Journalists’ Roundtable

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

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable: Senate president Andy Biggs blocks a health insurance program for kids from low-income families. And plans for an initiative to overhaul state campaign finance laws are suspended. The Journalists' Roundtable is next on "Arizona Horizon."

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

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon's" Journalists' Roundtable, I'm Ted Simons. Joining us tonight. Jeremy Duda of the Arizona Capitol Times. Bob Christie of the Associated Press. And Ben Giles of the Arizona Capitol Times. A bill to restore a federally financed health insurance program for children from low-income families may have passed the House but it's going nowhere fast in the Senate. Jeremy, why?

Jeremy Duda: Two words, Andy Biggs. The Senate president, not a fan of the long running proposal to restore this program. It's a federal health insurance program for kids who fall outside of the parameters of Medicaid and these families earn 138% to 200% of the federal poverty level. This got cut in 2009, beginning of 2010, 50,000 kids on it at the time. Saves us $10 million back in the depths of the budget crisis. Since that ended there's been a push to bring it back and it seems like it had a lot of momentum this year, passed the house, unanimous Democrat support, majority of the Republicans, got to the Senate, Andy Biggs says he's not a fan of the program.

Ted Simons: Why? Why?

Bob Christie: Well, it's Medicaid. It is Medicaid expansion. It is spending federal dollars that add to the federal deficit. He's not a fan of that and he's running for Congress. So if you have somebody running for Congress as a conservative who just allowed Medicaid expansion to go through under his watch, it may not look so well. And I don't know if the governor wants it. The governor has been very circumspect about how he feels about this. This has wide ranging support because it doesn't cost the state anything for the first two years. The federal government pays the whole rate for children from poor working families to actually be able to go to the doctor, get health insurance. After that, maybe the federal funding will cut off and there will be some state costs. So we don't know where the governor is on it. He says we want to be prudent which kind of sounds like maybe he doesn't want it.

Ted Simons: Yeah, it sounds like he may not have to deal with it.

Ben Giles: I think the concern is for a lot of the Republican lawmakers if in two years after the federal government is done paying for 100% of this program, what happens if they ask the state to kick in a little bit of money? And the message from supporters for this is you can drop the program again. There is actually language in the bill to restore this that would allow the director of ACHSS to shut down the program if the federal government ever asked for 1 penny from the state, but the optics of that in two years, again to drop tens of thousands of children off of an insurance program, I think there's concerns about how that would look down the line.

Jeremy Duda: I think this is very similar to what we saw a few years ago with the big Medicaid expansion debate where they said this will cost us less than we pay now and the feds will kick in the money and we have this circuit breaker I believe they called it that would cut it off but there's an acknowledgment and a concern among some Republican lawmakers that even if you have this language to end it, there's going to be a lot of political pressure to not do that, no matter what the economic cost.

Ted Simons: There would be a lot of noise.

Jeremy Duda: As we've seen for the last six years, listening to debates over whether we should restore KidsCare.

Bob Christie: This is not just the regular Medicaid population. These are kids. So you know, if you suddenly say well, we have a $500 million budget surplus right now, but we're not going spend $10 million for some kids' healthcare, that will be bad in two years.

Ted Simons: Back to Bob's point. You're running for Congress okay. Yes. You can say I did not increase the federal debt or the federal expenditure by not allowing this program. We're talking 30,000 kids. Do you run on that?

Ben Giles: You run on what matters to your voters, and I think for Andy Biggs, this is a calculation that, you know, he's running for Congress to chip away at federal government and, you know, this is an avenue for him to do that. This is something that he can say, I helped stop adding to the federal deficit. That is a message that resonates with a lot of his voters.

Bob Christie: And, of course, Andy Biggs isn't the last word on it. We don't have a good pulse of where the rest of the Republicans are in the Senate. But if there's 16, they could resurrect this on the floor and Andy Biggs can do it where he refused to bring it onto the floor. And Carlyle Begay is one of the cosponsors of this deal. It's a big deal on the Navajo reservation.

Ted Simons: We'll get to Carlyle Begay in a second but back to Andy Biggs running for Congress. He's not alone running for Congress to succeed Matt Salmon.

Jeremy Duda: We've got Representative Justin Olson from Mesa, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee announced this week, it's been pretty expected that he'll be joining Senator Biggs in the fifth Congressional District race and there's been a lot of names thrown around who might get into this race. They've been dropping off steadily; Olson is the first one to emerge. We'll see a contested primary.

Ted Simons: He's the alternative to the establishment pick and he's referring to Andy Biggs because everybody and their brother is endorsing Andy Biggs.

And we have Andy Biggs now a 14-year entrenched lawmaker at the capitol. He's been around for a long time. And Justin Olson is casting himself as more of like a working-class candidate to draw attention to the fact that Andy Biggs won a lottery sweepstakes decades ago. He made statements alluding to the fact, Olson made statements alluding to the fact that, I've got to work, I've got to have a job on the side of this part-time legislature, I've got to feed my family. That might be his message going forward that, you know, I'm just this Average Joe working my way down at the capitol, I would love to represent you in Congress, and I think I would do a better job than this entrenched Republican.

Bob Christie: Politically there's not a lot of difference between Andy Biggs and Justin Olson. They're both conservative Republicans, they're both small government. Olson is pushing to limit spending, doesn't want to get the state in the mess, wants to keep the state out of a mess if we have another recession by limiting how much spending increases. President Biggs who has tight control over the budget over the last few years has done essentially the same thing. The federal pushback. But to say that Justin Olson is an insider is not really true. He's been in the legislature for three terms now, four. He's been a lobbyist for years. He worked for the Arizona Tax Research Association as a tax analyst, which is a big lobbyist. There are offices right next to the Capitol.

Ben Giles: And the implication with the position that these two are in at the capitol as bob said he's the chair of the appropriations committee, Justin Olson, and Andy Biggs used to be the chair of the Senate appropriations committee and by all accounts is still controlling what goes on in that committee, despite the fact that he gave up the chairmanship. To watch those two go at it in budget debates could be fun.

Ted Simons: Quickly, he mentioned the process of Matt Salmon anointing Andy Biggs before he could finish his own resignation was quote turning off voters. Has he got a point there?

Jeremy Duda: You're seeing some of that. There's definitely a clique who's looking for an alternative to Biggs. I don't know if they're going to coalesce around Olson but we saw a similar statement, someone put up a website, to draft Christine Jones and there was a very similar statement about that not letting politicians hand pick their own successors and letting the people decide, not go in with these career politicians.

Bob Christie: The real question is does Scott Smith get in?

Ted Simons: Or Christine Jones or Scott Smith, this type of a person, not quite as conservative. Do Olson and Biggs, is there a possibility they split that vote and here comes on the inside track a Scott smith or Christine Jones?

Bob Christie: They very well could, especially with high name I.D. in the district, which Scott Smith has. They did am polling a couple of weekends ago, where Senator Bob Worsley was considering getting in. Smith's polled, other people polled and he polled really well in his city, but in Gilbert he was unknown, whereas Smith polled really high in Gilbert, too, and he's from Mesa. I think, you know, it's Smith's race to get into at this point. He told me he was considering it but the last few days it's been kind of crickets.

Ben Giles: And Olson entering the race makes it more attractive for Smith because Olson and Biggs would split that ideological vote, but Smith has the name I.D. across the district to cut through that and get to voters.

Ted Simons: All right, a campaign finance initiative targeting -- well, kind of a two-headed beast here, one targets dark money, the other targets primary voting, makes for an open primary. They were kind of mixing and matching. The whole thing suspended?

Jeremy Duda: Yeah, you know, when they first announced this about six or seven weeks ago they told us check your watch, this is when the revolution begins. It ran into a wall the other day. What happened was you have these two initiatives and they're joining forces, piggybacking off of each other's benefits, and this is all basically being funded, at least so far by this group called open primaries, all funded by this Texas businessman named John Arnold. Turns out Arnold did not want his money going to an anti-dark money initiative. He wanted the top two primary thing, this is their big cause, and he told them the money, $500,000 went to each campaign and he said the money that went to this one, we want it back. Now that they can't run this joint thing, they say they're looking for new donors; they need about $1.2 million for each campaign within the next 10 days to two weeks to really keep this going. After that it might fall apart.

Ted Simons: Did he know from the beginning where the money was going?

Bob Christie: They organized former Phoenix mayors saying yeah, their representative, the open primaries representative was in the meetings. He knew that the whole plan was to fund these, split the money they give us between these two campaigns. Open primaries says no, that's not the way it happened. As soon as we found out about it we asked them to stop spending on the full disclosure of the initiative process. So you know, we have a dispute. And somewhere in a dispute there's truth. And whether we'll ever find out, don't know.

Ted Simons: Rumors that the governor's office wasn't too happy about the dark money aspect of this two-pronged attack and governor's office said no, no, we said nothing but keep hearing this?

Ben Giles: And there's been a lot of noise about that and Jeremy was just asking the governor about that this morning and he's been trying to avoid the perception that maybe someone close to him or maybe he himself went to the Texas billionaire and maybe somebody put leverage on him to say I think you should stop what you're doing, don't fund this dark money group.

Jeremy Duda: That's the rumor going around. What they told us yesterday was that they had talked to donors locally who said we've heard from the governor's people and they told us not to give any money to this thing. They didn't necessarily allege the same about John Arnold in Texas. So that's kind of the big question here is how that all went sideways because there are some conflicting accounts of what they knew, about what this money was going to go towards. They had this big press conference, and I think all of us who attended, we walked away believing this guy from the National Open Primaries group had said this $1 million will be split equally. They said that's not the case. You listen to the question asked by a friend of the show, Howie Fisher, and he was responding to a different pot of money than they were referring to and they say we never intended this money to go to that. Incidentally they sent the $500,000 wire transfers, they sent them both to the one campaign, to the top two primary campaign. Neither to the dark money one and then the top two sent it over to the other campaign. That kind of bolsters their case.

Bob Christie: And, you know, the governor's people are pushing back a little bit and saying, you know, really if he wants to be reelected, you know, he should get rid of dark money because you know, who doesn't -- the only way you can defeat a sitting governor is with a lot of dark money.

Ted Simons: Drifting off. Drifting off to higher tide here. All this is happening and at the legislature, it's a Senate at least passing campaign finance overhaul. What's this about?

Jeremy Duda: This is Secretary of State Michele Reagan's baby for the 2016 session. Basically a total rewrite of a section of the statutes covering campaign finance law. And a lot of this is very ho-hum, most of it is very uninteresting but there were a couple of very interesting points in there and probably the biggest one is that this basically potentially opens the door to a lot of more dark money in Arizona. It says that the way we define political committee is if you spend a certain amount of money and your primary purpose is to influence elections, you're a political committee. They provide exemptions, if you're a federal nonprofit, you can't be considered a political committee. You can't be subject to disclosure. And so therefore, that's where all this dark money is coming from. Even if you're spending all your money and violating IRS rules which they don't really enforce very well anyway, this cannot be enforced against you.

Bob Christie: It's a big problem. It's a big problem for the folks who think that we should have more disclosure. You know, this big river of anonymous spending came after the 2010 Supreme Court decision citizens united where the Supreme Court said yes, you can't stop this spending but you can have disclosure. And now, states like Arizona are flooded with the money and there's pushback as to whether there should be disclosure. This is from Michele Reagan's office, who ran in part on trying to craft laws that would have disclosure. And as soon as she's in office, that changed.

Ted Simons: Do we know why that changed?

Bob Christie: I don't know if she's ever directly addressed it. The speculation is what she says is what I've found that it's virtually impossible to do this, it would impinge on free speech, her election director certainly says that, you know; requiring disclosure crimps and quashes free speech. I think that's where she's at now.

Ted Simons: I think we had her on the program not long after her election, she said the same thing, there's only so much you can do this way, I'm going to try to go around this way but I'm not seeing it.

Ben Giles: And the other interesting thing about this bill and the federal nonprofits is that the Secretary of State's office is kind of washing their hands of even enforcing or overseeing this and leaving most of the enforcement up to the IRS, which the big complaint with the IRS in recent years is they don't do any enforcing. They don't go after and look into these nonprofit groups to see if there's anything funny going on.

Bob Christie: And if they do, they get attacked by Congress as we saw a couple of years ago. So another part of this bill that didn't pass because it required a supermajority is a crackdown on what the Clean Elections Commission can do. That needed a supermajority and of course, it passed out of there with on Republican votes.

Jeremy Duda: That battle between clean elections and the secretary of state's office will continue.

Ted Simons: Carlyle Begay. We mentioned him earlier. He is now running for Congress, Congressional District One. Surprise?

Ben Giles: The former Democrat is looking for greener pastures in D.C.

Ted Simons: He could possibly run against a former Republican who's now a Democrat, correct?

Ben Giles: That would be a real fun general election wouldn't it? This isn't too much of a surprise. When Carlyle Begay announced he was switching from the Democrats to the Republican Party last fall, there was speculation that this was setting him up for a move to Congress at some point. In fact, you had folks like David Gowan, Ken Bennett, Paul Babeu wondering should I even go to the announcement of Carlyle Begay's party switch? And at the time he insisted I would like to finish serving in the Senate and run for re-election in my legislative district but he claimed this is a call from his constituents that he cannot ignore. But it is hard to ignore the fact that he would have a really tough time winning re-election in a heavily Democrat Northern Arizona district.

Ted Simons: Has he got a chance?

Bob Christie: You know, here's the thing with the first district. It's got a strong Democratic majority. I mean, Ann Kirkpatrick won by seven or eight points in the last election, but the Republicans who have always run there are kind of flawed and a good portion of the district is the Navajo nation which leans heavily Democratic, too. But here you have Carlyle Begay, who has the Republican conservative credentials to get the voters in Marana and down in Pinal County and the potential to draw big crowds in the Navajo nation, too. He could be a real viable candidate in a general election.

Jeremy Duda: Especially with the Navajo element. The problem is going to be getting through that primary. Democrats may have always kind of viewed him even before he switched parties as a turn-coat, but are conservative Republican parties going to say that's my candidate?

Ted Simons: Are they going to look at other candidates? Paul Babeu has his own unique set of problems and David Gowan is asking the Attorney General to please investigate me! What's that all about?

Ben Giles: It was a move to preempt other investigations into his travel around the state and his travel mostly around that Congressional District that he wants to win, C.D.1, as our own reporter Hank Stevenson has uncovered, there's a lot of questionable travel reimbursements that have been made and shortly after Stevenson reported in January about that travel, there was about $12,000 that Gowan reimbursed to the state where he found that I was either traveling somewhere that wasn't explicitly government related or I was driving in a state fleet vehicle, not my own car and I should have been reimbursed, and this has been hovering over his campaign, and by going to the Attorney General, it does give the appearance of I'm going to open my books to you, I'm going to let everything be uncovered, find what you will find, butit does also hint a little bit of please exonerate me before this drags on in the campaign for too long.

Ted Simons: And I think he said you guys gave the false impression of all this.

Jeremy Duda: I believe he did. Now -- I presume that David Gowan knows what's out there to find and if he's completely clean this could turn out to be a fairly savvy move. His Republican opponents aren't hitting him on this, but the aforementioned Republican turned Democrat certainly is. If he knows he'll be exonerated by this, it could be a good move. He preempts an investigation, especially one filed by a nemesis of a lot of folks in the Capitol, Tom Ryan, who's been telling for us weeks and months that he's going to file a complaint, now he can say I couldn't get investigated because this person filed a complaint, but because I asked you guys to look into my books.

Bob Christie: And he says in his letter to the attorney general if you make a determination that will be unassailable that I have done nothing wrong. Well, we all know politics around this table and the voters know politics. There are a lot of things said in campaign ads that are iffy and this will not protect him from hard hitting attack ads in any campaign because the truth is that he had to pay back $12,000 that was questionable as to whether he should have gotten that money from the state in the first place.

Ted Simons: All right. We'll stop it right there. Fun to watch that proceed, as well. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us. Monday on "Arizona Horizon," time again for Southern Exposure, our look at issues from Tucson and other points south. And we'll discuss how music impacted those who served in the Vietnam War. That's Monday, on "Arizona Horizon." Tuesday, a new Arizona presidential poll from veteran pollster Bruce Merrill. Wednesday, how to build a more perfect American university. Thursday, the importance of the upcoming Arizona primary. And Friday, it's another edition of Journalists' Roundtable. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You 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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