After meeting for 164 days, surely the Arizona Legislature had plenty of time to tackle the big issues--like, for example, ensuring that if Arizona's population is going to double to more than 10 million in the next 25 years, there will be plenty of clean water to drink, right?
No, they didn't get around to dealing with significant water reform, although they did pass a bill that's a small step forward in protecting the San Pedro River.
Were they too busy reforming state trust land?
Nah, that effort died in the Senate Rules Committee.
Well, at least they put a few restrictions on those loan sharks that run payday loan outfits, right?
Nope. It's business as usual for payday lenders, although Rep. Marian McClure is trying to head up an initiative effort that would severely restrict their operations.
Surely they finally resolved the problem with English-language learners in our schools. They were under a federal court order to take care of that before the end of the session.
No, they didn't do anything about that except file more appeals.
So what took so long?
The usual: crafting a budget. Blame the holdup on the House leadership. Lawmakers can do plenty during a legislative session, but they can't go home without passing a budget. The way it's worked recently, Republican leaders have messed around with budgets loaded with veto bait that got rejected by Gov. Janet Napolitano. Then they'd come up with a spending plan she could live with--or she'd use some sort of technicality to twist things to her liking.
This year, Senate President Tim Bee--the first Southern Arizonan to head up Senate leadership in decades--recognized that Democrats had gained seats in his chamber and that moderate Republicans weren't going to go for more giganto tax cuts. So he tried something different: working with both sides of the aisle to craft a real budget the first time out.
But in the House, it was pretty much business as usual. Speaker Jim Weiers and the other members of leadership--we're looking your way, Majority Leader Tom Boone--insisted on drawing up a budget that included a whopping $64 million in tax cuts. Although Weiers tried to pass it off as a "bipartisan" budget because he talked a handful of Democrats (including Linda Lopez and Olivia Cajero-Bedford of the Southern Arizona House delegation) into backing it in the House Appropriations Committee, it was a GOP-driven package that couldn't even get enough votes to pass the first time it was considered by the full House.
After a week of wrangling, Weiers got 31 votes (out of 60) for his proposal, giving the House leadership some negotiating strength with their Senate counterparts. But by the time the final $10.6 billion budget package was passed last week, the $60 million in tax cuts had been whittled down to less than $11 million--and $7 million of that had already been in the Senate plan.
So all of the maneuvering over the last month was good for about an extra $4 million in tax cuts.
Hey! I want a tax cut, but $11 million doesn't seem like it's going to go very far once it's split between 6 million Arizonans.
Actually, there's about $216 million in new tax cuts that had been part of the previous year's budget plan, mostly in the form of a 5 percent cut in income taxes. The bad news: Unless you're one of Arizona's top earners, you're not going to see much relief, because it's an across-the-board cut. Since Arizona's income tax is extremely progressive, the top earners will get most of the money, and the average earner will see maybe enough for dinner and a movie.
That doesn't seem like much, especially if you're saving up to send your kids to college.
Well, if you're saving up to send the kids to college, you're in luck. You can now claim a deduction of up to $750 ($1,500 for a married couple) if you put the money in a special 529 savings plan.
Who else is getting tax cuts?
Businesses will see some tax relief in the form of reduced rates on property and equipment.
I really want to go to the NBA All-Star game in Phoenix in 2009. Did the Legislature do anything about that?
Why, yes, it did--lawmakers waived the sales tax on tickets and related activity if Phoenix is picked to host the game. Good luck scoring your tix!
I keep hearing about how stingy Arizona is when it comes to funding education. How'd that make out this year?
K-12 education got a big boost, with about $500 million in new spending. The bulk of that is for school construction and repair, but there's $46 million for teacher raises.
I'm a corporation that wants to give money to a fund to send kids to private schools instead of paying taxes. Can I do that?
It's easier than ever! Lawmakers boosted the corporate tuition tax-credit program from $10 million to $12 million.
I'm the university system. How did I do?
Pretty good! Overall, the budget package provides an additional $115 million to the universities. That includes $25 million for biomedical programs--including $6 million to accelerate expansion of the new Phoenix medical school, $10.5 million for the Phoenix biomedical campus and $1 million for a telemedicine program in Phoenix.
There's also nearly $30 million for student and faculty retention, $2.3 million to encourage people to become math and science teachers, and $3.4 million for financial aid.
The UA got a spending boost of nearly $28 million, while UA Health Sciences got more than $9 million in additional money.
I run a day-care center, and the state is pretty stingy when it comes to reimbursing me for low-income moms who drop off their kids while they go to work. Any more money available for that?
Lawmakers coughed up an extra $9 million for day-care reimbursement.
I've got to drive to Phoenix a lot, and the traffic totally sucks. Anything for the highways?
Lawmakers went along with Napolitano's idea to change the funding of highway bonds from 20 to 30 years, which will free up about $500 million in additional spending capacity over the next three years.
On top of that, lawmakers found $62 million in the couch cushions of the budget for what they call "roads of regional significance." Why are we worried that money will mostly be spent in the Maricopa region?
Trying to keep up with all these numbers is giving me a headache. What happened with health care this year?
Napolitano asked lawmakers to expand health-insurance coverage for kids in families that make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (which is about $60,000 a year for families of four), but that was too generous for lawmakers.
They did, however, agree to allow schools to suggest parents look into coverage, which had been forbidden.
They coughed up $3 million to expand residency programs, $1 million for dental care for the elderly and physically disabled, and $2.9 million to provide the HPV vaccine to women between the ages of 21 and 26 in an effort to prevent cervical cancer.
Other spending measures: $1 million to promote cord-blood donations for research; $4 million for Alzheimer's research; and $2.3 million for autism services.
The other big-ticket item was Healthcare Group, a state-subsidized program that helps small businesses provide heath insurance to their employees. It got an additional $8 million to keep it solvent while lawmakers study whether the program works.
I work for the state. Am I getting a raise this year?
There's $68.8 million set aside for a 3 percent raise and a 0.25-percent merit increase for state employees. The state will also be picking up about $20 million in additional insurance costs to keep premiums from going up, and $16 million for the state's share of workers' retirement costs. Employees will have to shell out an extra 0.5 percent for the latter.
I'm thinking about turning to a life of crime, because I hear the prisons are full. Is that a good idea?
Not so much. The Department of Corrections got 4,000 new beds, and lawmakers agreed to spend enough for an additional 2,000 beds in private prisons, which cost less than those in state facilities. Gee, ever wonder how they keep costs down?
There's an additional $2 million for more prosecutors and for new equipment so law-enforcement agencies can better communicate with each other.
Enough about the budget. I'm sick of going out to eat and seeing people who have snuck into the country washing my dishes. What did those lawmakers do about illegal immigration?
When it comes to making the state less hospitable to illegal immigrants, most of the low-hanging fruit--like denying them bail, in-state tuition and library cards--had been plucked in previous years.
This year's biggest fight: creating new penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. That's a tough nut to crack for a couple of reasons. No. 1: The federal government reserves the right to penalize companies that hire undocumented workers. No. 2: The business community, which still has some influence around the Capitol, isn't all that wild about seeing lawmakers monkey around with employer sanctions.
Rep. Russell Pearce came up with a way around the pesky federal restriction: He proposed making every business owner sign an affidavit stating that the company doesn't employ illegal immigrants. If it turned out that illegal immigrants were working for an employer who had signed the paper, then the state could pop the boss for filing a false affidavit.
That proposal passed the House, but got watered down in the Senate. Now employers will have to use the federal Basic Pilot Program to verify the legal status of all new hires.
Employers who are caught knowingly hiring illegal immigrants will have their licenses suspended for 10 days on a first offense, and then they'll have to sign an affidavit promising to not hire any more undocumented workers. If they're busted a second time, their business license will be revoked.
There's $1.4 million for prosecution in Maricopa County and another million bucks for the rest of the state.
The business community isn't crazy about the proposal, but Pearce is spearheading an initiative drive to ask voters to support an even more draconian version, which is putting pressure on Napolitano to sign this bill to take some steam out of the petition effort.
In other illegal-immigration news:
· Upset that Maricopa County wasn't doing enough to keep illegal immigrants in jail after they were arrested, lawmakers passed a bill to further insist that they be denied bail.
· Napolitano signed a bill that would make it easier for prosecutors to slow the deportation of illegal immigrants in state custody if they are material witnesses needed to testify against coyotes.
· Lawmakers tried to create a Homeland Security militia that the governor could call out in cases of emergency, but Napolitano vetoed the measure, saying state law already gave her that authority.
· An effort to declare any illegal immigrant who commits a felony to be guilty of domestic terrorism also failed.
Did the Legislature do anything to protect me from identity theft?
They made it illegal for businesses to sell any info they might acquire if they scan your driver's license. They also said it was legal for Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez to use a special fund to redact Social Security numbers from documents that are available on the Web.
I'm a teenager, and I can't wait to get my license and drive my friends around all night. Anything for me to worry about?
Sorry, but Daddy is taking the T-bird away. For the first six months they have their license, teens will be forbidden from driving between midnight and 5 a.m. If you're younger than 18, you can't have more than one nonfamily passenger who is younger than 18.
I'm a big railroad that wants to put a switching yard in at Picacho Peak. Am I going to have trouble?
Trouble, yes--but you'll probably get your way in the end. Probably not. A new law will require railroads to have a public hearing, do environmental studies and jump through other hoops if they want to use the power of eminent domain to grab property for facilities. But, just like in the 1800s, the state ultimately doesn't have much ability to block you from plopping a switching yard down wherever you want.
I want to carry a concealed weapon, but taking a safety class and paying for a permit seems like a violation of my Second Amendment rights. Did lawmakers do anything to help me out?
They tried, but it didn't work out. An unsuccessful bill would have reduced the penalty for carrying a concealed weapon to a small fine.
But thanks to a new law inspired by gun-grabbing cops in the wake of Louisiana's Hurricane Katrina disaster, officials can't take your gun away if the governor declares a state of emergency. The Legislature passed a similar law last year, but Napolitano vetoed it, saying it was so broad that it would prevent her from ordering the relocation of an ammo store in the path of a wildfire. So this year, lawmakers included an exemption that allowed her to move any ammo store that was in the path of a wildfire; Napolitano, who had nothing else to fall back on to justify another veto, signed it into law.
What was the deal with that Clean Elections reform package?
The state's publicly financed campaign program had a number of problems that finally got addressed this year. That's something of a miracle in and of itself, because the program, which was created by voters, needed a three-fourths vote in both chambers for the changes to be made into law.
Statewide candidates will get more money to run campaigns, and several reporting requirements have been changed, particularly when there's no Clean Elections candidate in the race.
I own stock in a company that makes interlock devices that prevent a car from starting if a driver has alcohol on his or her breath. How'd I make out this year?
You're one of the big winners! Those convicted of drunk driving are now going to need an ignition interlock device installed on their vehicles.
The new law led to one of the session's most amusing moments. It's not often you see lawmakers say they made a mistake--or see them try to give drunk drivers a break. But after they passed the new law requiring first-time drunk drivers to install ignition interlocks, Rep. John Kavanagh had second thoughts about the new penalty and pushed to repeal the provision. Too late! The new legislation died.
I like checking the value of my home on Zillow.com. Is that still legal?
Yes, it is. The Arizona Board of Appraisal had told Zillow to cease and desist with their online "zestimates" of value and was looking into suing the Seattle-based online appraisal company, but the Legislature passed a law making it legal for people to get unofficial estimates of property values. Whew!
By the way, there are new restrictions against mortgage fraud, so don't go messing around with your home value.
I'm a super-bossy homeowner association with control issues. Can I still prevent my residents from posting "for sale" signs in front of their homes?
Nope. Homeowners are free to alert potential buyers that homes are for sale, unless they live in gated communities.
You also can't block homeowners from installing solar-energy panels, although you can still have "reasonable" restrictions on them.
I'm a municipality that likes to give million-dollar tax breaks to lure developers and megalomarts to my community. Can I still do that?
Depends on where you're located. If you're in Maricopa or Pinal counties, and you offer, say, a sales-tax rebate to a developer to build a big ol' mall, then your portion of state-shared revenues will be reduced by the amount of your handout. But if you're here in Pima County, it's business as usual!
What else is going to be illegal?
If you solicit the services of a child prostitute, you're more likely to be convicted. If you're a sex offender, you can't live near a school or day-care center. If you're stealing copper from buildings, you're facing a stiffer penalty.
If you're arrested for certain crimes, the state is going to grab a DNA sample from you for their privacy-invading database.
When do all these new laws take effect?
Sept. 19--90 days after the end of the session.
Have any other questions about the session? Ask 'em at blog.tucsonweekly.com, and we'll do our best to answer 'em.