciation Month

Sept. 27 – Arizona First Responders’ Day

Senator wants to lengthen legislators’ terms

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Feb. 5, 2015.

PHOENIX — One state senator wants to ask voters to promote more harmony at the Capitol and have more knowledgeable legislators — by lengthening the terms of those they elect.

The Senate Committee on Government voted Wednesday to move forward SCR 1009, a resolution subject to voter approval to extend the terms of all Arizona legislators from two years to four years. It would also change the limit from four consecutive terms to two terms to keep the eight-year maximum in place in each chamber.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the resolution’s sponsor, said that by staying in office for a longer period of time, legislators can better develop relationships with fellow members, especially those in the other party.

“I think having friendships and relationships across the aisle reduces so-called partisan bickering, which we get criticized a lot for,” he said

Critics argue the bill eliminates legislative accountability that the two-year term provides.

Several provisions are added to ensure that current members would be able to serve at least the eight years. If passed, the measure would go to the ballot in 2016 and, if approved, would implement the extended terms beginning in 2017.

Kavanagh has reasons beyond just promoting more bipartisanship between Republicans and Democrats for pushing the measure. He said having two-year terms for all legislators carries unintended negative consequences.

“It promotes a less informed body,” he said. “With two-year terms, at any one point 25 percent of the members are rookies, novices. They aren’t really aware of the issues as well as veterans … and aren’t as effective.”

Kavanagh also said the high number of elections enables dark money donors to donate more and leverage more influence.

“With having to run every two years, you’re always fundraising, you’re always worrying about getting enough money to run,” Kavanagh said.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said time seems to move faster with two-year terms.

“This time next year, we’re back into a campaign cycle again,” she said.

Kavanagh previously served in the House for the maximum eight years of four consecutive two-year terms before switching to a Senate seat in November.

Another resolution lengthening legislators’ terms failed in the House last year when it made it to the floor. Representatives against the measure were mainly Republicans and those in favor were mostly Democrats. Kavanagh voted for the resolution then.

In the Senate committee this time around, three Republicans and two Democrats voted for Kavanagh’s resolution and one Republican and one Democrat voted against it.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said while he liked the idea, there is merit to the idea that two-year terms hold legislators more accountable to voters and voted against the resolution.

He said he serves on a school board with four-year terms and relationships are developed with those across the aisle, but having legislators who are re-elected every two years is helpful.

“I would have liked to have seen this bill go somewhere in the middle,” Quezada said, “where we could have had four-year terms for the Senate and retained the two-year terms in the House so that there’s still some aspect of keeping some legislators accountable to voters on a more frequent basis.”

That system would mirror the setup in other state legislatures across the country. Thirty-eight states have four-year terms for state senators, though, only five states have such a term length for their lower house members.

This type of legislative system, like Congress, has a lower body elected every two years as a way to be more responsive to the people, said Kim Fridkin, a political science professor at Arizona State University.

“In contrast, senators with longer terms would be more insulated from public pressure and would more likely, perhaps, take on a more trustee role,” Fridkin said.

Kavanagh argued that, while voters have the option, they don’t vote en masse to replace poorly performing legislators.

“You have to oust a lot of legislators to change an entire chamber and that hardly, if ever, happens,” Kavanagh said. “The idea that there is accountability there is also overblown.”

He added incumbent legislators are also difficult to defeat. In Arizona legislative elections in 2014, only four incumbents running for reelection in the House were defeated in during the primary or general election, while none were tossed out in the Senate.

This isn’t the only resolution up this session to change some of Arizona’s unique setup for elections and government.

One resolution would shift the state away from House multimember districts to 60 individual House districts. The state has 30 legislative districts which elect one senator and two representatives. Arizona is one of only 10 states with legislative chambers that employ multimember districts.

Another resolution would create the position of a lieutenant governor to serve as joint ticket with the governor. Arizona is one of only five states that do not have such a position with the Secretary of State next in line to the governorship.

Schools: No fat left to cut on administrative costs

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 29, 2015.

PHOENIX —As Arizona continues to a face a $1 billion deficit, Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal calls for cutting school administrative costs in order to spend more in the classroom, but school officials insist there is little fat left to cut there.

Ducey proposed earlier this month to cut 5 percent from non-classroom spending for the next fiscal year, which totals $113.5 million. K-12 education is already the largest slice of Arizona’s budget, which comprises more than 40 percent of state spending. The Auditor General’s office further breaks down school expenses as classroom and non-classroom spending.

“Right now we spend far too much on administrative costs – on overhead – and that’s got to change,” Ducey said during his State of the State Address.

Ducey’s executive budget summary recommends that school administrators certify that cuts to administrative costs will not affect the classroom. Though, school officials argue that several aspects of school budgets that fall under the category of non-classroom spending do bear a direct impact on students.

Arizona ranks last among the 50 states in spending on school administration, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2012, and the state ranks near the bottom for other administrative costs.

The state does, however, spend less in the classroom as a percentage of schools’ budget than other states.

The national average for spending in the classroom is about 61 percent, while Arizona spends less than 54 percent of its education budget there, according to the Auditor General’s report. That percentage has been steadily declining since 2006.

Administration accounts for 10 percent of schools’ budget, according to the Auditor General’s report. Plant operations, food services, transportation, student support and instruction support make up the other 36 percent. These costs include fuel, water, energy and food for schools.

Ducey refers to non-classroom spending as administrative costs, which is a matter of semantics, said Heidi Vega, communications director for the Arizona School Boards Association.

“When administrative cuts are discussed, what come to mind are superintendents’ and directors’ pay,” Vega said. “The average taxpayer or parent would say yes, they think it’s the higher paid people. The administrative costs comprise much more than that.”

In the Auditor General’s report, classroom spending includes the cost of teachers, pencils, textbooks, athletics and field trips.

In addition to salaries for school administrators, non-classroom spending includes costs for school buses, nurses, security, special education directors, librarians and counselors, which Vega says affect classrooms and students.

Vega said at her district, Deer Valley Unified, which the Auditor General considers a “very large” school district, buses weren’t air conditioned until last year. This would fall under the category of non-classroom spending.

Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said should these cuts go through, many of these non-classroom positions would be eliminated. He added that the way the Auditor General’s report chooses to define classroom and non-classroom spending is faulty.

“At the same time the state cut our funding, it added more and more requirements such as a third grade literacy rate,” Morrill said. “That takes administrative oversight to implement.”

Ducey wants to make sure the portion of K-12 spending going into the classroom goes up, according to Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the governor.

“The governor doesn’t think that’s acceptable, that we should be that far below the national average and that little money is getting into the classroom,” Scarpinato said. “What [Ducey’s] Classrooms First Initiative is about and what his budget reflects is getting more money into the classroom.”

He added that the governor wants to work with schools to find savings as they set their budget and find ways to streamline services, such as janitorial and maintenance departments between Arizona’s more than 200 public school districts.

Ducey also announced during his State of the State Address that he had signed an executive order to assemble “ a team of education and finance professionals” to find ways to get more money into the classroom. This is the first part of his “Classrooms First Initiative” and the team will provide a final report by no later than Dec. 1, according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Morrill said how the money will shift and what would get cut in non-classroom spending will vary district by district should the Legislature approve Ducey’s 5 percent cut.

The percentage of classroom spending and non-classroom spending varies greatly by each district throughout the state. For example, Cedar Unified School District in Navajo County spends just 34.6 percent in the classroom, while 63.5 percent of Safford Unified School District’s spending counts as in the classroom.

“It’s important to remember this is coming after five years of deep cuts, where districts already cut a lot administrative functions,” Morrill said. “You can only cut for so long before you impact directly education and support services for our students.”

The cuts to charter schools are less than what is being proposed for the public district schools. The proposal calls for 3.5 percent cuts to charter schools additional assistance, which amounts to about $10.3 million.

Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said charter schools do not have access to the same kind of funding options, which she calls “buckets,” that public district schools have, such as asking local property taxpayers for bonds and overrides.

“There are different buckets and different ways districts can access other sources of funding other than the general fund,” she said.

Sigmund added that she supports Ducey’s efforts to divert more money into the classroom.

K-12 schools’ lawsuit against the state for underfunding them during the recent recession years is another matter that is yet to be settled and could see more money into schools. Ducey, in his budget proposal, allots the Legislature’s $74 million settlement offer, which is much lower than the court-ordered $336 million.

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Jan. 26-29

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 29, 2015.

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Gov. Doug Ducey fields questions from reporters at the Arizona Capitol regarding his administration’s decision to drop action against Uber and Lyft on Jan. 29.

PHOENIX — The Super Bowl rolled into town this week, shutting down traffic on some streets downtown, but Arizona lawmakers continued their work nearby at the state Capitol. A few football jokes fell on unamused ears in the House and the Senate.

School Choice Week

In addition to it being Super Bowl week, it’s also School Choice Week and advocates made sure the Legislature knew it.

Kicking off the week at the Capitol on Monday, yellow scarves promoting school choice were placed on the desks of each legislator by the National School Choice Week organization.

Hundreds of Catholic schoolchildren descended on the Capitol grounds Wednesday and shouted, “Thank you,” to the Arizona legislators — something they probably don’t often hear. The students came from as far away as Flagstaff and Tucson to celebrate Catholic School Week, which also happens to be occurring this week.

Gov. Doug Ducey also stopped by to briefly address the gathering of students and returned Thursday to address a school choice rally.

“I talked about opportunity for all our citizens and I really believe that begins with our children in the classroom,” Ducey said. “So, I think this idea of school choice is one that Arizona has led in.”

Keeping with the theme of education rallies on the Capitol grounds, on Thursday, the Arizona Students’ Association protested the proposed $75 million in cuts to state universities in Ducey’s budget proposal.

Uber and Lyft catch a break

Andy Tobin, the former Arizona Speaker of the House who lost his bid for Congress in November, wasted no time getting to work — or rather dropping work — after he took over the Department of Weights and Measures. The now-director Tobin announced Wednesday that his department suspended all investigations into ridesharing programs Uber and Lyft.

“This policy is in keeping with Governor Ducey’s agenda of supporting new and entrepreneurial-style businesses, while balancing public safety needs and consumer protections,” Tobin said in a statement.

Citing safety concerns, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill last year that would regulate Uber and Lyft differently than regular taxi services.

Ducey appointed Tobin as the director of the department on Friday last week.

Closed caucuses

The House voted for a rule change to allow for caucuses, where members of one party meet to discuss bills coming forward, to be closed to the public with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

Democrats blasted the rule change, calling it an effort to shut the public out from discussions and move government behind closed doors. House Assistant Minority Leader Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said this allows legislators to conduct “away from the light of day.”

“I think it harms the Democratic process,” he said.” I think it creates cynicism with our public as to how elected officials conduct business.”

Defending the rule change, House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, promised that House Republicans would continue to have their caucus meetings open.

“This is a procedural matter in which we are being direct in our rules and if a moment arises in which a sensitive matter needs to be addressed, we are being direct in how we’re doing that,” he said.

House Minority Leader Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said this is the first step in eroding government transparency.

“If this doesn’t change anything, my question is why are we voting on it?” Meyer said.

Rep. John Allen, R-Phoenix, compared caucuses to family meetings and said you wouldn’t have a family meeting in a restaurant, but rather in private. The rule change passed 36-23 directly down party lines with one absent Democrat.

Tickets quota prohibition

A bill prohibiting police departments from maintaining traffic citation quotas cleared committee on Tuesday over the objection over some law enforcement organizations. HB 2410 targets the Tucson Police Department, which is the only agency in the state to maintain any sort of quota.

John Thomas, representing the Arizona Associations of Chiefs of Police, said the bill is worded “too broadly.” He said police would be working with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, so some changes could be made to it. Currently, the prohibition would only apply to county and state-level law enforcement and it could have some affect on DUI task forces.

“The bottom line from my organization is that this is something we feel should not be done at the state level,” Thomas said.

Levi Bolton Jr., executive director of the Arizona Police Association argued for the bill, calling it a matter of perception for the communities officers serve.

“What we don’t want to do is undermine the public’s trust,” he said. “We don’t want artificial parameters.”

Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, compared it to plumbing by saying some plumbers are told to find at least $400 when they go out on a job.

The House County and Municipal Affairs committee unanimously approved the bill.

Concussion Awareness Day

With the Super Bowl in town, the House Health Committee voted to declare Aug. 20 of this year to be Concussion Awareness Day. That date was chosen to coincide with the beginning of the next school year — and as the football season gets started.

“There is still more work to be done, but by recognizing an official awareness day, we can continue to bring attention to this very important issue,” said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, in a statement.

Jeff Miller, senior vice president of Health and Safety for the National Football League, presented to the committee. He spoke on the NFL’s effort to promote concussion laws across the nation and improve safety for football players at all levels.

Special plates for special groups

Bills on special license plates are popular this session, with eight introduced so far this session. These special license plates that are up for approval by the Legislature include plates for first responders, women veterans and hockey. HB 2092, which provides for a Military Scholarship Special License Plate, passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Tuesday and could be on its way to Arizona vehicles soon.

Bill would give break to underage drinkers seeking help

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 29, 2015.

PHOENIX — An Arizona lawmaker has introduced a bill that would protect underage drinkers from prosecution if they call for medical assistance for themselves or someone else.092

Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said she is sponsoring the bill, known as SB 1190, because, many young people, often college students, do drink alcohol, and they shouldn’t be punished for trying to get help should a night of drinking turn sour.

“At 18 and 20, they should be able to make a responsible decision, but they don’t always and there’s a lot of peer pressure at that age,” Ward said. “I don’t want to punish them for a mistake they made that could haunt them for the rest of their life.”

The bill grants anyone under the age of 21 immunity from prosecution if they call for medical or law enforcement assistance and are cooperative with responders. If they call concerning assistance for someone else, they would have to remain with that person until help arrives.

Ward, a physician, knows these types of situations well from working in hospital emergency departments. She said sometimes people, usually between the ages of 18 and 20, show up to the emergency room with a post-it note on them saying the person has been drinking.

Especially around spring break season in Lake Havasu City, the hospital staff has to track down whoever is responsible for that person.

“If a friend could call 9-1-1 without fearing for their own future, I think it will make a big difference,” Ward said.

Ward, who has two children in college, introduced a similar bill last year, but she was unable to get it heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee, where the legislation was sent. She said the late Sen. Chester Crandell, who chaired the committee, expressed concerns that such legislation would encourage underage drinking.

This year the bill has been read and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Twenty-one states have passed similar legislation, known as Medical Amnesty, Lifeline or Good Samaritan laws, and many more have bills up for consideration this year, according to Aaron Letzeiser, executive director of the Medical Amnesty Initiative. He works with states on passing such legislation.

Letzeiser said when minors are drinking, their first concern is whether they will get in trouble, not necessarily their own safety or the safety of others.

“For many, this is the first run-in they might have with the law, so they’re worried about getting in trouble with their school or with their parents,” he said.

He added that underage drinkers aren’t going out intending to get drunk to the point of alcohol poisoning. “They’re drinking because sometimes it’s part of the collegiate culture,” Letzeiser said.

It’s no secret that Arizona’s schools have a reputation for partying. Last year, Playboy ranked the University of Arizona fourth on its list of top party schools. Arizona State University was No. 9 on that list the year before.

Police in college towns across the state say they don’t have any specific policy for when these types of situations occur. The decision whether to cite someone for underage drinking is left to the officer’s discretion.

“It just depends on the facts in each situation,” said Lt. Michael Pooley, a spokesman for the Tempe Police Department.

Officer Jake Brady, a spokesman for the Northern Arizona University Police Department, said most officers would not cite an underage drinker if that person called for help for someone else, but it’s still up to each individual officer.

“If a guy is drunk and calls us to say that his friend is drunk and passed out and needs help, then 99 percent of the time, an officer will give that person a deferral” to go through punishment from the university rather than law enforcement, Brady said.

Ward said university police departments supported the bill last year when she spoke with them.

The University of Arizona Police Department reported 730 liquor law violations and 395 liquor law arrests in 2013. ASU police reported more than 1,300 alcohol violations on and around its campuses for the same year. No data are available on whether the person cited called for help before.

This bill is not only meant for people who need medical assistance for alcohol consumption, Ward said. It is also intended for situations of sexual assault or where someone fears for their own safety.

“If there’s a girl and she’s been at a party and had a drink or two and she’s walking home … and feels unsafe, she should be able to call 9-1-1 and get police assistance without worrying that she’s going to get a ticket,” Ward said.

No hearing has yet been scheduled for the bill.

New legislators getting an ‘education’

I talked to four freshman legislators about their experiences the first couple weeks of the legislative session. This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 26, 2015.

PHOENIX — House Majority Whip David Livingston knocked and entered the third floor office of Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, to confirm her affirmation on the civics test requirement for Arizona students just hours before the floor vote.

Cobb ensured the Peoria Republican that she would vote for the bill – the first major piece of legislation from the Arizona Capitol that would cap off a hectic first week for freshman lawmakers like her. The major vote represented just one of many firsts for new legislators hailing from around the state.

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Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman

The Senate saw six new members join its ranks this session and the House welcomed 20 first-time legislators. Some have served in the Arizona legislature before, but for many an adjustment to Capitol life had to be made.

Four of those members – Rep. Chris Ackerley, R-Sahuarita; Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma; Rep. Jennifer Benally, D-Tuba City; and Cobb – agreed to share their experiences this session.

The first weeks have been a flurry of committee, floor sessions, luncheons and meetings with lobbyists, constituents, media and other legislators.

“It’s been an education,” said Benally, who is also serving in the Legislature for the time. “And it’s a lot of information to absorb.”

New legislators also needed to take the time to get to know their own assistants who would be working with them for the session.

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Rep. Chris Ackerley, R-Sahuarita

Ackerley said the adjustment to working in the Capitol is also causing him to change some of his work habits. A physics teacher back home, he said the biggest challenge is managing all the information that comes at lawmakers as they research, debate and vote on bills that range from the controversial to the banal.

“I discovered the chinks in my system,” he said. “So, moving on I’ll do a better job of that as we move through the session.”

***

Cobb, a dentist back in Kingman, said the pomp and circumstance of the opening day provided the first real break for her and others making the transition into elected office. Legislators brought family members into ceremony. State leaders said lawmakers and other officials should view their roles through the eyes of these incoming freshmen.

“These next few weeks we could all use the fresh outlook of newcomers, not trapped in the old ways of thinking,” said Gov. Doug Ducey.

Mark Killian, the current chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents and a former Speaker of the Arizona House, said this transition isn’t easy for any new lawmaker. He served for about 14 years in a time before voters limited Arizona legislators to a maximum of four terms.

“When I was in the House, there were people who had been there for 20 years,” Killian recalled. “You do have trouble finding the bathroom at first.”

Fernandez understood his story.

She came into her office for the first time and needed some guidance. “I walked out into the hall and I walked back in and said, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’” Fernandez said to the amusement of the staff inside.

***

While about half of the state’s legislative districts rest in greater Phoenix area, the other half of lawmakers have to find a place to stay near the Capitol during the work week. The Legislature meets for four days out of the week, Monday to Thursday.

Fernandez and Benally are both staying with family in the area during the week while the Legislature is in session. Benally fell ill and had to head back to her home in the Navajo Nation during the middle of the week.

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Rep. Jennifer Benally, D-Tuba City

For Cobb, the three-hour drive to her home in Kingman meant she had to find an apartment close to her legislative office.

Settling into the apartment proved another challenge for Cobb. “I felt like I was back in college again,” she said. The rush of the beginning of the session left her little time to decorate so she ended up putting her things on boxes around her new apartment.

Cobb’s days during the first couple of weeks lasted up to 12 hours, not leaving much time to buy amenities for her new place, let alone decorate her new workspace. A few pictures of her young grandchildren adorn the mostly bare walls of her office.

The pay isn’t extravagant. The salary for Arizona legislators is $24,000 a year. Voters soundly defeated a ballot initiative in November to raise lawmakers’ pay by about 50 percent to $35,000.

“You either have to be retired or wealthy,” Fernandez said, “and that makes it tough.”

***

The incoming legislators all had their reasons for running for office —education reform or improving infrastructure among others —and their committee assignments allow them to get into the issues they talked to voters about during the campaign season.

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Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma

Fernandez said fixing the roads are important to her district, which covers rural parts of Yuma, Pima and Maricopa counties, so she sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Committees first met during the first couple weeks. Most of the opening meetings for of introductions, adoption of rules and presentations by people in the area the committees covered.

For example, the opening meeting for the House Transportation committee was conducted jointly with the Senate’s equivalent committee during the second week of the session. Fernandez and her fellow committee members heard speakers on the impact of traffic along Interstate 17, Tucson’s streetcar and preparations for the Super Bowl in Glendale.

Not all of these committee meetings were that routine. For Ackerley, who sits on the House Committee on Government and Higher Education, the opening meeting proved to be a lesson in Capitol politics.The civics test bill that raced through the Capitol was heard in this committee.

Ackerley, while supporting the spirit of the legislation, voted present in committee citing his concern over the speed and implementation of the bill, which was being pushed through by his own party.

After the bill passed through committee, a senior legislator told him that “half the stuff we do around here is fix what we did before.”

When it came to the floor, Ackerley voted aye.

***

Cobb sat in a committee meeting for the first time on the second day of the legislative session in her role as a vice chairman of the House Health Committee.

Cobb performed the rather mundane task of reading the motions for the committee as it voted on two bills — one continuing the Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners and the other continuing the Arizona Naturopathic Physicians Medical Board.

An intern rose to the podium to bring forward one of the bills before the members voted on it.

“No pressure, we’re really, really nice,” said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, the committee chair, as the intern prepared to speak.

Cobb laughed, “It’s my first time, too.”

The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Jan. 20-22

A weekly roundup of news from the state Capitol as the second week of the legislative session wrapped up. This appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 22, 2015.

PHOENIX — The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday kept the work week short for the Arizona Legislature as both houses get normal business going after their syllabus week.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal remained at the top of the news after the three-day weekend as the Capitol gears up for another series of budget battles.

A fee or a tax?

Ducey promised not to raise taxes and his budget proposal includes just that. He did, however, put in the proposal that the state fund the Arizona Highway Patrol through the Motor Vehicle Registration fee.

Outgoing state budget director John Arnold said in a presentation to the Joint Appropriations Committee on Tuesday that the goal in the budget proposal is to have the fee cover 50 percent of the Highway Patrol, which amounts to about $65 million. The current Motor Vehicle Registration fee is $8 and raises about $35 million.

The proposal would have the fee increased by up to $7 to ensure it raises an additional $30 million.

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, called it a tax and asked Arnold if it would require two-thirds approval from the Legislature in accordance with voter-approved Proposition 108. Arnold said they would talk through it.

If you can’t beat ‘em, change the Constitution

The budget proposal also includes moving the State Land Department to a self-funding structure for $12.5 million, which had been previously struck down as unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court.

“Many of you may say, ‘Now wait a minute, we tried that. It went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said you can’t do that.’” Arnold said. “For that reason, we’re proposing a constitutional change.”

Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, asked Arnold if the governor’s office had developed any sort of election strategy for amending the state Constitution. Arnold said it had not developed any sort of strategy yet.

“If the goal is have structural balance and we’re going to rely on passage at the ballot, then I think we need to take it with a grain of salt,” Olson said.

Kavanagh and the panhandler

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is taking on panhandlers starting with a bill that would ban them from stopping traffic with a pedestrian signal when they have no intention to cross.

At Senate Public Safety, Military and Technology Committee on Wednesday, Kavanagh related a personal story as one of the reasons why he introduced the bill. He said he was driving home from the Legislature one day during rush hour when he encountered someone soliciting money from cars on a freeway off-ramp. When the light would turn green, the man would hit the pedestrian crosswalk button to make the cars stop sooner so he could solicit more.

The offense would be categorized as a Class 3 misdemeanor. That carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and up to a $500 fine, which would likely require quite a few hours of panhandling to pay off should this bill become law.

With the exception of one absent member, the committee voted unanimously to approve the measure, known as SB 1063.

Kavanagh is also sponsoring SB 1094, which would make it a crime to solicit money on public transportation and within 15 feet of a bank or an ATM.

State of Education is “poor”

State Superintendent Diane Douglas arrived at the Capitol Wednesday to speak before the House Education Committee and tell it something many Arizonans likely already know – the state’s education system is getting some failing grades.

Douglas said the state of education in Arizona is “poor,” citing rankings from Education Week. The state is ranked 47th in the nation in education with a “D+” grade. Douglas cites the implementation of common core standards as the No. 1 problem facing Arizona’s education system now.

She also said student assessments cannot take the place of teachers connecting with students.

“Standards and high-stakes testing measures demographics, not student achievement or teacher performance,” Douglas said.

This comes less than a week after the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law a new high-stakes assessment with the civics test now a requirement for Arizona students to pass for high school graduation.

She also took some shots at Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program without mentioning it by name when she said teaching students by ethnicity amounts to “academic segregation.”

Indian Nations and Tribes Legislative Day

The Capitol celebrated Indian Nations and Tribes Legislative Day on the Senate floor Tuesday morning with several representatives from Native American tribes and communities across the state taking time to speak.

This comes less than three weeks after the death of former Rep. Lloyd House, the first Native American elected to the Legislature. Last week, the Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 2011 honoring the Navajo representative and former Code Talker who was first elected in 1966.

Committee votes

Unlike the fast-tracked civics bill last week, many of the bills introduced are making their way through committee approval on the long trek through the Capitol in becoming laws.

— The Senate Education Committee voted to approve SB 1052, which would make it a bit easier to sponsor a charter school by allowing smaller community colleges to do so.

— The Senate Public Safety, Military and Technology Committee voted to raise the cap on prisoners’ pay. Should it become a law, SB 1002 would raise compensation for working inmates from 50 cents an hour to $1.50 an hour.

— The House Committee on Government and Higher Education approved HB 2094, which requires landlords of mobile homes to be responsible for the maintenance of trees on their tenants’ property.