Despite losing seats, Arizona GOP still able to advance conservative agenda
PHOENIX (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Arizona lost seats in last year’s election and entered the 2021 legislative session with the smallest House and Senate majorities they have seen in years.
Yet despite shrinking numbers and Democratic ascendancy at the ballot box, the GOP managed to enact one of the most conservative agendas in memory during the legislative session that ended last week. From abortion to taxes to policing and much more, Republicans moved the state decisively to the right.
“This year’s legislative session is one for the record books,” Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said in a statement Thursday. “I believe it will go down in history as one of the most successful legislative sessions in recent memory.”
The GOP’s rightward shift was enabled by the departure of two moderate Republicans who lost their reelection bids last year. Sen. Heather Carter lost the GOP primary to the more conservative Nancy Barto, while Sen. Kate Brophy McGee lost to Democrat Christine Marsh in the general election. Without Carter and Brophy McGee, the Senate Republican caucus was smaller but more conservative.
A year ago, political observers from both parties expected Democrats to tie or win a majority in at least one chamber. But while Democrats won the top races on the Arizona ballot — president and U.S. Senate — their successes did not carry down. They posted a net gain of just one state Senate seat, leaving Republicans controlling 31 of 60 House seats and 16 of 30 Senate seats.
Opposition from any Republicans was enough to kill legislation if no Democrats were on board, creating what Republican Rep. John Kavanagh called “47 governors” with veto power.
The conservative victories ran the gamut:
— Tax rates were fixed for most people at 2.5%, eliminating the state’s progressive tax schedule in which higher levels of income are taxed at higher rates. Once fully phased in, state revenue will be slashed by about $1.9 billion a year, with benefits accruing mostly for the wealthiest taxpayers.
— As part of the tax cut plan, wealthy Arizonans will be shielded from a 3.5% tax surcharge voters approved last year to increase salaries for teachers and other school employees. High earners who get their income from estates, trusts and business profits will save even more.
Arizona’s already restrictive abortion laws got even more so. Lawmakers and Ducey made it a crime for medical providers to perform abortions solely because of genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome. They gave personhood rights to fetuses and banned the dispensing of abortion-inducing drugs through the mail. And they funded a hotline to discourage pregnant women considering abortions from going through with it — something Senate moderates had blocked in prior years.
If Ducey signs a bill still on his desk, schools won’t be able to teach sex education before fifth grade and parents will have to opt in to any discussion of sex outside of sex ed lessons. Ducey vetoed an earlier version of the bill, so lawmakers tweaked the measure in response and hope to win his support.
Lawmakers threw cold water on a police reform push that has intensified since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. Police misconduct investigations will have to be conducted by sworn officers from the same department as the person being investigated, and civilian-controlled review boards are outlawed.
The government’s public health powers were curtailed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools, universities and local governments won’t be able to require masks or vaccination. Mayors won’t be able to order business closures or capacity limits. Governors will lose their power to order people to be vaccinated. And businesses will be largely shielded from pandemic-related lawsuits.
A host of new election rules were adopted following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him in Arizona and other battleground states. People who skip two consecutive election cycles will be purged from the permanent early voting list, and election officials won’t be able to accept private grants.
Several school choice priorities were advanced. School districts and charter schools will be able to pay parents to bring children to school, an effort to eliminate transportation barriers that might make it harder for parents to enroll their children somewhere other than their assigned neighborhood school. The most successful schools will get extra money through a results-based funding program.
Conservative Republicans didn’t bat perfectly. Some of the most aggressive measures — making it harder to vote or allowing the Legislature to overturn voters’ choices in the presidential contest — did not pass. Nor did an effort to strip the Corporation Commission, the state’s utility regulator, of its power to regulate renewable energy. A push to expand vouchers for private school tuition was scaled back significantly.
Democrats were dejected but also predicted voters will punish Republicans for overreaching.
“We see you. We hear you. We know what you’re trying to do to Arizona, and we wont let it happen,” Rep. Charlene Fernandez, a Yuma Democrat, told Republicans at the end of the session.