PHOENIX — Three Republicans bolted party ranks Thursday as the Arizona Senate killed legislation that would have meant longer minimum prison sentences for people who commit felonies while in the country illegally.
The 16-14 vote against SB 1279 came despite Maricopa Republican Steve Smith’s efforts to shame other senators into voting for his bill.
Smith cited 21-year-old Grant Ronnebeck, who was shot and killed two years ago while working at a Mesa convenience store by someone in the country illegally. He said the suspect in that case committed a prior burglary and rape but had been placed on probation.
“He didn’t serve a day in jail,” Smith said.
As the vote tally was going against him, Smith pointed out that Ronnebeck’s father, Steve, was watching in the Senate gallery along with family members of others who were killed by people in the United States illegally. And when that maneuver failed to move foes of the legislation, Smith told them they should justify their votes directly to family members.
Smith said he thinks he knows why the legislation failed: The hangover from SB 1070, the 2010 Arizona law designed to give police more power to detain and arrest illegal immigrants. It got national attention and had financial implications as tourism and convention bookings fell off.
“If that is your reason, because tourism might suffer in Arizona if we pass another immigration bill ... I want you to meet those family members and you tell me how many tourism dollars, if they were to be lost, is worth it to their children not being here anymore,” Smith said. “And if that sits well in your conscience, let it sit well.”
Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said later that Smith misrepresented the facts.
“None of these laws ... would have saved Grant’s life,” Worsley said.
“It was a failure of the prosecutor,” he said, adding that if the man who killed Ronnebeck had been tried and convicted of the prior burglary and rape, he would have been sent to prison.
Worsley and fellow Republicans Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix and Frank Pratt of Casa Grande voted against the bill, along with the chamber’s Democrats, without speaking against it.
“We didn’t want to make a scene on the floor,” Worsley said. “So we got the one-sided crap kicked out of us” by Smith’s comments, he lamented.
He called Smith’s criticism of those who did not side with him “over the top.”
Brophy McGee said her vote against the measure was based on the belief it’s not necessary.
She pointed out that last year lawmakers repealed a decade-old law — intended to save the state money — that allowed the Department of Corrections to release illegal immigrants to immigration officials after they had served half their prison terms.
Now they must serve at least 85 percent of their terms, the same as other inmates.
Brophy McGee also said there were questions about whether the state can impose different sentencing standards on people based solely on whether they are violating a federal law by being in this country illegally.
She, like Worsley, said it was wrong for Smith to question her motives.
“Every senator is expected to vote their conscience and what they believe is right,” Brophy McGee said. “And I think it’s incumbent on fellow senators to respect that.”
Smith’s legislation would have required judges sentencing a defendant for a felony must impose at least the “presumptive sentence” required by law if the person is in this country illegally.
That would mean more time behind bars, sometimes years longer, than is now an option for judges.
Potentially more significant, SB 1279 would have eliminated the possibility of parole.
Smith ushered a similar measure through the Senate last year before it died in the House.
This year the slightly altered version did not clear the Senate.