After a mini-Wildfire 101 course from the Arizona State Forester, 18 of the 19 members of legislature’s Joint Committee on Natural Resources, Energy, and Water voted in favor of Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed $100 million fire suppression and mitigation legislation.
Next up for the bill during this Special Session is a quick trip through two Rules Committees on Thursday morning. That should be followed by the House and Senate convening to consider amendments to the two identical bills, SB1001 and HB2001, which are tracking in both chambers.
Wednesday’s hours-long meeting featured a questions and answers session with David Tenney, director of Arizona’s Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM) on the same day that two ongoing destructive wildfires near Globe -the Telegraph and the Mescal- merged with nearly 150,000 acres burned.
Ducey called the Special Session for the sole purpose to pass a wildfire-related supplemental appropriations bill. The joint committee discussed many of the bill’s targeted investments for wildfire preparedness, response, and recovery, including $76 million toward fire suppression efforts, recovery efforts, mitigation of post-fire floods, economic assistance for those displaced by fires or post-fire floods, and assistance to landowners for emergency repairs from wildfire-related infrastructure damage.
There is also nearly $25 million appropriated in the bill for DFFM and the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to partner on wildfire mitigation efforts such as removing hazardous vegetation and fire fuels. The funds include hiring 720 ADC inmates, working in 72 teams of 10 inmates, to target DFFM-designated areas across the state where mitigation is needed. The goal, said Tenney, is for the crews to cover 20,000 acres annually.
Among the questions Tenney was asked was whether Arizona should own a fleet of firefighting aircraft instead of contracting with providers. Tenney was also asked whether DFFM should purchase a handful of $500,000 firetrucks designed for off-road wilderness access that could be “borrowed” to smaller fire departments.
Tenney also noted that as of this week, Arizona’s 2021 fire season will have impacted nearly 300,000 acres. That puts the state of track for its worst fire season in history due to the combination of excessive heat in all 15 counties as well as drought conditions.
Some committee members tried to get Tenney to discuss whether Arizona’s increasingly larger wildfires are the result of climate change, but the director stuck to the purpose of the legislation -and the Special Session- which is to ensure funding for activities which can have an immediate affect on reducing fires or limiting the damage from fires.
The climate change comments received pushback from Sen. David Gowan (LD-14), who said no one is disputing there is climate change.
“Climate change happens every decade, happens every century, millennium, we have climate change,” he said.
Some Democrats questioned whether the Ducey-backed appropriations bill goes far enough as they preferred legislation addressing more than the immediate critical need. However, committee chairs Rep. Gail Griffin (R-LD14) and Sen. Sine Kerr (R-LD13) guided the discussion back onto the purpose of the legislation – to address the wildfire and post-fire flooding crisis facing Arizona now.
The only no vote was cast by Sen. Juan Mendez (D-LD26).
Some lawmakers say Gov. Doug Ducey had a “a temper tantrum” last week when he vetoed 22 Republican-supported bills over his displeasure with the how long it is taking the legislature to pass budget bills.
But with the House and Senate on recess possibly through June 10, other legislators are focusing on what needs to happen to pass a budget when lawmakers come back.
During interviews with KFYI’s James T. Harris on Tuesday, Sen. Warren Petersen (R-LD12) and Rep. Travis Grantham (R-LD12) agreed there have been problems in how the budget process has been handled so far, but both believe a consensus is possible before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Grantham acknowledged to Harris that “some folks” were at fault for how budget negotiations were handled prior to last week’s unexpected recess, but he thinks more lawmakers are seeing it is time to get a budget passed so the legislature can adjourn.
“You know the old saying that ‘nothing good happens if you stay out after midnight?’” Grantham said. “Basically, the Legislature is out after midnight, in fact it’s about 3 a.m. and we shouldn’t be there anymore, and we all need to go home.”
But Grantham says the biggest problem right now is that “too much money” is in play due to last year’s surplus and this year’s surplus. The surplus is there, he noted, because the state is collecting too much money, money he says needs to go back to the people via “a massive tax cut.”
And therein lies the dilemma, Grantham told Harris.
“The issue we’re having is there is so much money in the pot and there is so many people with so many wants and so many needs we’re having trouble staying focused on the finish line,” he said. “We just need to focus on the budget, we need to focus on cutting taxes, and we need to focus on getting out of there.”
Grantham added that lawmakers need to realize the surplus “is the people’s money, it’s not the government’s money” and then move forward with passing a budget that allows for tax cuts.
In his comments, Petersen acknowledged that some legislative leaders “tried to move the budget without the votes” instead of waiting to ensure there were 31 votes in the House and 16 votes in the Senate for passage. Petersen also told Harris he was “surprised” that the budget bills were being pushed without a consensus in place first.
“You can’t ignore people if people say they have issues,” Petersen said. “We had all heard about issues from different members, and if you just keep going I don’t know what other result you could possibly expect.”
Although some legislators are suggesting Ducey call a special session focused solely on the budget, Petersen is not sure that is the answer. Instead, he sees it as a matter of elbow grease and not leaving anyone out of the discussion.
“What we really just need to do is we need to do the work,” the senator said. “You’ve got to get the whole caucus together and you just keep working on the budget from whoever is on the far left of the caucus to whoever is on the far right. We’ve got to get those two to agree.”
Petersen did note another reason the budget is not garnering the support needed is that it includes non-budget bills which previously failed on the floor.
“That’s another bad policy. You don’t put bills that don’t pass into the budget to try to force a vote,” he said.
Meanwhile, Petersen and Grantham told Harris they are hopeful Ducey will work with legislators to ensure the 22 vetoed bills are reconsidered in some way once a budget is passed.
A Senate Concurrent Resolution that could terminate Gov. Doug Ducey’s March 11, 2020 declaration of emergency will be considered on Monday by the full Senate.
Currently under state law, a non-war state of emergency can only be ended by proclamation of the governor “or by concurrent resolution of the legislature declaring it at an end.” As Ducey has not put forth a plan for termination the current COVID-19 state of emergency any time soon, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-LD23) seeks to end it with SCR1001.
According to SCR1001, Arizona’s government “was established to protect and maintain individual rights and must frequently return to these principles to secure these rights and the perpetuity of our free government” but that Ducey’s year-old declaration and executive orders have “drastically restricted and suppressed the individual freedoms and economic prosperity of Arizonans.”
SCR1001 cites the fact Arizonans have been “personally responsible and have exceeded expectations in slowing community spread through their own individual behaviors and actions, accepting personal restrictions as a civic duty to prevent disease transmission.”
If SCR1001 clears its Third Reading on Monday it will be transmitted to the House. It would take immediate effect upon passage in the House.
However, legislators have been forewarned by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich on Feb. 17 that Ducey could simply declare a new state of emergency, and even re-institute prior measures, “so long as the conditions for the existence of a state of emergency” are satisfied in accordance with the emergency powers statue.
While Ugenti-Rita’s effort would end the current state of emergency, another Third Reading is slated for Monday for SCR1010 which would require a governor to call a special session of the Legislature at the same time a state of emergency declaration is issued.
But even if Sen. Kelly Townsend’s SCR1010 passes out of the legislature, it must still be approved by voters before the changes to Arizona’s emergency powers law take affect. The Secretary of State would put the issue on the ballot for the next general election.
In fact voters could be asked to choose between Townsend’s immediate legislative special session option and one which gives a governor a few days before needing to call a special session after issuing an emergency proclamation.
SCR1003 sponsored by Sen. Warren Petersen (R-LD12) was approved last month by the Senate. It would terminate a governor’s state of emergency 30 days after issuance unless extended by a Concurrent Resolution of the Legislature. It also requires a legislative session to be called within 10 days if the legislature is not already in session.
Petersen’s SCR1003 has already been transmitted to the House where it awaits committee assignment by the House Speaker Rusty Bowers. As with SCR1010, it would be up to Arizona’s voters whether or not to make the change to a governor’s current emergency powers.