Friday, February 21, 2014

The Week (At the Arizona Capitol): Feb. 17-21

Posted By on Fri, Feb 21, 2014 at 10:54 AM

On Monday, a bill that would permit the government to construct a “virtual fence” at the border between Arizona and Mexico passed through the Senate Government and Environment committee. The bill would provide $30 million out of the state general pay for the fence.

Sen. Bob Worsley (R-Mesa), the sponsor, said he doesn’t trust the federal government’s border efforts. Instead he talked to the chief executive of SpotterRF, a surveillance-technology company in Utah that has had some U.S. military contracts. “We can independently, as a state, then trust our federal government — but verify the claims that they are making to us,” Worsley said.

Not everybody was on board with Worsley’s message, though. Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber) said that he liked the idea if it was going to be used for law enforcement to cut down on border-related crimes such as trafficking in people and drugs, but he didn’t feel like that was the bill’s intent. “It seems that most of what you’re putting here is just to observe, to determine whether the federal government is actually telling the truth or not,” said Crandell. “I’m not sure it’s a good, wise use of money to tell the federal government ‘ha-ha we can see what you’re doing and we don’t agree with what you’re doing.’” … The bill passed 4-3 with the Republican majority in the committee, but it still has to get through Appropriations and Rules before it will be up for debate on the floor.

***

That same day, a bill sponsored by Sen. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford) that would prevent the use of the Water Protection Fund to plant high-water-use trees, passed through committee. However, Sandy Barr, chapter director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter didn’t agree that this was the best way to conserve water.

“We have no issues with restricting the use of the fund to plant tamarisk or any non-native vegetation, because that is contrary to the intent of the fund,” Barr said. But she also said that restricting it so that no high-water-use trees could be planted would limit riparian restoration. “You couldn’t plant trees like cottonwoods and willows, for example, and in fact that’s the whole intent of the fund — to restore those areas,” Barr said.

Griffin was unimpressed: “They actually planted mesquites in an area where water was a question, so if we want to conserve water, then planting high-water-use vegetation in my opinion is not the best use of tax payers funds.” The bill passed 4-3 along party lines.

***

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Government heard a bill that would ensure that restrictions were not placed on ride-sharing vehicles, exempting airports from limiting the number of ride-sharing vehicles. … The bill was prompted the increasing popularity of ride share organizations like Uber, an app that connects passengers with local drivers.

John MacDonald representing Total Transit, the parent company of Discount Cab, spoke out in opposition. “It is about shifting liability to drivers and the public to give these companies a competitive advantage,” MacDonald said. “That’s why this bill exists. This is not about a unique business model as the proponents assert.” … Before voting yes, Rep. Warren Peterson (R-Gilbert) said: “To me the choice is crystal clear, are we going to get out of the way and allow success here or are we going to regulate this thing to screeching halt?” The bill passed unanimously.

***

On Wednesday, a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Victoria Steele (D-Tucson) and Ethan Orr (R-Tucson) that would make it optional, instead of mandatory, for Arizona counties to hold an election to establish a sports authority within a county passed through the House Commerce Committee. The original bill was designed to keep Major League Baseball spring training in Pima County, but that’s moot since major league teams decamped to the Phoenix area in recent years. Those facilities have since transitioned to support youth sports and major league soccer, so Orr and Steele felt it would be pointless to hold the election. After Rep. Adam Kwasman (R-Oro Valley) spoke about how the bill would save Pima County money, the committee passed the bill unopposed.

The Commerce Committee heard another bill on Wednesday, to increase the amount of beer that breweries — allowing microbreweries to have a 200,000 barrel production cap instead of its current 40,000. Opponents felt that it would give an unfair advantage to small breweries but the bill still passed through the committee 4-3.

***

On Thursday, the Senate Education Committee heard a bill that asked for $5 million to start a technology pilot program. “There’s been evaluations about how technology is impacting education. Some of the results aren’t as rosy as you think they are,” Sen. David Bradley (D-Tucson) said. “The dilemma with tech is that it keeps changing every 6 months.” … It wasn’t just Democrats who opposed, some Republicans opposed as well and the bill failed to pass through committee..

The common core was also debated in the Senate Education Committee on Thursday. SB 1310 attempts to prohibit the state board of education from implementing common-core standards.

The hurried discussion wasn’t about issues with the educational philosophies presented by the standards, but instead focused on government overreach when it comes to education. Sen. Al Melvin (R-Tucson) called some of the readings assigned on the Common Core reading list “borderline pornographic.” … Melvin said, “With this miserable academic performance I personally feel that we have cheated millions of Americans out of a quality education.” …The bill passed 6-3.

***

The biggest news of the week, of course, was SB 1062, the controversial so called freedom of religion bill that made it through the Senate on Wednesday and the house on Thursday. The bill would provide protection for business owners if they decline to serve a customer when they believe doing so would violate their religious beliefs. It was inspired by a case in New Mexico where a photographer refused to take wedding pictures for a gay couple. … Republicans insist that the bill is simply intended to protect citizens’ First Amendment rights, but Democrats claim that the bill will just enable businesses to discriminate. “The one thing that no one can stand up and dispute is that fact that the heart of this bill would invite discrimination against gays and lesbians, bottom line.” Sen. Steve Gallardo (D-Phoenix) said.

Sen. Ed Ableser (D-Tempe) attempted a no-holds-barred attack to change the language of the bill—more as a way to point out the flaws in the language than to actually get anything passed. He started with an amendment that would define “person” as a “bipedal primate” and ended with an amendment that would make it so that Satanism doesn’t qualify under freedom of religion. “This bill is not about allowing discrimination. It’s about preventing discrimination against people who are living out their faith as clearly contemplated by the First Amendment.” Yarbrough said.

The Democrats weren’t listening. “I don’t argue that folks have the right to religious freedom,” Gallardo said. “I think we all have the right to our religious beliefs. But I do not agree that we have the right to discriminate because of our religious beliefs.” … By the end, the Democrats focused on how they felt that the bill would negatively affect the economy. “I’ve been around a long time. I remember when Mecham refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day,” said Sen. Lynne Pancrazi (D-Yuma). “Then I remember 1070, both of which caused economic damage to the state of Arizona in their time. Now we have this.” The references were to former governor Evan Mecham and SB 1070, the controversial immigration bill.

However, the Republicans who had the last say when they voted the bill down 17-13. “I would just suggest that if there is going to be a backlash because of SB 1062, it won’t be because someone has rationally read the contents of this bill and recognizes that it is indeed tailored after Supreme Court cases dealing with First Amendment religious rights. It will be because of the temperament and inaccurate rhetoric,” said Senate President Andy Biggs when he explained his vote, effectively sending the bill to the House.

It was the same story, with the same arguments (minus Satan) in the House, except Rep. Ethan Orr (R-Tucson), Rep. Kate Brophy McGee (R-Phoenix) and Rep. Heather Carter (R-Cave Creek) broke party lines and voted against the bill. The bill still passed 33-27 and was sent to Gov. Brewer’s desk to be signed into law.

***

The election-repeal bill, HB2305, passed through the Senate on Thursday and will now be sent to Gov. Brewer’s desk to be signed. The bill has stirred up controversy because Democrats claim that Republicans are trying to repeal it to separate the parts into six bills. The original bill passed through the House last year at the last minute and then was nullified when the Democrats collected enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

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