Lawmakers pass landmark water, school voucher legislation in final hours of 2022 session

Arizona lawmakers closed out their 2022 session in dramatic fashion, passing landmark legislation on water and school vouchers late Friday while an abortion rally turned unruly outside, forcing the Senate to evacuate its chambers.

Senators reassembled about an hour later in a hearing room, abandoning their usual second-floor chambers because fumes from the tear gas police released to dispel the protesters hung too thickly in the air.

Protesters pounded on the Senate building's windows and locked glass front doors, and state police quickly filed into the glass-walled lobby and faced the would-be intruders, who turned and retreated across the Senate patio. 

Once work resumed, senators quickly passed a major water bill on a 25-1 vote. The House passed the bill 48-1 just after 11 p.m. Friday, its final piece of work for the year.

Senate Bill 1740 sets a framework for an investment of more than $1 billion in water supply programs. It includes another $200 million-plus for water conservation, but the vast majority of the money would go to making more water available, whether it's seawater desalination in Mexico or water recycling. 

The bill “vaults us forward in purchasing, working, partnering, in order to improve the augmentation of our water, and at the same time changing and adapting our ethics, how we use water, how we conserve water," House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said on the House floor. 

Flurry of last-minute action

Last-minute surprise bills, long-sought victories and sudden defeats marked the last day of the 55th Legislature's second regular session. They adjourned sine die, Latin for "without a day," in the post-midnight darkness, ending a session that ran 167 days.

The adjournment came at 12:26 a.m. Saturday.

Republicans won their quest to expand a private school voucher program to all 1.1 million Arizona schoolchildren in a 16-11 vote that sends House Bill 2853 to Gov. Doug Ducey's desk, where his signature is expected.

It would be the first universal voucher program in the nation, and is a rare victory for voucher bills in a year that saw similar efforts fail in numerous states.

The bill provides scholarships, averaging $7,000, that parents can apply toward private school tuition, homeschooling or other educational services and supplies.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, and a former Arizona teacher of the year, called the bill an attempt to defund public education.

Others argued that only well-off families would be able to afford the tuition at private schools despite claims that the vouchers would expand educational opportunities for children from low-income households.

Another controversial education measure surfaced in the final hours of the session: the so-called "critical race theory" bill that various statehouses across the nation have promoted as suspicion grew in conservative circles that schools are indoctrinating children on racial topics. While it passed in the Senate, it didn't get the final vote it needed in the House.

Senate Bill 1412 would have penalized teachers and schools if they offered lessons that held up any racial or ethnic group as superior to any other. Democrats called it misguided; Republicans said it is intended to ensure teachers do not bias their students against other racial groups.

Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said the bill would stifle teaching about some of America's darkest chapters, running the risk that society would repeat some of its sorriest episodes.

“There are a lot of things that have happened to my Native American ancestors that I would like us to never have to live through again, like genocide and boarding schools," she said. "So I ask you, why is it important to put a gag order on the history of the United States?"

But Republicans held to their argument the bill was intended to prevent indoctrinating students in a "woke culture" environment.

Earlier in the day, House members briefly cut off the lifeline for the state Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, rejecting Senate Bill 1401, which proposed to continue the agency for eight years.

Led by Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, the no vote showed bipartisan disapproval of the agency's performance, from prison escapes to turning a seemingly blind eye to oversight. But after an amendment calling for annual reviews of the agency's performance was added to the bill, representatives reversed course and approved it.

Arizona could become home to more movie production with the passage of Senate Bill 1710, which provides tax credits to incentivize movie production in Arizona. The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, won with lopsided approval despite criticism that it makes selective use of tax breaks.

Questions to go before voters

Maricopa County voters will get a chance to decide whether they want to tax themselves to support a 25-year regional transportation plan. House Bill 2685 authorizes the county’s regional transportation authority to call an election and seek a sales tax increase of up to a half-cent on each dollar, extending a current tax that voters approved in 2004.

Although officials had hoped to get the measure on the fall ballot, they likely will propose a spring 2023 vote.

In the frenzy of end-of-session activity, lawmakers Thursday and Friday approved two more questions to put to voters on the November ballot.  

They considered a third, which would have added a fee to certain traffic tickets to supplement benefits paid to the families of first responders killed in the line of duty, but Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, joined with Democrats to reject the bill late Friday. 

Ugenti-Rita objected to those who supported the measure, saying it wouldn’t boost law enforcement morale, as proponents said, and only would place a further burden on Arizonans to pay another fee. 

“It’s not equitable, especially on the backs of hardworking Arizonans who may get a ticket ... we tax them even more?” she said on the Senate floor. 

“It’s these last-minute boondoggle ideas on the last day of session that have no business coming to the floor," she added. “Honestly, it's trash day.” 

One measure that will appear on the November ballot could increase the threshold to pass initiatives that raise taxes. If a majority of voters approve, citizen initiatives that raise taxes would have to pass with a 60% majority. 

Currently, citizen groups that gather enough signatures to put questions on the ballot need only a simple majority to pass. The citizen initiative process has become a key way public school funding advocates, as one example, have sought to boost funding when a Republican Legislature has been reluctant to do so.

Citizen initiatives also have led to the legalization of recreational marijuana and, 110 years ago, the state’s first citizen initiative gave women the right to vote.  

House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, opposed the change. 

“This is setting two systems of democracy in our state,” he said. “One in which you need a majority of the votes in an election to be declared a winner, and the next where you need a supermajority if citizens decide that they want to bring initiatives to the ballot. I think that is anti-democratic. No one in here is required to receive 60% or more to be elected.” 

Republican Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, pushed back. Both Bolding and Finchem are running for Arizona secretary of state in this year’s election. 

"I think what my colleague might have missed, is this is actually a referral to the ballot so the people have the voice,” Finchem said. "That is the most democratic thing that we can do.” 

In February, the House passed 31-28 a version of the measure that would have made the 60% threshold apply to all citizen initiatives, not just those that raise taxes. That had fallen off the radar before being revived this week, with changes. 

Lawmakers also voted to let voters decide in November whether the state should have another public official: a lieutenant governor, who would step in if the governor dies, resigns or is removed from office. Currently, the secretary of state fills that role. 

If approved by voters, a candidate for governor would name a running mate 60 days before a general election and they would run on a joint ticket, meaning voters would cast a single vote for both candidates. 

The change wouldn’t begin until the 2026 election.

Goodbyes at midnight

As the session stretched into its 167th day, lawmakers appeared to forget their partisan bickering and often tense work to pass legislation, instead offering praise to their colleagues. 

With all 90 seats up for election this year and the leaders of both chambers not planning to return, the Legislature won't include the same people when it gavels in next year.

Bowers is leaving the House chamber and running for a seat in the state Senate. The fourth-generation Arizonan thanked his colleagues and offered an ode to the state.

“All across the state there is enormous value in the people, the diversity, the education, the experience,” Bowers said. “There is nothing that we can’t do — I include with faith in God, but that’s not requisite for every belief — when we respect each other, when we endeavor with our true and best selves to serve each other and our country. … What a marvel it is to be part of the tapestry of Arizona.” 

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R-D1) laughs with members of the Senate as they prepare to adjourn for the night in the Arizona State Senate chambers in Phoenix on June 23, 2022.

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, is retiring, leaving the Legislature after 12 years. Fellow senators ended their work session with praise for the woman who has led the Senate through COVID-19 shutdowns, bitter debates, a nationally scrutinized election audit and four up and down years.

“I just want to tell everyone … what a tremendous job you’ve done,” Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City and the Senate majority leader, said.

When the going got tough, Fann burrowed into the facts and made the right decisions, he said.

Sen. Rosanna Gabaldón, D-Green Valley, recalled how helpful Fann was when Gabaldon was a freshman senator. “You were a mentor to me; I cannot thank you enough,” she said.

Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, recalled the time she invited Fann to a “really sticky” and boisterous group of stakeholders and how Fann masterfully calmed them down.

“You can’t have a family without a leader,” Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said. “You are a hell of a leader. ... I hope when you’re sitting back on a golf course, on a beach or in Prescott having a cocktail, you can appreciate what you’ve done in four years.”

Fann teared up as colleagues presented her with a giant bouquet of hydrangeas and peonies, as well as an oversized jug of red wine. Blinking back tears, she thanked her colleagues.

"You are amazing," she said.

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