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Az Legislature has work to do & social distancing should not apply to them

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What the Devil won't tell you

Az Legislature has work to do & social distancing should not apply to them

  • Constables have stopped slapping eviction notices on residential properties during the coronavirus epidemic. A real legal fix is the only solution.
    Tom Check/FlickrConstables have stopped slapping eviction notices on residential properties during the coronavirus epidemic. A real legal fix is the only solution.
  • An eviction notice stuck to a door in the Prescott, Ariz., area, around the time of the housing crash, 2008.
    Tom Check/FlickrAn eviction notice stuck to a door in the Prescott, Ariz., area, around the time of the housing crash, 2008.

Pima County constables are in open revolt and the Legislature is running to the hills.

The people in charge of processing evictions here are taking a break during the coronavirus ... whatever this is ... Pandemic? Episode?

They met Wednesday morning and announced they would stop serving evictions here until the coronavirus outbreak passes.

Admit it, the last time you stared at a ballot asked to vote for a constable, you thought two things. What the Christ is a constable? And who the hell are these people I’m voting for?

They are the people who carry out the orders of the Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts and they are about to be the folk heroes of the "coronasession" ( ... No? Doesn't work? Damn).

Dylan won't allow me to write in 96-point type, but if I could, here's where I would deploy giant text to say: 

"Don't go blowing your rent money on black-market hand sanitizer or toilet paper."

The constable's remedy is temporary because the justices of the peace are still required under state law to order evictions. Those evictions do to credit reports what VX gas does to lab mice.

With an eviction on your record, renting a new place or buying a home will be exceedingly difficult for years after this crisis passes.

True relief is going to have to come from the Legislature, even if it's temporary — and the Republican-helmed Legislature is acting and talking like they are done for the session at the end of the week.

No gang, social distancing doesn't apply to you because Arizona is not set up to weather storms together. We are an "in-it-for-me-and-have-the-gun-to-prove-it" state and the laws are accordingly established.

Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature is going to have to work against form to get us through the coronavirus pandemic and its economic aftermath.

Waiting on distress

Here's a real world example: Tucson Mayor Regina Romero just shut down bars, dine-in restaurants and other public venues until the end of the month.

On St. Paddy’s day, about 40,000 service industry workers needed a good stiff drink because without help – immediate help – they are facing eviction in April. By Easter they may need a lawyer.

I think a lot of people have this idea that tenants can just squat for months. After all, homeowners during the last recession were often free to not pay their mortgages and hang out in their homes for more than a year before foreclosure kicked them curbside.

Renters have as little as 25 days. And in Tucson, a whole lot of restaurant and bar workers have just been put out of a job with very little warning.

Trust me. I know. I went through this when the last recession hit. It took less than a month from “Golly, I’m late on the rent” to “Holy crap the constable is going to change the locks on my apartment.”

Or not as the case may be.

The constables point out that the the applicable state statute requires constables serve evictions "promptly," so they may not be in violation of the law.

This is the same legal vagueness that afflicts people guaranteed a speedy trial by the U.S. Constitution. Define "speedy." It has no explicit definition and neither does "promptly." Ask an Arizona bureaucrat what "promptly" means when it comes to public records and you'll get a shrugged "when we get around to it," more often than not.

It could be a day. It could be two. It could mean until constables have a safe work space, or after Beyonce's next album.

They have some wiggle room.

Celebrate the constabulary's refusal to kick people to the curb but true relief will only come with a change or at least momentary suspension of the law.

The laws were written to provide property owners maximum protection and expedite the eviction process. Right now the public needs to be protected from the laws that will only spread the virus when the waitresses gainfully employed yesterday fail to make their rent payment next month.

We don't want infected people on the streets.

Legislative intent

The one thing we know the legislators will act on is a budget. Conveniently for them but not so much for the rest of us, they are expected to vote on a Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget that pretends there is no coronavirus or recession. It was crafted prior to the virus outbreak and reflects none of the new normal.

State Rep. Andres Cano, a Tucson Democrat, has said there is no plan right now among the GOP leaders to return for a special session.

“We cannot simply vote on a status-quo budget, leave the Capitol, and then maybe come back later to provide COVID-19 emergency relief,” Cano said. “Our constituents are pleading for action now. We need an eviction moratorium, paid sick leave, streamlined unemployment benefits with immediate approval, food assistance, and support for small businesses.”

Here’s the rub. The Legislature knows there is going to be pressure on them to do things with state money to help other people and they are constitutionally unequipped to do such things.

During the last recession, Arizona’s Legislature failed to extend unemployment benefits congressional Republicans and President Obama had provided. It would have required simply required changing a couple numbers. Lawmakers couldn’t be bothered.

Also during the last recession, the Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer cut Department of Economic Security budgets, which is akin to responding to a hurricane by slashing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s workforce.

I will bet whatever dollars I have left, this is exactly why Gov. Doug Ducey is hesitating to close bars and restaurants. All the public health evidence says he has to but somewhere deep inside him, Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman are wagging their fingers.

For government to put people out of work, that’s one thing. Those people suddenly without income is the next thing. Getting this state to do something about it is a whole 'nother thing.

It can't be a thing. People — and the economy that lawmakers will be judged by — need help now.

Corporate citizenship

So the people elected to look out for the greater good are fleeing like Titanic survivors rowing away from their former shipmates freezing in the icy Atlantic.

On the other hand, the institutions established to return money to shareholders are acting in the name of the greater good.

Tucson Electric Power and Southwest Gas have both agreed to stop disconnections during the current crisis.

Unless proven otherwise, these actions can be chalked up to good citizenship:

“We know some customers may be facing financial hardships because of the coronavirus,” said TEP spokesman Joe Barrios. “So we suspended service disconnections and late fees until further notice.”

Cox Communications should be lauded – whatever else you think about them – for taking their services to the streets. Not only have they also suspended disconnections for customers hit by coronavirus’ fallout, they have boosted speeds and are making low-cost service available to people who don’t have internet access at a time when having it is important to staying informed.

Nice work, evil utilities, setting an empathetic example.

Unemployment boost

As long as we're talking about immediate needs, let's take a look at unemployment insurance.

Arizona's unemployment laws are freaking arcane and counter productive. There's a quarterly calculation and a waiting quarter and the maximum benefit of $240 a week ranks next to last in the country ahead of (you guessed it) Mississippi. It's half of what they pay in Utah or Wyoming and the equivalent of $6 an hour.

The laws could use updating to help people hunker and weather this storm.

So legislators should ask themselves: What happens to an economy when a sizeable portion of your work force loses more than half its buying power? 

And if the government is basically firing these people from the private sector to protect public health as a public good, then this is a particularly acute moral need.

And yet the Legislature is talking about hiding in their their shelters because it’s always been every man, woman and child for themselves in this state, and our lawmakers are resisting the idea that we’re all in this together.

About 10 percent of the Arizona workforce is either in food service or hospitality at the very moment people have stopped traveling and are being told to start "social distancing" to stop the spread. Tourism accounts for $24 billion in Arizona's economy.

Individual economic incentives will stand at cross-purposes of flattening the curve. Its hard to "social distance" while looking for a job or living on the streets.

Crass, brass tacks

Look, lawmakers, if naming and shaming isn't going to work, allow me to try rank political calculation.

How stupid are those “Keep America Great Again” hats going to look during a recession, when people you could have helped are haplessly sleeping in tents on the streets?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gone from the “Grim Reaper of Socialism” to all but donning a Che Guevera beret as Congress and President Donald Trump look to shovel money out the door as fast as possible.

He's all but admitting all that talk of the last decade was bullshit. Remember when Republicans said deficits cause recessions and cutting spending is the road the road to prosperity. How many times have you heard the word "deficit" lately? You haven't. Because deficits don't cause recessions; Congress knows that and is acting appropriately.

But Congress doesn't write Arizona's laws.

Republicans know that the same “low-information” voter who were never going to read the Mueller Report to discover there was a whole bunch of collusion and obstruction, also fail to make the distinction between local, state and federal governments.

They just think of government and the president’s in charge and he’s a Republican. If they are mad at government, they’ll vote for the other side.

And the GOP holds a one-seat edge in the state House and just two seats in the state Senate.

Again, if your health is the restaurant worker's problem and then why isn't their livelihood yours?

They need the kind of help only the Legislature can give.

It's what "we're all in this together" feels like.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who spent 20 years reporting on government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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