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Arizona Legislature approves $100 million wildfire relief plan

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The Telegraph Fire tops the mountains east of Arizona 177 just north of Kearny on Wednesday night. Kearny, Hayden, Ray Mine, Winkelman and Dudleyville have been put on evacuation notice.

PHOENIX — State lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a $100 million firefighting and relief plan, after rejecting a Democratic bid to add $5 million specifically earmarked for small businesses.

The Republican majority also refused to put in any limits on the number of days in a row that inmates work directly fighting fires.

The House vote was 56-2 and the Senate vote was 24-2.

Democratic Reps. Athena Salman and Melody Hernandez, both of Tempe, voted against the plan and didn’t explain why.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, did explain her “no” vote, however, taking colleagues to task for calling a special legislative session to address the issue of wildfires.

She pointed out there was no real reason for the special session, given that lawmakers already were at the Capitol wrestling with a state budget and tax-cut plan. Ducey called one anyway, with his press aide C.J. Karamargin saying it would ensure a laser-like focus on the issue.

Ugenti-Rita, however, said the time a special session was needed was last year as the state and its residents were trying to deal with the pandemic.

“People needed us to step us and see that we were willing to work out, in real time, all of the impacts of COVID-19 and what we were facing,’’ she said.

“Every single day, we had new death tolls,’’ Ugenti-Rita said. “And it was horrible to see and we did nothing.’’

The bottom line, she said, is the whole purpose of this special session, in the middle of a regular session, is to make it look like something is really being done.

“To me, this is more about optics,’’ Ugenti-Rita said. “And I can’t support that, knowing what the public went through.’’

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, had a similar response, albeit for a different reason. He said lawmakers, while rushing to put money forward to deal with the current fires, continue to refuse to address the causes, including climate change.

“I wish this special session was more than just smoke and mirrors,’’ Mendez said. “These aren’t even short-term solutions. We’re literally moving money around so some people don’t have to wait to be reimbursed by the federal government.’’

Mendez questioned whether lawmakers would even be at the Capitol if Republicans already had gotten through their pet proposal for a flat tax rate, or if House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, had not lost a cabin due to the ongoing Telegraph Fire.

“This has got to be the model of white privilege response to the climate crisis, and I’m not surprised,’’ Mendez said.

That drew a sharp retort from Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott. “We are not going down the path of white privilege,’’ she told him.

Majority support

Most other legislators supported the package.

“There are people that need this money today,’’ said Rep. David Cook, R-Globe.

It includes $75 million for immediate fire response, preparing for flooding that is likely to follow during the monsoon rains, and providing some ready cash to landowners to make repairs to infrastructure such as water and sewer lines.

Lawmakers did agree to cap how much money private landowners can get from that fund to $10 million, with a requirement that these dollars be used only as a last resort, after people have tapped things like federal grants and private insurance. Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said that will ensure all the dollars are not eaten up with these issues.

But the House rejected a proposal by Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, to add another $5 million to the package specifically to help small businesses.

“What I’m asking for is a lifeline,’’ for firms that were already suffering from the effects of the pandemic, he said.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, pointed out that many business owners are not landowners, making them ineligible for the other money already in the bill.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, had no better luck with his proposal to provide a bit of a benefit to volunteer inmate crews that are fighting the fires.

He pointed out that, given the way the governor called the special session, there was no way to increase the $1.50 an hour that prisoners on the front lines are paid. Ditto, he said, of any opportunity to provide them additional credits that could reduce their sentences.

So Rodriguez proposed a requirement that inmate crews would have to get a break after working seven consecutive days on the fire line. But Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, the sponsor of the House version of the package, told Republicans who control the House to reject it, which they did.

What remains is close to $25 million for separate efforts to clear brush and other burnable materials away from urban areas and homes, with most of that money going to pay to hire people to supervise inmates who would earn $1 an hour for those efforts.

Karamargin said Ducey will sign the legislation, likely on Friday, June 18.


The votes were not without technical glitches.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, who is on Air National Guard duty, sought to vote by text.

House rules do allow people to vote through video programs. But Bowers said Grantham apparently lacked enough bandwidth to remain online.

After an objection, however, the speaker concluded that it is improper to let someone cast a vote without at least hearing the floor debate.

Across the courtyard, Otondo was telling colleagues she had read that temperatures in Arizona could reach 127 degrees this summer. That’s when Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, who has been allowed to vote remotely while he is on vacation in Michigan, was heard to comment. Apparently unaware his microphone was active, he said: “a f—-ing idiot.’’

Livingston did not return a text message seeking comment. 

But he later posted on Twitter that the "comments were not directed at anyone at Senate.''

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