PHOENIX — Republican lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday to strip Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, of some of her powers.
Measures approved by both the House and Senate Appropriations committees would take away her power to defend state election laws and give it to Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
It even prevents her from being able to get legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office.
It also would remove her purview over the Capitol Museum located in the historic Capitol.
But GOP lawmakers insist it’s not personal, a power grab nor punishment for her political stance. Some, however, do say they’re unhappy with things she’s done.
The effort comes as relations between Democrat Hobbs and Republican Brnovich have apparently reached a new low. She has filed more than a dozen complaints against Brnovich and staffers with the State Bar of Arizona, it was disclosed Tuesday. The Bar polices attorney conduct and has the ability to punish those who violate ethical rules.
A spokesman for the Bar said he is legally precluded from providing specifics. And there is no timeline for conducting any investigation and releasing any findings.
But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said the move by Hobbs only adds to why the Republicans in the Legislature are moving against her. And he used them to respond arguments by Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, that the action to remove some her her authority were political.
“I don’t know what’s more political than the secretary of state submitting charges against almost the entire upper echelon of the attorney general,” Leach said.
“I would say the unprecedented attack on the attorney general, the chief deputy and many high-level attorneys is uncalled for,” Leach said. “This is really disconcerting and should be disconcerting to the people of Arizona.”
“She’s the one acting politically,” added Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria.
A spokesman for the State Bar said he can confirm only that a complaint was filed. And neither Hobbs nor Brnovich provided any immediate details.
And with no timeline on how long that inquiry would take, that leaves GOP lawmakers making the moves it can, using the state budget as their tool.
The actions spell out that the attorney general and not the secretary of state has the sole authority to defend the state when election laws are challenged. It also precludes the attorney general from providing any legal advice to the secretary of state, instead giving her $100,000 to hire a single legal adviser.
“This is a more efficient way of doing this,” said Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the House panel.
But Democrats noted this isn’t a permanent change. Instead, it’s only for the coming state fiscal year. And that means it will expire after Hobbs leaves office in 2023.
Cobb acknowledged that a lot of this has to do with how Hobbs chooses to defend — or not — state statutes being challenged in court.
She said there have been instances where Hobbs and Brnovich have started on the same page, defending the changes enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
“And during the litigation, halfway through the litigation, she’s decided to go the other direction from the AG’s Office, from what they’ve been helping her with,” Cobb said. Then, on top of that, Hobbs is billing the state when she hires outside counsel to make those legal arguments.
And sometimes Hobbs actively opposed what Brnovich was arguing.
That’s the case with the challenge to the 2016 law on “ballot harvesting” where lawmakers voted to make it a felony for someone to take anyone else’s filled-out ballot to a polling place.
Brnovich sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court after a federal appellate court voided the law. But Hobbs urged the justices, who are still considering the matter, to uphold that ruling and void the statute.
Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, pointed out that Hobbs, like Brnovich, is elected directly by voters.
“The secretary of state is entitled to her own opinion of the law,” he said, pointing out her role as the state’s chief elections officer. And Friese said if her views differ from that of the attorney general, she should be entitled to hire outside counsel.
Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said there’s more to the move than that.
“I really believe that this is not about policy but politics,” she said. And Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, called it “politically driven.”
It also comes as Hobbs, who is expected to announce a run for governor in the 2022 election, has been vocal about what she considers a “sham audit” of ballots being conducted by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott.
Republicans are not stopping with the question of election laws.
A separate provision takes away the authority Hobbs now has over the Capitol Museum, the parts of the old Capitol building with historic displays. That would now be under the purview of the Legislative Council, essentially a legal staff that advises lawmakers and helps draft legislation.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the transfer would ensure that better use can be made of the building by lawmakers. But Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, said this appears to be a reaction to the fact that Hobbs in 2019 chose to hang a “gay pride” flag from the balcony of the building.
“Oh, I have an issue with that,” Kavanagh said.
“I don’t think we should politicize government buildings,” he continued. “But that’s not what this is about.”
Cobb agreed, saying the flag incident was “done a long time ago.”
Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, said he wasn’t buying any of what he saw as excuses by Republicans for what they were doing.
“I learned a long time ago when smart people are saying things that don’t make sense there’s something else going on that’s not being talked about,” Lieberman said.