Arizona’s lawmakers have led the nation in cracking down on illegal immigration for years, but this year they vowed task No. 1 was boosting the economy and creating jobs.
They tackled what they promised — then garnered nationwide praise and ridicule for some of the country’s boldest moves to scale back government.
A few items under consideration in the Arizona Legislature:
• Voiding birthright citizenship, which would overturn a Civil War-era precedent.
• Abolishing Medicaid in Arizona in favor of a less expensive alternative.
• Dissolving the Arizona Board of Regents system in favor of separate boards for each state university.
• Immigration measures more sweeping than SB 1070 that would require hospitals and schools to determine if those enrolling are illegal immigrants.
• Letting southern Arizona secede and become the 51st state.
• Creating a committee that would allow Arizona to nullify federal laws it does not agree with.
All are far-reaching measures that, in their totality, are almost unprecedented. Which begs the question: Is this heavily Republican Legislature going too far with its proposals? Or do drastic times (big budget deficits, a struggling economy and the lack of federal immigration) call for drastic measures?
Lawmakers behind the proposals say voters swept conservative Republicans into office to shrink spending dramatically — even if it requires challenging the U.S. Constitution. Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, declared his “Tea Party Senate” would trigger reforms across the United States.
Republican lawmakers say they’ve done what they promised on the economic issues and now have time for immigration, challenging the federal government and responding to what voters elected them to do.
But critics say ultra-conservatives have overreached with clearly unconstitutional bills that distract one of the more economically battered states from rebounding. The dwindling number of Democrats in power — along with some Republicans — see a Legislature that’s out of touch with average Arizonans.
Longtime pollster Bruce Merrill said the latest crop of lawmakers is a reaction to the tea party, economic anxiety and people who believe the Obama administration has overreached. The popularity of last year’s anti-illegal immigration bill also upended politics in the state, he said. Merrill has conducted more than 500 surveys in two decades and said he’s found Arizonans as a whole are conservative but more centrist than today’s lawmakers.
“I give probably 20 interviews a week to media outside of Arizona and even outside of the country and almost always all of them start out with, ‘What the hell is going on in that nutty state?’ It’s actually hurting the image of the state,” Merrill said. “Why would a business go to Arizona, where you have this incredible political instability? Businesses need stability.”
Some top leaders vowed to ease away from hot-button immigration issues this year after criticism from the business community that economic recovery had been neglected. Those lawmakers wanted to change course after court challenges over a 2007 employer sanctions law and last year’s SB 1070, which made it a crime for illegal immigrants to be in Arizona.
But the state Senate took up more illegal immigration legislation with SB 1161, which would require hospitals to check immigration status. Also, illegal immigrants couldn’t buy or drive a vehicle or enroll in schools. Pearce said the bill fixes SB 1070 glitches.
During a recent Senate panel meeting that stretched until 2 a.m., Pearce said he’s obligated to block illegal residents from using taxpayer dollars.
“I’m after what the citizens have demanded and I’m after what the citizens overwhelmingly passed at the ballot box,” he said.
Other Republicans said Arizona should eliminate its AHCCCS health care system because it’s too costly and “immoral” to burden future generations with the bill. People in the Great Depression found a way to keep going without subsidized health care, they argued.
Democratic Majority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, shot back that people died in the streets during the Depression. “I’m tired of passing things out of here just to make headlines and spawn court cases,” Schapira said.
Lawmakers say some of the most far-reaching bills are symbolic efforts to ease regulations rather than literal assaults. The bill to eliminate AHCCCS would hit the economy hard and is a tough sell with many members, said Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. He noted that the nullification of federal mandates would require Congress to set up compacts that carved exceptions to federal rules, as opposed to letting Arizona act entirely on its own. The bill is a signal Arizonans don’t want the federal government to have so much control, he said.
“Sometimes we advance measures that are in effect a statement that we’re trying to send a message and I suspect that a lot of the push on the AHCCCS has to do with frustration on federal mandates, federal strings,” Mesnard said.
But Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said the Republican moves are part of what she considers a nationwide movement to tell the federal government: You’re not the boss of me.
The nullification bill is offensive by redefining the U.S. Constitution, she said.
“I almost feel like we’re not living in the real world. It’s like this is a bad TV show but it’s all so real,” Sinema said. “I do wish the public knew more. I know it’s hard to keep up because there are so many bad bills, but I wish people had a peak into what we do. I think they’d be just as appalled as I am.”
The Legislature made good on pro-business measures early on by passing a sweeping jobs bill that cut corporate taxes, reduced property taxes and encouraged export businesses. Gov. Jan Brewer has already signed it into law.
The reform amounted to winning the Super Bowl for Arizona’s business community, said Glenn Hamer, the president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
He considers it among the most pro-jobs measures in Arizona history even if other issues have gotten more attention.
“As far as we can tell, that’s the most aggressive tax reform and jobs package that’s been signed into law in any state in the United States, up to this point,” Hamer said.
Hamer endorses the fight against many federal regulations. He believes the birthright bill and other issues are certain to get shot down in court. Yet he doesn’t consider those battles as taking significant time away from other issues the business community still wants to address at the Capitol. But he is concerned at additional immigration bills because of estimates that prior actions have chased off convention business at a cost $15 million to $150 million.
“When these types of measures come up, it does affect our tourism industry in many ways,” Hamer said. “We do need to do a cost analysis when these bills come up.”
Overall, he’s concluded the Legislature has focused on important economic issues.
But Chandler mayor Jay Tibshraeny — a former Republican legislator — said the Legislature is not as in touch with Arizonans as local elected officials. He’s troubled at their efforts to improve the economy.
“I think they want to,” he said. “I don’t think they know how to.”
The Legislature has about 15 bills that Tibshraeny said would hurt cities by slashing their revenues and cutting impact fees that allow growth to pay for growth. He said the state doesn’t drive economic development as much as lawmakers might believe. He noted that Chandler recently inked deals on the two largest new employers in Arizona — an Intel plant that will employ 1,000 and a PayPal office that will hire 2,000.
“Those companies didn’t go to the state level to get the deals done. They go to the cities,” Tibshraeny said. “I know there’s folks down there that want to do things with economic development, but you have to be careful. You can’t go two steps forward and five steps back, which is what a lot of those bills do.”
Merrill said the Legislature’s makeup is a result of the state’s 30 legislative districts being so partisan. Of 30 districts, only three or four are competitive. The rest fall into the hands of the tiny number of voters in primary elections. An increasing number of voters have become independent, leaving more hard-core Republicans and Democrats to define each party, he said.
A redistricting effort will take place by the next election that will shift boundaries and could result in more competitive districts.
Merrill said Republicans felt they had a mandate by winning so many seats even if the overall political mood wasn’t as much in their favor.
He predicts that just as voters think Democrats went too far nationwide in the past two years, that they’ll determine Republicans have gone too far as well. That could help more moderate candidates like Grant Woods, the former Arizona attorney general who has been mentioned as a candidate to replace retiring Sen. Jon Kyl. Woods was a mainstream Republican in his term in the 1990s who is now too moderate for many in the GOP. But Merrill said that could propel him in the next election.
“Because of what’s going on in the Arizona Legislature and the tea party, I think there’s a lot of people who are open to a neo-populist candidate, a guy who can say, ‘Screw both parties.’ I think you would be amazed how many people would be extremely attracted to that kind of candidacy.”
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