Journalists’ Roundtable

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Join us for another edition of the Journalists’ Roundtable, as local reporters recap the big news of the week.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" journalists' roundtable. I'm Ted Simons. Joining me tonight are: Mary Jo Pitzl of the "Arizona Republic," Jeremy Duda of the "Arizona Capitol Times," and Ben Giles, from "Arizona Capitol Times." Lawmakers were wrong to raise campaign contribution limits without asking for voter approval: That's according to a special action filed this week with the Arizona Supreme Court. And give us the background. What's this all about?

Mary Jo Pitzl: This was a bill that came out of the legislature in mid-April. So it wasn't one of the specials. It effectively was a 10 fold increase in the amount of money that an individual can give to a candidate. It got a lot of pushback from Democrats and one or two Republicans. The argument against it was that, first of all, they figured this brings too much money into campaigning. The technical argument with the lawsuit is that this runs afoul of limits that were set in the voter-approved elections act.

Ted Simons: And talk to us about those limits because the idea is that I imagine, what I've heard is you can't change something the voters approved without the voters approving the change.

Jeremy Duda: And the clean elections act didn't set the limits. It affected them in a roundabout way. It said whatever the limits are in this other section of statute, we're going to take 20% off the top and the argument is because of this, this is subject to the act. And, of course, something that's voter protected, you cannot change that, you need 3/4 of the legislature to change that. [ Indiscernible ]

Ted Simons: And it's relatively clear cut here. Was this not argued and debated it e time the bill was passed?

Ben Giles: It was but the percentages are crucial because it didn't specifically set monetary limits. It just set a percentage cut from the monetary limits that are already written. There was an argument to be made and enough Republicans thought it was valid that you could increase that limit but still take the 20% off the top of the new limit and that's their argument for enabling their way into making this legal without having to get it approved by the voters.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And county attorney bill Montgomery is a big fan of this bill. He said look, he doesn't think this is going to get very far for what's that worth. He says because you reference a title, a section of statute in a bill doesn't mean that the whole thing is affected by that bill. If that's the case, almost every piece of legislation references an existing title of state statute.

Jeremy Duda: Now, we've also seen, though, the Arizona Supreme Court in the court of appeals ruling that the legislature can't do indirectly what it's prohibited from doing directly. That would back up their case. But there's another argument to be made by the supporters of this bill, which is that if a -- [ Indiscernible ] We had a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in that struck down Vermont's limits, which were extremely low and in that ruling, they said we've only found five or six states aside Vermont that have limits below this certain threshold and they cited Arizona as one of the states. We're already hearing chatter that if the lawsuit succeeds, they might bring a separate suit.

Ted Simons: I think they said it's kind of hard to prove that this kind of a law would cause harm because cutting limits and capping things on the public candidates didn't seem to harm some.

Mary Jo Pitzl: There are instances where candidates who ran using public financing defeated candidates who ran with private financing. Arguably with a little more money in their pocket. A lot of that depends on the makeup of the district and if you are heavily Republican or heavily democratic, you can pretty much afford to run with the rather minimal amount of money that clean elections provides. And you're going to beat your opponent from the other party probably regardless.

Ted Simons: A time table for this particular legal action?

Jeremy Duda: They've asked the supreme court to intervene directly. This is supposed to go into effect on September 13th, campaigns are underway, people are raising money, people for trying to decide whether to run clean or traditional.

Ted Simons: Is it affecting a lot of races now? Are you hearing chatter down there saying I don't know what to do?

Ben Giles: You have a lot of clean election folks crying foul because they're saying it will be easier for their traditional election opponents to get bigger checks cut to their campaigns and since the supreme court threw out the matching funds portion of the law, they're saying we're going to be vastly outraised and that's been a big argument of clean elections supporters that you're going to continue to see a dramatic decline in the number of people who choose to run clean elections at all, for fear they'll get greatly outspent.

Mary Jo Pitzl: We should mention the limits in this bill. If you are running for a legislative office, it raises the limit correct me if I'm wrong, to $5,000 per election and the bill defines the primary as one election and the general as another election so that basically gets you to $10,000 if you survive both. Currently an election considers them both when it comes to setting a limit.

Ted Simons: And it's a few hundred dollars?

Mary Jo Pitzl: $400.

Ted Simons: That is quite an increase. And again, the critics are saying that means these candidates will be out there spending time with donors as opposed to spending time with voters.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And another argument is that they believe the higher limits will keep these independent expenditure committees at bay. It's been a more recent creature since we've seen citizens united. But that can be a little hard to believe because, first of all, a lot of I.E.s are formed to criticize candidates or to put out a negative message and why not go with one of those where you don't have to disclose your donors and have your name attached as opposed to giving it directly to a candidate and sort of pulling your name that way.

Ted Simons: We will have county attorney Bill Montgomery on the program Monday for debate on this particular issue. Stay tuned for that. I know also you wrote another lawsuit regarding this bill on elections and HOAs, which I guess gets to the heart of the lawsuit, the word and?

Mary Jo Pitzl: And because and gets you the log rolling. This is a lawsuit that was brought by the center for laws in the public interest on behalf of two fellows who follow home-owner association policies. There was a bunch of home-owner legislation that got mashed into a bill that dealt with some elections law and the argument is they don't belong together. You can only have one topic in a bill. And you can't put them both together, and then the way, you have to have a title that correctly describes what's in the bill. This title said it's an elections bill and actually it's an elections and an HOA bill.

Ted Simons: How did this happen? We had an original bill that dealt with election reform with city elections conforming to state elections and, all of a sudden, HOAs come marching in. What's this about?

Ben Giles: It's a matter of the conference committees, things get mashed together in this way and unfortunately in the process of the last couple of weeks, that's kind of how people get their bills passed. So it was a special interest, HOA, and they for whatever reason wanted this bill attached to get through and this is how you get it done at the capitol.

Ted Simons: Was this a bill that was not getting through otherwise?

Ben Giles: It seemed that way. A lot of bills were left by the wayside with the way the Medicaid expansion debate was going and the moratorium that Governor Brewer was imposing on the legislature. It didn't seem like it stood a chance, unless you start to get these, you know, kind of freak bills mashed together.

Ted Simons: And the court looks at the freak bill and says we don't like freak bills, it violates the Constitution, the single subject rule.

Jeremy Duda: The single subject thing, I think historically, it's been construed pretty liberally. I can't think of any bills that have been shot down but there have been some ballot measures that have gotten tossed off because of that and it might not be this liberally. The only thing HOA that related to elections was it changed the way that HOAs can regulate campaign signs, people's houses and that was the representative's argument for this is related to elections but most of this stuff has nothing to do with any of that. It's just straight up HOA stuff.

Ted Simons: Is this one of these special action deals or something that can cruise along?

Mary Jo Pitzl: This will go through the normal channels, starting in superior court and I should mention Ben was direct that HOA portions of this which also included some -- also she had another bill that dealt with city elections that was also stalled. A lot of her stuff wasn't solved until the very end and they tucked it into an elections bill and there weren't any problem with the bill. It was moving along just fine. It had been moving through the process and it was what it was as you saw it coming through and this is what happens at the last minute when things get -- when you're in a rush and you want to save your bill before the session dies.

Ted Simons: And when you're saying last minute, we're talking at times like 60 pages of a bill, you get to look at for four minutes.

Ben Giles: It's actually always a complaint, the lawmakers who are on the conference committees that we asked them what's going to happen, what are the amendments that are going to be on here? We don't know. They find out five minutes before the meeting starts, it's 40, 50, 60 pages and it could be a half a dozen other bills that were going to die if it weren't for this process.

Ted Simons: Another election bill, this one looks like it's facing a referendum fight, and now the folks who were behind the original bill are saying we're not going to go down without a fight. Talk to us about this.

Jeremy Duda: This was the big election bill a combination of several proposals that had stalled, partially for the same reason as the representative's bill, a feud between her and another colleague of hers. A number of pretty major changes. It prohibits political organizations from going around and collecting people's early ballots, it makes it easier to purge people from the permanent early voter list and Democrats, Latino activists, they feel like this is meant to supress the Latino vote, so they're trying to refer this to the ballot. Now, the supporters of the bill kind of led by senator Michelle Reagan who originally sponsored the measures formed a counter-committee to fight against that. And it could be legal challenges, a campaign. One thing we're hearing they may be taking a playbook from the governor's supporters on Medicaid expansion and circulating a fake petition as kind of a blocking measure to confuse people.

Ted Simons: Explain how that would work. What are we talking about?

Mary Jo Pitzl: There's the committee that's out there circulating petitions to refer Medicaid expansion to the ballot. They want to get a no vote on it for the voters and you have supporters of Medicaid expansion with their own petitions out there saying sign this if you support Medicaid. Those petitions won't get filed anywhere, except maybe in a shredder or a round file but it's a way to confuse the public. I think Jeremy's correct, perhaps on this elections bill there will be a similar tactic. We haven't seen that, though.

Ted Simons: You had mentioned that political groups gathering early ballots and removing non-early voters, there's also stricter standards for recalls and this business of third-party candidates, we had a debate on that one on the show, a lot more -- if this referendum makes it to the ballot, has this got a shot?

Ben Giles: I think so. There's so many issues that are a part of this bill, the third party candidates, the voter initiatives, that the people who are pushing this to the ballot say we have basically a pooh-pooh platter of issues that we can present to the voter and say which one of these affects you because we're going to be sure it's going to be one of them. They seem to be prepared to reach out to all different kinds of voters, your Libertarians, even Independents and maybe some of the organizations out there like the Sierra Club that often like to challenge bills that are passed at the capitol to say this is going to make it harder for you to challenge those bills, get it on the ballot.

Ted Simons: So how do you fight a pooh-pooh platter?

Jeremy Duda: The main argument we'll hear from the supporters of this bill is this is meant to fight voter fraud, it's an argument you heard through the legislative process, at the end of the session in the past. The opponents say you guys don't have any real evidence of this, you're fighting against a problem that doesn't exist. But I think basically you're going to see the arguments boil down to fight voter fraud versus fight voter suppression. There's the potential for a lot of money to come into this because you're seeing national money from the national education association, local unions like UFCW putting money into the signature gathering effort and I wouldn't be surprised to see the Republican National Committee or National Republican Congressional Committee or some of their allies start putting money into this. They were calling legislators urging them to vote for this.

Ted Simons: Is this the kind of thing where Michelle Reagan gets in front of this parade, this leads her to other things?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Certainly --If she gets -- she will be out in front of this. She's the chairwoman of it. And if her effort succeeds, if they defeat it, that's going to be a big -- you'll hear a lot about that during a secretary of state campaign, which, by the way, that field is getting more crowded every day.

Ted Simons: And with that in mind, if this gets on the ballots and it wins, what does that due to the whole -- do to the whole dynamic?

Ben Giles: It's a huge defeat for her from a bill standpoint politically because here were all of these efforts that she's saying are going to help protect the sanctity of the voting process, help make our voting process better and are also supposed to fix a lot of the issues that voters were complaining about in . So from that standpoint, she won't be able to campaign on the fact that I made the elections process better. And, on the other hand, it's something that her opponents can point to and say on the flip side we think these were voter suppression issues. They have a person who was trying to stop our referendum to put these voter suppression measures in place in Arizona. It would be a tough loss for her.

Ted Simons: Alright, formal action in this business of dreamers not getting driver's licenses? Governor's executive decision and now, we're in the court but we're deep in the courts.

Jeremy Duda: There's a coalition, the immigrants' rights groups that went to court over this. And they asked the lower court judge and the federal courts for an injunction. They said this is hurting us, people can't get around, they can't drive legally, hurting their careers, their jobs, they can't make a living so they ask for an injunction and the judge said no, it's a very high standard for this, it didn't meet it. They're going to the ninth circuit Court of Appeals and asking for them to overturn that ruling. What's interesting is that the lower court judge, David Campbell, even though he denied the injunction in his ruling, he strongly indicated he's going to strike this down in the final ruling, he says this violates the 14th amendment. I think that ruling is probably coming pretty soon. I'm not sure exactly what the point of going to the ninth court is. They might have to wait for a few weeks from Judge Campbell.

Ted Simons: How is the state getting around this idea that some people with the status get the driver's license and some don't?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Well, what is the argument? I'm not up on that.

Ted Simons: Well, I'm trying to figure out what the argument because if you have the same deferred status and get a federal work permit and here come the kids who get federal work permits, it's only a two-year deal or whatever?

Jeremy Duda: The argument is Arizona law says you have to be in the country legally to get a driver's license. The argument is these people aren't in the country legally. That's back to this argument of well deferred action, this is used in other cases, not just for the so-called dream act kids. There's a lot of other situations where they use this to give people temporary legal status, de facto legal status. It muddies the waters on the governor's argument.

Ted Simons: Okay. Let's move on here. We had a wildfire bill introduced in the U.S. Senate, senators McCain and Flake both doing this. And this is another one of these deals where let's just cut down the dang trees?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Not exactly. [ Laughter ] But it is -- coming from two senators from this state as well as a couple of other western states, they need to get thinned out. There's too much lumber in there, the focus in recent years has turned away for the most part from the big, big trees to the smaller diameter trees. How do you make that work economically? How do you make that feasible for somebody to cut down the little guys so the big ones can thrive? And the intent of this bill is to try to loosen up the procedures to make it a little more attractive for contractors to come in and work a contract with the forest service to clear out some of those smaller density trees.

Ted Simons: And these contracts again, you hold the funds boss if the contract is broken, you hold the funds up for 10 years now, the idea is to cut that slack?

Jeremy Duda: Yeah, when the feds -- if they break the contracts, they're required to hold the money into reserve until that contract ends which could be up to 10 years. This would loosen those rules so it makes it easier for them if they cancel the contracts, they can go back and contract with someone new.

Ted Simons: If that happens, are there companies out there that are going to do this work and do it comprehensively? I mean, do they exist and how much can you clear?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Well, those are really good questions but I don't know -- I think this was an attempt to find out if there are companies out there that would do this. Arizona's been going down this path more aggressively and we're not seeing thinning on any kind of large scale. It's just very hard to make the economic sense of it work.

Jeremy Duda: We saw this movie two years ago after the Walla fire, all this talk of making it easier to hire contractors to thin the forest, second largest wildfire in Arizona history, the groups all came together and reached an agreement what they were going to do and they were going to put out a contract to thin the small trees, and then the contract went to a Montana company with zero experience doing this and everyone was mad and nothing happened. Two years later we're in the same position now.

Ted Simons: Alright, we have a battle over rooftop solar. It sounds like -- we did a few stories on this, that metering, people have their ideas. This is exploding out there. And this could really change the nature of utilities in the future here. Give us the background.

Ben Giles: You have an increasing number of homes, businesses, even in some cases governments like Sun City have opted to sort of give themselves a utility check by adding these rooftop solar panels. What they do is they don't have to spend as much money on their electric utilities and in some cases they can even sell excess energy that they get from the solar panels back to APS, giving them even more credit, saving them even more money and APS is concerned saying they're losing out on valuable profit that they use to provide everyone with power, not just folks who happen to be able to afford a solar panel. Folks on the outskirts of the cities, of town, that maybe aren't as wealthy enough to be able to afford those things.

Ted Simons: Isn't the argument as well if I get my rooftop solar and I'm selling back, this is great, I'm happy and you're my neighbor and you're saying this stinks, I want to get on board with this, too, you start selling it back. If you're the other neighbor and you're the other neighbor, your rates sky-rocket in order to keep everything on the balance. Isn't -- this isn't sustainable.

Mary Jo Pitzl: That's part of the argument from the APS side but you have others, the users who say I'm generating so much power that I'm actually feeding back into the grid, therefore I am reducing -- you don't need to build the power plants, you're not going to need to build big, long transmission lines to a new nonexistent power plant, we're saving you money and that's the struggle.

Ted Simons: That's the argument, infrastructure is saved because of what we're doing, you may not get the rates, the customers, but you may not have the expenses.

Ben Giles: Basically, that is the argument from the solar panel users, sorry APS, maybe you aren't going to make as much money as you used to but we are helping to make your system thrive by providing you energy from a source that you wouldn't have on your own. And that's an argument that Barry Goldwater, Jr. made. Basically APS didn't get out in front of this, didn't embrace solar and now, it's trying to cut it at the knees because it's a new energy source that's cutting into its revenues.

Ted Simons: And making for a strange battlefield. You've got conservative Republicans saying open -- saying open up this market and others saying wait a minute here.

Jeremy Duda: We're seeing a lot of intraparty Republicans, and a lot of conservatives are getting on the side of metering the solar panel uses. We've seen a lot of political intrigue on this, too, because you have as APS was getting ready to submit its plan dramatically lower the rates to pay for the solar energy sold back to them, the national conservative groups starting to weigh in, including one called the 60 Plus Association, connected to a local political operative named Sean Noble, very politicized using almost verbatim some of the same arguments APS is using, no one's really sure how connected APS is to this campaign but starting to get very active there.

Ted Simons: We'll keep an eye on it. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us.

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