Arizona Legislature ends its session amid protests, tear gas
State senators had to briefly flee the chamber’s floor Friday night as they worked to end the 2022 legislative session when state troopers fired smoke bombs and tear gas when protesters, who had gathered outside the Legislature to denounce the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and ending abortion rights, allegedly tried to breach the Senate building.
The fumes leaked into the building, causing the senators to leave the part of the chamber where they gather to deliberate bills and instead set up shop in a committee hearing room.
Hours later, legislators wrapped up their work for the year. The end of the legislative session comes shortly after a whirlwind few days as lawmakers scrambled to pass a massive $15.8 billion bipartisan budget this week, the largest in the state’s history.
In the early morning hours Friday, barricades had begun to be placed around the Capitol ground in preparation for protests over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end federal protections for abortion rights. Concrete barriers blocked off parts of the road to the Capitol and access to Wesley Bolin Park and parking was restricted.
While lawmakers in the Senate were debating a bill that eventually passed that expands the state’s voucher program to all of Arizona’s 1.1 million students, protesters began chanting and slamming on the glass doors of the Senate building, though they did not make entry and there didn’t appear to be a coordinated effort to enter the locked building. It wasn’t the first time the Arizona Capitol was attacked by angry protesters or even been breached.
Eventually, Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers began to fire tear gas canisters at the crowd from the Capitol building itself with some witnesses stating that there was no warning to disperse beforehand. Chants of “let them in” could be heard in the Senate building shortly before the Senate went into an extended recess.
The Arizona Senate Republican caucus called the incident an “insurrection” and said that the system that circulates air into the Senate pulled in tear gas into the Senate chambers, leading the lawmakers to move into a Senate hearing room for the remainder of the evening.
Despite the setbacks, both chambers passed a litany of bills, including a major expansion of the state’s private school voucher system, a bill that would disallow books with descriptions of sex from being used in Arizona schools, bills chancing election procedures and a massive bipartisan water bill.
Among the biggest and most controversial measures the legislature passed in its final hours was a GOP led measure that expanded the state’s voucher program to all 1.1 million students in the state.
The Empowerment Scholarship Account program, commonly referred to as ESAs, has been narrowly implemented since its creation in 2011. Eligible students include children attending failing public schools, children whose parents are in the military, kids who are in the foster care system and students living on Native American Reservations. Currently, roughly 11,800 students are enrolled and receive the voucher money.
But House Bill 2853 would allow every Arizona student to get an ESA account — including those who already attend private schools — to pay for their education. Legislative budget analysts have said that only an estimated 25,000 students would likely take advantage of the expanded eligibility.
ESA dollars can be spent on anything a student needs, from tuition for a private school to tutoring or to homeschooling materials.
Senate Democrats were upset and “blindsided” by a procedural move by Senate leadership that disallowed them from introducing amendments to the bill sponsored by Peoria Republican Rep. Ben Toma.
“We are not investing enough in our students to invest in two separate systems,” Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said. The former teacher said that her amendment would have added oversight to the process by having ESA instructors meet certain criteria such as having a bachelors degree.
However, for some, the bill wasn’t enough.
“My biggest lament is that to me this doesn’t go far enough,” Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said. “I think this is a great step.”
Shope said he doesn’t expect the mass exodus from public school that many of his Democratic colleagues fear and that the expansion will create new opportunities for families and students across the state. While Shope and the majority of his colleagues were happy about the bill, one of his colleagues saw the bill as the Senate “playing with fire.”
““I think we are going to be talking about ESAs for quite some time, I think it is going to end up on the ballot again,” Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale said. “To me, I don’t think it was worth the budget that we passed a couple of days ago.”
Ugenti-Rita said that in order to get the votes for the ESA bill deals had to be made on the budget and that she feels the Senate is putting itself “in a tough spot” and they “may get a backlash” that may lead to the issue going back to the voters.
“The fact that this has been tied to the biggest budget ever I don’t think in the end we will get what we want, you know, hogs get slaughtered and pigs get fat,” Ugenti-Rita said.
Other controversies and bills
The legislature also moved forward a number of other measures during its final hours, including a controversial measure that would essentially ban books like “The Color Purple” or “Atlas Shrugged” from Arizona schools due to their frank descriptions of sex and sexuality.
The legislation bans schools from teaching or directing students to study any material that is “sexually explicit,” which the bill defines as “masturbation, sexual intercourse or physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks or if such person is female, breast.” An earlier version of the bill also included homosexuality but the bill was later amended to remove the reference.
An amendment was also added to the bill by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, that allowed for classical literature, early American literature and literature needed for college credit to still be allowed, but only with parental consent.
Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, the sponsor of House Bill 2495, previously argued before the Senate Education Committee that the bill was not about “sex ed” and was instead about keeping sexually explicit material out of the hands of children. A petition on his website, AlignAct.com, describes the bill as helping stop “sexual grooming” in Arizona classrooms.
The legislature also passed a measure that would make it illegal to film any “police activity” if you are closer than 8 feet.
The bill, by Fountain Hills Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, who spent decades as a police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, would make it unlawful for someone to film police from up to 8 feet away while officers are engaged in “law enforcement activity.”
The bill originally made it unlawful to film someone from 15 feet away, however, the bill was amended to 8 feet away to mirror a Supreme Court ruling regarding the distance protesters could be from abortion clinics, according to Kavanagh. Anyone who violates the new law can find themselves on the receiving end of a class 3 misdemeanor.
“Consider throwing some money to the state coffers for defending a lawsuit against this,” Rep. Domingo Degrazia, D-Tucson, said when explaining his no vote, saying that lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the measure surely will come. “When we come down to our jobs here and being accountable, just remember who will be accountable to the lawsuits coming out of this.”
A number of election related bills were also approved, including a revived one that was initially vetoed by the Governor earlier this year.
Hoffman’s House Bill 2243 requires a county recorder to cancel a voter’s registration if they receive information that the voter is not a qualified elector. It is identical to House Bill 2617, which Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed earlier this year because he said it could be utilized by bad actors in a discriminatory manner.
Lawmakers also approved a bill that would let any Arizonan request a recount. And they want voters to change the Arizona Constitution to require all future ballot measures to get at least 60% of the vote to become law instead of the simple majority that has been required since statehood in 1912.
The legislature also approved a measure by Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, that would require 90% of condo owners to support terminating a condo association and selling the property. Currently in Arizona, if a company were to purchase 80% of the condos in a condominium they can force the remaining 20% of the owners to sell their properties.
And lawmakers passed a film tax that will allow productions to get up to $25 million in tax credits when it uses an Arizona production facility or films primarily in Arizona or as long as the majority of its pre- and post-production is also done in the state. House Bill 2156 would grow to as much as $125 million a year in tax credits, and it drew largely bipartisan support, but still drew ire from some Republicans who said it opened up the door to “woke Hollywood.”
“Every Republican voting with Democrats should be ashamed,” Hoffman said, adding that Hollywood is “grooming” Arizona kids, a line popular among conservatives who are currently attacking groups like Disney as a part of the on-going “culture war.”
Other Republicans jumped onto the bill saying it was a way to attract more jobs to Arizona, including Globe Republican Rep. David Cook.
“So, what I see it as, is the possibility of expanding those jobs, maybe not MGM Grand to come and shoot movies here, but whether it is Hulu or Netflix or other entertainment, to come and invest in Arizona,” Cook said, explaining his vote for the bill.
Lawmakers also came to a bipartisan agreement on a water bill that includes $1 billion over the next three years to be spent to find new sources of water for the state which was applauded by Ducey late Friday night.
“With the passage of this legislation, we are rising to one of the most consequential challenges of our time,” Ducey said in the press release. “We are securing Arizona’s water future. We’re protecting our water supply, strengthening our conservation strategies and ensuring that our future remains bright.
Senate Bill 1740 by Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, would require that 75% of the funding spent to acquire any new water to come from the state. It also adds a number of measures such as rainwater harvesting and conservation measures that were negotiated alongside members of the Democratic caucus.
The session wraps up a contentious and long one in which many lawmakers are heading out, running for higher office or are termed out. Many lawmakers made tearful speeches on the final bill of the night, recalling their time in the legislature as the night wrapped up.
“It’s the tear gas, it really is, it really is,” Senate President Karen Fann said Friday night as she began tearing up when the senate began voting on the final bill of the night — and the final bill of her legislative career.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.