STATE LAWMAKERS ARE moving into the adolescent stage in
the session. This is where they hammer out a budget, causing all
sorts of adjustments and upsets. Once the budget is passed, the
true fun begins as votes are traded and bills change numbers while
members try to play hide-and-seek with noxious--or favorite--measures.
Count on some truly inane bills to be heard in the wee hours when
sponsors know their weak-willed colleagues will have gone home
and the weak-minded will be perplexed and blindly follow leadership.
The big item on the agenda, of course, is a $200-million tax cut, although lawmakers are still unsure of where it's coming from. They've got plenty of schemes--cutting income taxes, cutting property taxes, cutting vehicle registration fees. There's even an ambitious scheme to slash property taxes while creating a new class of sales taxes, a plan which just barely made it out of the Senate last week. That plan would use sales taxes on everything from gardening services to haircuts to fund maintenance and operation costs for schools, if the voters approve a measure on this November's ballot.
It's about the closest lawmakers have come to tackling an education issue. They still haven't come up with a new mechanism for funding school construction, even though it's been nearly two years since the state Supreme Court declared the current system unconstitutional. Legislators have come up with a temporary measure which will provide $30 million annually to help school districts with the worst safety needs, but even supporters admit that's nothing but a Band-Aid on the problem.
But that's not to say lawmakers have been dawdling. Altogether, they've filed nearly 1,000 bills, with the regular din of states' rights chest-beating going on in the background--there's House Concurrent Resolution 2001 (Bad Bill No. 9 on our list), honoring conspiracy fruitcake Michael New, a U.S. Army doctor who refused to serve under United Nations command, and HCR 2024, which asks Congress to repeal the 17th Amendment so the Legislature can appoint U.S. senators, instead of letting voters make that decision.
The fed-fightin' rebs of the Constitutional Defense Council are continuing their battles as well. The Dems took a stab at the council, griping the CDC had nothing to show for the $300,000 it had already spent, including a $20,000 payout to an incendiary lawsuit in Nye County, Nevada, against the wishes of Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods. Critics complained the CDC had done little more than cover the expenses of Washington attorneys, who enjoyed resort accommodations and expensive meals courtesy of taxpayers.
But the Republicans killed the bill, insisting the council's work hasn't paid off yet because they've only just begun. Instead, Mesa Rep. Jeff Groscost, a Republican, sponsored a bill severing all ties with the AG's office, which will no doubt make the CDC's direction ever more starboard. That bill has passed the House and is headed for the Senate.
A long-anticipated special session on abortion was torpedoed when organizers couldn't put together a complete package. Pro-life lawmakers had hoped to pass a law requiring minors to obtain parental consent before undergoing an abortion, but Senate President John Greene (R-Phoenix) said he'd only hear the bill if backers agreed to two compromise bills that would have provided funding for sex ed and teen pregnancy prevention. Since some hard-right lawmakers wouldn't consider giving Planned Parenthood a dime, all three bills sunk, although we were treated to the sight of Rep. Robin Shaw, (R-Phoenix) passing a pack of birth control pills to the Glendale Granny, Rep. Jean McGrath, a Republican. (McGrath, we're told, nearly leaped out of her skin.) Keep your ears open, though--word is the parental consent bill could rise again in the final round of deal making.
At any rate, we've put together a list of bills we think are particular stinkers up at the Legislature. Take a look at them and then ring up your lawmakers to tell 'em what you think--it's a toll-free free call at 1-800-352-8404.
1) How about a bill that gives polluters immunity from civil and all-but-the-most-henious criminal penalties if they make a secret report to the Department of Environmental Quality? That's what the Environmental Audit Bill (Senate Bill 1381) is all about. Nicknamed the Bhopal Bill because it defines a serious violation as "actual bodily harm or damage that results in significant and widespread destruction or loss of a natural resource," Enviro Audit actually passed the Legislature last year, but was vetoed by Gov. J. Fife Symington III.
This year's model came out of Symington's office, but opponents--including the state attorney general's office, the County Attorneys Association, the Public Health Association, Maricopa County and the greens--say it's actually worse than last year's version. The legislation is being pushed by Yuma Sen. Jim Buster, a Republican, who is giving up his seat to run for Democrat U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor's Congressional District 2 seat. Be sure to remember Buster is a corporate toad when it comes time to vote next November.
The Enviro Audit Bill just squeezed out of the Senate, 16-14, and is now in the House. If it manages to make it into law, opponents will almost surely gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot, where it will almost surely be rejected by voters. The House ought to save everyone a lot of time, trouble and money and just kill this one.
2) Despite protests that he's not a lackey for the insurance industry, Senate President John Greene is strong-arming members to support a twisted tort reform measure (Senate Concurrent Resolution 1016) which would change the Constitution to allow the Legislature to limit awards, a measure currently deemed unconstitutional. Voters have already rejected this notion three times, so Greene put a special twist in this one--knowing that about 20 percent of voters always say no when faced with these kinds of questions, he reversed the language, so that "no" now means "yes" and "yes" now means "no." And they wonder why we have so little respect for them. The measure has passed the Senate and is now winding its way through the House.
3) Another stab at tort reform, the "loser pays" bill (HB 2230) would force the loser of a lawsuit to pick up the tab for the winner's legal costs--a sum that could stretch into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since the average guy already has the deck stacked against him in a lawsuit, the ultimate effect will be to discourage people from pursuing their legal rights.
"If what we want is a system of justice for the rich, this is what we want to do," says Tim Hogan, an attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest. "If you lose, it doesn't matter how legitimate your claim was, you're going to pay the other person's lawyer. Well, who's going to be able to afford to do this? If you're facing exposure for $50,000, or whatever you might be liable for if you lose the lawsuit, you're going to think more than twice about bringing it."
Judges already have the discretion to award attorney fees if they believe it appropriate, making this bill unnecessary. But it has already passed the House and moved into the Senate.
4) Enough people around here still remember Charlie Keating to raise an uproar over Senate Bill 1383, which would reduce people's power to sue when they get burned in a financial scam. Just talking about such a possibility is enough to make Sun City have a cow. This one has passed the Senate 18-12 and is headed to the House. Ever play liars' poker? Here's just one provision: Anyone who sells a stock using an untrue statement (lie) or leaves out a material fact (lies), "in light of the circumstances under which they were made" is liable to the purchaser, who has to prove that the seller "recklessly or knowingly committed a violation." The proponents of this gobbledegook want to hold themselves up as heroes for stopping "strike suits," a particular kind of financial lawsuit that's never been filed in Arizona. What they've really done is made it tougher to recover damages from those lying, cheating, financial scum-sucking carpet-baggers who breeze into this state every few years and think they can just buy it. Well, maybe they can, but who wants to make it easy for 'em?
5) How can lawmakers keep a promise of a $200-million tax cut, pretend to look out for the little guy, suck up to business and leave local counties, cities and schools holding the bag? Easy, just take a gander at House Bill 2536, the 1996 Property Tax Reform Act. No sleight of hand here--just a straightforward tax cut that's structurally designed to backfire in a few years when the folks who concocted it are gone from the legislature. We prefer SB 1123, the vehicle license tax rate. That one cuts your car registeration fees nearly in half. We like our tax cuts simple and out in the open. Better yet, why not turn down the blow-hard, election-year rhetoric for this year, fix the school funding formula and divvy up the rest in programs that have been getting underfunded for years?
6) With a sudden jump in property values in Pima and Maricopa counties, lawmakers--along with Gov. J. Fife Symington III--are jumping behind House Concurrent Resolution 2030, which would freeze property values at 1997 levels until a house is sold. This is a simplistic solution to a complex problem which will only create more trouble down the road. Ten years from now, identical houses will have sharply different values, simply because one was purchased more recently. That means neighborhood newcomers will carry a larger tax burden than longtime residents, which is hardly an equitable taxing system. Property taxes are designed to spread the tax burden equally among members of a community, which is impossible if values fluctuate wildly along the same street. A better fix would put pressure on local taxing authorities, from the county to school districts, to lower tax rates rather than property values. Yes, it's more complex than the simple solution proposed by lawmakers, but it's also the smart way to handle the situation. And Fife ought to know better than to support something like this, but then he always has had trouble keeping track of the value of his holdings.
7) Lawmakers hate those troubling elections--and who can blame them? After all, how'd you like to come up for review every two years by rabble who probably haven't been paying attention to what you've been doing at the Capitol? And the fundraising ain't much fun either. To make their lives easier, legislators are now sponsoring House Concurrent Resolution 2029, which would extend their terms from two to four years. This is a very bad idea--already, many of our elected officials have little regard for the public. Imagine what it would be like if they felt even more protected from backlash. We know elections are a messy business, but it's all part of the great game of Democracy. This one has passed the House and is in the Senate. Squash it before it appears on the ballot.
8) Tired of those toxic sites dotting the landscape 'round Tucson? Had your fill of horror stories in the daily press about some cancer-causing chemical migrating toward a water source? Then the Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund (WQARF) Regulatory Reform bill is for you. It'll be receiving a new number in the Senate, as this little booger never quite made it in the House. It would have us just forget the whole notion of pursuing people who've dumped hazardous waste and make Joe and Jane Taxpayer foot the clean-up bill by changing the liability statutes. But wait, there's more! There's no funding source, so the proposal on the table right now would reduce the liability for folks who contributed to groundwater pollution and create hundreds of "orphan" sites while we all wait for the next election to possibly put in a legislature that would vote for a fund to clean them up. We believe in the tooth fairy, you betcha.
9) Pandering to the Posse Comitatus, Rep. David Farnsworth has been pushing House Concurrent Resolution 2001, honoring Michael New, an Army doc who got court-martialed after he refused to wear one of those blue helmets of the United Nation's sinister New World Order. Farnsworth, a Republican who represents Snowflake, is a favorite speaker at John Birch Society events in the Phoenix area. His ally on the bill, Rep. Jean McGrath, the Glendale Granny who was the driving force behind the CFC law last year, was in fine form as she bashed the presidency and the union at large.
Too bad Arizona has zero jurisdiction in the case--but New can at least find some solace in the realization that he could probably move to Arizona and win Farnsworth's House seat, which he's giving up to run for the state Senate later this year.
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