Angels & Demons

Seven takeaways from the recently concluded legislative session

Arizona's 53rd Legislature can bring out the inner Grandpa Simpson: "In my day, the Legislature was bat-guano crazy. We didn't have 'Prop 123' to fund our schools. We just had rocks and coyote bones to learn from..."

The Arizona Legislature was Tea Party conservative before it was cool. Years before Michele Bachmann swooped down from northern Minnesota like an arctic blast of wackadoodle, Arizona had a state representative, Jean McGrath, declaring war on Freon restrictions. Our lawmakers have made national headlines for taking gym bags of cash in the AzScam scandal, passing an alt-fuels bill that nearly bankrupted the state and pushing through SB 1070, which soured relations with our trading partners in Mexico and cost the state who knows how much in lost tourism dollars. The Legislature has gone after the ability of local jurisdictions to govern themselves, passed some of the most punitive laws against the people at the bottom and slowly but steadily pushed the tax burden away from the rich and onto the poor.

By those standards, the 2017 Legislative session proved an exercise in reason and good measure as lawmakers made headlines for undoing the damage they had done in previous years.

This isn't to say the Legislature didn't get petty, partisan and undemocratic. This is the Arizona Legislature. Of course they did. They were just less petty, partisan and undemocratic than we have come to know.

When was the last time a legislative round-up could include the phrase "schools and the poor were kinda, sorta winners" to describe a Legislative session?

Here are seven takeaways from the 2017 Legislative session.

1. Class Act

The 53rd Arizona Legislative will be remembered most for its focus on education. Depending on your point of view, lawmakers spent four months either putting schools on a pedestal or in the crosshairs.

The budget included $34 million for a 1 percent raise in teacher pay, with the promise of another $34 million for an extra 1 percent next year.

Arizona teachers make, on average, $45,408, according to the most recent National Education Association survey. That ranks 47th nationally. Makes sense, given the low state spending and the perennial freak-out about the percentage of school funds going into the classrooms. The NEA pegs the average American teacher salary at $57,420.

So the raise helps teachers, if it truly is a raise and not a one-time bonus. But that requires the Legislature to make good on next year's installment and beyond. See, the legislature didn't put the cash in the ongoing school budgets, but instead paid for it with a side commitment.

On the other hand, lawmakers did increase the base funding for schools by more than $100 million. On top of that, the schools are getting more money from Prop 123 that can also go to teacher pay. Teacher salaries don't solely ride on what the Legislature did regarding raises.

Time will tell how it shakes out but the schools are facing a teacher shortage. Arizona State University's Morrison Institute put out a survey that found four in 10 new teachers quit within their first three years.

In 2015, a U.S. Census Bureau report showed Arizona ranked 49th nationally in terms of per-pupil spending. That—plus polling data that shows that voters are concerned aout schools—has Gov. Doug Ducey wanting to claim the mantle of the "Education Governor." Schools have seen their funding increase substantially during the past year. Is it enough to nudge Arizona into 48th place? Who knows? The state had been hundreds of millions of dollars behind Oklahoma and Mississippi, which rank 47th and 48th, depending on the year. Arizona would need an annual billion-dollar infusion just to move into 45th place.

Neither Oklahoma nor Mississippi seem in any hurry to improve their standing. Some Oklahoma schools have been forced into four-day school weeks to save money. In Mississippi, voters beat back an initiative to increase school funding to a higher standard, so there's a chance to move up.

But even with the new funding (and public ed advocates don't see it as nearly enough), public schools took a serious hit. Republicans in the Legislature—following a heavy-duty lobbying effort from Ducey—dramatically expanded public funding for private schools.

Champions of neighborhood public schools saw this as an assault because it creates an incentive for wealthy parents to send their kids to private and religious schools. And for every student who does that, the public schools lose funding.

State Sen. Debbie Lesko (R-Peoria) originally pushed legislation that would have turned all students loose on the private school market. Under the compromise eventually approved, all students remain eligible. But the program is limited to just 50,000 of the state's school kids.

Students would be able to use their state education dollars to cover tuition at a private school. No, $4,400 won't cover the cost of tuition to some of the pricier private schools. The school choice argument, in this case, also misses the point that those exclusive private schools will remain exclusive and say "no" to kids who want that top-flight education.

Even if the program works as hoped, remember that Ducey set aside $34 million for high-achieving schools. If the top students at those public schools do manage to flee to Greenfield's Country Day, then their former public school suddenly isn't achieving like it once did.

Then there's economics. More money chasing the same amount of product creates inflation. If all these new dollars in the hunt for space in private schools don't lead to private school expansion, the cost of private schools will almost certainly increase.

It's not terribly different from how Pell Grants and student loans work for colleges and universities. Students get a lump sum they can use to pay tuition wherever they choose. State schools have survived. On the other hand, no one suggests the way to improve higher education by sending every kid to Harvard.

The other big bit of education legislation is a new law that gives school districts the power to hire teachers even if they don't have a state-sanctioned education certificate deeming them qualified. Ducey and GOP lawmakers said this was a way to address the teacher shortage, while Democrats and education unions said it was a way to continue to undermine public education by putting unqualified teachers in the classroom.

On the one hand, this means Jim Click can teach kids business. On the other hand, this means that Jim Click can teach kids history.

Under the new law, teachers don't have to learn about classroom management, the way different kids learn, or cerebral development at certain ages. The relative importance of those skills is now a judgment call that can be made by individual school districts.

So the Legislature now has a cudgel to tell school districts they don't need higher salaries to attract more teachers since they can hire anyone.

Already, charter schools are free from this requirement and yet the teacher shortage still lingers. Demand outstrips supply in part because of educator exodus from the ranks while more charter schools are opening with slots to fill (or not as the case may be).

If it hasn't worked for charter schools, stay tuned to see if the move starts to fill the ranks of state teachers.

2. If U Builds It, They Will Come

While K-12 funding still hasn't recovered from the cuts in the wake of the Great Recession, but the state's university system has been pounded even more, having seen funding reduced by a third.

The universities got some of that money restored in 2016, with a $32 million injection, but wear and tear never stops. The Legislature approved $1 billion to be spent on capital needs at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

The Legislature shot down Ducey's original plan, which sent bean counters over at Tucson City Hall into anaphylactic shock. Ducey wanted to divert sales-tax dollars meant for the city to the UA. Hey, it's all Tucson, right?

This Peter-mugging-Paul strategy was too much even for a Legislature that often takes great joy poking the Democratic stronghold with a cattle prod. Instead, the Legislature rewrote the plan to pay for the bonding through the general fund.

3. Taking Initiative

Let's face it, voters: The Powers That Be in Phoenix are not happy with your propensity to create law all by your lonesome, undoing all their work to let business do what it wants, to whom it wants, when it wants and how it wants.

So the Legislature sought to rein in the public's ability to have a direct say in what's what statewide by curbing the citizen initiative process.

Already, a pair of former political honchos—former Republican attorney general Grant Woods and former Democratic Phoenix mayor Paul Johnson—are gearing up to refer this "reform" to voters—if we define "reform" as junking an entire initiative campaign for minor clerical errors.

The initiative process—which allows anyone who can gather enough signatures to pass laws or amend the Arizona Constitution—was included in the Arizona Constitution from the get-go to ensure the Legislature would not have a monopoly on lawmaking power.

And the Arizona Legislature is sick of it. More to the point, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is sick of peddling massive influence over the Legislature, only to watch namby-pamby liberals convince voters to raise the minimum wage. So the Chamber made "initiative reform" a major priority—and the chamber has a history of getting what it wants from the Legislature.

Rather than telling citizens to bugger off, they went to work on the menace of paid signature gatherers.

As the number of signatures required to put an initiative has skyrocketed with the increase of voters, companies have sprung up to hire signature gatherers. But with one new law this session, political committees must ensure these clipboard-toting workers fill out a lot of paperwork—and more importantly, they can no longer pay but the signature but must pay by the hour. Since paying by the signature motivates unmonitored signature gatherers a lot more than just paying by the hour, this puts a major spoke in the wheel of the most initiative efforts. (It should be noted that lawmakers did not require the same rules for their own nominating petitions.)

A second new law allows citizens initiatives to be tossed out entirely for marking down a jot in a box meant for a tittle.

Gov. Doug Ducey called this a common-sense reform to the process.

History has shown a direct relationship between the likelihood a politician describes a new law as "common-sense" and the probability that the new law is, in fact, a horror show.

The Legislature is clearly concerned about anyone getting something in exchange for affecting the laws that govern Arizona. That's why they passed zero reform of the gifts they personally get, even after gifting lawmakers lead to the whole Fiesta Bowl scandal.

Meanwhile, the paid lobbyists at the Arizona of Chamber of Commerce and Industry exerted pressure to change the law to prevent the taint of paid signature gatherers corrupting the laws with a financial incentive.

4. Ceasing Seizure

The Legislature deserves credit for some changes to civil forfeiture laws, which passed with broad bipartisan support.

State law has allowed law enforcement to seize property—cash, cars and homes—as long as cops could prove beyond a preponderance of evidence that the property was used in a crime. No criminal conviction is necessary to impose this punishment.

Those who saw their property seized could fight back in court, but since it's a civil action and not a criminal one, they were on the hook for their own legal fees—which could often outweigh the value of whatever they were trying to get back.

It was a neat system that gave cops a bunch of RICO funds to use as they saw fit. It also led to scandals, such as a current investigation of former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's use of RICO funds and the recent criminal conviction of former Pima County Chief Deputy Sheriff Chris Radtke.

The new law united the American Civil Liberties Union and the Koch Brothers. The left saw the state's civil forfeiture process as a civil rights catastrophe and the right saw it as an affront to property rights.

The reform establishes a tougher standard for law enforcement to seize people's property absent a criminal conviction. The new standard is "clear and convincing evidence," which is a higher bar to clear than the standard of "preponderance of evidence."

Prosecutors griped about the changes taking away an "important tool in the tool box" law enforcement needs to get the job done.

There also exists a direct relationship between law enforcement defending a power as "a tool in the tool box" and the likelihood that the tool resembles a die-cast device used by the East German Stasi.

5. More Tax Cuts

The state's schools are broke in large part because state leaders have focused tax cuts, tax cuts and, if that weren't enough, tax cuts. Some business groups and public education types asked Ducey and the Legislature to stall an impending corporate tax cut and give the money to schools. Might as well have asked them to join the nearest chapter of Black Lives Matter. It wasn't going to happen.

So the tax cut originally approved in 2015 will take effect next year.

It's curious that the state's corporate tax rate has lasted as long as it has. State leaders have long promised lower taxes will lead to a better economy by making the state more of a laissez faire haven business would like to move to.

The state property tax long ago fell by the wayside but somehow this tax—loathed by business—remained at 6.5 percent prior to 2015. The new rate of 4.9 percent will be the third lowest in the country behind Colorado, North Carolina and North Dakota.

Six states don't tax corporate income at all, but four of those tax business gross sales.

Arizona's economy has limped along behind the rest of the country's recovery. Will this work? Stay tuned.

Elsewhere on the tax cut beat: Individual income tax filers will get $100 added to the personal deduction on the state income tax. The $11 million sweetener was thrown into the legislation that let the universities spend more money on capital. The tax cut calculates thusly: Those in the 2.59 percent tax bracket will pay 2.59 cents less than they would have without the tax cut. Those at the top tax bracket will get a 4.54 tax cut. This is just peanuts on an individual basis but added up enough to do at least a little road work or school repairs around the state, but that's not how these lawmakers roll.

One other tax cut for hard-working job creators: Corporate jet buyers no longer have to pay sales taxes after another last-second provision wooshed through the Legislature right at the end of the session. The sales tax exemption involves "fractional jet ownership," which allows would-be high-fliers to buy just 1/16 of a jet they can still use pretty much whenever they want.

Ducey had vetoed a similar bill earlier in the session but the sponsor, Rep. Jill Norgaard, slipped a revived version into a bill tailor-made for Intel. It passed because it's not smart to mess with Intel.

6. General Welfare with Strings

The Legislature also backtracked on a 2015 law that restricted cash assistance—aka welfare—to one year.

The bureaucratic name is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. A family of three has a maximum monthly benefit of $277. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform that gave more power to the states to run the program and established a lifetime limit of five years.

Arizona's limit had been cut to two years and then just one year, after Legislation sponsored by Sen. Kelli Ward. Buyer's remorse followed.

So this year, Ducey agreed to re-establish the two-year limit for recipients who don't have bureaucratic "sanctions" on their status.

Recipients lose benefits after getting sanctioned three times for actions like missing an appointment or interview. Only those recipients without a single sanction will be eligible for the extra year.

The Arizona Children's Action Alliance initially opposed the sanctions rule but agreed to lift their opposition after receiving assurances in writing from Ducey that he would work to keep recipients in compliance.

7. Win a Few, Lose a Few

Pima County was both rewarded and punished by the Legislature's propensity toward the politically petty.

Call it a carrot and stick approach writ into law.

In November, Pima County voters dispatched Sheriff Chris Nanos, a Democrat, in favor of Republican Mark Napier. Meanwhile, Maricopa County voted out Sheriff Joe Arpaio for Democrat Paul Penzone.

So the Legislature zeroed out Maricopa County's share of anti-gang funding and handed that money to Pima and Pinal counties. When voters choose a Republican, the Legislature will reward them. Choose a Democrat and consequences follow.

Tucson voters won that one.

On the other hand, the State Legislature refused to give money for a Tucson memorial marking the shootings of Jan. 8, 2011. More to the point: State Sen. Gail Griffin refused to let the funding measure out of her committee.

State Rep. Todd Clodfelter (R-Tucson) introduced the bill giving state help to Tucson efforts to create a the memorial.

Griffin—just like her fellow GOP lawmakers at the Legislature—strongly opposes any restrictions on gun ownership. Former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly have since been on a crusade to establish criminal background checks as a prerequisite to gun ownership.

It's like the National Rifle Association always says, "don't politicize a tragedy unless it gives us leverage."