Dirty Dozen

Twelve topics to watch at the Arizona Legislature

We elect representatives to debate the issues of the day and forge solutions to make our state a better place. What we get is the Arizona Legislature.

Here's our midterm report.

1. The Budget

OK, so it's all about numbers, which sounds like something that only an accountant would love. Figuring out a budget is still the most important thing that lawmakers do--if only because they can't wrap the session until they get it done.

In recent years, the Senate and House budget committees have been dog-and-pony shows, with the real budget negotiations going down in closed-door meetings between GOP leadership and Gov. Janet Napolitano. This year, Senate President Tim Bee is pursuing the unconventional strategy of using the budget committee to review realistic spending proposals. Look for the Senate to take leadership in passing a budget and sending it over to the House for tweaks before shipping it to the governor.

It's anybody's guess at this point whether she'll sign it, but we're betting that many of the contentious issues this year--increasing teacher pay, extending state-subsidized health-care coverage for kids and figuring out how to pay for highways--will be settled in the back-and-forth of the number crunch.

2. Workplace Sanctions

Democrats and Republicans agree they want to penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants--but it wouldn't be a legislative session if they didn't disagree over the details. Saying they didn't like a provision that exempted businesses with fewer than 40 employees, Republican lawmakers on the House Government Committee last month killed the Democratic plan, which would have fined employers on a sliding scale ranging from $5,000 for a first offense to $15,000 and suspension of a business license for a third offense.

Still alive: An employer-sanction bill sponsored by Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, that has been watered down from the original plan to fine employers who hire illegal immigrants as much as $150,000. House Bill 2779 now includes a sliding scale of penalties that range from $2,500 for a first offense to $5,000 and revocation of the business license for a third offense. The legislation stalled before reaching the House floor last week. If it's going to pass, it'll have to be watered down even more before business-friendly Republicans will support it.

3. National Guard on the Border

After National Guard troops allowed a group of armed Hispanic men to slip back into Mexico during a now-infamous incident in early January, Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Gilbert, said he wanted to amp up the troops' responsibility on the border. His bill to provide $10 million to pay for the troops to act in a primary enforcement role, rather than the support role that they're currently playing, also stalled before coming to the House floor this week. Also awaiting a spot on the schedule: A companion bill that protects guardsmen from being sued in civil court over their actions on the border.

4. The New State Militia

Too busy to join the National Guard but still uncomfortable with the outlaw image of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps? The new state militia could be for you! The Senate passed legislation last week creating a volunteer militia to respond to disasters or protect the borders. The bad news: You can't join unless you have some military experience. Next stop: the House of Representatives.

Tired of seeing all those Mexicans standing on street corners looking for work? A Republican plan to make it illegal to stand on public property while waiting for someone to give you a job as a day laborer was stalling out on its way to the House floor this week. Democrats wonder: Why no penalties for the johns who pick up the would-be workers?

5. Day Laborers

Tired of seeing all those Mexicans standing on street corners looking for work? A Republican plan to make it illegal to stand on public property while waiting for someone to give you a job as a day laborer was stalling out on its way to the House floor this week. Democrats wonder: Why no penalties for the johns who pick up the would-be workers?

6. Domestic Terrorism

The House of Representatives is still considering a bill to label any illegal immigrant who commits a crime against a person a "domestic terrorist." Think it goes a tad overboard? The latest KAET/ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism poll of 600 registered voters shows that 51 percent think it's a good idea. Despite the outpouring of public support, the bill had stalled in committee.

7. Sensitivity Training

The debate over illegal immigration in the House of Representatives has gotten so heated that a few weeks ago, Republican Bill Konopnicki, R-Safford, complained in a speech that he's been getting death threats. Earlier in the session, Phoenix Democrat Kyrsten Sinema got so many death threats that the House had to be evacuated after she got a suspicious package in the mail. Democrats are now teaming up with the Anti-Defamation League to hold a seminar on toning down the rhetoric around the Capitol next Tuesday, March 13. No word on whether Russell Pearce will attend.

8. Transportation

Tired of sitting in traffic? Better get used to it. Gov. Janet Napolitano wants to come up with an extra $400 million or so to accelerate highway construction by refinancing the existing debt from 20 years to 30 years. Republican leaders are doing their usual grumbling about borrowing, though they may come around in budget negotiations. They're certainly not floating many ideas of their own, outside of a plan to raid the rainy-day fund for $300 million in transportation spending. That was blocked in the Senate--but don't bury it, because it ain't dead yet.

9. Education

With so many issues related to education--including higher teacher pay, incentives for math and science teachers, and insufficient funds for school construction--Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, is taking action: He wants to muzzle K-12 teachers and university instructors who might bring up politics in the classroom. Senate Bill 1542, which would punish teachers who fail to present more than "one side of a social, political or cultural issue that is a matter of public controversy" with fines and possible termination, is awaiting action in the Senate Rules Committee.

The bigger questions of teacher pay and building schools is likely to get squared away in budget talks.

10. Health Checkup

The state now subsidizes Healthcare Group of Arizona, which allows businesses with fewer than 50 employees to buy health insurance at a discount rate. The catch: The employer and employees must have been without any insurance for six months before they can use Healthcare Group.

A Democratic plan to eliminate the "bare period" and give more small businesses the opportunity to cut their health-care costs didn't get out of committee. Now Democrats are worried that Republicans are looking for ways to kill the program altogether--in the name of fairness to private insurers.

Meanwhile, the GOP leadership isn't responding to Napolitano's call to extend state-subsidized health care to children younger than 18 living in households that earn up to three times the federal poverty limit. That's another one that will have to be hammered out in budget negotiations.

11. Guns!

Second Amendment enthusiasts were up in arms after cops started confiscating firearms in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Last year, Republican lawmakers responded by passing a bill that would have blocked Arizona authorities from taking anyone's gun during a state of emergency. Napolitano vetoed the bill, saying that it was so broad, she wouldn't be able to order an ammunition store to be cleared out if it was in the path of an out-of-control wildfire. Republicans seem to have satisfied Napolitano's concerns by including an out-of-control wildfire exemption. SB 1258 has passed the Senate and got unanimous approval in the House Homeland Security and Property Rights Committee earlier this week.

12. Payday Lending

Think it's outrageous for payday-loan outfits to charge a 500 percent APR to poor bastards who take out loans? State lawmakers evidently disagree--they killed the effort by Rep. Marian McClure. R-Tucson, to rein in the predatory lenders. Likelihood of resurrection: Slim to none.