New Lawmaker Sent to Back of Class

Conflict-of-interest rules enacted by the Arizona State Legislature in 1984 were designed as window dressing to show that members really did care how things looked to the rest of the world. But even the rules' sponsors admitted that, when scrutinized, the rules don't mean squat.

Despite that, members of the House Ethics Committee felt compelled Monday to slap down a first-term lawmaker who saw no problem with discussing and voting on legislation dealing with daycare centers. The lawmakers admitted that Glendale Republican Bob Burns may not have actually violated the loosely written rules even though he owns two such centers. But Burns made the mistake of asking the panel for a ruling and, with the press sitting in the front row, his colleagues felt they had to do something.

The rules sound great on paper. They prohibit lawmakers from taking any official action on a measure in which they or family members have "a material financial benefit or detriment." But lawmakers added a proviso that this doesn't apply if the legislator is part of a "class" affected by the action.

That escape clause was the brainchild of former House Majority Leader Burton Barr. He said he wanted to make sure that lawmakers could vote on issues that affected many, such as a tax increase for all state residents. In his own case, Barr admitted that the escape clause would allow him to vote on a bill that affected only companies that sell fixtures for grocery stores. Barr owns such a store.

Burns was prepared to vote Monday on a bill that would reduce property taxes for daycare centers. After all, the bill affected all daycare centers. But, beginning to take some heat from colleagues, he decided to punt and ask the five-member ethics committee for a ruling. It concluded he had a conflict.

Committee members actually had to do some mental gymnastics to reach that conclusion. Chairman Chris Herstam admitted to Burns that, technically speaking, "you're correct in your analysis of what appears to be a very nebulous conflict rule." But Herstam joined the majority in voting anyway to declare the conflict.

House Majority Leader Jim Meredith voted the same way, though he admits that the question of a conflict--at least under the House rules--is more perception than reality. Meredith, who sells and manages real estate, votes on bills that affect the regulation of real estate agents.

Democrat Herb Guenther concluded that Burns has no conflict. "There are very few of us who don't benefit from one form of legislation or another," he argues, saying, for example, that if the rules were too strict then lawmakers with children couldn't vote on issues affecting education. Or, take the issue of water regulations. "We all drink water," he says. "We all have water needs for our future."

His reasoning holds water. Guenther is administrative assistant of the Welton- Mohawk Irrigation District. But that didn't stop him from sponsoring and voting for legislation to grant immunity to his boardmembers and the district's paid manager, his boss.

"The line is whether or not I will directly benefit or indirectly benefit," he sniffs. "My employment is not contingent upon it [the bill]. It is what is good for the greater class of people."

Burns sees nothing wrong with protecting his interests. "I believe that anybody that serves in the legislature that has a knowledge of an industry should lend their expertise on an educational scale," he says. "If those bills are harmful to the industry, that information ought to be forwarded" to other lawmakers.

He certainly has some "expertise." Both of his daycare centers--one is on West Indian School Road in Phoenix and the other on 67th Avenue in Glendale--have been cited by state officials for insufficient staff.

Burns figured the conflict-of-interest rules allowed him to speak out earlier this month against two Department of Health Services (DHS) proposals to give the agency more power over daycare centers. In one instance, Burns didn't even have to bother signing up to speak on the measures, the procedure normally required. He badmouthed the DHS proposals from his seat on the House Health Committee when the measures came before that panel. Burns was the only person to speak against the measures; after his complaints, committee chairman Bart Baker set the bills aside, at least for the time being.

Burns also attended a meeting of that committee last week to support other daycare center owners lobbying to keep DHS from requiring more staffers. A Republican colleague who sits on that committee called his presence in the audience "highly inappropriate."

House Speaker Jane Hull has used the "class" argument. She voted last year for a measure to grant immunity for physicians who deliver babies despite the fact that her husband, Terry, is an obstetrician. Her pro-immunity vote was offset by the negative vote from Senator David Bartlett, who was a representative until last year. Bartlett is a lawyer and his wife, Janice Wezelman, practices civil law for plaintiffs.

This session, Mesa Republican Mark Killian, saying he's just trying to protect farmers from unreasonable laws, is sponsoring legislation that deals with when county assessors can boost taxes on farms. Killian and his family own farm property in the county.

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