Worst Fest

Trivial and meretricious bills crowd the Legislature's final days

Robert Updike gets a lot of parking tickets. He even got one once while he was in court, fighting previous parking tickets.

Since he's a member of the Arizona Legislature, he decided to do something about it. House Bill 2424 would force cities to provide free parking for people who are in court to pay--or fight--a parking ticket.

"I feel that the court should provide parking for the patrons, just like we at the Legislature provide parking," says the Phoenix Republican.

His bill passed the House, but got stuck in the Senate, where the Transportation Committee chairman refused to schedule it.

Last week, Representative Jeff Groscost, Republican of Mesa, resurrected the measure in the House. It died.

Updike doesn't consider his parking-ticket crusade to be a waste of time. To the contrary, he says, "It affects a lot of people, city court does."

House Bill 2424 was being considered--and reconsidered--while major legislation languished. At press time Monday, days before the deadline to adjourn in 100 days, lawmakers were still grappling with issues weightier than $16 parking tickets.

Senator Chris Cummiskey, Democrat of Phoenix, says the parking-ticket bill is not the only example of gratuitous legislation pushed this session. He says the so-called "sparkler bill"--legalizing the sale of small fireworks--was ridiculous.

Representative Becky Jordan, Republican of Glendale, calls this session "fast and painful, as opposed to slow and painful." And, she reminds legislative novices, no piece of legislation is ever completely dead. Anything can be revived up until the last minute, tacked onto an unrelated measure and passed without public hearings. She suspects that will happen with her nomination for most useless bill, one that would ban same-sex marriages.

Jordan thinks there's an ulterior motive on the part of her more conservative colleagues: to force moderates and liberals to vote on issues like abortion and homosexual rights.

"I just love having to vote on parental consent [for abortions] in an election year," Jordan says. (For the record, she supported parental consent and opposed the same-sex-marriage ban.)

Referring to campaign literature, Jordan says, "The hit pieces will probably herniate the postal carriers in my district."

In its zeal to finish within 100 days, the Arizona Legislature has saved the worst for last.

Representative Susan Gerard, Republican of Phoenix, says, "A bunch of us were saying, 'You know, we really ought to go home now, you know, 'cause nothing good is yet to come. There's only bad stuff.'"

In the final days, the Legislature will wrap up business on the following legislation:

* Senate Bill 1381, which supporters call the environmental audit bill and opponents have branded the "polluter protection act." Proponents say it would encourage industry to conduct internal audits and self-regulate cleanup. But environmentalists say the bill will protect industry from prosecution and seal records from the public.

* Senate Bill 1401 would weaken standards in the aquifer-permitting process, originally designed to protect groundwater. Industry officials say the bill is necessary because permitting takes too long. But opponents like David Baron of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest say the bill will simply allow industry to pollute. Baron says SB 1401 is even worse than the so-called polluter protection act, because it actually weakens the law.

* Senate Bill 1106 and House Bill 2275, both of which are designed to make privately held corporations' annual reports secret. The bills' proponents, including Representative Fulton Brock, Republican of Chandler, and Senator Carol Springer, Republican of Prescott, say they want to protect small businesses with gross annual earnings of fewer than $1 million from having to disclose their financial status. John Fearing, executive director of the Arizona Newspapers Association, points out that one version has been amended so that it will exempt 139,000 of the state's 140,000 corporations from having to file financial-disclosure reports.

* Senate Bill 1383, which closely mirrors federal legislation that limits shareholder lawsuits. Proponents, like sponsor Senator John Kaites, Republican of Phoenix, say the bill is necessary because it will curb frivolous litigation.

Plaintiff attorneys who oppose the legislation say it will limit the rights of victims of scamsters like Charlie Keating. Also, the opponents add, it is unnecessary because such suits are seldom brought at the state level.

Cummiskey, who strongly opposes the bill, claims the bill's supporters are trying to keep it quiet so it passes.

"[Senate Bill 1383] is kind of the sleeper. They're trying to keep it moving along, but it's going to be one of the last ones to go," he says.

Children have taken perhaps the hardest hit this session--and may absorb some additional blows before lawmakers are finished.

Dana Naimark, analyst for Children's Action Alliance, says this year's budget was crisis-oriented, rather than prevention-oriented.

The Department of Juvenile Corrections and the Department of Corrections fared well--with $4.1 million and $41 million budget increases, respectively, at the expense of programs designed to keep kids from ever entering the justice system.

The Department of Economic Security's $400 million budget decreased by about $5 million. DES had requested funding for 147 additional foster-care caseworker positions--people who monitor the well-being of vulnerable kids--over the next three years. The Legislature approved only 37 for next year, changing the phase-in from three years to four.

Funding for child-care licensure was drastically cut during the budget process. As of July 1, about 500 day-care centers that will open in public schools must be licensed. To help prepare for the burden, the Department of Health Services requested an additional $387,000 for its child-care-licensure budget.

But instead, DHS' child-care-licensure budget was cut by $592,000. Instead of having more money to license more day-care centers, DHS will have $205,000 less than last year.

It appears that the Legislature will restore the $205,000 in the final days of the session, but Children's Action Alliance officials are furious that the entire requested amount will not be provided.

The Child Welfare League of America suggests that one licensing specialist should serve 40 to 50 day-care centers. Under current staffing, each DHS licensing specialist monitors 76 centers.

With current funding and an expected increase in centers to be inspected, the number of facilities per caseworker will exceed 100.

Irene Jacobs, lobbyist for Children's Action Alliance, says, "What they're doing, in a backdoor way, is deregulating child care."

Another area that has a direct impact on children is the way in which tobacco tax funds will--or won't--be used.

Debate continues on how much of the tobacco tax money should be spent on prevention programs. Health Committee chair Gerard is frustrated. Only about $12 million will go to DHS for prevention next year, she says, while tens of millions more could be used.

"Here you've got $100 million, basically, of free money, and [legislators are] very happy not spending it," she says. Gerard believes her colleagues are trying to hoard the money for a rainy-day fund.

Meanwhile, Don Morris, a member of the Tobacco Use Prevention Advisory Committee and the Coalition for Tobacco Free Arizona, contends that the tobacco industry is chipping away at existing laws. Morris opposes Senate Bill 1384, sponsored by heavyweights like Senate President John Greene, Republican of Scottsdale, which is pending in the House. The bill would take compliance-testing powers--in which convenience stores and other businesses are tested, to see if they sell cigarettes to minors--away from localities, local law enforcement and DHS and give it to the state Department of Liquor Licensing and Control.

The liquor department is not set up to do this, Morris says. He calls SB 1384 the "tobacco industry protection bill."

And where, in all this, has Governor Fife Symington been? Lawmakers and lobbyists say the governor's absence has been conspicuous. Usually, Symington sends emissaries to pull for him in the legislative tug of war. This year, they've just been monitoring progress, with the governor making a few personal calls to lobby for key legislation like the environmental audit bill.

And some not-so-key legislation, in the eyes of Becky Jordan. She says, "I find it interesting that the governor finds that one of the more significant bills in the session is banning same-sex marriages."

The same-sex-marriage proposal, introduced by Representative Jeff Groscost, died in the House.

But like tort reform, school vouchers and free parking, the same-sex-marriage proposal could still come back to haunt legislators this week.

"It seems to me that they never give up on anything," Jordan says.

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