Journalists’ Roundtable

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Three local journalists will discuss the week’s big stories.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable, the latest on an effort to reverse the state's Medicaid expansion. And a new poll shows that Donald Trump is leading the GOP field in Arizona. The Journalists' Roundtable is next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable. I'm Ted Simons. Joining us tonight. Mary Jo Pitzl of "The Arizona Republic." Bob Christie of The Associated Press. And Jeremy Duda of "The Arizona Capitol Times."

TED SIMONS: Arguments were finally heard in court this week regarding an effort to rescind the state's expansion of Medicaid. I say finally because it feels like this thing has been out there forever. Talk to us about that.

MARY JO PITZL: The lawsuit was filed in 2013 after governor Brewer marshaled enough support in the legislature to pass Medicaid expansion but she didn't have enough support to clear a two thirds hurdle, a two thirds vote hurdle, in the legislature and that's what this lawsuit now is all about. Do we need the three dozen Republican lawmakers -- They argue, look, you can't do that, the hospital assessment that allowed Medicaid to expand is a tax and therefore, it needs a two thirds vote. The governor and her allies obviously think differently.

TED SIMONS: And again, one of the reasons for the delay was we had to figure out whether lawmakers even had standing to sue.

BOB CHRISTIE: Absolutely. This went to a trial court, appeals court, went to the Arizona Supreme Court late last year and then three or four days before governor Brewer left office, they said yep, they can sue. Now, we're back on the merits. Is the hospital assessment which actually pays the state's share of covering 340 some odd thousand people now who gained coverage, is that a tax that requires a two thirds vote or is it a fee, which doesn't require the vote? And there are legal arguments on both sides. The judge heard them this week and we'll know the answer to that in a few days probably.

JEREMY DUDA: Even if the judge determines this is an assessment, Medicaid expansion isn't out of the woods yet. The second major component, does that assessment fall under an exemption in prop 108 because it does still apply to assessments, that advocates for Medicaid expansion say this falls under an exemption for administratively set fees that are authorized by the legislature or they don't set the amount, they let an agency head do that. There's a separate section that says prop 108 does apply to that and there's some arguments about what exactly do these two things mean against each other and the Christina Sander lawyer from the Goldwater institute argued that what this basically means is you need that two thirds to initially authorize it in the legislature but once it's authorized, whoever has the authority to set that fee doesn't have to go back every time they want to use it, kind of like the board of regents, they had the authority to set tuition set a long time ago but they don't have to go back and get new authorization with a 2 thirds vote.

TED SIMONS: Grandfathered in in other words.

MARY JO PITZL: But, regardless of what the ruling is and Judge Douglas Gerlach acknowledged this as he closed out the court hearing yesterday, he said look, we all know that as soon as I'm issuing my ruling, you guys are going up the street, meaning to the Court of Appeals, and then ultimately, on to the state Supreme Court and he did have the most memorable line of the day where he said my ruling will have no more imprint than a spring training game's outcome. It won't be over after this ruling it will just start the next round of legal fights.

BOB CHRISTIE: The judge has a sports background. He used to be involved in sports and was the color announcers for the old Phoenix Triple A team.

MARY JO PITZL: The firebirds.

BOB CHRISTIE: That's what my colleagues said.

TED SIMONS: I think I remember the name. Okay, I got side tracked there for a second. But the argument is interesting from the Goldwater institute. What they're saying if every time an agency decides that it wants to spend more than the legislature thinks it should, if you always go around this prop 108 requirement, if it's a two thirds majority, what good is prop 108?

JEREMY DUDA: They argue basically it renders that meaningless, a very easy back door around it. You just say hey, you have the authority to do this, maybe hint, hint, we would really like to raise approximately this amount and what this provision says is that prop 108 applies to the imposition of any new state fee or assessment or administratively set fee. And I'm not sure how you get around that, that's pretty much what the assessment was, set by the access director, he decided the amount that applies to the hospital.

BOB CHRISTIE: Except the state argues listen, we've done this 40 times since prop 108 passed. Nobody's raised an issue. You don't think that the Goldwater institute would have sued one time in the last 20 years if we had gone over that?

MARY JOE PITZL: Except the counterargument is those were in the big scheme of things, those were minor fee increases, maybe not worth the legal firepower but this big, this is millions and millions of dollars, and there is an underlying principle. Most of these lawmakers, it's not just the principle of two thirds vote or a simple majority. They don't like Medicaid expansion because they see it as part of Obamacare.

TED SIMONS: Okay they don't like Medicaid expansion. Let's say they win, we've climbed all the ladders. This expansion goes away. What's next? What happens to the 340 some odd thousand folks that have insurance who will lose insurance?

JEREMY DUDA: Initially they lose it and it will be up to someone in the legislature to try to repass a two thirds vote, but I don't know who's going to do that. Remember the last time when they've eked out a simple majority, that was with Brewer leading the effort, extremely vigorously. She put everything on the line for that. Doug Ducey is not going to do that we can all safely predict and I don't know how much support he would really find in the legislature to do so even if he wanted to.

BOB CHRISTIE: The hospitals were screaming, they were hemorrhaging just dignity health which runs St. Joe's and three others was losing $80 million a year uncompensated care from people who weren't insured coming to their hospitals that couldn't pay. Now, they're paying a few million dollars a year for the hospital assessment and their uncompensated care has gone down to $40 million a year.

MARY JO PITZL: Jumping ahead if that does happen, it does put Ducey in a difficult spot because he's all for promoting business and economic growth and the healthcare sector has been one of our more, if you can use the term, robust sectors in our economy. Plus, you would have thousands, hundreds of thousands of people left without medical insurance and what do you do? Do you just say we don't have the money?

TED SIMONS: That's my question. Is there a plan B., C., D., or E.?

BOB CHRISTIE: There's no plan from the governor's office. They said let's wait until the courts act and we'll decide if we need to act. It doesn't seem very rational but that's what their position is. It's not very forward thinking.

JEREMY DUDA: There's a lot of factors outside of Arizona's control. This enhanced federal matching fund that we're getting, which is around 90%, the cost they were going to pay. That was only guaranteed for the first three years, which I believe ends at the end of next year. So presume this takes a year to fully wend its way through the Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court, that three-year window might be almost closed and then you really have to see if you want to know if those enhanced funds are going to continue who's going to win the presidential race, is it the Republicans or Democrats? Who's controlling Congress? What's their majortiy look like? Is the federal government willing to re-up on the funding? If not, then the program would just end under the terms that brewer set when they first passed this.

TED SIMONS: Didn't the Arizona voters pass this, anyway? Isn't this really Medicaid restoration?

BOB CHRISTIE: It is. About three quarters of the people who have coverage, 280,000 people, were the restoration folks. Those are the people who earn less than 100% of the federal poverty level who are childless adults, who were not covered until voters voted twice using state funds, mainly tobacco tax money. It turned out to cost a lot more than the tobacco tax money and when the budget crisis hit, the state legislature went ahead and froze enrollment and it dropped from 300,000 down to only 40 or 50,000 when restoration or this expansion went into effect and covered them again. It's a pretty complex issue as we all know sitting around the table. The problem is these people who earn less than 100% of the federal poverty level, they're the people who really need healthcare. They're the very poor, they're the disabled or they're the homeless. They're the people who don't have children so they don't have mandatory coverage. It's a really tough population.

JEREMY DUDA: And if the supporters of Medicaid can get a judge to rule hey, you know, state law requires you to cut up to 100%, I mean, that's going to cost the state a heck of a lot more than the Medicaid expansion has but this has already gone to court and last time it did, the Court of Appeals said this is a political issue. We're not going to tell you what to do and then the Supreme Court decided not to take the case so that decision stood.

MARY JO PITZL: That's what I was going to say. So to your point, didn't voters already approve this? If the legislature or the governor find there is an emergency and there's just not the money, then you're not obligated to fund it.

TED SIMONS: All right, we'll keep an eye on this one. Again as suggested by the judge, it's got a long way to go in the regular season. You mentioned if the president changes and things change, we've got a poll out regarding Republican candidates for president. And Donald Trump is number one and he's number one by a whole lot!

JEREMY DUDA: Yeah, he's almost 27% compared to 13% for Scott walker, almost 12% for Jeb bush. Considering where Trump has been in the polls nationally, this really shouldn't be a surprise but I think his lead is actually probably a little bit bigger here than you're seeing in the broader national polls.

TED SIMONS: And that's with the John McCain comment that he's not a war hero or his kind of war hero?

BOB CHRISTIE: That's with the John McCain comments. Donald Trump is taking all the oxygen out of the Republican race right now. The stuff he says gets traction, he is speaking -- he's almost like the Chris Christie model that you saw a couple of years ago where Chris Christie when he's opened his mouth, the media watches, the public just fawned over him because he's a straight shooter and a straight talker. You may have to parse what Donald Trump says, but the public is gravitating to him and not just the Tea Party wing but I think much more than that based on the poll results.

MARY JO PITZL: And you know what I don't get is that why didn't this resonate four years ago? Trump ran then and actually immigration, which is I think where he took off in public approval, that was a bigger issue four years ago than it is today.

TED SIMONS: But he wasn't saying these kinds of things. He's kind of -- illegal immigrants are rapists and murderers and things like that, and John McCain. What else does he have left to say? The world is flat? What else?

BOB CHRISTIE: If you listen to his hour and 12-minute presentation in Phoenix a couple of weeks ago, he covers everything. Just he has to have gotten press on the immigration comments and McCain comments, but he's going to stand up to the Chinese and the Russians and it just goes every possible topic, he's got a real snappy response to it. The policy isn't really developed yet. I mean, it's sound bite, it's get the crowd riled up and people listen to it.

JEREMY DUDA: Every day there's something new that people say -- a lot of Republicans are hopeful he's going to disappear at some point. They point and say this is going to end his campaign and that's what everyone thought with the McCain thing. He could have killed Cecil the lion and it wouldn't have done that.

TED SIMONS: He can say anything right now.

BOB CHRISTIE: He can but remember where we are. This is a year, this is 15 months before the November elections in 2016. We haven't had a real debate. Voters aren't really focused on this. The real voters who are going to decide what Republican becomes the nominee next summer. We have a long way to go.

TED SIMONS: All right.

JEREMY DUDA: Interestingly enough, I believe Trump is the only Republican presidential candidate right now with paid staff on the ground in Arizona. He just named an Arizona state campaign director last weekend and some of the other campaigns have volunteers, people are tentatively heading up their operations or people who are affiliated but no paid staff, except for Trump, it looks like he wants to keep this momentum going.

TED SIMONS: Other election news, Joe Arpaio wants to keep his momentum going as sheriff. Dan Sabin has decided he's -- this is the third time he's tried this?

BOB CHRISTIE: Every four years there's two or three challengers to Joe Arpaio and one of them is usually Dan Sabin, at least lately. Joe Arpaio's tough to beat, he's got millions of dollars in the bank, he's incredibly popular among a certain segment of voters, he's had a lot of trouble but Dan Sabin, one of these times, there's going to be traction on some of the negatives on Joe Arpaio and someone's going to be able to knock him off.

TIM SIMONS: Ran as a Republican I think the first time, ran as a democrat. The first time, that was a nasty race. Can he get past that? That was 10 years ago.

JEREMY DUDA: I think it was the second race --

TED SIMONS: Was that the second one?

JEREMY DUDA: A lot of very unsavory things about his past, a lot of it put out by the Arpaio camp. Some of those things that's going to be tough to get past. Right now, Arpaio's opponents are looking at him more vulnerable than he's probably ever been but I don't know -- with a good candidate maybe you could capitalize on that but given the past track record in his last few races and especially in '08, I'm not sure -- I don't see Arpaio's opponents coalescing around him. There's still a little buzz that David Gonzalez, the U.S. marshal for Arizona, there's some rumors that he could challenge him in a primary. I haven't heard anything from them but I hear some rumors that maybe he's still interested. That's something that right force Sabin or other challengers out of the primary.

MARY JO PITZL: And don't forget about fundraising. Arpaio, I can't remember the last time I checked how much money he's raised and you do need money to get your message out to the whole wide county, especially if you want to have an anti-Arpaio message.

TED SIMONS: Again, found to have racially profiled Latinos, was found court order reforms costing Maricopa tens of millions of dollars, three allegations of contempt of court, is he vulnerable?

BOB CHRISTIE: He could be vulnerable with a well-funded, polished candidate. I spent some time with John McCain last week in Washington last week. Just stopped by when I happened to be there. And talked to him and even John McCain knows, he's been around for 30 years, he's very popular, he wins easily. But he knows you can lose than election and Joe Arpaio knows he can lose an election, too.

TED SIMONS: Democrats want to see Martha McSally lose an election and now we've got another democratic candidate in there, Dr. Heinz. Who is he? A state lawmaker here. Talk to us about that race.

MARY JO PITZL: Matt Heinz served two terms in the House of Representatives. From Tucson. Left, got a job in the Obama administration at health and human services, helping to roll out the Affordable Care Act and explaining provisions of that act mostly to healthcare providers, he dealt a lot with other fellow doctors. He is a doctor in Tucson. He ran -- this isn't his first rodeo for Congress. He ran against Ron Barber. When Barber was running right after Giffords vacated her seat, he got pounded by Barber. His message, though, was that, you know, Ron's fine for the interim but really I'm the candidate for the future. Well, in a way, you know, Barber served 1 ½ terms and he's out and Martha McSally is in so Democrats are rushing to fill that seat.

TED SIMONS: And go against Victoria Steele in the primary. Talk to us about that?

JEREMY DUDA: Another current Tucson lawmaker, the only candidate and, you know, pretty solid fundraiser. He's making a name for herself. I know there's a lot of skepticism in democratic circles whether really anyone her or Matt Heinz is looking at this race, has what it takes to beat McSally, who's a dynamic fundraiser, an up-and-coming star and some of the top-tier candidates like the democratic congressional campaign committee looking at down in Tucson, they don't want a piece of this race, and it's the same dynamic we see up here in the valley, with Kirstin Sinema where none of the Republics who could take her on want to.

TED SIMONS: In that district, that Tucson area, McSally voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, voted to ban abortions after 20 weeks, this is not a rock-ribbed red solid district down here. How much does that play?

BOB CHRISTIE: It could play. You need a good candidate but it is a classic swing district. You have to remember in the last two general elections, it was so close that it took days or even weeks. The one that McSally won, she only won by 167 votes and that was in a non-presidential year. In a presidential year you're going to get a lot more of the Democrats out, that seat could go three or 4,000 votes to the Democrats. If you have a good candidate. And if the national party puts money in. There was a huge amount of money spent last year.

TED SIMONS: Are we going to see that again this year?

BOB CHRISTIE: If you have a good candidate. It's one of the few swing districts in the country. Only a handful.

TED SIMONS: Al Melvin, former lawmaker, he's out of the legislature but he wants to get back on the corporation commission. There are three open seats next -- Al Melvin. Is this a surprise?

JEREMY DUDA: Kind of. I hadn't heard any buzz about him getting in but it makes sense if he wants to stay in. He had a lot of interesting energy policy, very specifically nuclear energy policy, a big advocate for wanting to expand that. He wanted to score nuclear waste in Arizona, use the revenue to fund schools. He's got that I don't know about other utility stuff but that's certainly something, the nuclear stuff will be touted for a long time at the legislature.

TED SIMONS: I emphasize that again, the idea of Arizona being a storage area for nuclear waste to fund education. Is that the kind of things voters are going to say

MARY JO PITZL: Well fuels for schools.
TED SIMONS: There you go. Is that the kind of thing voters will say, you know bring all your waste --

MARY JOE PITZL: Probably not, especially if that waste were to be buried in backyards. They wouldn't approve of that. Melvin, I don't think he's term limited in the Senate, he did three terms. And then made a run for governor last year in the GOP primary, dropped out before the election. And I think just wants to get back in it, wants to get back in it. He's pretty passionate about public policy.

BOB CHRISTIE: And, you know, he's a really interesting man. He served as a naval officer, naval reserve officer for many, many years. Folks call him captain Al, kind of laughingly but he's a solid policy guy. He's a conservative Republican. He meets the parameters. He's going to be able to pull Tucson votes. He could have a shot at this, at the corporation commission.

TED SIMONS: Interesting.

JEREMY DUDA: Still don't know what that primary is going to shake out like. There's three seats that will be up for election in the corporation commission next year, two incumbents are running for re-election, both Republicans so you have one open seat. Melvin running for that and we might have state senator Debbie Lesco who has been flirting with that and a lot of people are viewing her as a real contender, if she gets in.

TED SIMONS: We had just I think it was yesterday that we had the DCS, department of child safety, kind of changing the deck chairs maybe here?

MARY JO PITZL: Well, I don't know. Director Greg McKay held a briefing, one for like community stakeholders and then one for the media to unveil the strategic plan for the new department of child safety. This was started under the previous director, Charles Flanagan and then continued under McKay. It took a while to put this together. They surveyed employees, and it's supposed to be a road map for how the agency will operate and to the extent that it would change things. I mean, he has certainly made it clear that he wants to reduce the number of reports that case workers have to go out on. By law, something comes into the hotline, and it's deemed valid, they've got to check things out. But he wants to look for ways to reduce that pipeline without endangering kids.

BOB CHRISTIE: We have 52,000 calls last year into the hotline. And that's the verified ones that actually became reports. That's a huge -- there's 1,700 case workers, you do the math. That's an awful lot of inbox stuff, plus the ongoing cases, we have 14,000, 15,000 kids in foster care and who are out of their homes in the state. They've got to do something to get a handle on the overburdened staff, the huge amount of cases that are coming in. They've got to figure out a way to cut off the incoming in some way.

MARY JO PITZL: Plus 15,000 back log cases.

BOB CHRISTIE: So they're overwhelmed, they've been overwhelmed for several years. They cut the amount of money that goes into prevention services and the number of neglect cases especially spiked. So this whole plan is designed to kind of stop or choke off the unnecessary influx. They want to spend some more money on prevention, that will help that. They want to -- it's kind of a road map for trying to initially get a handle on it and we have a study that came out, the auditor general released from the university of Chicago group, they put out like a 20-page audit of the department that said these are the things you need to do. This plan follows that fairly closely.

TED SIMONS: Interesting, so they did take that audit plan and paid attention to it?

MARY JO PITZL: Definitely yes, and recommendations from staff. His first day in office, McKay asked the staff to send him the top three issues that the agency faces. But he also has plans to try to reduce attrition. There's been tremendous turnover at the agency. Some of it by his own hand, he's dismissed and let go of a number of employees. He doesn't take any personal responsibility for the attrition people but that's different from what we hear from some of the departing ranks.

TED SIMONS: Jeremy, I don't remember hearing anything about going to the legislature and asking for more funds for DCS. If he were to do so, what kind of response do you think he would get?

JEREMY DUDA: It's hard to say. That's one of those things, it's a request that's difficult to turn down, one of the agencies that's the most difficult to turn down. They do get turned down. There will be a little extra money next year but only so much and there's a lot of competing priorities.

MARY JO PITZL: Yeah, I find it hard to believe that he would ask for much, unless he gets the blessing from Governor Ducey who appointed him. We're all about shrinking government, remember.

BOB CHRISTIE: And I asked him twice during his media presentation or maybe three times, are you going to ask for more money? Do you need more money? The Chapin Hall report said that the neglect cases sky-rocketed when they cut prevention services, and he talked about moving $4 million into prevention services, which was a fraction of what was cut, so it's been well known that if you put the money on the front end into prevention, those minor neglect cases that end up next month or next year to help the family support, give the family the supports, they don't have abuse cases.

MARY JO PITZL: That's going to be tough to turn around because budget numbers that I saw two weeks ago show that the agency had turned back about half of their prevention dollars to help families stay intact. They turned back half of that money or haven't spent half of that and they put more into out of home services like for kids in foster care.

TED SIMONS: We'll see where that goes. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. We appreciate it. Monday on "Arizona Horizon," former president Jimmy Carter will join us to discuss his life and his new book, "A Full Life: Reflections at 90." Jimmy Carter, Monday at 5:30, then replayed at 10:00, right here on "Arizona Horizon." Tuesday, we'll look at the state of American Indian businesses. Wednesday, St. Xavier University is opening an Arizona campus and looking to partner with ASU. Thursday, an exhibit marks the 70th anniversary of atomic bombs on Japan. And Friday, it's another edition of the Journalists' Roundtable. That is it for now, I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great weekend!

Bob Christie of the Associated Press, Mary Jo Pitzl from the Arizona Republic, and Jeremy Duda of The Arizona Capitol Times.

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