Troubled Environment

The Sierra Club's legislative report card hands out A's to Democrats, F's to Republicans

Last week, the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter released a report card on the recently completed legislative session. The bipartisan agreement on the state budget and the expansion of Medicaid did not extend to the environment for the most part. Southern Arizona Democratic lawmakers earned A's or A-pluses on the report card, while Southern Arizona Republicans all earned F's, as did Gov. Jan Brewer, who did not veto any of the bills that the Sierra Club opposed.

The Weekly talked with Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr about the session. Below is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

What were your impressions of the session?

Overall, it was not a good session for environmental protection. It was perhaps not as bad as last year's but in some ways it was worse, especially with the off-highway vehicle bill, which sanctioned law enforcement ignoring damage to natural resources if it's on protected public lands and also sanctioned ignoring safety issues on public lands. We think it's a really bad message to send, plus it's an example of Game and Fish not sticking to its word. There was an agreement on an off-highway vehicle bill (from a previous session) that was negotiated by a lot of different people and increased law enforcement was part of that. There was funding for additional officers. And now they've gone back on it. The then-chair of the commission—who has since resigned under a cloud—basically said, "We don't have any responsibility to stick to what was agreed to." So basically, the message is, "Don't expect Game and Fish to stick to its word." And they seem to not recognize their responsibility as an entity to be looking out for the public as well as the wildlife.

And there was also an audit privilege bill passed this year.

Yes. Last year, they passed the "Polluter Protection Act"—an audit privilege limited to environmental regulations that involved secrecy and letting them off the hook because the information in the audit can't be used for enforcement action. This year, they expanded that same concept into health and safety. It's very broad—it's hard to know what all could be affected by it. That bill was pushed by Arizona Public Service. They were the lead entity pushing it; they seemed to be the one who wanted it the most. It makes me wonder: What is it that APS wants to hide? The other utilities supported it, as did the mines and other entities, but APS really pushed to be able to keep information from the public and ensure that the public could not use that information in any kind of enforcement action.

The parks got $1 million in funding back via interest from the rainy-day fund.

There was no legislation passed to create a sustainable source of funding, but the parks did get some money in the budget. It's probably as good as parks has done in many years. It's an improvement from having their funds swept. It would have been nice if the Legislature had reinstated the parks' Heritage Fund as part of the budget. There was a bill that would have allowed voluntary contributions to the parks when you register your vehicle to create a new funding source for the parks, but it got killed in the Senate.

What were the other major bits of legislation that you were following?

There was the election bill. We've always opposed measures that hurt the initiative and referendum process, because often that's the only place we have to go to advance environmental protection and to stop bad bills. And the purpose of those provisions in the Arizona Constitution is to provide a check on the Legislature. And the Legislature doesn't like initiatives.

They created some strict paperwork hoops you have to jump through when you turn in petitions and have a new law on strict compliance with the statute rather than the previous standard of substantial compliance.

The strict compliance provision is a real problem because it totally flips things—rather than giving preference to the people and having things appear on the ballot, it means these initiatives and referendums can be thrown out for a lot of different reasons. We also oppose the provisions on the early-voting list. It's just unconscionable for the Legislature to be trying to discourage people from voting. And even more so, it's outrageous that our chief elections officer, the secretary of state, is supporting provisions like that. They should be encouraging people to vote. And the fact that they would penalize people for trying to help voters out by offering to deliver their ballot—it's just wrong. It's a misdemeanor to turn in a ballot (for someone else).

You did rally the all-powerful bike lobby to stop the U.N. Agenda 21 bills.

The irony of that is that the Agenda 21 bills both passed in the House and Senate, but they passed in different forms in different bills, so there was nothing to send up to the governor. But they could still at least tell the people who were bothering them about the U.N. takeover that they had voted yes on those particular bills. So the bike paths and sustainable-energy programs are safe for another session.

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