Breaking Away! 

Lawmakers have fled the Capitol. But will they be back?

They're done!

Or are they?

The Arizona Legislature reached Sine Die last week, but it may turn out a premature climax to the session.

Gov. Janet Napolitano has threatened to veto part--maybe a really big part--of the delicately balanced state budget, which would force lawmakers back to Phoenix for a special session before the fiscal year ends in less than six weeks.

Napolitano's spin: Republican lawmakers reneged on an agreement to fund a program to help non-native speakers learn English as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit. The GOP leadership spin: The deal they struck with the governor didn't include any specifics about funding for English learners.

Napolitano hadn't played her move as of deadline, which was really rather inconsiderate, if you ask us.

While we're waiting for her to make up her mind--and she probably will just as soon as we go to press--here's a roundup of what the lawmakers accomplished (and failed to accomplish) during the 123-day session.

The Numbers

Lawmakers were busy, busy, busy. They introduced 1,311 bills, aside from memorials and resolutions. Of those, 278 had become law as of last Friday, May 13, for a batting average of .212--above the Mendoza line, but nowhere near Hall of Fame numbers.

Napolitano had vetoed 48 bills as of press time--a record number for any governor, inflated somewhat by the fact that the March budget she vetoed contained eight separate bills.

Hey, Big Spenders!

About a week before the end of the session, Napolitano came to an agreement with Senate President Ken Bennett and House Speaker Jim Weiers on an $8.2 million budget, roughly $500,000 million more than this year's $7.7 billion budget.

What's with the living large? Times are good. As of the end of March, with three months remaining in the fiscal year, the state had collected $411 million more than forecasters had anticipated, which has given us plenty to spread around, as well as brighter expectations for FY 2006.

Schoolhouse Rock

All those extra dollars means education has come out the big winner, at least if the current budget holds.

Buoyed by public-opinion polls that show that all-day kindergarten is overwhelmingly popular with Arizona voters (undoubtedly accompanied by a deep conviction that it's the Right Thing To Do), Napolitano has made all-day K a cornerstone of her agenda. In the budget agreement that passed last week, lawmakers agreed to provide an additional $17 million to expand the program for another 7,000 to 8,000 students next year.

But to get the expansion, Napolitano had to bend on two key issues. She agreed to Republican demands that the state pay $250 million for school construction in cash rather than borrowing the money through bonding--a decision made easier by the Arizona's strong economic performance.

More controversial was Napolitano's agreement to a program that allows corporations to get a tax credit from the state if they create a scholarship program for low-income kids who attend private or parochial schools. These tuition tax credits had been approved by Republicans earlier in the session but vetoed by Napolitano.

Opponents of the tuition tax credits--including teary Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans--complain that the concession opens the door to state subsidies of private and religious schools. And they're right. But it also opens the door to government regulation of private schools that accept the money.

Napolitano drove a hard bargain before caving. She deflected a direct voucher program (which had stalled earlier this year in the House of Representatives) and limited the tuition tax credit program to $5 million a year. The original GOP bill had the program growing to as much $50 million a year.

The deal reeks of classic Clinton triangulation: Napolitano set herself up between the Democrats, who were essentially powerless throughout the budget negotiations, and the Republican leaders, who were insistent on having a budget that was supported by 16 GOP votes in the 30-member Senate and 31 GOP votes in the 60-member House. The speaker and president were determined to avoid last year's debacle, which saw moderate Republicans rolling leadership and teaming up with Democrats to expand spending.

But after the framework of the deal was worked out, a loose end led to a tangle: Flores v. Arizona, a federal lawsuit brought by the GOP's courthouse nemesis, attorney Tim Hogan of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

In Flores, which dates back to 1992, Hogan persuaded federal judge Alfredo Marquez that the state isn't spending enough money to ensure that kids who don't speak English become fluent. Hogan vowed to ask the courts to shut off federal highway dollars to Arizona if a reasonable plan wasn't crafted by the end of the session.

Legislative Democrats were given an opportunity to flex their political muscle by negotiating Flores, but they could not reach an agreement with Republicans, who broke off negotiations late Thursday. By 1:25 a.m. Friday morning, the Republicans had crafted their own $28 million Flores plan, tied up loose ends and called Sine Die.

The next move belongs to Napolitano, who could veto as little as the Flores package or as much as the entire budget.

Flores and tuition tax credits were losers for public education; other wins included $45 million in additional funds intended for teacher raises, which won't do much beyond covering the cost of additional paycheck contributions to the state retirement system.

Lawmakers also approved a last-minute lowering of the bar of the high-stakes AIMS test, which next year's graduating class must pass to graduate. Under the plan, students who have good grades get a boost on their AIMS scores.

One thing lawmakers and the governor could agree on: Kids eat too much goddamn junk food. Although high schools were exempted, chips and candy have been banned from vending machines for the lower grades, much to the dismay of administrators who skim off the top of the sales.

Tucson Democrat David Bradley managed a minor miracle: shepherding his bill making it a crime to bully other schoolchildren through the GOP-controlled Legislature. Congrats on the win, Dave!

Medicinal Purposes

Republicans kept a tight grip on university funding, but the UA got a big win with $7 million in seed money to launch a medical school in downtown Phoenix. Let's just hope it's not the first step in shutting down the med school here in 10 years.

The universities successfully fought off several assaults. The House killed a Senate bill that would have limited tuition increases for current students to the rate of inflation; the Senate killed a House bill that would have allowed community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

Rugrat Report

Early in the session, Republicans tried to limit working moms to no more than two years of state-subsidized day care per kid. They also refused to request additional federal funds that were ours for the taking. Why would they turn down federal dollars that make it possible for single moms to get off welfare and back into the workforce? Because sometimes, they just want to behave like dicks. Oh, sorry. We meant to say that they felt it would encourage single moms to move up in the workforce if they knew the state subsidy would expire after two years. Otherwise, they lack incentive to move beyond their minimum-wage jobs.

Republicans gave up that plan in the final budget deal, which did request an additional $11.2 million in federal dollars and to keep working-class families off waiting lists.

Bruce Liggett, a child-care lobbyist at the Capitol, said he was happy with the additional spending, but mentions another problem: DES reimburses daycare centers using tuition rates from 1998. On average, Liggett notes, that's about 30 percent below the market average.

"That directly translates into what we're able to pay our teachers and the kind of benefits we're able to give them," Liggett says.

Border Skirmish

The biggest sideshow during the session was the right-wing's grandstanding on illegal immigration. Judging from how hard the GOP worked to put the "illegal" back into "illegal immigration," there must be a real problem with foreign workers sneaking into the country, learning how to read and checking out all the best-sellers down at the local library.

For all the sound and fury, little legislation made it past Napolitano's desk. The best-known new law makes it a state crime for coyotes to smuggle people into the country for profit. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Tim Bee and Rep. Jonathan Paton, who represent border areas near Sierra Vista as well as eastern Tucson and Green Valley, in District 30.

In addition, voters will be asked on the 2006 ballot to approve a referendum to deny bail to illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes.

Key bills that passed, but got the big V from Napolitano:

· Allowing the state to contract with a private prison facility in Mexico for Mexican nationals now in Arizona prisons.

· Making English the official language of Arizona and forbidding any level of government from doing business in any language other than English.

· Preventing government agencies from accepting any form of foreign identification as a valid form of ID for any service.

A few bills that passed in the last days of the session and remained alive as of press time:

· Giving police the power to arrest and deport illegal immigrants.

· Banning illegal immigrants from enrolling in Adult Education classes or getting child-care subsidies, in-state tuition or financial aid.

Law and Order

Among the new crimes you should avoid committing in the future:

· Spousal rape.

· Infecting computer users with spyware.

· Stealing a computer users identity through "phishing."

· Putting pseudoephedrine--a key ingredient in meth labs--on drugstore shelves for anyone to buy.

The crime that won't be illegal in three months: Explosive party poppers are being legalized.

That's the Spirits

Speaking of party poppers: Lawmakers voted to issue more liquor licenses for full bars, restaurants that serve alcohol and liquor stores. The legislation also allows liquor merchants to hand out small samples of alcohol. We'll drink to that!

The downside: Patrons of the new taverns won't be packing heat--legally, anyhow. Napolitano vetoed a bill that would have allowed non-drinkers to carry guns in bars.

Props to Huffman

Credit Rep. Steve Huffman of northwest Tucson for getting business a property-tax break. We could get all technical about how this works, but we'd lose those of you who have stuck with us so far. If you're not a wonk, feel free to skip ahead to the next item, which is all about sex.

Still with us? OK, so for simplicity's sake, let's just say that under the current system, businesses essentially pay taxes based on 25 percent of their property values, while the homeowners' bills is based on 10 percent of their property value. Huffman's reform will trim the business tax to 20 percent of the property value incrementally over the next decade.

Here's where it gets a little trickier. Because the state eliminated its property tax some time ago, counties and school districts feel the brunt of the cut, which shifts the tax burden shift from businesses to homeowners. To counter that, lawmakers included a state-funded tax rebate to homeowners that's supposed to hold them harmless. We'll see about that.

Huffman struck out with two other bills related to property taxes and school districts. One would have capped desegregation funding; the second would have limited school districts' ability to raise taxes by setting a maximum rate. Napolitano vetoed them both.

Sen. Toni Hellon of District 26 steered a tax break for filmmakers who make movies in Arizona, after lawmakers worked out a wrinkle to ensure that state tax dollars wouldn't be subsidizing a new soft-core porno industry.

To get the No Studio Left Behind Act passed, Hellon had to let vouchers and tuition tax credits through her education committee. Just imagine how differently things might have turned out had those been smothered in the crib.

Sexual Assault

Anti-government conservatives passed a couple of bills aimed at regulating the behavior of filthy sluts and no-good cheaters, but mean ol' anti-marriage Napolitano vetoed both.

One would have allowed have allowed pharmacists to decline to fill prescriptions for medication that induces an abortion or acts as emergency contraception. The second would have repealed Arizona's no-fault divorce law, allowing a judge to consider misconduct while divvying up the marital estate when couples divorce.

A constitutional ban on gay marriage, which loomed large at the start of the session, petered out early when supporters of the proposal--mainly, lobbyist Len Munsil and his gang at the Center for Arizona Policy--decided to run an initiative instead of asking lawmakers to put the proposal on the ballot. Depending on who you talk to, that was because:

(A) Munsil and Co. were worried that lawmakers might water down the proposal or even put an alternative on the ballot that would allow the abomination of civil unions and other forms of counterfeit marriage; and/or

(B) Munsil and Co. saw an initiative campaign as a big, fat national fundraising opportunity.

The Center for Arizona Policy formally launched a petition drive earlier this week, bringing an army of clipboard-bearing homeless bums to a parking lot near you.

Meddling in Our Affairs

It's clear that some lawmakers are not familiar with the United Federation of Planet's Prime Directive, which states in part: As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture.

Sen. Tim Bee sponsored a bill that would have prohibited cities and counties from requiring that a certain number of homes inside developments be set aside for sale at a discount rate to low-income homebuyers. While Pima County doesn't now have such inclusionary zoning, it has threatened to pursue it if developers don't negotiate over an impact fee aimed to help low-income homebuyers. Napolitano vetoed the bill, much to SAHBA's dismay.

GOP lawmakers caved to the billboard industry, passing a get-out-of-jail-free act that would have immunized Clear Channel Outdoor against enforcement of billboard codes in the city of Tucson. Napolitano vetoed that one, too, along with a bill that would have allowed billboards with flashing lights along Arizona highways.

In other special-interest legislation, the House killed the Cox Cablevision's Kiss Public Access Goodbye Act, which would have limited the taxes that local municipalities could charge cable companies.

Federal Express

During slow moments, lawmakers found the votes to support a variety of postcards to send back to Washington, urging federal lawmakers to:

· Pass a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a union of one man and one woman.

· Reject entry into the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

· Protect Arizona's CAP supply.

· Give lawmakers, rather than the governor, control over federal funds returned to the state.

· To help Taiwan gain observer status at a World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland.

· And enact more railroad regulation.

Hey, Whatever Happened To ...

· Water conservation?

· State Trust Land reform?

· Comprehensive tax overhaul?

· Alternative sentencing?

More by Jim Nintzel


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