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On Arizona lawmakers' minds: ballot initiatives, COVID aid, water supplies and more
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On Arizona lawmakers' minds: ballot initiatives, COVID aid, water supplies and more

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PHOENIX — While issues surrounding the ongoing pandemic emergency and election laws are likely to command a lot of legislative heat and light, there are dozens of other subjects, great and small, that will be debated.

Ballot initiatives

One of the big battles will be what new hurdles lawmakers will try to put in the path of individuals and groups seeking to propose their own laws.

The voter approval in November of Proposition 208 to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest to add funding for K-12 education stung the business community, which waged a full-court press against it. Those interests are now working to get a judge to void the 3.5% income tax surcharge on individual earnings above $250,000 and $500,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry already is trotting out what it calls “potential reforms” to the system.

One is requiring more than a simple majority of votes to enact any changes. Had that provision been in place, it would have quashed many of the measures voters have approved in recent years, including Proposition 208.

Another proposal is that the required signatures to put measures on the ballot come from each of the state’s 30 legislative districts or what will be its 10 congressional districts after upcoming redistricting.

On one hand, that would ensure that measures cannot qualify for the ballot simply with support from the Phoenix metropolitan area. But the flip side is it would effectively give veto power to residents of any one area of the state.

There also is a proposal to have anything approved by voters self-destruct after a given number of years unless reenacted at the ballot box. That would force those who got a measure approved in the first place to again have to spend money to keep it on the books.

Even if the Republican-controlled Legislature agrees to any or all changes, there is a check on its power. These proposals all need constitutional amendments, which could be approved only if voters ratify them in 2022.

There is one proposal that does not have the support of the business community: Allowing those circulating initiative petitions to use the same online system for gathering signatures that is available for political candidates.

COVID-19 relief

Democrats, who remain in the legislative minority, are hoping to focus attention on the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a number of Arizonans that are hurting,” said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix.

One priority is altering the maximum unemployment benefit available to workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. At $240 a week, Arizona’s benefit hasn’t been altered in 17 years. Only Mississippi pays less.

But Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, in an interview with Capitol Media Services, showed no interest in altering that formula.

“We certainly want to make sure that if somebody is displaced that they don’t fall through the cracks and that there’s a social safety net for them,” he said.

“But I want public policy to encourage people to get back into the workforce,” Ducey said.

He acknowledged that the Arizona economy is not back to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, the state Office of Economic Opportunity said the state has recovered just 201,200 of the nearly 295,000 jobs lost since February.

Ducey said he prefers to think of it as the number of people employed now is 96.4% of where it was before the virus hit.

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But lawmakers run the risk that if they do not take up the issue, there is the chance that voters will — and in a form that, if approved at the ballot, lawmakers cannot change. That’s exactly what happened in 2006 and again in 2016 when voters raised the state minimum wage after the GOP-controlled Legislature refused.

Water

Water will again be a focus, as lawmakers realize the “drought contingency plan” adopted in 2019 is not a permanent and long-term solution.

House Speaker Russell Bowers, R-Mesa, wants to look to “augment” supplies. But that depends on finding people or entities with water rights elsewhere willing to sell them.

At the same time, there is discussion about restricting the transfer of water from one county to another, a concern of some rural lawmakers. They fear developers and cities buying up groundwater rights will leave communities with limited reserves for growth.

Other issues

Among other likely subjects for legislative consideration:


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The partisan split in the Arizona House is the same as last year's, while Republicans lost one seat in the state Senate but remain in the majority in both chambers, as the 2021 legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 11.

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