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Arizona House Speaker casts doubt on plan to break up Maricopa County

A proposal to split up Maricopa County got unanimous Republican backing in a House of Representatives committee, but doesn’t have the support of the most important GOP vote in the chamber — House Speaker Rusty Bowers. 

Bowers is skeptical about House Bill 2787, which would carve Maricopa County into four new counties. He called the proposal a “cumbersome thing” that will need a lot of work and time. 

“It would be rather disruptive in the short term, and I do think that having everybody discussing it will be critical to make it effective, if it ever were to happen,” Bowers, a Mesa Republican, told the Arizona Mirror.

Bowers expressed consternation about the lack of input from Maricopa County officials and the “enormous amount of change and expenditure and building new facilities” that would be required in a short amount of time. He wouldn’t say whether he’ll block the bill from coming up for a vote on the House floor, and even left the door open to supporting a future dismantling of the county. 

But for now, there are too many unanswered questions for his liking. 

“I’m not saying that, population-wise, we couldn’t easily populate some more counties,” Bowers said. “It’s going to take a lot of work, and at this particular time, with the expenditures and challenges and all that we’re facing, roads, etc, etc. — I’m not against an idea, but that idea needs to really be worked on, fleshed out before we get anywhere with it.”

Critics of the bill raised similar concerns on Wednesday as the House Government and Elections Committee debated HB2787. 

Rep. Jake Hoffman, the bill’s sponsor, touted it as a good government measure. With more than 4.4 million people, which is nearly 62% of Arizona’s population, Hoffman said Maricopa County dominates the state and is far too populous, comparing it to mega counties like Los Angeles County and Cook County in Illinois. And it’s only getting bigger: Within 30 years, he said it could contain as much as 85% of the people in Arizona. 

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Meet the four proposed counties

Hoffman’s proposal would create four new counties, which he said could accommodate the substantially different interests and needs that various regions of the county have. 

The new, truncated Maricopa County would encompass southern, central and downtown Phoenix, extending to Tolleson in the west and taking in Tempe and Guadalupe to the east. It would have a population of about 1.73 million people, Hoffman said. 

Hohokam County, with a population of about 1.7 million, would cover the East Valley, including Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek and Chandler. 

Mogollon County would take in northern Phoenix, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Fountain Hills and other areas to the north. It’s population would be about 809,000.

O’odham County would cover the West Valley from Avondale north to Surprise, including Glendale and Peoria, and would extend to Gila Bend, Wickenburg and others areas in the western part of the county. It would be the least populous of the new counties, with about 705,000 people, though Hoffman noted that Mogollon and O’odham counties would likely see the heaviest growth.

Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican, said he has three primary motivations: ensuring that government is more representative and accountable to the people, making it easier for local governments to address regional priorities and needs, and ensuring that states and localities can address critical water issues. 

“This bill is not designed as any type of retribution for the county. It’s explicitly not an election issue. It’s not in response to COVID policies. This bill is about three very important things,” he said. 

The four new counties would divvy up Maricopa County’s property and infrastructure, from equipment and furniture to buildings like sheriff’s substations. They would have the option of entering into agreements for up to 10 years to share control of major facilities, such as the county jail in downtown Phoenix, until each county could build its own facilities. 

The proposal would go into effect on Dec. 31 of this year, but Maricopa County would have “full jurisdictional operation” for the four new counties until each could elect its own board of supervisors, which would have to happen within 120 days. The five current members of Maricopa County’s board would maintain their positions until the ends of their terms, though those who live in the new counties would serve on their new boards. 

Pre-existing special districts would be controlled by the new counties they’re in. Counties would enter into intergovernmental agreements for any special districts that cross county boundaries. 

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No love from Democrats or Maricopa County leaders

Democratic members of the committee and other critics aired a number of concerns about the proposal. Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson questioned how much the proposal would cost. Hoffman said that’s unknown. Because the costs wouldn’t be borne by the state, legislative staff hasn’t calculated that.

“What I’m seeing right now is you’re creating bigger government. You’re literally creating more than 40 new positions,” Hernandez said. “Who’s going to be paying for those positions? We are.”

Some questioned the lack of stakeholder input. Hoffman said he spoke with members of city councils in Phoenix’s eastern and western suburbs, constituents, land use experts and homebuilders, along with various others inside and outside Maricopa County, while crafting his proposal. But that process did not include officials from Maricopa County itself. County spokesman Fields Moseley said he’s not aware of any county officials being spoken to during the stakeholder process. Hoffman also said he didn’t consult with anyone from the City of Phoenix. 

The county as a whole has not taken a position on the bill. But county Assessor Eddie Cook, a Republican, testified against it. He noted that no one reached out to his office to discuss the proposal. He said he has “right-sized” his office to work efficiently to appraise the 1.8 million properties in Maricopa County. He said he spoke with other countywide elected officials about the proposal, as well. 

“If you were to call them, they would actually say the same thing,” Cook said. 

Phoenix resident Susan Edwards said she didn’t think the bill’s goal was bad. But it’s an “enormous action” that needs thorough planning and broad stakeholder involvement, she said, neither of which have happened. She also questioned why the City of Phoenix would be divided into multiple counties. 

“I think it would be good to go back. Take a year. Do this right if you want to propose it. Get input from the areas that are affected,” Edwards said. “It takes time. You can’t just do it like that.”’

Some questioned whether there are partisan motivations behind the plan. Rep. Sarah Liguori, D-Phoenix, noted that three of the four new counties would be predominantly Republican. 

Hoffman countered that the plan would actually create more representation for Democrats. He predicted that Democrats would control four or five of the five seats on the board of supervisors for the new Maricopa County. And there would likely be Democrats on the boards for the other counties, creating Democratic representation where there’s none now, he said. 

Austin Smith, the enterprise director at the conservative organization Turning Point Action and a Republican legislative candidate from Wittman, said splitting up Maricopa County is consistent with Jeffersonian ideals of minimal control by a central government. As a resident of a rural area of the county, he said decisions about property valuation and water policy for his area shouldn’t be decided by someone in Phoenix, where he said too much power is currently concentrated. 

“The communities of interest where I’m from are not the same politically, culturally, as Phoenix or the East Valley. It’s different,” Smith said. “We need more local representation for four and a half million people.” 

Rep. Lorenzo Sierra, R-Avondale, noted that Smith seemed especially well-versed in the proposal, and asked if he’d been part of the stakeholder process. Smith responded that he had been involved. He’s from rural Arizona, he’s politically involved, he knows many members of the legislature and was happy to provide some input. 

“I would’ve preferred if (Eddie) Cook would’ve been part of that process rather than you,” Sierra told him. 

Hoffman and Smith are allies: Hoffman’s company did digital marketing Turning Point USA until it was kicked off of Facebook and Twitter for being a troll farm. Hoffman also was banned from the social media platforms.

Sierra: This is all about overturning elections

Liguori and Sierra argued that the explanations about water policy were disingenuous. Liguori noted that Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe, for example, manage their own water policy at the municipal level. Sierra pointed out that Avondale banks water for Phoenix through a mutual agreement between the cities. 

Despite Hoffman’s insistence to the contrary, Sierra alleged that the true motivation behind the bill is the false claim that the 2020 election was rigged against Donald Trump and the anger among many Republicans that Maricopa County upheld and defended those election results, rejecting the baseless and discredited claims that they were swayed by fraud. 

“Complicity is the oxygen of tyranny. Patriots like Steve Gallardo, Bill Gates, Jack Sellers and Clint Hickman would not comply with the directive to decertify the Maricopa County election,” Sierra said, naming the five Maricopa County supervisors, four of whom are Republicans. “Folks, this is not about water. It’s not about representation. This is about putting more chips on the roulette table so that you win your bet. One of these three counties, I’m sure, would decertify the election in a heartbeat, and that’s what you’re going after.”

Hoffman noted that there have been numerous attempts in the past at the legislature to split up Maricopa County, and reiterated the arguments he’d made earlier in the hearing about why he’s running the bill. 

“To say that this has anything to do with the election is laughable and nothing more than a conspiracy theory,” he said. 

Nonetheless, proponents of the bogus election fraud claims have been vocal advocates for the past year of splitting up Maricopa County, whose officials they falsely believe are complicit in a rigged election. Hoffman has been a prominent supporter of those allegations, and urged that Arizona’s electoral votes, which were won by President Joe Biden, be awarded to Trump.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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