Bill Would Bar Use Of Taxpayer Funds For School Board Association Dues

Bill Would Bar Use Of Taxpayer Funds For School Board Association Dues

By Terri Jo Neff |

A state senator has introduced a bill to prohibit public school districts from using taxpayer dollars to pay for membership in a state or national school board association.

Current state law allows a school district governing board to budget and spend funds for membership in an association of school districts within Arizona. But a school district board is not permitted to spend taxpayers’ dollars to join an association which attempts to influence the outcome of an election. 

“The Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) has a consistent pattern of lobbying with a clear bias,” Sen. Kelly Townsend (R-LD16) said Tuesday. “This constitutes political activity and is often against the very taxpayers that funded them.”

ASBA “should be serving the parents, and not working hard against them,” Townsend added.

As a result, Townsend is sponsoring Senate Bill 1011, which would still allow a school district to join ASBA or another state association, as long as the membership dues are not paid by taxpayer funds. That leaves ASBA the option, Townsend suggested, of pursuing 501(c)(4) tax exempt status so it can fundraise for operational money “without relying on the taxpayer.”

SB1011 passed out of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday via a 5-3 partisan vote.

The Arizona Association of County School Superintendents has come out against Townsend’s bill, as has the Arizona School Administrators Association. Among those supporting SB1011 include the Center for Arizona Policy and Diane Douglas, who served as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2015-2018.

School boards and associations have come under scrutiny the last two years due to COVID-19 protocols which have frequently pitted educators and administrators against the wishes of parents. It has led to a groundswell of parental interest in school operations and curriculum, as well as in how school boards spend funds.

Last September, the National School Boards Association got sideways with many school district governing boards and parents after sending a letter to President Joe Biden complaining about purported threatening and aggressive behavior on the part of parents toward school board members.

NSBA claimed such actions amounted to domestic terrorism which warranted federal law enforcement intervention. The fallout led several state school board associations to withdraw from NSBA.

And in Arizona, it resulted in the creation last year of the Arizona Coalition of School Board as an alternative to ASBA, which is still a member of NSBA.

Townsend recently requested records from ASBA about its expenditures for legal fees in connection with  any litigation involving the state. She said her intent is to determine whether those expenditures came from dues paid by any Arizona school board.

ASBA did not comply with her public record request, Townsend said.

“I would hate to know the dues this organization receives from school boards are being used to pay attorneys to sue our state and overturn legislation we’re crafting on behalf of these constituents,” she said. “This is completely inappropriate, and I will be looking into whether or not taxpayer money has been used in this fashion to undo our laws.”

Lawmaker Fights Pima County’s Religious Accommodation Denial For COVID Vaccine

Lawmaker Fights Pima County’s Religious Accommodation Denial For COVID Vaccine

By Corinne Murdock |

Last month, State Senator Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) requested Attorney General Mark Brnovich investigate Pima County for denying reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs conflicting with their COVID-19 vaccination requirement. At this point in the investigation, Townsend has requested Pima County employees to file complaints to the civil rights division of the attorney general’s office.

The county requires current and future employees to get vaccinated. However, the county must abide by A.R.S. § 23-206 which requires reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs.

“If an employer receives notice from an employee that the employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, practices or observances prevent the employee from taking the COVID-19 vaccination, the employer shall provide a reasonable accommodation unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship and more than a de minimus cost to the operation of the employer’s business,” read the statute.

Pima County contended that the law poses an undue hardship. In a statement released Thursday, Townsend asserted that Pima County’s allegations of undue hardship conflicted with their previous two years of mitigations without a vaccine. 

“[T]he County alleges that it cannot provide reasonable accommodations in certain situations due to the hardship it would cause them, even though employers have successfully adjusted to accommodate COVID-19 in the workplace for nearly two years,” stated Townsend. “I am confident the attorney general will continue to investigate, and where appropriate prosecute, instances of personal freedom infringement across Arizona, including in Pima County.

Townsend promised further that she would continue to fight for individuals to make their own medical decisions.

Late last month, Brnovich responded to another request from Townsend concerning another COVID-19 topic: forced quaratines of K-12 students. Brnovich issued an opinion declaring that students had a right to legal counsel in the event that their school required them to quarantine for COVID-19 exposure. 

In September, another one of Townsend’s inquiries to Brnovich on the legality of COVID-19 response measures prompted action from the city of Tucson. After Brnovich opined that the city acted unlawfully when it handed down five days unpaid suspension to unvaccinated employees, the city halted its vaccine mandate.

Within a week, the CDC changed its guidelines to halve the quarantining recommendation from 10 days to five. As AZ Free News reported, the changes came after a request letter to the CDC from Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian. 

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

Tucson Puts COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate On Hold After Millions In State Shared Revenues Imperiled

Tucson Puts COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate On Hold After Millions In State Shared Revenues Imperiled

By Terri Jo Neff |

The City of Tucson has placed its controversial employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate on hold after Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich announced Tuesday that the city acted unlawfully last month when it passed an ordinance allowing for a five-day unpaid suspension of employees who do not provide proof of vaccination.

“Until we have a better understanding of our legal position in relation to today’s report, I have instructed staff to pause on the implementation of the policy,” Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega said after the attorney general issued his legal opinion on Tucson City Ordinance 11869 which took effect Aug. 20.

Brnovich’s opinion also noted that if the ordinance is not repealed within 30 days, he will advise State Treasurer Kimberly Lee to withhold millions of dollars from the city’s portion of state shared revenues until the city comes into compliance. He also said Tucson city officials could face potential liability claims from employees affected by the ordinance.

“Our office determined today that Tucson’s vaccine mandate is illegal, and the city could be held liable for attempting to force employees to take it against their beliefs,” Brnovich said. “COVID-19 vaccinations should be a choice, not a government mandate.”

A March 2021 report by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns estimated Tucson’s FY2021-2022 shared revenues at more than $175 million.

It is unclear whether simply putting enforcement of the ordinance on hold is sufficient for compliance with the attorney general’s 30 day deadline. Mayor Regina Romero said on Tuesday the city is reviewing its options and that she and the council “will need to provide direction as to how we proceed from here.”

Brnovich’s legal opinion came in response to an inquiry from Sen. Kelly Townsend about whether Tucson’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees violated state law, particularly Senate Bill 1824 which prohibits the state and any cities, towns, and counties from implementing such a mandate.

Although SB1824 does not take effect until Sept. 29, Gov. Doug Ducey used his statutory emergency powers to issue Executive Order 2021-18 earlier this year to prohibit mandated COVID-19 related vaccinations for state, city, and county employees.

After Brnovich’s announcement, Townsend (R-LD16 called on Tucson Mayor Regina Romero to formally end the city’s ordinance, which applied to not only current employees but applicants as well.

“It is imperative that we not only respect the rule of law, but that we not allow our fear of a virus to run roughshod over the rights of the citizens of Arizona,” Townsend. “I wish to thank the Attorney General for his response and I encourage every elected official and bureaucrat to remember that it is the people of this State that employ us and whom we answer to, not the other way around.”

But Townsend did not stop there, calling on Tucson city employees to pursue legal action due to the ordinance.

“I further encourage those who were forced into taking a COVID-19 vaccine against their will in order to maintain employment to seek damages and to hold [Romero] fully accountable for this illegal act.”

It is unclear whether any Tucson employees have been disciplined with suspension, or whether ongoing refusals have subjected employee to more severe discipline, such as termination.

Private businesses are exempt from the provisions of Ducey’s executive order and SB1824. However, last month Brnovich issued a legal opinion making it clear such COVID-19 vaccination mandates must allow for religious and medical exemptions for employees.

That legal opinion was also issued in response to a request from Townsend.

Wildfire Funding Bill Goes To Governor, Budget Passage Anticipated

Wildfire Funding Bill Goes To Governor, Budget Passage Anticipated

By Terri Jo Neff |

In a very efficient use of 72 hours, the Arizona Legislature finished a special session called by Gov. Doug Ducey to approve a $100 million supplemental appropriation bill which will fund fire suppression and fire mitigation efforts across the state.   

“This will help our brave firefighters, at-risk communities and so many Arizonans,” said Ducey, who is expected to sign the HB2001 on Friday. The bill passed with bipartisan support from 24 of 30 senators and 56 of 60 house members. 

Much of the funds are earmarked for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) but millions will also be spent for inmate and non-inmate labor related to work crews from the Arizona Department of Corrections.

The legislation addresses targeted investments toward the labor and equipment needed for wildfire prevention and preparedness, as well as response and recovery operations. Some of the funding is also earmarked for economic assistance for those displaced by fires or post-fire floods. 

Only minimal amendments were made to the proposed legislation which had been sent to lawmakers earlier this week with Ducey’s blessing. One amendment changed a job title while another set a $10 million cap for funds to be used as a last resort for private landowners who experience infrastructure damage related to a fire or post-fire flooding. 

That reference to landowners triggered one of the biggest debates in the House after Rep. Andres Cano (D-LD3) sought to include $5 million dollars of “last resort” funds for small business owners, many of whom may suffer losses from wildfires but do not own the land on which their business operates. 

Rep. Gail Griffin, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, Energy, and Water, opposed the amendment even though she understood Cano’s concern. The problem, explained Griffin (R-LD14), is that a lot of effort was put into drafting the special session legislation and any extra items lawmakers want to fund should be addressed once back in regular session.

Cano’s amendment died on a voice vote. But he attempted to add the amendment back on via a motion once the main bill made it to the House floor. Cano’s effort failed, but it triggered a roll call vote by each representative.

It was revealed during the roll call that Rep. Travis Grantham (R-LD12) had been given permission by House Speaker Rusty Bowers to vote via text message because Grantham was in an aircraft at the time. A rules challenge was sustained which forced Bowers to disallow Grantham’s no vote on Cano’s motion. It also meant Grantham was unable to cast a vote for the fire suppression bill. 

Arizona State Forester David Tenney, who is also DFFM’s director, warned lawmakers during a meeting Wednesday that the destructive Telegraph and Mescal wildfires near Globe are just a glimpse of what is expected to be a severe wildfire season in Arizona. He said last year more than 900,000 acres burned statewide; as of Thursday 300,000 acres have burned in 2021 with months of other fires expected.

One-quarter of the $100 million appropriation will serve a dual role: it will fund several ongoing fire industry positions in addition to 720 ADC inmates who will perform fire fuel or vegetation mitigation at sites throughout the state. Tenney says he hopes the crews can clear 20,000 acres annually.

In addition to Grantham, several lawmakers did not participate in the final vote on the fire bill even though remote “Zoom” voting is allowed. They were Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-LD23) along with Sens. Lela Alston (D-LD24), Sally Ann Gonzales (D-LD3), Tyler Pace (R-LD25), and Kelly Townsend (R-LD16).

Those who voted against the bill were Sens. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-LD23) and Juan Mendez (D-LD26), as well as Reps. Melody Hernandez (D-LD26) and Athena Salman (D-LD26).

Up next for the legislature is trying to pass an 11-bill budget package which had the blessing from Ducey after it was announced Arizona had a nearly $2 billion surplus. The current fiscal year ends June 30 so no new budget would mean a partial state government shutdown.

There has been a stalemate in both chambers related to the three key points of the package: how much to allocate for new spending versus paying down debt, how much of the surplus to refund to taxpayers, and whether or not to transition Arizona to a flat-rate income tax.

To pass any of the 11 bills requires 31 votes in the House and 16 in the Senate. That happens to coincide with the number of Republicans in both chambers, but some members of that caucus have refused at different times to vote for the bills unless changes are made. Everyone is expected back to work Monday in hopes of resolving enough differences to secure the required votes.

Then attention will need to turn to 22 bills which Ducey vetoed when he grew frustrated with the lack of progress on the budget. The House and Senate have reintroduced all 22 bills but have not taken final action to reapprove them. There is also a chance that all or some of the governor’s vetoes could be the subject of a veto override vote.

Election Integrity Bill Remains Stalled in Senate

Election Integrity Bill Remains Stalled in Senate

By Terri Jo Neff |

What promised to be Republicans’ most impactful state election integrity bill of the legislative session did not get voted on Monday, despite being on the calendar for a final reading in the State Senate.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s SB1485 has the potential to drop more than 207,000 inactive voter names from the Permanent Early Voter List (PEVL). Removal would not happen if a voter responds to a written notice about the impending change, which in no way alters or impacts a voter’s registration status.

Arizona’s 15 county recorders would collectively save tens of thousands of dollars each election through reduced printing and postage costs. But the biggest selling point for SB1485 is its election integrity benefit of ensuring 207,000 early ballots are not put into the U.S. mail system if voters do not intend to use them.

Getting Ugenti-Rita’s bill to Gov. Doug Ducey had been considered a sure thing due to Senate Republicans holding a 16 to 14 majority. That certainty ended last month when Sen. Kelly Townsend announced she will not vote for any election-related legislation until the Senate’s audit of Maricopa County’s 2020 General Election is complete.

Townsend has expressed displeasure with Ugenti-Rita’s lack of support for getting many of Townsend’s 18 election bills out of committee this session. As a result, Ugenti-Rita was forced into the embarrassing position of voting against her own bill to preserve any chance of revoting on SB1485 during a future Senate floor session.

That revote was set for Monday, but Senate President Karen Fann held the bill without further comment. The Senate is tentatively scheduled for daily floor sessions through Thursday but as of press time the PEVL legislation has not been added to any of those calendars.