Journalists’ Roundtable

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Join us as three local journalists bring you up to date on the news of the week.

Steve Goldstein: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon" journalists' roundtable we discuss the conflict of interest between Andy Tobin and the corporation commission. Also a bill to settle the power dispute between Diane Douglas and the Board of Education. The "Journalists' Roundtable" is next.

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Steve Goldstein: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Steve Goldstein in for Ted Simons. Joining us Rachel Leingang of the Arizona Capitol Times, Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services and Mike Sunnucks from the Phoenix business journal. The conflict could keep Tobin from doing his job in future hearings. What is the conflict of interest?

Howard Fischer: The problem becomes that the law says if you have a conflict because of some potential financial interest you shouldn't participate in things. Now, Andy Tobin has no interest in APS, not in the phone industry like his predecessor, Susan Bittersmith, but turns out his son-in-law is an inventory control specialist for Solar City. Solar City isn't regulated but you may remember the name because of the fact every time APS tries to make adjustments in what they charge solar customers Solar City says, why are you doing that? This was not caught by the governor's office. The governor uses Andy as sort of his utility flare. Weights and measures, insurance, banking. I'll put him at the Corporation Commission. It wasn't until he sat down with the lawyers they said, well, you may have a problem here. So discretion being the better part of valor do not vote on anything where Solar City might be interested.

Steve Goldstein: Are they saying they didn't do due diligence?

Rachel Leingang: This is an example of why Andy Tobin is a stand-up guy. He told everyone about this conflict of interest. He called around to the media to let them know and has been up front about it. Commission lawyers may be more cautious on this than with Bitter-Smith. This is a lot different I would say than the Bitter-Smith circumstance.

Mike Sunnucks: considering what's gone on with the questions about the ties to APS, and the solar fight, maybe this could have happened maybe before you appointed him and maybe had a list of are you a lobbyist for any of these companies? Do you have any relatives working for these companies? Do you have interests in these companies? There's a couple big companies they are dealing with, APS, Solar City are two. The fact that that didn't come up at some point showing that it fell through the cracks.

Howard Fischer: what's important is people say, well, there are legislators voting on things that might affect their relatives. The differences the commission is not only legislative, it's judicial. Once you serve in position of a judge you really have to be cleaner than Caesar's wife, so to speak.

Mike Sunnucks: You could make the argument that APS is a player in all kinds of rate cases what. They do with other utilities APS looks at that and sometimes testifies on that. If he's voting on things and the blood is so bad that you can look through kind of a lens and see a problem in a lot of votes no matter how he votes.

Howard Fischer: That's where it gets tricky. Just this past week a 3-2 vote with Tobin siding with the company to be able to build this Powerline, that this could make a big difference. If he's conflicted out, assume it's a 2-2 vote. That fails because it did not get the majority.

Rachel Leingang: It's not just APS and Solar City. Any of these big utilities. Tucson Electric, U.S. Electric, all related to solar and Solar City almost always intervenes. They are a major player at the commission.

Steve Goldstein: It's bizarre to me that we reach this stage where these are the absolute topics that everyone pays attention to when it comes down to the Corporation Commission. We'll end up with 2-2 votes on a number of major issues. Is this going to be a lot of anger from activists?

Howard Fischer: It depends how it goes. Certain things may get out 4-0. There are issues that even Solar City's involved, Andy can sit on the sidelines and say, boy, am I glad I'm not involved in this one. But because of the sensitivity of what we had, Susan Bittersmith being forced out, there were charges against Bob Burns being a registered lobbyist. More of a paperwork problem. There were charges against Bob Stump or allegations that because of the fact he's made speeches about what he thinks should be the recovery of utilities from solar customers, maybe he's prejudged the issue. So this is a very sensitive topic that folks should be aware of.

Mike Sunnucks: You have the Republican Party obviously running things. Howie mentioned legislatures. We run into this with charter schools. People working for charter schools are sponsoring bills and sometimes voting. Maybe this is a function of only one party running things down there. The emperor has no clothes on these things and yet they all seem to know what they're doing.

Steve Goldstein: I was thinking of attorney Tom Ryan. What does he have to say about this?

Howard Fischer: Well, he said some things that I probably can't repeat on a family show about what he thought of the Ducey administration and what they thought -- the fact they didn't do their due diligence but his feeling was not necessarily it was illegal particularly with Andy going to take a pass on this, but that it shows a certain tone deafness to the whole issue.

Steve Goldstein: Rachel, any final thoughts on the administration on this? They are supporting Tobin all the way?

Rachel Leingang: Right. They want to make a distinction between what happened with Bitter-Smith. The commission is under the microscope, rightfully so. There's been a lot of interest from the general public. Maybe not a lot but more than before. People are paying attention. Something like this, which in the past might not have been as big of an issue, there will be more interest in it going forward depending how often he has to recuse himself.

Mike Sunnucks: Just imagine if he was running for this office now and told voters, I can't vote on all these things related to two big companies before this panel.

Steve Goldstein: We were talking about votes at the Corporation Commission. What about ballot harvesting?

Howard Fischer: I have been watering my ballots every morning and fertilizing them. This is one of the questions of the opportunity for fraud. Arizona is pretty much unique in the fact that if I get an early ballot and Arizona is very liberal on this, you don't have to have a reason, I can give it to you to take back. You can go out to get Mike's ballot, Rachel's ballot, bring them in saying look you're not going to get it back on time. The question is you know how Rachel is going to vote. You don't like it and say, oops, I lost that ballot. It's the opportunity for fraud I think that concerns some folks. Now, the other side of it is sometimes you'll get activist groups saying in a lot of neighborhoods people leave the early ballot. School bond elections people forget about it. So the teachers will go out and try to collect the ballots, make sure it's turned in to get the turnout. Does this amount to voter suppression? That's the argument of the Democrats.

Rachel Leingang: Howie says opportunity for fraud there's no proven voter fraud in any of these things. That comes up in any hearing on ballot harvesting as it probably should. A lot of people maybe have second, third, fourth hand stories to tell. As of now we don't really have verified voter fraud.

Howard Fischer: The only story we do have is Helen, not Helen Purcell, Karen Osborne, County elections director said there have been people showing up at people's doors saying, hi, we're County election worker here to get your ballot.

Mike Sunnucks: Those were from the Ted Cruz campaign I believe.

Howard Fischer: That is already illegal to represent yourself as a County election worker.

Mike Sunnucks: If you're a conservative Republican, registered, it gets into your bloodstream that you think there's voter fraud sometimes. Republicans have believed this since 1960 with John Kennedy, LBJ, and those elections. Chicago, Tammany Hall, old time democratic cities doing this. Somehow these groups of Democrats running around picking up Gore or Bernie Sanders ballots and there's no evidence of that. If they are going to be genuine they may as well have a list of who they don't want to collect the ballots, labor unions, Sierra club, Planned Parenthood. There are exceptions for family members and stuff but this is kind of a perennial bill they seem to run every year and they would like to run in other states too. The funny part is there were admissions from some Republicans during some of the debates that Republican interests have done this. Have something set up at a party headquarters and they will do ballot harvesting but they think this really benefits the Democrats and activist groups more.

Steve Goldstein: Complete speculation. When we think about Latino voters, people wonder if Latinos vote they seem to lean Democrat. Seems this could be a way to suppress Latino voting.

Mike Sunnucks: Democrats cry suppression. Republicans passed things like motor voter, making it easier and this seems to fit the narrative. They think of labor unions but mostly they would go around and collect these ballots. The liberal media, [audio not understandable] I think they view this as something democratic groups would take advantage of, especially unions.

Rachel Leingang: It's not as simple as just collecting ballots. It involves getting people registered to vote, making sure they get on the early ballot list and following up to make sure their ballot gets in.

Rachel Leingang: Not a fan of ballot harvesting -- yeah, the legislation.

Howard Fischer: There's some tricky points. One of the things that came up during this week during the debate is so you go down let's say you live in San Luis where there is no home delivery. Your neighbor says, can you pick up my mail? You pick up your neighbor's mail in his or her box. You take that unvoted ballot back to him you're guilty of ballot harvesting. You can go to prison for a year, you're a felon.

Mike Sunnucks: Younger voters, kids in college, maybe more liberal, maybe like Bernie Sanders. Get ballots at home. Somebody could fill those out for them. I think Republicans fear bigger turnout according to democrats and this fits that argument.

Steve Goldstein: Back in the day Friday used to be boxing night around the country. Diane Douglas versus whomever she is taking on. Now it's versus the state legislature. Rachel, what do you make of this fight?

Rachel Leingang: So she has the most fantastic press releases that are just absolutely out there. She accused dial of being anti-education, anti-parent, anti-children --

Rachel Leingang: Pro Common Core. Which is a death sentence.

Rachel Leingang: She went to the Senate and really took him on face to face and you ended up having the president of the Senate say you don't get to come here and cast aspersions on people saying he's doing this for a certain reason when you don't know motivation.

Howard Fischer: The issue is Diane notwithstanding, there is a problem in the law. Title 15 was the education code says the state board hires its own staff on recommendation of the department, the superintendent. It also says that the state board employees are subject to supervision of the Department of Education. Well, if you're the state board trying to institute a policy, say Common Core which the state board did, then you have a school superintendent who is against Common Core telling them don't do what your employers tell you you've got a problem there. Jeff dial's solution was to say, state board, they are your employees. You control them. Diane says, wait, first she said it was unconstitutional, then she backed away and said, well, you're stripping me of my powers, I'm oh elected, mayoral appointed. Here's the problem she has legally. If you go to the Arizona constitution it says there's a school superintendent who has the powers as established by the legislature. The legislature could say you have no powers at all. They would be within their rights.

Mike Sunnucks: Let's look at it from her point. She ran against an establishment Republican. Then they supported her democratic opponent. She carried rural states. I don't think she carried a majority of Maricopa County, she still won. Now she goes to office, she fights with the board of education, fights with the governor. She sees these bills at the legislature as against her. So she sees herself fighting against this huge establishment including Common Core and everything that they do is usurping her power and she sees herself as entitled by the people because she won that election to take this leadership role even if it doesn't fit the legal frameworks or any kind of precedent.

Rachel Leingang: She was saying what if this happened to you? What if you were a legislator in name only? What would it feel like? She has a good point.

Mike Sunnucks: She feels she has a mandate. She had no money, she wasn't supposed to win. The establishment was against her. Politically she thinks they have a mandate they are trying to take from her.

Howard Fischer: Except for the St. Paul enact is the board that sets policy. It's true, the board is not elected. She sits on the board, only elected member. The others are appointed by the governor. Most are holdovers from the prior administration. Her job is to implement that policy even if she disagrees. I think that's going down real hard.

Mike Sunnucks: They need a bill, however, about who gets to hold the microphone.

Steve Goldstein: Let's briefly assess where Diane Douglas is at right now. Recall effort didn't go anywhere. Based on what you see and hear what's the perception?

Rachel Leingang: You mentioned the recall didn't go anywhere so clearly there's not enough ground swell of support and they were not well funded and people had dim projections on how they would do in the first place, but there hasn't been this super vocal movement to try to get her out or anything like that. But she certainly has been a thorn in the side of from nearly everyone. The list gets longer each week.

Howard Fischer: You didn't find the education community backing the recall. I think there are two Diane Douglass. The first turns out press releases saying the world is out to get me, then the one who comes to the legislature with her state of education speech and says teachers are underpaid. We need to do more. We're 49th. This is not a good way of doing it. So as I say, there are days she takes that role of protecting education and wanting us to do better seriously then these side fights tends to blow up everything else.

Mike Sunnucks: She's struck a chord when she told the governor and the Republicans to spend the surplus on teacher pay. Compare a little bit to Arpaio where you see the establishment, the business community, Republican political establishment don't like her and wouldn't like her to be there but they are not willing to put enough skin or money or power into the game to get rid of her. She could be back for another term.

Steve Goldstein: Major progress being made on pension reform at least on the Senate side. What does the legislation do?

Howard Fischer: It goes to the fact the public safety personnel retirement system, police and firefighters. They are about $6 billion in debt, almost as much as you make on pledge. [Laughter] The problem becomes it's not getting any better because you have certain built-in things where you can have 4% a year pension increases, you have existing employees who could retire starting after 20 years then eventually if they work long enough they can get 80% of their salary. You have pension spiking in some circumstances where you put all your sick pay into the last year and get a benefit. This is designed to cap pension spiking, tell new employees you will work longer to get the same level of benefits, require new employees to contribute equally to the pension fund. Right now some cities it's like 11-1, city versus employee. This makes some changes but again going forward slowly as employees get replaced. There's also a measure that has to be on the ballot to say to existing employees year over year your cost of living will be 2% or less. The constitution says you may not impair pension benefits already earned and you have contractual arrangements. So the hope is that the vote will do this. Firefighters and police have signed on. They recognize I think this. It's a very delicately crafted deal which goes to the issue of what happens in the house for the simple reason that the house thinks we can get a better deal. Well, if you do and firefighters and police come off --

Rachel Leingang: There's a real delicateness to the fact that everybody agreed, firefighters and police are agreeing to take less and they found Bigfoot. They came together. Whatever changes happen in the house depending on how major they are could really have detrimental effect on this fragile alliance.

Mike Sunnucks: Piggybacks on to what the city of Phoenix went through, the mayor trying to figure out their own pension spiking problem. The dichotomy is you have so many private sector employees that only have a 401(k) that maybe gets matched. We have a lot of people in the state that work in service industries with no retirement. You look at the numbers of some folks getting these pensions from public safety occupations, the big lump sum ofs, $250,000. Big annual pay that they get out of this. I do think we're right in that they are taking a logical approach. The key is just to keep everybody together to herd the cats.

Howard Fischer: The issue becomes could you say for all future employees you're only going to have a 401(k) style plan, defined contribution plan. Possibly but would you get people to go into police and firefighting? Are the salaries high enough for them to be willing to do that. That becomes the delicate balance here.

Rachel Leingang: You have the Arizona tax research association that said this doesn't go far enough to help with that debt issue. They have the -- committee said they agreed with everything that was there. They would like a little bit more. We don't know how influential they will be in the house. Justin used to work there so they obviously have ties there. I guess we'll see. Should be happening quickly but they haven't committed to doing it quickly.

Howard Fischer: The reason it has to happen quickly is that change we talked about has to go in the May 17 ballot with proposition 123. Secretary of State's office says we need it on our desk by February 15 to make that happen. Obviously in the next week something is going to happen. The question is does Justin go to war with Debbie Lesko who pushed it through the Senate.

Rachel Leingang: An interesting poll indicates John McCain may be in trouble against Andrew Patrick.

Mike Sunnucks: Pretty much one point. I think Patrick was ahead by 10 with independents. It's, what, a sixth term for McCain? It's an outsider year with trump and Sanders. The poll didn't show Kelly ward doing very well, who is an outsider, compared to McCain, tea party physician, very conservative. You would think if the outsider thing was playing well within Republican circles she would be doing better. Kirkpatrick has been around a long time, Flagstaff congresswoman, runner for the Senate. She's doing very well. Those numbers are kind of uneven to me.

Howard Fischer: But the question is how long does that last. You may not like John McCain as a Republican. Are you ready to vote for Ann Kirkpatrick? John McCain is 5 million last count in his war chest. It's good to be the chairman of the armed services committee and you get a lot of money that way. They are going to paint Kirkpatrick as way to liberal, which is funny. As we all know she has been very careful on issues of environment and everything else coming from Flagstaff not to go off the deep edge. She supported some of the mining issues. But you know that that's how McCain is going to paint her.

Mike Sunnucks: This is one of those watershed years where you could see somebody like McCain get swept up in and outsider type swell. There's so much frustration nationally. The presidential race is all about outsiders, Cruz, trump, Sanders. McCain embodies an incumbent Senator. He's been there a long time. You can point to the V.A., how much improvement have we actually had here with that? You would think that would show up in the primary also.

Rachel Leingang: There's been so many polls this year and every year they are wildly different from one another, so it's just important not to say this poll is the end all be all. Kirkpatrick has got an upswing and will continue to rise. We don't know that.

Mike Sunnucks: There was a Republican oriented superpac running pro McCain ads on fox news leading up to the Iowa caucuses touting his stance on Isis and foreign policy. That shows there is some concern. He's going to have a lot of money. He has name I.D. but sometimes that doesn't work to your advantage when people don't like incumbents.

Steve Goldstein: McCain losing wouldn't be hell freezes over but it would be the equivalent of the Phoenix city council holding back this week?

Mike Sunnucks: Probably.

Steve Goldstein: Nice segue!

Mike Sunnucks: The Satanists won. They were going to have a prayer at a council meeting like they have other interfaith prayers, Christian, you're issue, Muslims. Satanists applied, equal protection, we have to give them a shot so the five members of the council decided to just end prayer, have a moment of silence. Then the Satanist Temple said that's what we wanted anyway. This is getting a lot of national attention. This can go on in every city that has a prayer before that. So it was a tough constitutional legal issue for the city because if they denied them you had the First Amendment pop up and they sue the city.

Howard Fischer: We have had this come up at the capitol where we have folks who are atheists. One guy gave and atheist prayer. A non-prayer. Got slapped essentially by the leadership for saying, this is supposed to be a prayer. Well, okay, depends. Is a prayer -- does a prayer require an all mighty? Can it be, gee, it's a prayer for peace which does not have to have, you know, dear lord? It can be To Whom It May Concern.

Rachel Leingang: The Satanists are not Satan worshipers. I think there was come son fusion about that. One much the main goals was to enforce that separation of church and state and they got what they wanted.

Steve Goldstein: Mike, briefly, some members of council want this to go to the voters. Is this kicking the can down the road? [speaking simultaneously]

Mike Sunnucks: Wonderful at P.R. and the media world. That's his background. He knows a good issue. You're either with God or with Satan. The five members of the council while it was legally made sense P.C.-wise it's obviously a loser.

Howard Fischer: Again it doesn't matter whether it's enacted by the council or the voters. What's constitutional is constitutional. What's not is not. If all you want to do is buy a lawsuit, we'll make the lawyers very happy.

Steve Goldstein: Briefly are you with God or Satan on this one?

Howard Fischer: It depends. Who is signing my paycheck this week?

Mike Sunnucks: Faustian bargain.

Steve Goldstein: Monday we discuss kidney disease awareness and prevention with the founders of one in nine and we'll explore Japanese culture with a trip to the friendship garden in Phoenix. Thanks for watching tonight. I'm Steve Goldstein. Have a great weekend.

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

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