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, controversy at the capitol over an atheist lawmaker's prayer.

Ted Simons: And governor Ducey says he will back the GOP nominee even if it's you-know-who. 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. Mary Jo Pitzl of the Arizona Republic. Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. And Luige Del Puerto of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Ted Simons: An atheist state lawmaker's invocation to open yesterday's session in the House of Representatives set off quite the brouhaha. What is this all about?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Well, this is a continuation of sort of a mini brouhaha that started last month when house rule came out with the Senate definition of what is prayer. Every day, the house opens its business with a pledge and prayer, Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. And usually that duty is rotated among the various lawmakers. Yesterday for reasons that we might get into a little further, that fell to Representative Juan Mendez. He stood up, he gave his invocation, invoking that we're all in this together and it's a partnership but he did not say the word god. And for that, he was rebuked.

Luige del Puerto: And representative Juan Mendez is a well-known atheist. He gave a prayer in the house that became quite controversial, if you will. He has been asking to pray for quite some time now and representative Montenegro was in charge of who gets to pray in the house, he hasn't really given him that opportunity until yesterday, they decided you can go ahead and pray.

Howard Fischer: And that's the key. This was a setup. I'm sorry. The fact is that Juan mendez was told oh, all the slots are taken. Then all of a sudden leadership goes to John Allen whose turn it was and John said, of course, I'll let Juan do this. Three years ago he started his prayer with I urge you not to bow your heads. He said some people believe in heaven to do good deeds, others do it for the sake of doing it. Then Steve Montenegro, who was the son of a pastor, stands up and says point of order, our rules require a prayer and I just happen to have a minister here on the floor standing by! Because you never know. It's like on the old airplane series with the pilot, minister gives an invocation, and then a series of Republicans stand up and tell us how insulted they were that he gave a non-prayer.

Ted Simons: The idea, though, that I'm an atheist and I want to give a prayer. I mean, obviously, he was making a point, as well.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Oh, of course. That's why there wasn't a slot for him until miraculously yesterday.

Ted Simons: And the definition of a prayer, and I know the house has its own definition of a prayer now correct?

Luige del Puerto: The house -- well, yes, Steve Montenegro has his definition of a prayer, which is you pray to a deity and if you say well basically, let's pray to humanity or to the universe or something like that in his mind, that doesn't qualify as prayer based on the traditions of the house and Montenegro let me add is not just the son of a pastor, he is also an associate pastor. He's also a minister.

Howard Fischer: You've got this problem of what is a prayer? If I pray please don't call on me for the next question, I haven't invoked the name of a higher power, is it a prayer?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Higher power.

Howard Fischer: Bless you, my son. These become fascinating questions. Does a prayer have to invoke a higher power?

Ted Simons: As you reported, the definition in terms of the house for prayer is a solemn request for guidance and help from god.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Specifically mentions god. And when majority leader Montenegro stood up yesterday he said that wasn't a prayer because he didn't mention god. So then the debate, a couple of other lawmakers also rebuked Mr. Mendez and then Bruce wheeler who is the number two lawmaker on the democratic caucus stood up and said look, I don't agree with Juan's beliefs, but I respect them and we should just all take a big breath, deep breath, calm down, and let's move on but not before throwing out a little dart at Montenegro saying hey, I know that you've got prayer groups and you've excluded Catholics from that and off we went again.

Ted Simons: And the problem becomes where do you draw the line? Somewhere you've got Juan Mendez atheist on this line and Steve Montenegro on the other. Well, okay, Confucians, Hindus? Nativists? Satanists? You've got a real problem there about who defines god?

Luige del Puerto: And really who calls out -- who gets to call out somebody if that person is not quote/unquote praying? Is it Steve Montenegro? Does he get to decide?

Ted Simons: What if it's not the kind of prayer you want? What if you're praying for America to destroy its enemies? What if you're praying for America not to go to war and love its enemies? Do you have a minister standing by in case the prayer doesn't cut it?

Howard Fischer: It's like the little inflatable one from the airplane series, from the automatic pilot, that you just inflate them or something. The fact that is the way Steve Montenegro says it if you invoke god, you can ask god to bring down the wrath, his wrath on Democrats, on Donald Trump, on whomever but again, as long as you invoke god or the father or Jesus or something along the lines and we can get into the definition of the trinity here and that's okay.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And if you remember last year when Victoria Steele from Tucson was still in the legislature, she has Lakota Indian heritage and she wasn't allowed to give a prayer but she read a speech that was invoking I think animal spirits. So this has been sort of stirring around and it really gets to a question of, you know, diversity.

Luige del Puerto: My other question, why is this only happening in the house?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Because it's the lower chamber. [ Laughs ]

Luige del Puerto: But in the Senate which I covered for several years, they allowed the native American prayers, and it's the longest prayer that I've been to in the Senate because it takes five minutes, maybe even more.

Howard Fischer: I'll answer your question: Politics. The fact of this setup, Steve Montenegro knew the moment that he let Juan Mendez give the invocation prayer, whatever you want to call it, it was going to allow his Republicans to stand up on the floor, beat their chests in front of a bunch of reporters and a TV camera and say I am holy. And that's what this is all about.

Ted Simons: All right.

Luige del Puerto: Holiness and righteousness.

Ted Simons: What's next in all this?

Luige del Puerto: I'm waiting for the Satanists to get their chance to pray now and see what happens.

Howard Fischer: What's fascinating is this comes on the heels of what's happening in Phoenix. The Satanists, no nobody is going to give a prayer, it's going to be a moment of silence. I'm of the belief -- I started in public schools in Pennsylvania when you had to pray, before the Supreme Court ruling. Nothing took prayer out of schools. Kids were still praying long after that. People pray in their own way, moments of silence, whatever it is.

Ted Simons: No one stops you from praying. You could be praying right now every time you're off-camera that the next question is not going to be a difficult one. You can pray whenever you want.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And you asked what's next. Well, there's the secular coalition is meeting as we speak and they're making little messages and making them into little origami shapes and they're going to deliver them to representative Montenegro at some yet to be determined time.

Ted Simons: I'm sure that will accomplish quite a bit.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Yep.

Ted Simons: Governor Ducey I tell you this Donald Trump thing Howie, you can't escape it, Howie. You literally cannot escape it. The governor this week asked if he would endorse Donald Trump if he were the Republican nominee for president and after much -- I guess repeated questions, he said he would.

He said he would. He was out on Dr. Seuss's birthday reading to classes and I suggested perhaps to him there's a good way for you to get into this, I do not like his orange hair, I do not want him anywhere, but the governor has decided after speaking to other governors that we Republicans must stick together, no matter what. Now what's fascinating is the reaction from his office that well he didn't volunteer that he was supporting Donald. Well, okay he said he would if he's the nominee. And somehow, this shows all what's been going on, what we've seen this week from John McCain, from Mitt Romney, the party is in turmoil trying to figure out what the heck do we do now?

Ted Simons: McCain on this program, Monday I asked him the same question, he said he would support Donald Trump if he were the Republican nominee because he is the Republican nominee.

Luige del Puerto: And, in fact, his campaign reaffirmed his commitment to support Donald Trump immediately after Mitt Romney went on a big speech and said this guy is a phony and a fraud. And John McCain said we should listen to Mitt Romney. And right after that, I asked his campaign, I said well which is it? And they said no as he had said he's committed to supporting Donald Trump, if he becomes the nominee.

Mary Jo Pitzl: But up until such time, he thinks he's dangerous and not his choice.

Howard Fischer: He's dangerous until August when he becomes a nominee and then all of a sudden, he's brilliant.

Ted Simons: Did the governor say anything -- obviously, the governor did not endorse anyone.

Howard Fischer: He's not going to endorse, he said voters will get to decide that, I am not going to say it would be nice if we could catch him on the 23rd and say did your person happen to get the Arizona vote? But I think he wants to stay out of it for a lot of reasons. The other possibility that I think that scares a lot of them is we go into the convention in Ohio with a brokered convention, nobody with the -- with the sufficient votes to take it.

Luige del Puerto: And, in fact, we are already seeing the Democratic Party and its candidates coalescing, forming this general election strategy, which is if Donald Trump becomes the nominee they're going to hang him around Republican candidates' necks and say well really? You're going to support this guy? And Matt Heinz, was it yesterday or today, sent out a statement saying representative McSally are you going to support Donald Trump if he becomes the nominee? And McSally's campaign dodged that question.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And Ann Kirkpatrick is already going after McCain.

Ted Simons: Regarding the governor, he did say what's important to him is no more I think President Obama or President Barack Obama policies is what he's mostly concerned about as opposed to whether or not Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination.

Mary Jo Pitzl: That's a good question. If Trump were to be the nominee what would be his position on some of those things? It's been sort of a moving target throughout Trump's life.

Ted Simons: Voucher fight, what is an ESA? Give us a very brief description please.

Howard Fischer: These are empowerment scholarship accounts. Essentially years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled you cannot put public money into private and parochial schools. It violates the Constitution. There's another provision that says you cannot use public money to do religious training. So they created this vouchers lite I'll call it for special needs students, say look we'll give you a debit card equal to 90% of what we're giving in state aid and you parents can take it out and get the education you need for your children. Well, then a little mission creep going on here, anyone on a reservation can qualify, anyone in a school rated d or f and now this proposal says by 2020, we ought to allow every one of the 1.1 million kids to have one of these vouchers. Created an interesting bit of heartburn.

Ted Simons: Greatly expands the system, Senate's okay with it. House not so much.

Luige del Puerto: Not so much. And see here's the thing about school choice and expansions of programs like this one. The strategy that has worked at the state capitol for many years now with incremental expansion, we've seen this with another program called the school tax credit and they have incrementally expanded that to include more and more students each year and it's been very successful because, you know, now it's costing the state about $55 million a year, whereas just a couple of years ago it was much more than that. When they introduced this bill to include everybody, I thought that sets a significant departure from their strategy and I thought -- it's really puzzling.

Howard Fischer: That was always the strategy. When this went to the Supreme Court, several of the sponsors admitted if we can get the court to legalize this, we've opened the door. This has always been a strategy. Now, the fascinating argument is they say well but it saves money. We're only paying $5,400 versus some larger amount for schools. And theoretically I suppose when we get everybody into private schools it won't cost us anything. Never mind there is a constitutional requirement for the state to maintain a quote general and uniform school system and the buildings and everything else.

Mary Jo Pitzl: And here's what's hanging it up in the house. It's going to run into this proposition 123 campaign, which is promising getting money back into the schools, it's on the May ballot, it's the governor's priority, nothing comes before this. And that the ESAs do not have the support of some of the key players who signed off on the prop 123 settlement, such as many of the teacher groups, school groups, and they have suggested that if the expansion of the vouchers goes forward, they're off.

Luige del Puerto: In fact, the governor, chairman Duda asked the governor about this one and the governor was giving mixed signals. On the one hand, he was saying look I'm for school choice, my record is on school choice, and it speaks for itself. On the other hand, he said my number one priority is prop 123.

Howard Fischer: He's sending a very clear signal to the folks, do not, do not send this to me this year. Let's get 123 passed, and then let's talk in 2017.

Ted Simons: Yeah, and another thing, the food stamp situation, that caused a bit of a ruckus for a while. That's looks like it's sailing off into the sunset, as well.

Mary Jo Pitzl: That's another measure that was brought forward, sponsored by representative Olson. It would have curtailed some of the automatic qualifications for food stamps and ended those. Also, it has some anti-fraud provisions; you've got to get your photo on your debit card that is used to buy food with. And he was getting a real problem with that from his fellow members in the house even as they're voting. Their no votes are going up on the board and so he stood up and said okay I see where this is going, I'm drop the more offensive provisions of this, we'll make sure we get an amendment in the Senate.

Howard Fischer: What's fascinating about this, this is federal money. This is not tax money being involved, but it's the philosophy, Justin Olson we think he's going to run for Congress. That's number one. Number two is he said well you know, the idea is getting people to work and to the extent we're giving them food stamps, maybe they won't work. I'm not sure that there are a lot of folks who have been on food stamps and say I'm going to stay home.

Ted Simons: Someone come out with a line that starvation is a new economic growth plan.

Mary Jo Pitzl: She's been around quite a while, she's served in the legislature a number of years, she goes this is the first time I've ever heard this economic theory of self-reliance and getting ahead through starvation.

Ted Simons: So this will not reappear later?

Luige del Puerto: Nothing is dead until, you know, sine die is over.

Howard Fischer: If he doesn't take those offending provisions off in the Senate, there are three of us at the capitol, Mary jo and I and one of the A.P. reporters who spoke to Olson and if he goes back on that, let's just say look for headlines on the front page of the paper.

Ted Simons: I want to get back to education. Classroom spending at its lowest since 2001, according to the state auditor general report. This includes teacher salaries and benefits and what was this all about?

Howard Fischer: Part of the issue is they've been doing this report and I've been writing about it, we've been talking about it since 2001 and the idea is what percentage of every dollar winds up in the classroom? There are issues, guidance counselors don't count, nurses don't count, things like that. Beyond that is the question of is too much being spent on consideration? Actually, in Arizona we spend less on administration on average than other states. What we spend is utilities, transportation costs, busing, heating, cooling, things like that. The argument is that you have certain fixed costs. You've still got to repair the roof no matter what. Meanwhile, we've had a declining in both real dollars and inflation-adjusted dollars state aid. So to the extent that you have less money, less ends up in the classroom. Larger class size and fewer teachers.

Ted Simons: Is this what Governor Ducey was saying earlier in his inaugural speech, the whole nine yards, the state of the state speech that we've got to get more money to the classroom. Does this justify that?

Luige del Puerto: I don't know if it justifies what he's saying but clearly, he has said before, before he changed to another hashtag but the idea is the governor wants more money into the classroom. How do you define money into the classrooms? Our situation is unique in the state because we are such a huge state and our transportation costs, quite frankly, are higher than most other states because we are so spread out, etc., etc. And then the auditor general in her report, she basically said she thinks the reason why classroom spending has gone down is simply because we are putting fewer and fewer dollars into public schools overall throughout the years and what she's saying is that the spending for non-instructional costs like transportation, etc., those have remained steady or increased slightly whereas classroom spending has gone down, which makes her conclude that it's the dollars overall that's bringing down the classroom spending.

Howard Fischer: She also pointed out that in a few years the total dollars went up, that classroom spending still decreased. You said you can't blame it all on reduced state aid.

Ted Simons: Let's get to the bottom line. Impact on prop 123, impact on the ESAs?

Mary Jo Pitzl: I think it will be used as a talking point in the prop 123 campaign to say this will get more money into the classroom, more teacher salaries and it will also continue to fuel the perennial debates at the legislature that we've got to rework the formula and they're working on that, to get more money into the classroom and there will be a pushback from the school groups saying the way the audit is structured is not good.

Luige del Puerto: You're hearing from school groups saying look at this report, this provides you enough reason to really look into prop 123 and why we need this ballot measure passed.

Ted Simons: Kids care. Got a little bit of a boost this week. What is kids care first of all, quick summary here and then what's happening with it?

Mary Jo Pitzl: Kids care is a federally funded health insurance program for children from low-income families. Arizona froze its enrollment in the program during the Great Recession. It's still in the deep freeze. We remain the only state currently that does not have a program that's enrolling new kids. So representative Regina Cobb from Kingman, she's a Republican, introduces a bill and says let's restore it because there's money in the federal budget that will basically cover the state's cost. There's no cost to the state, at least not for the next two years. Other people are saying this is a pig in a poke. It was expected to be a big fight. In fact, it was on the appropriation committee's agenda and representative Olson removed it and allowed it to go straight to a floor vote. It passed without any debate, without any comment, I think it's going to face a buzzsaw in the Senate.

Howard Fischer: And this becomes an interesting question is Arizona's Medicaid covers families to 123% of the total property, it's $123,000 for a family of three. This covers that gap for kids up to 200% of the federal poverty level. These are the working poor, these are the folks that you want the kids to get screening, you want the kids to get the care so they don't become costly later and there's free money through '16 and '17. Now, there is a built-in self-destruct in the bill. If the money goes away, they may go ahead and drop it. The political problem gets to the end of 2017, there's no federal money or we have to go back to our 25% match. I don't think our governor wants to be the one to oppose a budget for 2016 that says never mind.

Ted Simons: Does our governor want to be the done to say no if the kids care reaches his desk?

Luige del Puerto: I don't think the governor wants to say no to something as important as that to working families. That's the reason you will not see that bill get to the governor's desk. And the reason why is in the Senate, there's this prevailing philosophy in the Senate, look, this is another form of government spending, we're saying it's free federal money. But ultimately, we're paying for it and not only that, when that time comes for the federal government says look we don't have the money for it, you pay for that one, what do you do? Do you then cut off 50,000 kids from kids care? And at that point folks like Andy Biggs have always been saying the political pressure would be so much you can't say no to it.

Howard Fischer: Maybe Andy will go to Congress and keep the funding.

Mary Jo Pitzl: They did it before. I don't know why that's so difficult. They've cut it before.

Ted Simons: Before we get out of here, former state lawmaker died at the age of 60, three or four year fight with cancer. Her legacy at the state capitol, represented Tempe for 10, 11, some odd years.

Howard Fischer: Laura was one of those rare moderate Republicans and I know Republicans hate the term moderates because we're all right or center. Laura knew how to work with people. Laura understood the social end of it. She was fiscally conservative, she was morally conservative, I remember a press conference where she suggested girls shouldn't have sex until they're married but she understood the broader needs. She also understood how to work across the aisle. There was a year where the Senate was 15-15 and a Democrat named Ruth Solomon headed the appropriations committee and ruth and Laura did a wonderful job opening up the process, dealt with the needs of the state, made sure that everyone got heard and really understood the role of government is to form consensus.

Ted Simons: Got things done.

Mary Jo Pitzl: Yeah. I mean, I was going to bring up the same issue that Howie did because this image of these two women of different parties chairing the committees, working together and coming to agreement, it's like you don't see that a whole lot, not when you have two different parties in charge. They're sharing power. It was a rare moment and I have to note it was brought to us by females.

Ted Simons: And we should mention she helped lead the right to try ballot measure which made it easier for terminally ill to access experimental treatments and such. Dead this week at the age of 60, quite the legacy at the capitol.

Ted Simons: 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.

Howard Fischer: Capitol Media Services; Mary Jo Pitzl: Arizona Republic; Luige del Puerto: Arizona Capitol Times

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