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State Sen. Vince Leach asks Ariz. AG to probe Tucson over COVID shot mandate

State Sen. Vince Leach filed a complaint Thursday with the Arizona Attorney General, accusing the city of Tucson of violating state law by moving to possibly fire government employees who refuse to be vaccinated by the beginning of December.

About $100 million — 10 percent — could be held back from the city budget if AG Mark Brnovich upholds the complaint.

Leach, a Republican, who represents Arizona's District 11—including Oro Valley and Catalina, and an area west of I-10 north to Casa Grande—sent a hand-written form to Brnovich's office, asking if Tucson's vaccination mandate violates Arizona law.

Leach's complaint leverages SB 1487, a 2016 law that allows state legislators to compel the attorney general to investigate if a city or town is violating state law, and come to a decision within 30 days. If Brnovich finds that Tucson violated the law, city officials must either change the disputed policy or forfeit 10 percent of the shared tax revenue they receive from the state for that year, which could cost Tucson more than $100 million per year.

In August, state Sen. Sonny Borrelli, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, filed a complaint with the AG's office, demanding that Brnovich investigate the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for refusing to comply with a state senate's subpoena.

Leach has fought against governments' attempt to mitigate COVID-19 before. Last year, he signed onto a complaint with state lawmaker Mark Finchem to block Pima County's new rules for restaurants.

During a meeting Tuesday, Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and the City Council voted 4-3 to require city government employees to be vaccinated, or to successfully apply for accommodations. While the city had originally instituted the mandate in August, it was withheld while a court considered a series of bills jammed into the must-pass budget bill, and signed into law by Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey over the summer.

However, just before the law was about to come into force, a Maricopa County judge ruled that the state Legislature had engaged in "log-rolling" and violated Arizona's state constitution.

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This freed up the city of Tucson to begin terminating employees who have yet to be vaccinated by December 1.

Of the city's 4,000 person workforce, only 627 have not gotten their shots. Around half of those employees successfully applied for an accommodation, however, around 289 had their initial application denied by the city, according to data from the Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega.

As part of the Council meeting, City Attorney Mike Rankin told city leaders that Tucson could enforce a vaccine requirement for city government workers despite the Legislature's attempt to block such mandates.

The state law that would "otherwise prohibit the city from requiring any person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 has been declared void and unenforceable by order of the Maricopa County Superior Court," Rankin wrote. "The appeal from this order is now pending in front of the Arizona Superior Court, with oral arguments scheduled for Nov. 2, 2021."

However, the general counsel for the governor's office argued in a letter Wednesday that Rankin was wrong—only two sections of the law were tossed out when the court found that state budget package was an unconstitutional, while a third section remains in effect.

That section tells employers that if an employee presents a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that they cannot take the COVID-19 vaccine, employers must provide a reasonable accommodation. That is, "unless the accommodation would pose an undue hardship and more than a minor cost" for the city.

Anni Foster, Ducey's general counsel, argued the city's vaccination mandate violates state law, which requires officials to grant vaccination accommodation requests as they come, rather than evaluating an employee's sincerely held belief.

Leach pushed the attorney general to investigate, and included Foster's letter to Rankin as part of his complaint.

On Thursday, Rankin responded to the governor's office, at one point calling the attempt to use a new executive order outlining how governments would track COVID-19 infections as an avenue to again tell cities they could not mandate vaccinations "painfully absurd."

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