Best Democratic Legislator 2019 | Kirsten Engel | Megalopolitan Life | Phoenix

In an age when soundbites are currency, no matter how dishonest, state Representative Kirsten Engel of Tucson eschews the default grandstanding mode of legislating in Arizona in favor of a law-school-professor-does-her-damn-homework style of soundbite that puts most of her peers to shame. In her role on the House Judiciary Committee, Engel was a tireless advocate for criminal justice reform, despite an unsavory alliance between Chair John Allen and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery that kept common-sense bills from getting heard. As a member of the Environment Committee, Engel's expertise in environmental law helped her ask some of the most incisive questions on Arizona's most critical issue: water. Even when more trivial-seeming matters were at stake — such as state Representative David Cook's bill prohibiting nonmilk products from being labeled milk — Engel's wit delivered a breath of fresh air. "Have you ever heard of coconut milk?" she asked Cook. "It could be coconut beverage,'' Cook said. "Peanut butter? Butter comes from cows," Engel responded. "That would seem to violate this law."

Phoenix police shot a record 44 people in 2018, surpassing the rate of police shootings in larger cities. As that number grew through the year, activists from Poder in Action became a mainstay at City Council meetings, where their protest tactics earned them the title of "anarchists" from City Council member Sal DiCiccio and the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. But the group was tapping into an issue that would soon blow up. By the time the video of officers brutally detaining the Ames family put Phoenix in the national spotlight earlier this year, Poder had the manpower and background to organize an informed response.

It was a big year for higher education news in this state. Thankfully, Arizona Republic readers could count on reporter Rachel Leingang to tell them what they needed to know. Three students were prosecuted after they protested an appearance by Border Patrol agents at the University of Arizona, igniting a free speech firestorm that may or may not have led to their charges getting dropped. An Arizona State University economics professor accused the school of engaging in a shady deal with an online textbook company that forced him to fail some students. Mired with accreditation issues, Argosy University failed to pay millions of dollars in financial aid, screwing over countless students before shutting down in March. Leingang broke major developments on all these stories and more, hardly ever missing a beat.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is probably the only state agency whose tweets are liked and retweeted by people who actually mean it. It is almost certainly the only agency that can lay claim to having even one tweet go viral. Its messages are pithy, clever, and sometimes even saucy — nearly as good as the traffic messages and warnings they display along the highway. Remember the guy in September 2018 who was caught on video playing the saxophone along the side of Loop 101? Thank ADOT's killer team of public information officers for bringing you that news, and remember, you saw it first on its Twitter feed. When ADOT isn't showing Arizona a roadside music performance (with a gentle admonishment to viewers not to try this at home), the agency is bringing you useful, if more routine, information about crashes, closures, and weather, sprinkled with "Where in Arizona?" photo challenges and lifesaving reminders about not to text — or tweet — and drive.

Given the long-running contentiousness between the Central Arizona Project and the Arizona Department of Water Resources, plus the historic fight-inducing nature of water in the West, it's a wonder that Arizona's drought plan for the Colorado River materialized at all last fall and fell into place in early 2019, just in time for a federal deadline. But miraculously, Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke pulled it off. Not only did they avoid coming to blows, they even sat side by side with matching poker faces through endless public meetings and press conferences. And we can only guess how many more times they met behind the scenes, until most of the parties who lay claim to Arizona's supply of Colorado River water agreed on how to distribute expected cutbacks to that precious resource. Even when negotiations seemed on the verge of collapse, this alliterative duo stayed the course. We hope they're catching up on rest now, because the next round of Colorado River negotiations starts in 2020.

Sandy Bahr might as well be Superwoman, given the sheer scope of environment-affecting activity she tracks throughout Arizona. Often, she is the lone voice in the room advocating for environmental protection, no matter how seemingly niche or wonky the issue (it always seems niche, until your water is too dirty to drink). Find her testifying in a House committee hearing on a bill governing water in Harquahala Valley, or catch her at a meeting hosted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality on the state's efforts to take over a federal program regulating clean waterways. Such stalwart persistence and tirelessness in the face of powerful interests that would rather plunder the earth than protect it merit far more than a Best of Phoenix award. One day, your grandkids will thank Bahr for her work.

Can you believe Arizona was the only one of 33 states that required no testing at all of its legal cannabis products? Of course you can. Yet surprisingly, the Arizona Legislature fixed that situation this year. Why is that surprising? Because Arizona's actually a weed-hating state, and the Republican majority in the Legislature have been loath to do anything kind for the cannabis community. Their change of heart can't be fully explained by savvy politicking. With recreational marijuana now legal in 11 states and Washington, D.C., and medical marijuana in 33 states, even hard-nosed local GOP members know pot will be in their future, like it or not. So, they finally gave in to common sense and created SB 1494, a bill that sets up a new testing system intended to protect patients. After the law goes live in November 2020, independent labs overseen by the state will test dispensary weed for potency and contaminants like mold. But it gets better: The new law makes medical marijuana cards good for two years instead of one — so, half off the normal price of $150 per year. And you thought all pot laws were bad.

The anxiety before this year's ruling on marijuana concentrates in Rodney Christopher Jones v. State of Arizona by the Arizona Supreme Court probably brought in business for local therapists. The stakes hardly could have been higher: If the state's highest court had ruled against concentrates, nothing less than the crumbling of the dispensary industry and suffering of the program's most ill patients would have been the result. The agonizing wait began after the state Court of Appeals ruled in June 2018 that the state's medical marijuana program didn't cover products containing resin extracted from marijuana, and that it had been just fine for medical marijuana patient Rodney Christopher Jones to serve two years in prison for something he bought at a state-licensed dispensary. In theory, that ruling made illegal some of the most popular products sold in dispensaries, like vape-pen cartridges, shatter and hashish, and infused edibles. Business owners and nearly 200,000 patients continued to sell, buy, and use the extracted-resin products, but they feared the worst. On May 28, however, the Supreme Court went for concentrates like a hardcore stoner who hasn't seen his dabbing rig for a month. The justices voted 7-0 that, duh, the 2010 medical marijuana law's protections extended to all forms of marijuana. The dispensaries and patients were psyched — picture the final scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, when everyone's cheering and the Death Star's in pieces.

Bob Huhn is so helpful it's almost shocking, especially once a reporter becomes conditioned by futile efforts to get answers from state agencies, certain people at the city of Phoenix, and Governor Doug Ducey's office. Call Huhn, and he picks up the phone and is eager to answer questions. Email him, and he'll call you directly. Huhn can get a few air-quality experts on the line with you in the next couple of hours to answer any and all of your detailed questions about air pollution, like what ozone, PM2.5, and PM10 really are. He is sincere and eager but not simpering, and he's been known, on occasion, to take the liberty of filing public records requests on behalf of reporters. We wish every public information officer would be as responsive and dedicated as Huhn.

Short and to the point, devoid of unnecessary frills, The Breakdown is essential listening for commuters who want to stay informed on the latest developments at the Arizona State Capitol. Every Wednesday morning, Arizona Capitol Times' plugged-in hosts, ahem, break down the issues of the week with clarity and humor. Whether they're explaining the nuances of the drought contingency plan or walking through the rapid-fire developments in the David Stringer saga, the podcast team has a knack for filling listeners in on complex issues without making them feel stupid. On top of all that, the intro music is refreshingly pleasant for a news podcast.

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