Legislative Update

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A reporter from the Arizona Capitol Times will give us a mid-week update on the state legislature.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," calls for an ethics investigation of the Arizona Speaker of the House. That and more in our weekly legislative update. And a new website that promises accurate, up to date real estate information. Those stories 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: I'm Ted Simons. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz will appear in the valley Friday. His campaign announced he will hold a rally at Arizona Christian University near state route 51 and cactus. He reportedly will be joined by Texas governor Rick Perry and conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. He will appear a day ahead of Donald Trump, scheduled to hold a rally in Phoenix Saturday, time and location still to be determined. On the Democratic side Bernie Sanders will appear tomorrow night at the Twin Arrows Navajo casino resort near Flagstaff after a rally last night at the Phoenix convention center. They are descending on the state in anticipation of Tuesday's presidential preference election. Democratic lawmakers in the State House calling for an ethics investigation of Speaker David Gowan and other leaders for reported curiosities over travel expenses and other reimbursements. Here to talk about that and more is Jim Small of the Arizona Capitol Times. Good to see you again. Thanks for being here. The Democrats want the fill blown ethics investigation. You guys broke this story.

Jim Small: This is something everything spins off of since we reported in early January. Essentially what it comes down to is there's a lot of use of state vehicles by Speaker Gowan and by several other members, high ranking Republican elected officials and members of staff in the wake of our report the House conducted an internal investigation into Speaker Gowan's travels and found that he was overpaid about $12,000 worth of travel and per diem, the amount that lawmakers get for every day that they work. Most of the travel that he was overpaid was for travel that was claimed while driving a state vehicle. The whole point of the travel reimbursement is obviously to make someone whole for the travels on their own car, claiming while you're using state cars is obviously improper. The Speaker paid back $12,000 in the wake of that investigation. The Democratic leaders want the ethics committee to look into it not only for him but for three other Republican elected officials in the House to see whether they did anything wrong. And essentially whether they should be censured.

Ted Simons: Steve Montenegro and Darren Mitchell and Michelle Ugenti, and three others. Were they doing something similar?

Jim Small: They all used state vehicles. That was something we covered in our initial report. Two of them, I think Representatives Montenegro and Mitchell drove the vehicles out to a conference, a legislative conference in San Diego that the nature of which is whether it's an official government function or if it was a private conference. It's in dispute. The House has maintained that was official business. Use of the state car was perfectly justified.

Ted Simons: Are Democrats looking at the idea Gowan may have tasked his staff to help with his congressional bid?

Jim Small: Their view is essentially House staff has been working to help him get elected to Congress. They didn't make any specific claims but the most likely thing they were referring to was the fact that Sergeant at Arms generally drives the Speaker everywhere and for a lot of these trips, especially the ones we reported on in October when a state vehicle was used to drive to a number of events in Flagstaff and to the city and around the eastern Arizona area. The Sergeant at Arms was driving him. I think their contention if they are allowed to make it in a full-blown case I'm sure would be that that was improper use of a state employee.

Ted Simons: Will they be allowed to take it to a full-blown case?

Jim Small: Not a snowball's chance. Aside from the fact that it's a Republican controlled legislature and Speaker of the House, you look at the Ethics Committee Chairman is the one who ultimately determines whether to move forward with this. He's the Speaker's seat mate, Representative David Stevens from Sierra Vista. This complaint was filed really got headlines, it got us talking about it, brings this issue back into the forefront. It's a major factor in why this complaint was filed.

Ted Simons: Will probably go nowhere and fast.

Jim Small: I would imagine.

Ted Simons: There's a real estate agent who has purchased a bunch of distressed property. It sounds as though he's getting a sweetheart deal from lawmakers. What's going on here?

Jim Small: There's legislation moving through that essentially would cut this one developer about a $150,000 for some of this property. He bought it off of; it was derelict property from some housing developments and other developments that had gone bust in Pinal County. He was able to buy the land and then about $850,000 bought 2300 parcels of land, note a bad deal. It had been foreclosed on and had gone belly-up. The problem is, once you buy the parcels you have to retitle them into your name. To do that for that many parcels, it's $50 a parcel. You do the math and it comes out to be about $150,000. He didn't want to pay that. Last year there was legislation that essentially would have capped that fee for retitling all these parcels at $500. The legislature ultimately rejected it. The real estate developer was pushing it last year. This year the bill is back. He claims he doesn't have anything to do with it, he didn't contact lawmakers, he didn't have lobbyists on the ground working it, they are doing it of their own volition. It's moving through the legislative process and so far has gotten some thumbs up from Republicans.

Ted Simons: What justification?

Jim Small: The argument is if they are able to make it easier, cheaper for these developers, these people to come in and buy large quantities of land, then the sooner that they can get those titles changed the sooner the redevelopment can happen. Then the land will go back into being productively taxed and they can build on it, the counties will make more taxes. The Maricopa County is the only one that essentially does these retitles in any batch format. For every other County they have to go through the process and retitle each one and make sure it goes from bankrupt landowner A into new landowner B. It's a legal document so it's one where the counties have said it costs them about $100 of staff time to do each one of them. So charging $50 they are still taking a loss. If they were to be capped at $500, for a lot of these things it wouldn't be that big of a deal but when you're talking about a massive scale where you have 2,000 parcels of land then suddenly we are going to eat a huge amount of money on this. Especially rural counties, Pinal County is obviously bigger than it used to be. Other counties, Coconino County, Yavapai, Grand County where they may only have a couple people on staff. If you said you need to swallow that amount of money, they basically said we can't. We'll end up passing this tax along to the rest of the taxpayers.

Ted Simons: We should note this is the second year going through this. If he started a couple of years ago might be already be building on that land.

Jim Small: Certainly. Obviously if he paid right off the bat we wouldn't be having these decisions -- discussions.

Ted Simons: Lots of interesting stuff going on. Good to have you. Thanks for joining us.

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