PRO-BUSINESS BILLS FIND THE FAST TRACK
Capitol insiders are calling it "the Express." With Republicans in control of the state Senate, the House and the Governor's Office, party leaders are pushing to have both chambers wrap up their legislative business this year in 100 days, the length of time sessions are supposed to last, but seldom do.
New laws are being passed quickly, often with little chance for the public to study them, or for legislators to understand them before the lawmakers vote. One result, consumer and public-interest advocates say, is that powerful business lobbies are taking advantage of the rush--and of friendly, Republican leadership--to sneak through gifts for themselves.
"It's a freight train," says Richard Martinez of the state Attorney General's Office, which is fending off several bills pushed by Republican legislators.
A bill loosening the state's securities-fraud laws is not the only pro-business stealth legislation that is winging its way through the fast-paced session with little challenge, critics say.
Another bill would give employers an easy way to prevent themselves from being sued by former or current employees who believe they have suffered discrimination or sexual harassment or that they have been unfairly fired.
Yet another proposed law would bar the public from reading financial-disclosure records that Arizona companies must file with the Corporation Commission.
All of the bills are being touted as good deeds for Arizona businesses. Public-interest advocates say the ease with which such legislation is progressing vividly demonstrates how the scales have tipped in the business lobby's favor.
"The one unifying theme of this session is that deregulation is good for business and economic development, and somehow this will transform itself into economic development and job growth," says Dana Larsen, executive director of Arizona Common Cause. "The idea is that doing it fast is more important than doing it right or doing it well."
With so much legislation and so little time, overwhelmed consumer and public-interest lobbyists are unable to keep up with all the bills being pressed by business and corporate lobbyists, says Tim Hogan, director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. "There's too much," he says. "If you can't afford to have somebody over there full-time, you're doomed."
Civil rights groups and labor organizations are just now banding together to fight Senate Bill 1315, introduced by Senate President John Greene and pushed by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. The bill passed the Senate last week by a 16-10 vote and has gone to the House.
Under the legislation, employers would be allowed to adopt policies saying that all employees must settle disputes through binding arbitration.
Anyone taking a job with an employer that adopts such a policy--which need only be printed in a company handbook--would be barred from suing the employer in state court over any labor dispute, including discrimination, sexual harassment or unfair firing.
"The cost of employment litigation is so expensive that resolving employment disputes through litigation does not make sense," says attorney David Selden of Steptoe & Johnson, who chairs the state Chamber of Commerce Employee Relations Committee, which is pushing the bill.
Employers are not required to adopt the policies, Selden says, and if workers do not like giving up their right to sue, they simply need to find a job with a company that doesn't have such a policy.
"An employee works for the employer by consent," he says. "The employer says, 'Here's my policy.' If the employee doesn't like that agreement, he can go work for somebody else."
(The bill would not prevent employees from bringing suit in federal court, or from filing complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)
The bill also holds that employers can fire any employee at will without citing a reason, unless the employee has a written contract ensuring continued employment. It also prohibits employees from recovering punitive damages in employment disputes.
A fired worker could recover only lost pay, benefits and attorney fees, even if the dismissal stemmed from sexual harassment, discrimination or other situations in which courts may now award punitive damages.
Ken Bacher, a Tucson legal assistant working with civil rights groups opposed to the legislation, calls it "a bigot's bill of rights."
Currently, workers who feel they have been discriminated against in promotions or pay, or people who feel they have been fired unfairly, can file civil lawsuits and complaints with the attorney general.
Under the proposed law, the Attorney General's Office would be barred from investigating discrimination complaints at companies that opt for binding arbitration, Martinez says. Statewide, an average of 2,500 discrimination complaints are filed every year, he says.
"This is the stealth version of the neutron bomb," Martinez says. "The bodies will be standing, but it will strip them of any rights. From the employee's perspective, it's all bad."
But Selden says doing away with rights to sue or to file complaints with the attorney general is preferable to protracted, costly litigation that costs both employers and employees money.
"You end up with lots of money being spent on lawyers, and no money being spent resolving problems," he says. "I've had cases where employees have moved out of state to take another job, so we're fighting a battle over something that happened three or four years ago that is no longer relevant to anybody's life."
Lawmakers are also moving swiftly on House Bill 2266, which will seal from public view some records that companies in the state file with the Corporation Commission. The bill has passed a House committee and awaits a full vote before going to the Senate.
Currently, all corporations in Arizona are required to file an annual financial statement showing their general fiscal health. The short form includes values of assets, debts and other basic financial information.
The reports are a handy tool for members of the public to check out companies they might be thinking of doing business with, says Corporation Commissioner Renz Jennings. Law enforcement agencies also use them when plumbing fraud allegations.
But under the proposed law, only law enforcement agencies would be able to look at the financial documents.
Bill backers say the disclosures, not required by most states, put Arizona companies at a disadvantage. Out-of-state firms can review the forms, assess a competitor's financial standing and then underbid the competitor for contracts, says Tim Mooney, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businessmen.
"The competitive disadvantage comes when a competitor can figure out exactly what you can bid on an item or on a contract, knows how much debt you have, how much cash on hand," Mooney says. "We just don't think that's a legitimate concern for public consumption."
The bill to close once-open records was up and running before his agency ever saw a copy of it, Jennings says. Under the bill, he notes, corporations will be able to enjoy the protection from liability that accompanies corporate status without being forthright to the public about their financial condition.
"You get to be a corporation, and that's a nifty status in our society," Jennings says. "It limits your liability for things you do as a corporation, and limits your own personal liability. For that, maybe you give up some information, because it's important that a democracy operates on information."
The rush to change public access to corporate financial disclosures, Jennings says, "is a celebration of the 100-day phenomenon. If they don't care what they do about public policy, and they don't even check with the agencies affected, pretty soon this stuff slam-dunks its way through the process and they get to go home in 100 days.
"There's no reining in this crowd.
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