Of the roughly 1,200 bills debated by Arizona lawmakers during the 2016 legislative session, only a determined few dozen will  be signed into law. We profile the best – and worst – of them.

Bill Season

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Hot Topics Issue: April 2016
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As political entertainment goes, the current Arizona legislative session is hardly the stuff of Trump-Cruz-Rubio, but its effects will be far more immediate and tangible for Valley residents.

Have a family member in the armed services? Our 90 popularly elected Arizona senators and representatives will collectively decide how their service will translate into college credit. Want to get your children vaccinated? Legislators may make it easier for you to get them flu shots at the corner pharmacy, sans prescription. 

School vouchers, police pensions, payday loan policies, even wine shipments to your home will have all come under scrutiny by the time the legislature concludes business on April 20. In all, some 1,200 bills are debated during a typical legislative session, and of those, “about 150 will be signed into law on a slow year,” according to Arizona Senate press representative Mike Philipsen. The typical total count is closer to 200. 

Some of the bills are already signed and sealed. Others will be ratified over the coming weeks. Many will die on the floors of the respective chambers, or on the governor’s desk. With a month of lawmaking left to do, we picked 12 that piqued our interest – the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

Politics isn’t all sandbagging and stalemate. These well-judged pieces of lawmaking hold bipartisan appeal. 

SB1525: JTED Refunding

“90 percent of what we do isn’t controversial and doesn’t get the headlines, but is so important to the lives of regular Arizonans,” says Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs (D-Phoenix). “Just common-sense stuff.”

To wit: the legislature’s refunding of Arizona’s Joint Technical Education Districts (JTED), a statewide family of public education programs that provides technical training to 98,000 young students annually. JTED’s gutting was one of the most contentious features of Governor Doug Ducey’s initial 2016 budget proposal – and the House and Senate both moved swiftly to restore the program’s solvency in early panel meetings, to the tune of $30 million. 

Economically and politically, salvaging JTED makes sense. At a comparatively low cost – relative, say, to a four-year university tuition – the state provides highly targeted pre-employment training to students in skill-based fields starved for labor. Fields like construction, automotive repair, welding and the like.

“A lot of times, students will enroll in these classes, get licensed in their field and start working right after graduation,” says Senator Kimberly Yee (R-Glendale), part of a broad, bipartisan coalition that supported the twin measures. “It’s what is traditionally known as vocation training... and it’s important to keep real-world experience in these classrooms... teachers who bring a passion to that type of learning and have worked in the profession.”

Status: Signed by governor; immediate funding

SB 1267: College Credit for Military Service 

Another feel-good education bill with bipartisan support, SB 1267 would require state-funded community colleges to develop policies crediting current or former members of the U.S. military with academic credit. The credits would be based on “number of years of active duty” and “skills, knowledge and competencies... during service.” 

“It helps [veterans] open a door to a career,” Yee, a co-sponsor, says. “It saves time and money and opens a pathway. It’s a thank you for the service to our country.”

Hard to imagine much opposition – after all, in terms of human knowledge, there’s arguably more to be learned in a foxhole than a sociology 101 class.

Status: Passed both chambers; awaits governor’s signature

SB 1428/1429: public-safety pension reform 

Arizona’s overextended pension system for public-safety workers got a much-needed reworking early in the 2016 session. The new rules – which apply to future police and fire department hires, not current or former employees – cuts in half the maximum salary to which pensions can be applied ($265,000 to $110,000) and splits the cost of pension plans more evenly between employees and employers. Senator Debbie Lesko (R-Phoenix), who represented Arizona lawmakers during tense negotiations over the past year, estimates it will save Arizona $1.5 billion over the next 30 years.

“Senator Lesko worked on it all summer and worked really hard to craft language that unions were OK with,” Hobbs says.

Status: Passed both chambers; will appear on the May ballot as a voter-ratified referendum

SB 1350: The airbnb law 

Following a call by Governor Ducey in his State of the State address to cultivate a so-called “sharing economy” in Arizona, this bill would make it easier for online  short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and VBRO to operate in Arizona by creating an orderly system for collecting lodging taxes from the homeowners.

Just as significantly, it would protect homeowners from gouging by local municipalities, which have sometimes attempted to reclassify such homes as commercial properties with higher tax rates. Introduced in mid-February, the legislation appears to enjoy broad support, but may face resistance from Arizona’s powerful hospitality lobby. 

Status: In committee as of late February

THE BAD

Either rashly authored or regressive, these bills are bad for Arizona.

HB 2482: EMPOWERMENT SCHOLARSHIPS AKA UNIVERSAL SCHOOL VOUCHERS

“The controversial [legislation] tends to come at the end of the session,” says Mike O’Neil, president of Tempe-based polling firm O’Neil Associates. By that reckoning, expect Arizona’s explosive school-voucher law to go down to the wire. 

Some background: In 2011, Arizona lawmakers passed the state’s current school-voucher program, which allows around 5,500 mostly special-needs students to opt out of the public schooling system and use state-funded vouchers to defray the cost of special private education. The current bill, which squeaked by in the Senate 16-14 and faces a contentious vote in the House of Representatives, would expand the program to include all students – including those whose (predominantly wealthy) families already have them enrolled in private schools.

So, the immediate effect: a diversion of public education funds into the pockets of Arizonans who need it least. 

The long-term outcome is a little harder to predict, but at least some critics believe it will undermine the public education model and result in school closures. Their reasoning: Public schools are built on a utility-style economy of scale. They need full classrooms – and the commensurate per-student funding – to survive. If a school sheds students and loses funding, the model implodes.

O’Neil invokes the example of an energy utility that loses customers to residential solar. “If it happens gradually, the utility can adapt,” he says. “But if all of the sudden a million panels went up overnight, APS’ business model would be destroyed overnight.” 

Hobbs believes the bill is latest in a “series of systematic ongoing attacks” against public education in Arizona. “I didn’t support it in 2011 because I knew we’d expand every year.”

Yee, a supporter of the bill, prefers to look at the vouchers – dubbed “empowerment scholarships” by supporters – as vessels of choice. “These same arguments were made when we started charter schools a decade ago... and now we’re hearing the same thing about [empowerment scholarships]. What it really does is create a free market for public education for parents’ choosing.”

She adds that it will save Arizona money, a claim corroborated by Hobbs. But Arizona already languishes in the bottom five U.S. states in per-student funding, with performance rates to match. Should spending even less on them be our immediate goal?

Status: Passed in the Senate; awaiting a vote in the House as this issue went to press

HB 2333: construction sign-offs

One of several bills “flying out of the House” in February that Yee felt required legislative scrutiny, this Representative Brenda Barton-sponsored law would make it easier for developers to launch real estate construction projects by stripping away certain state-mandated licensing requirements. “Basically, if you do construction, you no longer have to hire an engineer or architect to sign off on the plans,” Yee says. “We all want to stimulate the economy... but those are the kind of bills that call into question public health and industry.” 

Status: Passed in the House; in Senate committee review as this issue went to press 

SB 1125: Desegregation Defunding

Applying the double-negative rule, does this contentious education bill basically amount to “segregation funding”? 

Not quite, but it appears to be misjudged, all the same. One of the positive side effects of Arizona’s desegregation movement in the 1980s was the creation of magnet programs in urban school districts, e.g. the International Baccalaureate program at North High School, or the police and firefighter program at Franklin High School. Funded by property taxes, the programs cost the state nothing but have nonetheless been targeted by anti-public-schooling legislators. 

“These are really successful programs,” Hobbs says. “And they’d collectively lose $50 million under the new rules. I’d hope Governor Ducey would look long and hard at vetoing [the law], but it’s hard to say at this point.”

Status: Awaiting a Senate vote 

SB1316: Payday Loan Revival 

Arizona lawmakers wisely jettisoned payday loans from the scope of legal business enterprises in 2010. Modern day usury schemes in which borrowers – invariably desperate and poor – were hit with 400 percent annual interest payments, the loan centers functioned as predatory poverty engines, trapping users in a cycle of debt.

Well, somebody thinks it would be a great idea to bring them back, under the seemingly virtuous banner of “choice.” As uncovered by blogger Craig McDermott, a thinly-veiled “astroturf” (fake grassroots) organization called the Arizona Financial Choice Association – led by a pair of out-of-state payday loan lobbyists – managed to cajole lawmakers into hearing a redrafted version of the law that governs the state’s lending guidelines. Under the new law, payday loans would be rebranded as “flexible credit loans.” Different name, identically loathsome.

Status: In committee  

THE UGLY

These unsightly bills seem designed to rig the system for political advantage – that, or they’re just kooky. 

HB 2023: Ballot Harvesting

Politically motivated policy-rigging at its most odious. Though Republican lawmakers hold commanding majorities in both chambers, they’ve never been quite as adept as their Democratic counterparts at collecting early ballots from their constituents. To put it succinctly, their ground game isn’t quite as good.

Enter this Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) bill that would make it illegal for party volunteers to physically collect early ballots from elderly, disadvantaged or otherwise unmotivated voters. “I get it, you get your ballot and mail it back – it shouldn’t be that hard,” Hobbs says. “But the term ‘ballot harvesting’ makes it sound like we’re doing something really nefarious. The implication is that our volunteers are changing people’s ballots, and that’s already against the law, that’s a felony. And not a single case of that has ever been demonstrated. It’s really just a form of voter disenfranchisement.”

Status: Passed in the House; awaiting Senate committee hearing

HCR 2009: Redistricting Reform

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed a legal challenge by the Arizona Legislature to dissolve the state’s voter-approved Independent Redistricting Committee, the five-member body which recalculates Arizona’s voting maps every 10 years. Led by a nonpartisan, appointed chairperson to prevent the gerrymandering of voting districts, the committee’s initial maps coincided with an increase in Democratic representatives both at the state and congressional level, which led many Republican lawmakers to deem the map boundaries biased toward Democrats.

Maybe. Or maybe the previous maps were biased and the IRC simply restored a semblance of fairness? In any case, the SCOTUS ruling seemed to settle the matter.

But not really. Passed by the House in February, HCR 2009 seeks to make all five redistricting seats voter-decided, which sounds all nice and democratic and everything, except for the small fact that it would create a self-perpetuating system in which the majority party would invariably claim all five seats and redraw the voting maps to serve its own interests. Which is to say, it would be just the like the system voters rejected in 2011. No, gracias. 

If HCR 2009 passes both chambers and is signed by Governor Ducey, it would appear on the May or November ballots as a referendum. 

Status: Passed in the House; being reviewed in Senate committee 

SB 1141: Gold Currency

It wouldn’t be a legislative session without a few whacko wonder-bills seemingly authored in The Twilight Zone. This year’s candidate: SB 1141, which seeks to define gold and silver as legal tender in Arizona and encourage their use in everyday commercial transactions. And make them exempt from taxes. 

Hey, we like gold as much as the next bedazzled hominid. But it isn’t the place of the Arizona legislature to decide what constitutes legal tender for its citizens, anymore than it has the right to broker peace treaties on our behalf. The only way this bill could reek more strongly of Fed-bashing, end-of-days paranoia is if Cliven Bundy himself laid a cow patty on it.

SB 1141 is the latest in a long line of adventurous legislation by Senator David Farnsworth (R-Mesa), whose greatest hits include a bill requiring Arizona to prepare its citizens for an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack by foreign powers. 

Status: Passed in the Senate; being reviewed in House committee 

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SB 1071 aka “Wayne’s Law”

If legislators experience a sense of déjà vu debating this bill, there’s a perfectly rational explanation: It’s a carbon copy of a bill they rejected last year – one that was criticized for being authored specifically to help a single, wealthy investor named Wayne Howard from ducking out on a $146,000 administrative fee. 

Derisively dubbed “Wayne’s Law” by opponents, the 2015 bill – SB 1071 – would have capped the amount of money a county can charge an individual for processing real estate tax liens, which are markers the county puts on properties when the owner owes back taxes. Third parties can purchase these liens and claim the property after a fixed amount of time.

Howard purchased 2,922 such liens in Pinal County, and received a processing bill of $146,100, or $50 a parcel. Business as usual? Not by Howard’s reckoning. Instead of paying the fee like a good plutocrat, he lobbied Senator Steve Smith (R-Maricopa) to change the law so he’d only have to pay $500 for all 2,922 transactions despite the many hours of administrative labor required to do so.

Needless to say, the bill was drummed off the floor of the House in March of 2015... yet, like some hard-to-kill slasher villain in a midnight horror flick, managed to reconstitute itself in 2016 as the exact same bill with the exact same sugar daddy. And again we say: No, thanks.

Status: In committee