Back in ses­sion

Drought plan, taxes among top pri­or­i­ties at Ari­zona Leg­is­la­ture

Yuma Sun - - FRONT PAGE - BY HOWARD FIS­CHER

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey and state law­mak­ers be­gin the new leg­isla­tive ses­sion with a dead­line to act — and soon — on two is­sues cru­cial to Ari­zona res­i­dents.

The more press­ing one is to get suf­fi­cient votes for a drought con­tin­gency plan crafted by var­i­ous in­ter­ests to deal with the prob­lem of de­clin­ing wa­ter sup­plies com­ing out of the Colorado River.

Most sig­nif­i­cant in the deal is a re­quire­ment for Ari­zona to leave some of the wa­ter to which it would other­wise be en­ti­tled in­side Lake Mead. That is de­signed to keep lake lev­els from dip­ping below a cer­tain point when Ari­zona would other­wise lose its al­lo­ca­tion.

To do that, how­ever, means some­one who nor­mally gets Colorado River wa­ter will not.

Some of that would be made up with pur­chases of wa­ter rights from tribes. Ducey has com­mit­ted to putting up $35 mil­lion. And there also are plans — though not yet fully funded — to al­low Pi­nal County farm­ers to re­place some of what they will not get from the Cen­tral Ari­zona Project with ground­wa­ter from new wells.

But there is not yet ac­tual leg­is­la­tion for law­mak­ers to con­sider. And there al­ready has been some balk­ing among var­i­ous in­ter­ests who ques­tion their cuts, as well as is­sues raised about whether cities should be able to take — and bank — wa­ter they do not need.

There also are ques­tions about whether other sources of wa­ter should be con­sid­ered in de­ter­min­ing needs and al­lo­ca­tions.

What makes the is­sue time sen­si­tive is that Brenda Bur­man, com­mis­sioner of the Bureau of Recla­ma­tion, has told all the af­fected states to come up with and rat­ify an ac­cept­able plan by Jan. 31 or she will be­gin the process of hav­ing one im­posed by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

One com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor, though, has been the par­tial

fed­eral shut­down, mean­ing cer­tain fed­eral of­fi­cials are unavail­able to an­swer ques­tions about what might or might not be ac­cept­able.

The other press­ing is­sue doesn’t have a Jan. 31 dead­line. But it is some­thing law­mak­ers and the gov­er­nor need to re­solve soon so Ari­zo­nans can start pre­par­ing their state in­come taxes.

In late 2017 Pres­i­dent Trump signed a law to re­duce fed­eral in­come taxes rates for in­di­vid­u­als as well as a boost in the stan­dard de­duc­tion. But it also elim­i­nated or cur­tailed var­i­ous item­ized de­duc­tions and sub­trac­tions that lower the tax­able in­come and, by ex­ten­sion, the amount owed.

This is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause Ari­zona is a “pig­gy­back’’ state, us­ing the fed­er­ally ad­justed gross in­come fig­ure as the start­ing point for pre­par­ing state re­turns. Ari­zona’s de­duc­tions gen­er­ally mir­ror what’s al­lowed un­der fed­eral law to make tax prepa­ra­tion sim­ple.

Ducey wants Ari­zona to al­ter its tax code to “con­form’’ to the fed­eral changes. But dis­al­low­ing those state de­duc­tions would in­crease what Ari­zo­nans owe the state this year — the re­turns due April 15 — by at least $170 mil­lion.

That is prov­ing un­pop­u­lar with many law­mak­ers, led by J.D. Mes­nard. The cur­rent House speaker and soon-to-be chairman of the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee said there is lit­tle sen­ti­ment for the fed­eral tax cut to be­come a wind­fall for Ari­zona.

Ducey wants to put those ex­tra tax col­lec­tions from Ari­zo­nans into the state’s “rainy-day fund,’’ a spe­cial ac­count for law­mak­ers to tap when rev­enue col­lec­tions fall below pro­jec­tions.

But time is on the side of Mes­nard and other foes of Ducey’s plan: If they do not ap­prove it, it means the cur­rent Ari­zona de­duc­tions re­main, despite the change in fed­eral law, a move that means no net in­crease in state taxes but some ad­di­tional cal­cu­la­tions by Ari­zo­nans when they file.

Much of what else is on the leg­isla­tive agenda this year has no hard dead­lines — at least not yet.

Ed­u­ca­tion is again ex­pected to take cen­ter stage at the Capi­tol.

Last year law­mak­ers ap­proved Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan de­signed to boost av­er­age teacher pay by 20 per­cent by 2020 over 2016 lev­els.

But that law did not pro­vide ad­di­tional dol­lars specif­i­cally for salary hikes for non-teach­ing staff. And ques­tions — and a law­suit — re­main about whether the state is meet­ing its le­gal obli­ga­tions to pro­vide full fund­ing not only for class­room ac­tiv­i­ties but also the cap­i­tal needs rang­ing from build­ing con­struc­tion to re­pairs.

Law­mak­ers did agree last year to re­new the cur­rent 0.6-cent sales tax for ed­u­ca­tion beyond its cur­rent 2020 ex­pi­ra­tion date. But the ap­proval by vot­ers ear­lier this year of a ban on sales taxes on ser­vices on any new taxes — and the re­newal is, in fact, a new tax — opens the ques­tion of whether some things now taxed, like restau­rant ser­vice, will be ex­empt, cut­ting into the rev­enues.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, RSnowflake, who chairs the Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, is look­ing at a new bal­lot mea­sure that would not just clar­ify that is­sue but add an­other 0.4 cents, boost­ing fund­ing for ed­u­ca­tion by an ad­di­tional $400 mil­lion a year.

There also is some sen­ti­ment to re­visit the plan to hike in­come taxes on the top 1 per­cent of wage earn­ers. A plan to do that was knocked off last year’s bal­lot af­ter the Ari­zona Supreme Court said the legally re­quired de­scrip­tion did not fully in­form pe­ti­tion sign­ers of the full ef­fect of the change.

The teacher strike last year, the one that pres­sured Ducey into com­ing up with his pay plan, con­tin­ues to gen­er­ate fall­out among those an­gry with ed­u­ca­tors who walked out.

One bill by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would re­quire the at­tor­ney gen­eral to in­ves­ti­gate and pun­ish teach­ers who vi­o­late the laws on po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. Townsend also wants to make it il­le­gal for school ad­min­is­tra­tors to close a school in the event of a strike, re­gard­less of whether they be­lieve there will be suf­fi­cient staff on hand.

And Rep. Mark Finchem, R-OroVal­ley, wants the state Board of Ed­u­ca­tion to craft a code of ethics for teach­ers pro­hibit­ing them from not just en­dors­ing can­di­dates or com­ment­ing on leg­is­la­tion to in­tro­duc­ing con­tro­ver­sial is­sues that are not ger­mane to the course or topic be­ing stud­ied.

There also is some pres­sure on law­mak­ers to re­visit the statutes that al­low for-profit en­ti­ties to op­er­ate char­ter schools amid ques­tions of whether there needs to be bet­ter fi­nan­cial and aca­demic over­sight for these oper­a­tions that are tech­ni­cally pub­lic schools which get state aid.

It also re­mains to be seen whether sup­port­ers of vouch­ers of state tax dol­lars to al­low stu­dents to at­tend pri­vate and parochial schools will be back this ses­sion with a new plan fol­low­ing the de­feat at the bal­lot in Novem­ber of a pro­posal to re­move re­stric­tions on who is el­i­gi­ble.

A closely re­lated is­sue deals with school safety and crime in gen­eral.

Gov. Doug Ducey at­tempted to get law­mak­ers to ap­prove a com­pre­hen­sive plan last year he said would pre­vent mass shoot­ings, with the key­stone be­ing a pro­posal to let judges take guns from some peo­ple con­sid­ered “dan­ger­ous.’’

That plan, dubbed Se­vere Threat Or­der of Pro­tec­tion, would set up pro­ce­dures to al­low not just po­lice but fam­ily mem­bers and oth­ers to seek a court or­der to have law en­force­ment take an in­di­vid­ual’s weapons while he or she is locked up for up to 21 days for a men­tal eval­u­a­tion. Ducey con­tends that kind of law could have pre­vented some of the mass shoot­ings that have oc­curred else­where.

But law­mak­ers wa­tered down the plan be­fore fi­nally killing it out­right, with ob­jec­tions not just to tak­ing away weapons but lock­ing up peo­ple against their will for a psy­cho­log­i­cal eval­u­a­tion.

Ducey is ex­pected to make an­other run at the is­sue. But there also is sen­ti­ment among some law­mak­ers to go in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, fol­low­ing the lead of Florida where leg­is­la­tors voted to al­low school boards to let teach­ers with proper train­ing be armed.

Law­mak­ers also are ex­pected to take up the ques­tion of why Ari­zona has more than 40,000 peo­ple in state prisons.

Some leg­is­la­tors say this is a re­sult of manda­tory sen­tenc­ing laws which took dis­cre­tion away from judges, par­tic­u­larly for mul­ti­ple of­fend­ers. But there also is some con­cern that some of the crimes that are now listed as felonies could as eas­ily be clas­si­fied as mis­de­meanors, re­duc­ing sen­tences and im­prov­ing the odds of pro­ba­tion.

Any move in that di­rec­tion would gen­er­ate push­back from prose­cu­tors who gen­er­ally have ar­gued that ev­ery­one who is in prison be­longs there.

Fi­nally there is the ques­tion of whether the recre­ational use of mar­i­juana should re­main a crime.

Vot­ers did ap­prove al­low­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana pa­tients to buy and use the drug, with some 184,000 now hav­ing state-is­sued ID cards. But a 2016 ini­tia­tive to al­low any­one to use the drug came up short.

One thing that could pres­sure leg­isla­tive ac­tion is a pos­si­ble mar­i­juana le­gal­iza­tion mea­sure on the 2020 bal­lot. If ap­proved by vot­ers, law­mak­ers would be pow­er­less to al­ter it; a leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion, how­ever, could be amended as needed.

Un­der the cat­e­gory of health, abor­tion leg­is­la­tion is a peren­nial at the Capi­tol.

Un­less and un­til the his­toric 1973 Roe v. Wade de­ci­sion is over­turned, Ari­zona law­mak­ers are pow­er­less to out­law the pro­ce­dure. But foes of abor­tion have had suc­cess in prior years im­pos­ing new re­stric­tions and hur­dles on the prac­tice, rang­ing from wait­ing pe­ri­ods and new re­ports to ques­tions that women have to be asked be­fore they can ter­mi­nate a preg­nancy.

Sev­eral states al­ready are push­ing the le­gal bound­aries, in­clud­ing some that are try­ing to make the prac­tice il­le­gal at 20 weeks — weeks be­fore the point of vi­a­bil­ity un­der cur­rent med­i­cal prac­tice. In fact Ari­zona law­mak­ers ap­proved such a ban in 2012, only to have it struck down.

But abor­tion foes are hop­ing for dif­fer­ent le­gal re­sults, par­tic­u­larly with a pair of Trump ap­pointees to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Law­mak­ers are ex­pected to de­bate whether the state is ready to ban tex­ting while driv­ing by all mo­torists.

Cur­rent law ap­plies only to teens with a learner’s per­mit or in the first six months of be­ing able to drive. But a re­cent fa­tal ac­ci­dent where a tex­ting mo­torist killed a po­lice of­fi­cer on the Salt River Pima-Mari­copa In­dian Reser­va­tion may pro­vide some push.

Also on the health front, law­mak­ers hope to find new ways to crack down on ac­cess to “vap­ing’’ de­vices by teens.

Other is­sues that could get leg­isla­tive at­ten­tion in­clude:

• Re­vamp­ing deals with tribes over their ex­clu­sive right to op­er­ate casi­nos in ex­change for giv­ing the state a share of the prof­its. That also can get into the ques­tion of whether the Ari­zona Lot­tery state can op­er­ate keno games where num­bers are cho­sen mul­ti­ple times an hour, a prac­tice that may run afoul of those gam­ing com­pacts.

• Re­scind­ing or adjusting a $32-a-ve­hi­cle reg­is­tra­tion fee ap­proved last year to fund the High­way Pa­trol, free­ing up more than $180 mil­lion of tax dol­lars for other pri­or­i­ties. Some law­mak­ers who voted for the plan said the amount, which was not set in statute, ended up be­ing far more than they were promised. Ducey is op­posed to its re­peal.

• Ad­dress­ing whether Ari­zona should tax sales by out-of-state on­line re­tail­ers. A re­lated is­sue is de­ter­min­ing if some prod­ucts de­liv­ered on­line, like soft­ware, should also be sub­ject to state and lo­cal sales taxes.

• En­hanc­ing the penal­ties for an­i­mal cru­elty. Prior ef­forts have run into op­po­si­tion from ranch­ers who say it could af­fect how they deal with the own an­i­mals.

• De­bat­ing whether to re­move a “leg­isla­tive im­mu­nity’’ pro­vi­sion from the Ari­zona Con­sti­tu­tion. While the lan­guage does not tech­ni­cally im­mu­nize law­mak­ers for their acts, one law­maker cited it as an ex­cuse for driv­ing more than 100 miles per hour while an­other, stopped for drunk driv­ing, gave po­lice his leg­isla­tive ID card in­stead of his driver’s li­cense.

• Giv­ing pay raises to state em­ploy­ees who, un­like teach­ers, have not got­ten an across-the-board in­crease in years. That has led to some bad feel­ings par­tic­u­larly af­ter the Ducey ad­min­is­tra­tion gave big pay hikes to some work­ing di­rectly for the gov­er­nor.

• Mov­ing the state’s pri­mary from late Au­gust un­til May. That move would give more time for the in­tra­party wounds of a con­tested race to heal ahead of the Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tion.

• Re­new­ing ef­forts to have can­di­dates for U.S. Se­nate se­lected by par­ties in­stead of through pop­u­lar elec­tion. Sim­i­lar leg­is­la­tion has failed in the past.

PHOTO BY HOWARD FIS­CHER/CAPI­TOL ME­DIA SER­VICES

IN­COM­ING HOUSE MI­NOR­ITY LEADER CHAR­LENE FER­NAN­DEZ of Yuma dis­cusses pri­or­i­ties for the up­com­ing ses­sion Fri­day with new House Speaker Rusty Bow­ers of Mesa. Among the is­sues of spe­cial con­cern for Yuma is the adop­tion of a drought con­tin­gency plan.

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