PHOENIX — The Arizona Senate’s ethics committee voted along party lines Thursday to investigate a Democratic lawmaker who is accused of circulating a petition to repeal a new school voucher expansion bill when it wasn’t properly filled out.
The five-member panel controlled by majority Republicans voted against dismissing the complaint against Sen. Catherine Miranda. The panel instead initiated an investigation and referred the complaint to the attorney general for a potential criminal review.
The panel’s two Democrats voted against the investigation.
Miranda attorney Tom Ryan called the move a political payback for her vote against school vouchers.
“This has nothing to do with ethics,” Ryan said. “This has everything to do with payback because they’re upset with Sen. Miranda for not going along with their voucher bill. They thought they had her in the bag, and she stood up and said ‘No, I’m for public education.’ And they’re mad.”
Thursday’s events came as backers of school vouchers put on a full-court press to try to keep the measure off the November 2018 ballot.
The new universal private school voucher program was put on hold last month after election officials certified opponents had collected enough signatures under a provision of the Arizona Constitution that allows citizens to block actions of the Legislature until a statewide vote.
Backers are suing to try to throw out a majority of the qualifying signatures or to get the entire effort deemed improper. A hearing is set for December.
They also have also filed complaints with the attorney general, and a Democratic state representative faces a similar ethics complaint as Miranda is facing.
Thursday’s hearing was a scripted affair, with the three Republicans ready with motions to investigate the case and refer it to the attorney general.
Republican Sen. Steve Montenegro said the panel had “the grounds, the purview, the jurisdiction” to move forward.
In the worst case, Miranda could be removed from the Senate, but that appears unlikely for such a minor infraction.
“This is a show,” Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said. “This is a dog and pony show they’re doing right now, and they’re trying to distract the public’s attention from the efforts to refer Senate Bill 1431.”
Ryan said Miranda did nothing intentionally wrong, and both he and Quezada, also an attorney, said they expected the attorney general to quickly toss the complaint.
Voucher backers say they give parents more choice, while opponents argue they siphon money from cash-starved public schools.
Arizona first passed a voucher program, technically called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, for disabled students in 2011. The program differs from traditional vouchers by giving state funding directly to parents, who can use the cash to pay for private school tuition, home-schooling or other education expenses.
The program has been repeatedly expanded. It now covers a third of all students, including children attending failing schools, those living on Indian reservations, foster children and children of military members. Despite those changes, only about 3,500 students now use it, and more than half are disabled.
The new law would phase in an expansion over four years that would allow all 1.1 million public students use vouchers, although it is capped at about 30,000 students after 2022.