Legislature eyes election, emergency powers changes The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Legislature eyes election, emergency powers changes

January 19th, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Legislature eyes election, emergency powers changes
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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

The 2021 legislative session is being brought to you by the letter E – as in emergency powers, election legislation and education funding.

The session got off to a quick start last week as one of the first act of lawmakers will be to determine whether it’s time to pull the plug on the state of emergency that Gov. Doug Ducey declared 10 months ago – an action, if it gets a majority vote, the governor cannot veto.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, already has the language crafted.

Her measure, SCR 1001, seeks to take advantage of a provision in the law that gave Ducey the power to unilaterally declare an emergency in the first place. It says the emergency ends when the governor says it does or when a majority of legislators vote to say it’s over.

But there is no clear law about whether the governor can simply turn around and declare a new one and reinstate all the provisions, such as what businesses can be open and under what conditions.

That possibility has Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, asking Attorney General Mark Brnovich whether that would require the legislature to have yet another vote to swat down the governor. And he wants to know whether that would automatically terminate any reinstated actions “or would a court have to issue an order?’’

Then there’s the question of whether lawmakers have other options. For example, Kavanagh wants to know whether the legislature could impose some sort of self-destruct measure into an existing emergency, like saying it has to end when hospital or infection levels drop below a certain level.

The governor, in an interview with Capitol Media Services, said pulling the plug on his declaration would be a bad idea.

“We’re still in that public health emergency,’’ he said. “That’s why state law and the constitution provide for executive emergency authorities in situations like that.’’

State election laws present a different set of problems.

Arizona already has statutes designed to prevent fraud and determine the accuracy of vote counts.

For example, unlike some states, early ballots are mailed only to those who request them, whether on an election-by-election basis or signing up for the permanent early voter list. And the law requires a hand count of the votes from 2 percent of precincts or vote centers, comparing what the machines tallied with what humans have determined are the votes.

“I do think we do elections well,’’ Ducey said.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, wants that hand count increased to 5 percent along with provisions allowing the attorney general, the secretary of state or the legislative council to demand more.

Potentially more sweeping, he also wants to allow anyone with enough money to cover the costs to demand a full recount of any election. Now, the only way that happens is if the margin of victory falls within certain margins, like 200 votes for a statewide race.

There is some discussion about tightening up that permanent early voter list, requiring names be purged if people don’t vote in two election cycles and don’t respond to a postcard.

During a webcast sponsored by the Chandler Chamber of Commerce, south Chandler’s delegation to the Legislature outlined their priorities and Mesnard said another election was his concern as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee – namely, passage of Prop 208, which puts an income surcharge on the wealthiest wage earners in the state to finance education at all levels.

“Obviously this gives us one of the higher income tax rates in the country and we’re already starting to hear about businesses from other states that are not going to be relocating here any longer or businesses here that are going to be migrating out of the state – which is not good,” Mesnard said. “So we’re going to be looking at how we can make sure Arizona remains competitive.”

He cited several platform items on the Chamber’s legislative wish list and said that tax reform, including “the disproportionate share of the property tax businesses face” are big priorities.

Rep. Jeff Weninger said one of his priorities will be security immunity for businesses from most lawsuits filed by employees who contract COVID-19 in the workplace – a measure that passed the House but stalled last year when the session was abruptly canceled because of the pandemic. He also said he wants to make it easier for to-go sales of alcoholic beverages for restaurants.

Rep. Jennifer Pawlik said various education-related issues are her primary concern

She wants to stabilize education funding for schools, and improve funding for special education and early childhood education.

She also is supporting more funding for higher education and workforce development, stating, “We want to make sure the students who are leaving our high schools are ready to go right into jobs.”

The issue of education funding goes to what Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, believes is a broken promise.

When the pandemic hit, schools went to online learning. But the state funding formula provides fewer dollars for each child who is not sitting in a classroom.

On top of that, some students didn’t come back, leaving districts with fixed costs but less state aid which is based on the number of students.

Ducey announced in June he was setting aside $370 million to guarantee that schools this academic year would have at least 98 percent of the funding they were getting last year. But that money ran out, leaving many districts with less.

“I really think we need to make sure we deliver on our promises,’’ said Boyer who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

But the governor said not to look for him to supplement that $370 million appropriation. “That’s been sent to schools,’’ Ducey said. “Unfortunately, districts saw much higher declines in enrollment than they originally anticipated.’’

Boyer said he is still trying to figure out how much more schools need, either because of the lower reimbursement for online learning or declining enrollment.

“The principle for me is holding schools harmless,’’ he said.

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