Arizona Senate Republicans put Hobbs’ choice to lead Administration Dep't on hold
After a morning of dogged questioning, the confirmation of Gov. Katie Hobbs’ pick to lead the state’s largest agency stalled Tuesday after a top Republican said that the nominee didn’t speak “honestly and truthfully” to the state Senate’s Director Nominations Committee.
Sen. Jake Hoffman, a Queen Creek Republican and chairman of the newly formed Nominations Committee, accused Elizabeth Alvarado-Thorson, Hobbs’ nominee for director of the Arizona Department of Administration, of dodging questions and doing a “misservice to this committee and people of Arizona.” Hoffman, a member of the Arizona Freedom Caucus, added that Thorson would have to come back before the committee to answer more questions.
Republicans created the Director Nominations Committee in early February with the purpose of evaluating Hobbs’ nominees for department director positions, saying it served as a check on executive authority.
In one of the most tense exchanges of the day, Hoffman asked Thorson about her personal views on abortion, and whether she would theoretically allow Hobbs to push for government-funded abortions for employees through state-funded health insurance or for leave for state employees specifically for abortions.
Thorson told Hoffman that she was personally pro-choice, but promised that would not come into play in her duties as director.
“I do not apply my personal beliefs or opinions when carrying out the duties and responsibilities as Department of Administration Director,” she told the committee.
The Department of Administration identifies itself as the “business and administrative hub” of state government, which does things like supplying health benefits to state employees and maintaining office buildings. Thorson said that the department implements policies and provides studies, data and information, but it does not create policies.
Thorson has served as the deputy director of the Department of Administration since 2018, and prior to that she served as the state human resources director, overseeing the state’s personnel system of more than 32,000 employees.
“We don’t make the policy, we implement it,” Thorson said repeatedly.
Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, pointed out that state law prohibits Arizona from using taxpayer funds for abortion services, and Democratic Sen. Eva Burch, of Mesa, stepped in to say that an employee who takes medical leave is not required to disclose the reason to their employer — meaning that the Hobbs administration would be unlikely to attempt to implement some sort of abortion leave policy.
Hoffman said that Hobbs’ own campaign promises prompted the questions he posed to Thorson, specifically her commitment only to nominate pro-choice directors to head the Department of Administration, Department of Health and the state’s Medicaid system.
In the statement to which Hoffman referred, Hobbs mentioned the Department of Administration’s role in fixing the state’s “broken policy on maternity leave for state employees.”
During the committee meeting, Hoffman also questioned Thorson about $210 million in federal COVID-19 response grants awarded by then-Gov. Doug Ducey in the last days of his term that were canceled last week by the Hobbs administration.
Although Hoffman kept pushing Thorson on the issue, she said that the Department of Administration had nothing to do with the awarding or cancellation of the grants, clarifying that administration of COVID-19 recovery grants was moved to the Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting in early 2020.
Hobbs did not respond by deadline to a request for comment on Thorson’s confirmation hearing, any plans to implement a state-funded abortion policy or why she promised to appoint only pro-choice candidates to the three specific director jobs.
At the end of the Feb. 20 committee meeting, Hoffman told Thorson the committee was putting her confirmation on hold and would be calling her in for more questions in the future.
He also issued a warning to other Hobbs director nominees who have yet to go before the committee that it would not be a “rubber stamp” for the nominees and that they should be ready to answer tough questions.
“You need to come in here and speak honestly and truthfully to this committee,” he said, accusing Thorson of dodging questions and putting political spin on her answers.
Directors of various Arizona agencies spoke during the meeting in favor of Thorson’s appointment, including Andy Tobin, the former Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives who Ducey appointed to lead the Department of Administration.
He told the committee that Thorson was there when the department completed all of its big accomplishments over the past several years, including getting rid of around a million square feet of unused office space, saving the state money on rent, maintenance and repairs.
“I came here today to let you know how valuable this good and decent public servant has always been,” Tobin told the committee.
He also assured them that Thorson’s time at the department has been about following the law, not playing politics.
Also on Feb. 20, the committee voted 5-0 to forward the nomination of Jennifer Toth as the director of the Department of Transportation to the full Senate for review.
Toth most recently worked as the director of the Maricopa County Department of Transportation and before that was the state engineer and deputy director of the state Department of Transportation.
Toth said her goals were safety, innovation and collaboration, adding that it was important to involve stakeholders when the department makes decisions about roadways.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.