Silly Season is that time when professional sports teams announce major trades, resignations, and firings. It starts in Major League Baseball later this month when the World Series is finished, and will be on full display within NASCAR once the season-ending checkered flag waves at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.
This fall, the 55th Arizona Legislature is having its own version of Silly Season, with myriad vacancies that will change the dynamics of the House and Senate when the second regular session starts in January 2022.
One of those vacancies is slated to be filled any day now by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors following last month’s resignation of Rep. Aaron Lieberman (D-LD28) who is running for Governor. Lieberman’s replacement will be selected by the county board once it receives a list of three nominations from the precinct committeemen of the Democratic Party of Maricopa County.
Sen. Kristen Engel (D-LD10) has also resigned to focus on her campaign for Congressional District 2. The Pima County Board of Supervisors has already received three nominations from the Pima County Democratic Party precinct committeemen for Engel’s replacement, one of whom is Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton (D-LD10).
Stahl Hamilton is seen as the favorite when the county board votes Oct. 19, meaning the Pima County Dems would then have to repeat the precinct committeemen nomination process to fill Stahl Hamilton’s seat in the House.
However, not all of the vacancies will be connected to campaign efforts.
Rep. Randy Friese (D-LD9) announced in March he was running for CD2, which would have pitted him against Engel and Rep. Daniel Hernandez in the Democratic Party primary. Friese, who is a physician, dropped out of the race in September, citing personal and professional considerations. He recently confirmed his intention to leave the Legislature in the next few weeks.
Once Friese’s resignation is formally tendered then the Pima County Democratic Party precinct committeemen will meet once again to nominate three replacements for the Pima County Board of Supervisors to choose from.
In early September, Rep. Bret Roberts (R-LD11) announced his resignation effective at the end of the month due to a planned family move out of state. His district covered portions of Pima and Pinal counites, but it will be the Pinal County Republican precinct committeemen who will nominate three replacements for the Pinal County Board of Supervisors to choose from.
Of course, the most shocking resignation occurred in August when Sen. Tony Navarrete (D-LD30) was arrested for multiple felonies related to child molestation. The vacancy of Navarrete’s seat was filled by Rep. Raquel Teran (D-LD30), whose replacement in the House has not yet been announced by the Pima County board.
But it does not take a lawmaker’s resignation to mix things up at the Legislature.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-LD23) announced earlier this month she is stepping down from one of the most influential legislative assignments – chairperson of the Senate Government Committee. She told Senate President Karen Fann that she will continue serving on the Appropriations, Commerce, and Finance committees, and stands “ready and committed” to election reform, one of the key subjects handed by the Government Committee.
The unexpected announcement by Ugenti-Rita, who is running for Arizona Secretary of State, has already led to backdoor discussions and public posturing by some senators hoping to sway Fann’s decision on who replaces Ugenti-Rita on the Government Committee as well as who Fann names as the committee’s new chair.
Meanwhile, last month’s death of Rep. Frank Pratt (R-LD8) will trigger another round of recommendations by Pinal County’s Republican precinct committeemen to the Pinal County board to fill Pratt’s seat.
Senate President Karen Fann will try one more time this week to pull together the 16 votes needed to pass the budget bills, something she could not do Wednesday when one of the 30 senators did not come to work.
The Republican-majority Senate stands in recess until 11 a.m. Thursday at which time several bills are scheduled to be considered, most of which are budget-related. There was hope Wednesday that the 16 Republicans would pass the bills, but Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s daylong absence quashed that option.
Fann and Majority Leader Sen. Rick Gray need the entire Senate Republican caucus on board, so if it appears the 16 votes are not a sure thing Thursday then Fann can simply recess her chamber until June 10, a plan put into place Wednesday night after House Speaker Rusty Bowyers chose to recess his chamber for several days.
In the meantime, the fate of the months-long negotiated spending budget, tax cuts, and plan to transition Arizona to a flat rate income tax remains uncertain, according to budget-watchers. And that may not bode well for the flat tax plan which Republicans have sought for years.
“Right now, the flat tax proposal is still being negotiated among members to address a couple of concerns,” according to Scot Mussi, head of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club. “The first concern is the alleged impact on cities and towns due to revenue sharing. Cities are arguing that the tax cut will result in a massive cut in shared revenue from the state.”
But Mussi pointed out that flat tax supporters, including AFEC, believe cities are enjoying budget surpluses -in some cities quite sizable surpluses- and continue to receive a large infusion of new revenue from the taxation of online remote sales.
“The second concern was that the proposed tax package included a tranche of special interest tax breaks, which groups like ours oppose,” Mussi said. “It is our understanding that most of these tax breaks, including one for low income housing and another for wealthy investors, will be removed from the plan.”
But Mussi says groups like AFEC continue to support this year’s budget plan -minus the special interest tax breaks.
“Currently, Arizona has one of the highest income tax rates in the nation and we are uncompetitive compared to our low tax neighbors. The proposed tax plan goes a long way toward addressing this problem,” he explained.
With uncertainty over whether Fann has the 16 votes in the Senate and House Speaker Rusty Bowyers has his 31 votes, Mussi says the budget negotiations are likely not over.
“There is still a lot of horse trading occurring, much of which will continue,” he said. “Some of the demands still being made related to the budget is to rein in some of the pork barrel spending, make tweaks to the tax plan to address concerns with the cities, and to address other policy issues such as election integrity and school choice.”
And what about Fann and Bowyers trying to poach support from a few Democrats if not all Republicans are on board soon? Mussi believes the only budget bills Democrats may vote for would be the Education Budget which includes K-12 spending increases. But the legislative leaders are likely to have a hard time getting any further support across the aisle for the rest of the budget, Mussi said.
As the State Senate’s audit of Maricopa County’s 2020 General Election results and procedures continues, the majority of House Republicans signed a letter last week proclaiming their support of Senate President Karen Fann’s efforts.
“Each of us remains steadfast and focused on working to safeguard against potential ballot tampering, voter fraud and other voting irregularities,” the April 29 letter states. “We firmly believe our elections must be lawfully conducted under the Constitution, as well as with federal and state election law.”
The signees include Reps. Brenda Barton, Leo Biasucci, Walt Blackman, Shawna Bolick, Judy Burges, Frank Carroll, Joseph Chaplik, David Cook, Timothy Dunn, John Filmore, Mark Finchem, Travis Grantham, Jake Hoffman, Steve Kaiser, John Kavanagh, Quang Nguyen, Joanne Osborne, Jacqueline Parker, Beverly Pingerelli, Jeff Weninger, and Justin Wilmeth.
According to the letter, the representatives are “fully committed to sorting through the verified evidence” once the Senate Audit is done and the auditors’ reports are available. Then they will work “to remedy verified irregularities” with the intent to increase voter trust.
In the meantime, the signers told Fann it “is paramount” to pass other pending election integrity legislation such as SB1485, which would require all 15 counties to remove voters from the early ballot mailing list if those voters fail to utilize early voting for two full election cycles. About 207,000 voters could drop off the early ballot list, a process which does not impact a voter’s registration status.
Cleaning up the list will save counties money on printing and postage, according to SB1485 supporters, while also reducing opportunities for election misconduct by ensuring early ballots are only being sent to voters who intend to use them.
SB1485 has already cleared the House but is held up in the Senate due to a revolt in the Republican caucus by Sen. Kelly Townsend, who alleges bill sponsor Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita was responsible for “killing” more than a dozen of Townsend’s election-related bills.
The representatives’ April 29 letter was issued the same day the House voted 31 to 29 along party lines to approve SB1003, another bill sponsored by Ugenti-Rita, which will ensure counties follow the same process -and same deadline of 7 p.m. on election day- for curing early ballots received without the statutorily required signature on the voter affidavit.
Most counties reported a very small number of unsigned early ballot affidavits in the 2020 General Election, but the bill is one of several that Republicans say are necessary to promote consistency and voter confidence in election procedures used statewide.
The Arizona Legislature may currently enact the laws which serve as the framework for elections in the state, but the nitty gritty details of how those laws are carried out is spelled out in the Arizona Election Procedure Manual (EPM), a 544-page set of rules and instructions all 15 counties must follow.
Changes to the EPM are usually recommended by those who do the majority of the work in an election – county recorders and their election department counterparts. The changes themselves, however, have to be implemented by the Arizona Secretary of State (SOS) with the approval of the Arizona Attorney General and governor.
On Feb. 1, the Senate Committee on Government is slated to take up SB1068 introduced by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-LD12). The bill would amend three election-related statutes dealing with the EPM, and if passed, the legislature will have a much bigger say in how their laws are put into effect courtesy of the Legislative Council.
The Legislative Council, comprised of the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and six members from each legislative chamber, would have a seat at the review and approval table, as would the Governor’s six-member Regulatory Review Council (GRRC).
The governor and attorney general would be removed from the approval process if the bill passes.
According to the Senate Research Department, there is no anticipated fiscal impact to the state General Fund associated with SB1068. The main concern expressed by the Arizona Association of Counties has been the timeline for getting review and approval passed through two councils.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights have come out in opposition of the bill.