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10 Things You Should Know About the Legislative Session

So, other than that whole Medicaid thing, what actually happened at the Legislature this year?

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The Arizona Legislature wrapped up the 2013 regular session on Friday, June 14. Lawmakers considered plenty of odd laws, from banning the state from participating in any regulations encouraging sustainability (for fear it would somehow advance the secret conspiracy hidden with the U.N.'s Agenda 21) to a proposal to arm teachers in schools, but most of the nutty stuff did not make it to the governor's desk. Here's a list of the list of 10 things that did become law that you might want to know about:

1. BREWER MUSCLED MEDICAID EXPANSION THROUGH LEGISLATURE

The biggest news out of the legislative session was surely the Medicaid expansion. Gov. Jan Brewer fought her own Republican Party to pass the expansion, which will provide health insurance through the state's AHCCCS program to residents earning 138 percent or less of the federal poverty level.

There's been plenty of coverage of the political battle over the course of the session, so we won't get into the nitty-gritty here. Suffice it to say that Brewer was able to persuade a handful of Republicans in both chambers to team up with all the Democrats to get the Medicaid expansion into law. As a result, an estimated 300,000 Arizonans will be eligible for health insurance after Jan. 1 and the state will receive an estimated $4.1 billion in federal funds in the next three years.

Potential political and legal roadblocks remain. Opponents of the law are vowing to sue over the state's portion of the financing, which involves an "assessment" on hospitals that critics of the plan call a tax hike that should have required the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature. The Brewer administration argues that it is a fee overseen by AHCCCS, so it does not require a two-thirds vote.

Former state lawmaker Frank Antenori and his political allies have also launched a referendum campaign against the new law. If they can get roughly 87,000 valid signatures before Sept. 11, the law will be put on hold until voters can decide whether they like it when they vote in November 2014. (The Brewer administration has argued that the matter is not referable because it is related to a budget issue, so there's likely to be a legal fight on that front if the referendum drive is successful.)


2. REPUBLICANS MOVED TO QUASH EARLY VOTING, INITIATIVE DRIVES

While lawmakers considered a number of election-related bills this year, the bills had mostly stalled until the final days of the session, when nearly all of them got bundled together into a single bill.

Among the provisions:

• Collecting early ballots on behalf of voters is now a misdemeanor if you are working on a political campaign.

• Early voters who don't cast early ballots after receiving them in the mail will be knocked off the Permanent Early Voter List if they neglect to return a postcard that asks them if they want to remain a voter who automatically gets an early ballot in the mail.

• Third-party candidates—Libertarians, Greens, et al.—face a much higher hurdle in getting on the ballot because the number of signatures they are now required to collect is much higher.

• New rules were set for the initiative and recall process. Judges are now required to look for strict compliance with the rules rather than substantial compliance. That means it's easier to knock initiatives off the ballot over typos, formatting errors and other details that have generally been ignored by the courts. The rules themselves have also gotten tougher: There's a precise order in which petitions must be submitted as well as new restrictions on who can circulate petitions.

Republican proponents of the bill say that it will help keep elections more organized and allow for faster counting of ballots. But Democrats say the efforts are designed to suppress the Latino vote because the new rules—particularly when it comes to early-ballot collection—come as more Latinos are encouraged to vote early.

The legislation initially failed in the Senate, but several key Republicans flipped to supporting the bill on a reconsideration of the measure. One of those senators is Steve Pierce of Prescott, who decided to support the bill after receiving a phone call from Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (and former reporter for the Arizona Daily Star as well as a former spokesman for the Arizona House of Representatives' GOP caucus). Scarpinato's interest in the bill lends some credence to the argument that the bill was designed to give Republicans an advantage in Arizona elections.

Democrats and other folks on the left are talking about teaming up with libertarians to run a referendum on the election law, but no formal announcement had been made as of press time—and since signatures would be due by Sept. 12, that doesn't leave much time to get rolling on signature collection.


3. POLITICIANS BOOSTED THEIR OWN CAMPAIGNS

A less-noticed law this year boosts the amount of money that contributors can give to candidates. Under the current law, legislative candidates can accept a maximum of $488 per contributor each election cycle. But when the new law goes into effect in September, the limit will be $5,000 per election cycle.

That's an enormous jump that will increase the influence of big wallets that want to throw around money, while decreasing the influence of the state's Clean Elections program, which gave qualified candidates a maximum of $14,355 in public dollars for primaries and $21,533 for general elections in 2012. (Those amounts could be flipped in districts where the primaries are more competitive than the general election.) It's easy to see how a few maximum contributions for traditionally funded candidates could overwhelm Clean Elections candidates.


4. THE BIG SALES-TAX REFORM

Brewer announced during her State of the State speech that reforming Arizona's antiquated sales-tax formula was a key priority for her—and in the final days of the session, lawmakers finally came up with a bill they could pass.

We'll spare you the wonky details—unless you're a business owner, you're probably not all that interested, and if you are a business owner, you'll find guidance elsewhere.

State Sen. Steve Farley called the legislation a breakthrough that makes life easier for businesses and positions the state to eventually collect taxes on online purchases.

"It was a huge accomplishment," Farley said.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said the reform is expected to cost the city $1.6 million annually.

"I appreciate that, if Congress eventually passes Internet sales-tax legislation, that could be positive for cities," Rothschild told the Weekly. "But, in the meantime, this is a significant hit at a time when cities can least afford it."

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik also worries about vague language in the legislation that could lead to confusion about how the tax is calculated for some projects. He said the state is taking over auditing functions, which could lead to problems because the Arizona Department of Revenue does not have enough staff to do the job well.

The new law gives the state the ability to shift the audit function back to the municipalities, but Kozachik says "we're still at their mercy for retaining that function, one we are more efficient at than they are."


5. MORE MONEY FOR SCHOOLS

Arizona's K-12 schools and universities made out OK in the budget. The K-12 schools got $80 million for inflation after public-school advocates won a court case saying that the Legislature had broken the law by failing to include the funding in recent years. Joint Technological Education Districts—basically, programs that help kids who aren't college-bound with technical and vocational education—got a funding boost, as did adult education programs that had been zeroed out in previous years.

But Rep. Bruce Wheeler, a Tucson Democrat who serves as minority whip, says the increases in spending this year don't make up for deep cuts in recent years.

"We just haven't begun to address the cuts that were made years ago," Wheeler said.


6. MORE MONEY FOR CPS

One of the first acts of the Legislature this year was a special session that provided additional funding for Child Protective Services, which had been devastated by previous budget cuts. That boost in funding will continue in the next fiscal year, with $5 million set aside to add 150 full-time employees in fiscal year 2014.


7. THE ENVIRONMENTAL BILLS WERE PRETTY BAD

Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr will be putting out a report card on the session sometime this week, but she told the Weekly that overall, it was a grim session for environmental protection.

About the best thing Bahr can say about the session: "It wasn't the worst one I've seen."

Bahr was distressed to see several laws pass, including making it easier to drive off-road vehicles on public lands, and an expansion of "audit privileges" to health and safety regulations.

The audit expansion follows last year's law that allows environmental polluters to escape penalties. While such "audit privileges" have spurred a debate with many legal facets (Google it if you want to dig into the details), it basically comes down to this: Proponents of the law say that it gives companies that want to remediate pollution problems an incentive to examine the extent of issues, but critics say that the law goes so far as to allow bad actors legal protection if they have violated environmental regulations.

Bahr said that this year's push to extend the law to health and safety regulations was supported by the mines and utilities, but Arizona Public Service led the push.

"I wonder what they have to hide," Bahr said.

One bit of good news for state parks: There's an extra million dollars for them to do capital projects, coming from interest from the state's rainy-day fund.


8. THE ARTS GET A BOOST

The Arizona Commission on the Arts is also getting a million bucks.

"A million dollars is not a lot to some agencies, but to the arts commission, which has been zeroed out in the general fund for the last three years, it's huge," said Farley, who dreamed up the idea of using interest on the general fund to fund the arts back at the start of the session.

Farley sees a developing coalition of supporters of state parks and arts.

"There are different people who support both, but they understand the power of each other," Farley said. "There are real opportunities for collaboration in the future there."


9. FIRED WORKERS MUST FIGHT FOR UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

It's going to be tougher for some folks to claim unemployment benefits. A new law places the burden on fired employees to prove that they are eligible for benefits, rather than keeping the burden on employers to prove that former workers are not eligible.


10. HELP FOR THE MENTALLY ILL

The state budget included $250,000 to help support Mental Health First Aid programs in the state.

Republican Rep. Ethan Orr and Democratic Rep. Victoria Steele, both of Tucson's Legislative District 9, teamed up on a bill to provide $500,000 for the program, which trains people to recognize the signs of mental illness and help them develop strategies to get help.

The legislation, inspired in large part by the 2011 Tucson shooting at Gabby Giffords' Congress on Your Corner event, was defeated in the Senate, but Orr and Steele were able to lobby their colleagues and Gov. Jan Brewer to include a $250,000 earmark for the program in the budget.

"I'm really gratified to get the support of both Democrats and Republicans in the House," Orr told the Weekly. "And the governor understood how important this money was to Tucson and that it was an effective way to start addressing community violence."

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