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GOP lawmakers are pushing controversial proposals despite veto promises from Hobbs

Mary Jo Pitzl Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

For the third year in a row, Republican lawmakers are considering a controversial bill to limit how race and ethnicity are taught in the public schools.

Legislation to chop up Maricopa County into four smaller counties also is back for another run at becoming law.

And a bill that would require almost every voter to cast their ballot at the polls on Election Day, as well as mandate a hand count of those ballots, has returned after failing to pass in previous years.

While "try, try again" is a common approach to getting bills signed into law, these bills from GOP legislators face long ― if not impossible ― odds with a Democrat in the Governor's Office for the first time in 14 years.

Gov. Katie Hobbs has repeatedly warned lawmakers not to send her bills that attack Arizonans' rights, push special-interest agendas or undermine democracy. Bills that tackle "real issues" are welcome, she said.

The Democratic governor's admonition hasn't stopped Republican lawmakers. There are numerous examples of bills that legislators have introduced, taking the time to research them, gather co-sponsors and line up support, even as they seem destined for a veto.

Why do they bother? For these lawmakers, the bills do address real issues ― many stemming from constituent requests ― that they believe deserve a public debate.

And, as Rep. Beverly Pingerelli said of her bill to limit how race and ethnicity are taught, there's always hope.

"It might pass," said Pingerelli, R-Peoria, of House Bill 2458, the third attempt at enacting what is dubbed the "anti-critical race theory" bill. Even though it couldn't pass muster with previous GOP-controlled legislatures, she said she holds out hope it could happen this year.

Besides, Pingerelli said, it's important to her and to her caucus.

“The only social fabric we have is a commitment to our founding ideals," she said as she introduced the bill on Feb. 3. Those ideals are threatened by what she called "pernicious thinking sweeping down from the universities," a belief that the U.S. was born in 1619 and is doomed until the country is reorganized, Pingerelli said, repeating conservative criticism of the New York Times' 1619 Project, which traced the origins of slavery in the U.S. and its lasting effects.

The bill would ban any instruction that holds one group as superior to another on the basis of race or ethnicity. Schools that are found in violation of this could face a fine of up to $5,000.

As in past years, the bill drew intense discussion and support that split along party lines. Whether the third time is the charm for this bill is unclear. But if it makes it to the governor's desk, the proposal faces a likely veto given the strong opposition the bill has drawn from educators and minority communities — two key Hobbs constituencies.

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'Our job ... is to do what's right for Arizona'

Whether a bill can get signed into law shouldn't serve as the litmus test for legislation, lawmakers said.

"Our job is to introduce bills and do what's right for Arizona," said Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Goodyear, and sponsor of a school-vaccine bill. His proposal would bar schools from requiring that students receive any vaccine with emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to attend class.

Sen. John Kavanagh agreed with Montenegro's reasoning.

Lawmakers need to show their constituents where they stand and let opponents of the bill “defend their positions,” he said.

Sen. John Kavanagh sits at his desk during the opening session of the 56th Legislature in Phoenix on Jan. 9, 2023.

Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, spent most of the morning Thursday in a committee hearing listening to lengthy debate about a bill that would criminalize “prurient” drag performances if they were viewable by minors. He voted for Senate Bill 1028 and said he didn’t know why the governor would oppose it.

Yet Hobbs’ signature for this bill, which was opposed strongly by members of the LGBTQ community and the American Civil Liberties Union and has no Democratic support, was always an extreme long shot. She said on Feb. 2 that she would veto it.

Regardless of what Hobbs may do, raising awareness of the issue was important, Kavanagh said.

He also mentioned a political factor: “The voters cannot make an intelligent decision on Election Day if they don't know where I stand and where the governor stands.”

Election bills return, face similar fate

That thinking is behind many of the election-related bills that are getting party-line support in early committee work.

Last year, Republican lawmakers introduced more than 100 proposals on elections. Nearly all went nowhere, even with a GOP-majority Legislature and a Republican governor. Still, ideas that failed in previous years — such as House Bill 2307, which proposes hand counting of ballots and a ban on electronic tabulation machines — were revived by several newly elected Republicans.

Rep. Cory McGarr, R-Tucson, told a House committee on Feb. 1 that he was sponsoring this bill, as well as one that would require a reversion to precinct-based voting, because they are moves he'd heard numerous constituents request.

But if these bills pass the Legislature, they, too, face a near-certain veto. Hobbs served as secretary of state before she was elected governor, and in that role sued Cochise County supervisors when they attempted to do a hand recount of November election returns. She's also stated numerous times in her first month in office that she won't tolerate bills that she views as catering to conspiracy theories from election deniers.

Some Democrats see another reason for the efforts from their Republican counterparts.

Sen. Wendy Rodgers stands by her desk during the opening session of the 56th Legislature in Phoenix on Jan. 9, 2023.

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, noted lengthy presentations and “theatrics” about election fraud by right-wing activists in the Senate Elections Committee, which is overseen by Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, one of the state’s most prominent promoters of election conspiracies.

“She doesn’t seem to be focused on the bills,” Mendez said of Rogers. “She wants to play to the crowd. You know, this is her attempt to raise money. This is her attempt to validate all these lies.”

Rogers did not return a call seeking comment.

Giving constituents what they ask for

Rogers also is making another run at a bill that failed to pass last year. Senate Bill 1111 would impose a fine of up to $1,000 on any school that fails to have every classroom display the U.S. flag and Constitution. Those displays are already in law; Rogers' bill would add the penalty for noncompliance.

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 2 on a party-line vote, with Democrats in opposition.

Then-Sen. Steve Montenegro (foreground) and then-House Speaker JD Mesnard of the Arizona delegation, listen in the House chambers at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix during a constitutional convention planning meeting for state delegates on Sept. 12, 2017.

Montenegro, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee in the House, noted many bills are run at the behest of constituents.

That is the case with House Bill 2474, his vaccine-related proposal.

"I'm approaching it from the angle of, 'What's good policy?'" Montenegro said. He argued in committee that children shouldn't be treated as "lab rats" by having to receive a vaccine that has not received full authorization from the federal government.

While Montenegro said constituents in his West Valley district asked for the bill, no one showed up at the hearing to support it.

Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix and a medical doctor, noted the bill could hamstring the state's ability to deal with future pandemics because any vaccine that is rushed out would require emergency authorization.

Not having a vaccine likely would cause more harm than any potential side effects of an emergency-use one, he said.

The COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency use authorization, is not at issue as lawmakers last year barred it from the required vaccine list for school attendance in a bill former Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law.

Thinking about 'what can get signed'

The proposal to slice up Maricopa County, Senate Bill 1137, still awaits a committee debate. But for the second year, Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, is championing this legislation, which foundered in last year's GOP-controlled Legislature.

Although proponents argue the bill is needed to make county governance smaller and more efficient, critics say it's a way to dilute the voting power of the state's largest county, which in recent elections has rejected extreme Republican candidates in statewide races, including in last year's governor's race.

Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, like many of his colleagues, said getting the governor's signature on a bill shouldn't be the deciding factor in whether to sponsor it.

But, he added, it's logical to want to get bills signed, not vetoed.

"I still think about what's good for the district, for Arizona, what's good policy, and what can get signed," said Bennett, a former state Senate president back for a second stint in the Legislature.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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