PHOENIX — Two weeks after Republican Arizona lawmakers narrowly approved a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program, the national group pushing the effort planned to host a free lunch at the State Capitol to thank lawmakers.
Then, Thursday’s food truck event sponsored by the American Federation for Children was abruptly cancelled by the speaker of the House.
Republican Speaker J.D. Mesnard said he called off the “Thank You to the Legislators” luncheon because it was ill-timed and emotions are still running high at the Capitol.
Democrats who opposed the voucher plan passed on April 6 continue to keep the issue in the forefront, reading letters from teachers nearly every day on the House floor. Earlier this week, Mesnard moved those floor speeches to the end of the day from the beginning because they were consuming hours of time. Thursday afternoon, he threatened to change House rules to limit vote explanations because Democrats were using that time to read the letters.
Groups regularly provide free lunches for lawmakers and staff during the legislation session. Just this month, unions, a privately-owned charter school company, the AARP and the state propane gas association have provided lunch for lawmakers.
Kim Martinez, communications director for the American Federal for Children’s Arizona branch, said the luncheon offer wasn’t intended to be political. Instead, it grew out of a visit to the Capitol by children with autism-spectrum disorders who benefit from the voucher program to lead the Pledge of Allegiance on the House floor. The group wanted to provide the students lunch, then decided to invite lawmakers and staff.
“That is honestly how this whole thing came about,” Martinez said. “It was never meant to be any kind of a political move.”
AFC spent more than $257,000 supporting candidates for the Arizona Legislature who backed vouchers or opposing those who did not support them. The voucher measure passed both the Senate and House by a single vote and was immediately signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. All Democrats were opposed, as was one Republican senator and four Republican representatives.
Democrats who opposed the measure said they weren’t aware that the luncheon had been scheduled, although usually all lawmakers get invitations. And the “thank you” usually isn’t so clear.
“Most invitations to legislative luncheons aren’t sent out thanking legislators,” Democratic Sen. Katie Hobbs said. “I think that’s a little bit blatant.”
Mesnard said he made the decision to nix the lunch because he wants to move beyond the voucher battle.
“We have other issues we need to focus on and so I’m trying to do my best to be a peacemaker,” he said.
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