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Arizona Legislature wraps up 171-day session, the 3rd-longest on record

Arizona lawmakers on Wednesday ended the third-longest legislative session in state history after approving the final components of a state spending plan for the fiscal year that begins Thursday and taking final votes on several other outstanding measures.

In all the session tallied 171 days, just shy of the 173-day record set in 1988 during the impeachment of Gov. Evan Mecham.

The bulk of the budget was approved last week, but changes made in the House of Representatives to education and criminal justice policy bills to secure the 31 needed votes — there are only 31 Republicans in the 60-member chamber — were opposed in the Senate, so a compromise had to be struck.

That compromise involved minimizing changes to the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program in order to increase access without expanding the scope of the school voucher system, as well as removing a provision added in the House that mandated a statewide curriculum for civics education.

The final day of the session was bittersweet for some lawmakers.

“I hate to end the session on a sad note,” a tearful Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said just before the House voted to adjourn. Roberts told his fellow house members that he had learned shortly before that his father-in-law had lost his battle with COVID-19.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, led the chamber in a prayer, then shared a personal story of loss. Bowers’s daughter died earlier this year, and he shared how it humbled him.  

“There is something about being in the legislature, some intoxiant that can make you feel like you have some power — and it’s probably likewise for the Speaker,” Bowers said. “Yet I was unable in any way to calm her but standing by a highway, trying to converse on a cellular phone.”

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The $12.8 billion budget that Republicans passed includes a massive income tax cut and funding for various capital projects. But Democrats assailed it on the final day, arguing that the budget didn’t do enough to help students and educators.

“This budget is such a disappointment, because we had the chance and you blew it,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Scottsdale. “Instead we are doing so little.”

Democratic lawmakers argued that an amendment added to the bill expands the ESA program and will divert more money away from public schools. The over budget bill also prohibits schools from requiring face masks and bans the teaching of critical race theory.

“This budget will have devastating consequences for our students and educators for decades with the expansion of the private school voucher program and permanent loss of $3 billion in state revenue over the next few years,” Joe Thomas, President of the Arizona Education Association said in a statement.

Education advocates say that the budget overrides a voter approved #InvestInEd initiative that sought to provide $940 million in funding to Arizona schools by implementing a 3.5% tax on those with an income over $500,000. The budget implements a new flat income tax rate on the wealthiest of Arizonans.

For Republican lawmakers, though, the K-12 budget is about getting the government out of the way of education and parental decisions.

“The state and the government have no business making decisions for the parent,” Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, said while defending the bill and his support, adding that parents should not be forced by the legislature to send their kids to a “failing” school.

“It brings the free market into the education system,” Roberts said, explaining his vote.

The bill passed along party lines.

The Senate voted on a number of other pieces of legislation Wednesday that were sent to Gov. Doug Ducey, including one that will make medical marijuana dispensaries have to do more testing on their products.

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Sens. Sonny Borrelli, Wendy Rogers and Kelly Townsend asked for it to be put on the record that they were opposed to adjourning for the session. The trio have been especially vocal about not wanting the legislature to adjourn until the Senate’s controversial review of Maricopa County’s 2020 election results had concluded.

The Senate’s review and allegations of election fraud have hung over the session, as bills related to the issue have passed and failed throughout the session.

Lawmakers also put a provision in the budget to create a committee to review the findings of the Senate’s audit of Maricopa County and gives outside agencies the authority to review voter rolls.

Lawmakers could be back as soon as next month to re-adjourn for the next session.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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