The Arizona Legislature is notorious for preventing cities from making their own decisions about, well, anything.
Earlier this year, legislators passed a bill pre-empting Tempe from instituting campaign finance reform measures; in past sessions, they've clamped down on cities' abilities to destroy confiscated guns, ban plastic bags, and prevent pet stores from selling animals that came from puppy mills.
One thing that's apparently totally okay, however, is if some communities want to ban eloteros and paleteros. (For the uninitiated, eloteros are street vendors who sell Mexican-style corn; paleteros sell a variety of popsicles and ice cream treats.)
Thursday, the Arizona Senate approved House Bill 2371. The proposed law, which was introduced by Representative Kevin Payne, a Republican from Peoria, is theoretically intended to loosen regulations for food trucks. But one of the bill's provisions would allow cities and towns to ban so-called "mobile food units" from residential areas.
"It's not going to to target just anyone selling food, it's going to target Latinos selling food or ice cream in the park," said Tomas Robles, the executive director of Living United For Change in Arizona (LUCHA), which has launched a campaign against the bill. "Individuals aren’t going to understand this legislation can lead to arrests or detainments for people who are doing nothing more than being a small business owner."
So far, most of the discussion around the bill has centered on food trucks, but Robles points out that in a residential area, you're far more likely to see eloteros and paleteros with hand-pushed carts than a food truck.
The bill defines a mobile food unit as a "a food establishment that is readily movable and that dispenses food or beverages for immediate service and consumption from any vehicle" — language which Robles argues is ambiguous enough to lump your neighborhood elote guy in with a full-blown lunch truck serving up burgers and quesadillas.
"Regulations aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and if you have something who’s cooking meat, or who’s actively providing a restaurant-style place for people to eat then there should be regulations on safety," Robles said. "But for the foods that you’re talking about here, this is corn that's already been cooked or ice cream that’s already been packaged. These are unnecessary laws that are targeting a specific demographic."
In addition, making it illegal for eloteros and paleteros to do business in residential neighborhoods could mean that more undocumented immigrants come into contact with the police, and ultimately wind up getting deported, Payne.
Payne, the bill's sponsor, didn't immediately return a request for comment. It's unclear whether his bill definitely applies to pushcarts and bicycle carts.
According to Representative Cesar Chavez, a Democrat from West Phoenix, there's nothing that currently prevents cities and towns from introducing restrictions intended to target paleteros and eloteros, though he isn't aware of any that have done so.
So the bill wouldn't be anything new — just a way to formally codify that into law.
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But, he said, "I stand very firmly with paletoros — I grew up on that stuff. I'm in process of drafting bill that would permit paleteros and eloteros to operate without any intrusion, except for complying with the law, health codes and all of that."
"They’re obviously not out there because they want to sit in the 110-degree sun," he added. "They’re out there because they need to pay their bills and provide for their family. We need to be able to allow them to do so."
Chavez also pointed out that Payne, the bill's sponsor, owns a food truck. "That brings it into question: Is this self-interest?" he asked
As for the apparent irony of Republicans suddenly deciding that cities can make their own laws, Robles said that it's typical of Arizona Republicans' attitude when it comes to government overreach and local control: "Anything that undermines vulnerable communities is okay, but anything that undermines corporate profits is a no-no."