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Judge's ruling will force Legislature to revisit several voided COVID restrictions
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Judge's ruling will force Legislature to revisit several voided COVID restrictions

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Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. The Legislature’s new session begins Monday, Jan. 10.

PHOENIX — If much of the new legislative session seems like Groundhog Day, there’s a good reason for that.

Lawmakers face the immediate prospect of re-enacting a measure they approved — albeit on a party-line vote — only to have their proposals voided by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper.

In a sweeping ruling last year, the judge voided one multi-part measure entirely as violating a constitutional requirement that all bills contain just one subject. And she excised portions of three others because the subjects in them were not reflected in the titles, running afoul of a separate provision of the Arizona Constitution.

Most immediately, that sets the stage for a new debate over COVID restrictions.

Among the provisions Cooper invalidated are prohibitions against schools imposing mask and vaccine requirements for students and staff. It was inserted — the judge says illegally — into a much broader bill dealing with public school finances.

In the wake of the ruling, many districts have imposed mask mandates. In fact, the omicron outbreak has only accelerated that trend.

Also gone is similar language covering universities and community colleges, this one prohibiting them from requiring proof of a vaccination or, in the alternative, to have to wear face coverings. It was tucked into legislation dealing with funding for higher education.

Cooper said the same legal problems prohibit the state from enforcing a ban on cities and counties establishing a COVID-19 vaccine “passport’’ or requiring that businesses obtain proof of vaccination status of their patrons. Ditto, she said, of a separate provision precluding any local ordinances that impact private businesses, including not just face coverings but also mandatory closures or curfews.

With COVID still an issue — and continued sentiment by many Republicans against mandatory masks or vaccinations — look for early debate on reenacting these.

Cooper’s list of voided measures that were tucked into what were labeled as budget bills also include some other education issues that will be back for another look.

One of these is a restriction on what can be taught in public schools, labeled a ban on so-called “critical race theory.’’ It says, for example, that students cannot be taught that one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another; that someone is inherently biased, whether consciously or other wise, due the race, ethnicity or sex; or that an individual should feel discomfort, guilt or psychological stress because of race, ethnicity or sex.

Also coming back for a repeat performance is the question of cutting taxes — and for whom.

Republicans last year finally achieved a long-sought goal of creating what amounts to a flat income tax, replacing the multiple tax brackets with a single 2.5% tax rate. But that provoked a referendum drive by those concerned about the $1.5 billion annual cost in a state which traditionally scores at the bottom of per-pupil funding as well as the fact that the lion’s share of the benefit would go to the most wealthy.

Now, however, GOP lawmakers are looking to undermine the scheduled November vote with a move to repeal the law, which would make the referendum moot, and replace the package with something else.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, one of the architects of the plan, said this isn’t simply repeal and reenact the same language to undermine the more than 215,000 signatures turned in to force a public vote, nearly 100,000 more than they needed.

He said part of the reason for the proposal was to counteract Proposition 208, the 2020 ballot measure that would have imposed a 3.5% surcharge on incomes of more than $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples. The Arizona Supreme Court effectively overturned that initiative because it would have raised more than schools could constitutionally spend.

But Mesnard said he remains wedded to the idea of some sort of flat tax, perhaps using the state’s strong revenues to enact a rate even lower than 2.5% to ensure that more people would benefit. Still, he acknowledged, any new plan is likely to provoke yet another referendum drive.

There are other tax-related issues on the agenda, like further reducing business property taxes. And then there is the question of reducing or eliminating property taxes for veterans.

But all that is linked to the perennial fight over the spending side of the ledger and questions about how much the state should be putting into everything from K-12 and university education to social welfare programs and the prison system.

Lawmakers will have to address one issue.

In 1980 voters enacted a cap on how much can be spent on K-12 education statewide. It is adjusted annually for inflation and student growth.

But schools this year have hit — and exceeded — that cap by $1.2 billion this coming year because of how some state aid laws were crafted. And unless legislators approve a one-time exception, schools will have to reduce their spending for the balance of this budget year by more than $1,300 per student.

Other issues likely to provoke debate include:

Limiting the power of governors to declare an emergency without eventually getting consent of state lawmakers. There also are separate measures to repeal the ability of the governor to order the closure of any business and to rescind the ability of the governor to mandate treatment or vaccination of people exposed to certain ailments.

Making it a crime for an employer to provide a “reasonable accommodation’’ for a worker who refuses to get a mandated vaccine. Violators could be subject to four months in the county jail.

Repealing a 2016 law that precludes cities from regulating “vacation rentals.’’ Many communities have complained that has led to the creation of “party houses’’ and other abuses in residential neighborhoods.

Allowing dentists to start selling — and administering — Botox injections and other beauty treatments like injecting lips and cheeks with fillers. That is likely to draw opposition from doctors, particularly as Botox is technically a poison.

Creating a state holiday every Feb. 14 to commemorate Statehood Day. That would provide public employees the same day off as other holidays ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Labor Day to Christmas.

Making employers liable if they require workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the employee suffers a “significant injury.’’ It provides for a minimum recovery of $500,000.

Expanding the House from 60 to 90 members to provide smaller areas of representation. But the Senate would remain at 30.

Making it harder for groups proposing their own laws to get on the ballot. One measure would void signatures on initiative or referendum petitions if the circulator does not read the description aloud to a signer or given that person “sufficient time to read the description,’’ though that is not defined.

- Eliminating the role of county supervisors in filling legislative vacancies. Instead, that role would be left solely to the precinct committeemen and committeewomen from the affected party.

- Turning school board races into partisan affairs. Supporters say it will give voters a better idea of where candidates stand on certain issues while foes say education is not partisan.

- Requiring high schools to have a “comparative discussion of political ideologies’’ that conflict with the principles of the United States. This also includes having resources of oral histories of people who have been “victims’’ of other nations’ governing philosophies.’’

- Permitting Career Technical Education Districts to offer associate degrees. But the measure is not wide open, saying these CTEDs can do that only for program that “on the in-demand regional education list’’ compiled by the state Office of Economic Opportunity.

- Prohibiting gender reassignment of minors, both chemical and physical. It also requires teachers and others to inform parents if a child believes his or her gender identity is different than biological sex.

Creating new laws to punish people who riot in addition to existing statutes that criminalize assault, damage and unlawful assembly. A related proposal sets up special penalties for those who deface public statutes and memorials.

- Mandating that charter schools adopt policies that allow for visits, tours and observations of classes by parents of children enrolled and those who are considering sending their children there. An exception is provided if it would threaten the health and safety of pupils and staff.

- Expanding the authority of the attorney general to investigate complaints by legislators who believe school districts are acting contrary to state law. Current statutes cover only allegations of violations by local governments.

- Requiring the redaction of certain portions of videos taken by police body cameras before release to the public. That includes someone who is in a private location, was a victim or witness to a crime, or the person was at least partly naked.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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