News & Opinion » Currents Feature

Pol Pot

A cauldron of Tucson state lawmakers stews over the first week of this legislative session.

by

comment
Governor Jane Dee Hull sent the state legislature into the new session with a quote from Mark Twain and a warning not to even think about raising taxes.

By last Thursday the House was up to its neck in bills, the Senate already sweating the pressure of fixing a budget deficit of more than $800 million. There were floor sessions, committee meetings, a conference with tribal leaders and a funeral for a former governor to attend, not to mention the usual round of opening-week receptions. And they only had a few more days to drop the rest of their bills.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords set the scene best:

"Despite the largest projected budget shortfall in decades and warnings from House Speaker Weiers and President Gnant, the number of bills dropped by legislators has been inordinately high. Due to the slowdown of our economy and the increased number of tax credits and exemptions passed during the 1990s, Arizona is facing an estimated deficit in our 2003 budget of $800 million to $1.2 billion. Our challenge as a legislature is to increase revenues while not cutting critical areas such as K-12 education, university funding, health care programs and environmental protections."

Words like "busy," "hectic," "fast and furious" and "frazzled" came easily to the lips of Tucson's legislators. And yet, we gave them one more assignment: to answer two basic open-ended questions about the session within 48 hours.

First, what was the first week like? Second, what was one thing they were working on?

On January 16 and 17, all 18 of Tucson's lawmakers made time to talk about the new session. A handful responded by e-mail, and the rest agreed to either a five-minute interview by phone or in person.

We were impressed.

Here's what they said, in the order in which they responded.

Rep. Carmine Cardamone (D-Tucson, Dist. 11) was the first one to ring in, saying that the week had left him "pretty frazzled."

Cardamone said he's planning to use the "stealth" method of lawmaking, sneaking bills through the gate with Republican names attached to them. This session he's working with other legislators to close a loophole in the animal cruelty statutes that says it's a felony to abuse an animal but only a misdemeanor to kill it. He's also in the drafting phase of a bill that would stiffen the penalties for scam artists who establish and solicit for bogus charities.

Rep. Carol Somers (R-Tucson, Dist. 13) said that it's going to be easier for her living in one city for awhile rather than two.

She's got a couple of bills on her mind. In the drafting process right now is a bill that would allow a legislator to request an economic impact study to be done on any piece of legislation that could create an unfunded mandate on the business community. She's also going to work on repealing a tax law that requires retailers to prepay the sales tax for the month of June.

"For many retailers, June is a slow month to being with," she said. "I know some business owners who've had to take out a loan to pay the prepayment."

"This session's got a little different flavor to it," Rep. Randy Graf (R-Green Valley, Dist. 9) said by phone. There are new elements at work, including the budget, term limits and the coming election, he said. "It's likely to get somewhat contentious."

It's likely to get even more contentious for Graf if he does what he said he will. In a time when the popular belief is that certain civil liberties will have to be suspended while the nation takes on terrorism, Graf announced plans to push a bill that would loosen concealed-weapon laws.

The right to bear arms has been a pet issue for Graf, who this session has also involved himself with solar energy and other renewable energy sources in addition to an increase in funding for education.

As of Thursday, Rep. Marian McClure (R-Tucson, Dist. 9) had dropped 14 bills and had two more on the way. She was also in the middle of fielding 100-odd e-mails and letters. Not to mention trying to wrangle a $200 reimbursement on her phone bill.

McClure said she's working to tilt insurance scoring in the direction of the consumer. Her bill would require companies to give customers copies of their scores on request and let them know how their scores hurt their premiums and how they can improve them.

She's also backing a preemption bill to protect the property value of ranches and farms affected by the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

When the media's call came, ever-amiable Rep. Ed Poelstra (R-Tucson, Dist. 14) ran from outside where he was "bouncing a ball," which is how he rides out a nic fit. Quitting smoking was one of his New Year's resolutions.

The sole Republican from District 14 is behind House Bill 2425, which would add Arizona to the list of states with redemption values on the sides of a soda cans. Poelstra isn't expecting to go far with it, saying "big money," whoever that is, will come along and crush it soon enough.

A self-described "low-profile" member, he's also got a bill that would create six contiguous districts from which corporation commissioners would be elected. Under the plan the rest of the state could wrest power from Maricopa County while still leaving Phoenix with three commissioners, he said.

Rep. Pete Hershberger (R-Tucson, Dist. 12) was the first legislator to respond to the questions by e-mail. He is a Republican, although there would be no way to guess that from his response.

Without an interviewer to follow up his answers, he was careful to be noncommittal. He called the governor's speech at the beginning of the week "an attempt to build bridges." He didn't say whether he thought she succeeded.

"It's not like we don't know what we have to do. That is clear. How is another story. On that there is considerable difference of opinion," he wrote without mentioning what his own opinion is.

One point he was clear on was that he would not be dropping more than five bills this session.

"One of my bills will address County Detention Facilities and the growing problem of mentally ill kids being placed in detention with little or no services," he wrote. He did not specify what services detainees were deprived.

Sen. Tim Bee (R-Tucson, Dist. 9) is not in an easy spot. The freshman legislator will be riding Republican shotgun to Democrat Sen. Ruth Solomon on the Senate Appropriations Committee as they fix an $800 million-plus hole in the budget in an already unstable economy.

"At this point in the session we will be busy gathering the information we need and determining what options will be available to us," the lawmaker said.

During the first week, the appropriation committee heard from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Administration.

Luckily, the Senate kept its bill count down, reaching 70 on Wednesday, which in turn kept the agendas for his other three committees short, he said.

By her use of exclamation points in her e-mailed response, it's hard to believe that Rep. Linda Lopez (D-Tucson, Dist. 10) felt the first week really was "Exhausting!"

"Legislators seem to be a bit subdued--perhaps not enough time off between special session and the regular session so maybe they're tired!" she wrote.

While the number of bills in the Senate is down, Lopez said the opposite is true for the House. By Wednesday, the House had dropped within 100 of the total number of bills dropped in the entire fall session.

"We still have a few days to drop up to seven more bills per legislator," she said, "which means we may have more bills to deal with than last session."

Lopez said she's going after the sexually-transmitted disease education statute this session.

"The changes would require information be medically accurate and would remove the requirement for teachers to proselytize," she wrote.

Despite the budget looming overhead and a schedule that has sometimes kept her at work until 8 p.m., Sen. Elaine Richardson (D-Tucson, Dist. 11) said that the opening day of her 10th and last session was "excellent." The ceremony, the technological improvements, Senate President Randall Gnant--all excellent.

Richardson, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, is steering a bill that will sharpen the penalties for using Sammy the Bull's favorite club drug, ecstasy. She's also made it her mission to find half a million dollars to help out food banks in Nogales. Domestic violence and sexual abuse are also still high priorities for her, she said.

She's also been working with Sen. David Peterson to send forward a bill that would hold the Department of Corrections under a microscope. She said she's received too many complaints about treatment from employees and visitors to let it stand, but sadly, "I don't know if I'll be able to do it in my last year."

It was difficult to get a quorum during the first week of session, Sen. Toni Hellon (R-Tucson, Dist. 11) said, breaking away from a joint legislative conference at the House where tribal leaders were speaking.

With money tight, Hellon's rule is "the less legislation the better." Still, she will try to find a way to reimburse trauma centers, particularly two in Tucson, for treatment of uninsured and underinsured patients. She said she won't look to the general fund, but instead will try to tap into Prop 201 healthcare money.

"If we don't find the money, then you and I will be left out spread on the highway without the services we need," Hellon said.

Rep. Victor Soltero (D-South Tucson, Dist. 10) has a handshake that can lead a young journalist across a lobby and out the double doors of the House of Representatives.

The glad-handing former mayor of South Tucson paced in place as he explained that he's on the defensive. This session he's out to save state employees' pay increases, a 5-percent jump in April and another next year. He's also working on legislation to maintain state funding for the contamination healthcare program at Pueblo Center TCE Clinic.

"I've never been in a session when I've been responsible for finding $800 million," Sen. Ruth Solomon (D-Tucson, Dist. 14) said from her dark corner office at the Senate. It's down the hall from the room where she'll take the budget head on as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Security is tight when it comes to seeing Solomon. She explained that so many people were coming to her to talk about whether their programs could fit into the new budget, that if everyone got in she'd never get her job done.

There's a good reason Senate bills have been kept to a minimum: "I'm not scheduling any bills attached to the general fund until the budget is completed," she said.

Each session has marked a new change in Steve Huffman's (R-Tucson, Dist. 12) life. He invited his girlfriend to his first opening ceremony. The next session he invited his fiancé, and after that, his wife. On Monday he invited the mother of his child, born December 5.

Huffman had figures and diagrams within hand's reach to explain a bill that would freeze desegregation funds that go to 19 school districts, including TUSD. The original legislation was well-intended, he said from his office, but now allows school districts free rein to suck upwards of $193 million from taxpayers annually.

Four days into the session, Huffman claimed he's got all but two House Republicans to back the bill, plus the support of Senate President Randall Gnant and Sen. Ruth Solomon.

Tribal Nations Day at the legislature is usually one of Rep. Debbie Norris's (D-Sells, Dist. 11) bigger and better days.

"It didn't really happen this year," she said over the phone Thursday, a few hours after the crew tore down the frybread luncheon. "It was basically canceled because of Gov. Fannin's funeral. Times before, the Capitol was alive and teeming with Indian leaders."

One thing said she's sure she going to do this session is continue helping Indian leaders connect with legislators. "Right now, I'm calling constituents who are worried about the budget," she said. "And they really should be."

Sen. Ramon Valadez (D-Tucson, Dist. 10) was reluctant to sit down and postponed his trip back to Tucson by another three minutes to answer the questions.

To him, the session seems just like any normal special session, except maybe faster. This session he'll try to protect K-12 education funds and pursue legislation to ensure employment opportunities and affordable housing.

"But first we need to make sure everything balances out," he said.

"Because of the special session, this is not actually my first session opening," Sen. Virginia Yrun (D-Tucson, Dist. 13) started off the phone interview. "There were tough decisions at the end of the last regular session and in the special session and there will be even more difficult decisions in the next session."

Without saying it directly, she made her point clear: She is a real Senator and ready.

Yrun accepted Andy Nichols' seat after he passed away midway through session last year. Nichols was known for his passion for public health. That's also how Yrun wants to be known.

She's got bills to initiate an organ donor registry, expand prescription drug coverage and curb health-insurance discrimination against women. At the same time she's also sponsoring a bill based on an animal cruelty report compiled by University High School students.

It is not hard to imagine what Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson, Dist. 13) must have been like as a student.

Giffords was the last legislator from Tucson to respond to the questions. To her credit, however, she was the only legislator to speak to the reporter on the phone, recognize him in the lobby of the House and write him an e-mail.

Coming in at well past 10 p.m. on the night before the reporter's morning deadline, here's the rest of her e-mail:

"I am working on a variety of areas. Some of my bills include: changes in our income tax form to accurately state TPT tax; extending the statute of limitations to holocaust victims; preservation of the Picacho Peak mountain range; making it illegal to broadcast jail cams on commercial Web sites; prohibiting the publication or printing of Social Security numbers; combining private with public dollars to improve the USS Arizona exhibit; creating a state biological agents registry; expanding the Arizona Dept. of Commerce to include an Arizona-Israel trade relationship; small business tax credit for SBA loan fees; House resolution honoring Roy Drachman."

Add a comment