State lawmakers are moving to make each county sheriff an early warning system for those who may be violating federal law.
On a 6-5 vote Tuesday, the House Government Committee approved legislation to require any federal regulatory agency to register with the sheriff before coming into a county to check for violations of laws or regulations. The agency also would have to pay a fee.
But the real teeth in HB 2077 would be a requirement on the sheriff to inform the individual or company which is being targeted that the feds are on their way.
Rep. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said that early warning could give someone a chance to make the necessary changes to avoid being found in violation. But the first-term legislator said that doesn't worry him.
"I guess the principle that you would look at is are we there to collect fines or are we there to fix the problem?" he said. "So if I know that they're coming, and I have an opportunity to go through and say, ‘OK, am I doing what I'm supposed to do or I'm not doing what I'm supposed to do,' haven't we fixed the problem that we're trying to get to anyway instead of levying the fine?"
Crandell also said he's not concerned with the prospect that a company, once knowing the federal regulators are gone - and cannot return without forewarning - will return to their old ways.
"We have all those agencies already here in the state of Arizona that do that," he said. For example, Crandell noted, there is a Department of Environmental Quality. And Arizona also has its own mine inspector.
Crandell said he believes Arizona could simply assert its authority over these issues rather than leaving the task to federal regulators who "report to no one."
His measure does not stop there. It says if someone ends up being fined by a federal agency, the money would go not to that agency or the federal government but instead be given ultimately to the county and, ultimately, wind up in the state treasury.
Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said there are all sorts of problems with what Crandell wants to do. The first, he said, is practical: If Arizona starts interfering with federal agencies - or trying to take federal fines - Washington can simply respond by withholding money that it otherwise gives to the state, whether to help with education or highway construction.
Crandell brushed aside that possibility, saying he would doubt that one federal agency would withhold money because the state is taking cash from another one. Still, he told colleagues, a court fight is likely.
"Any time we deal with the federal government it is something that's going to have to be worked out," he said. Crandell said, though, a fight isn't necessarily a bad thing, comparing it to the legal battle now playing out in federal court over Arizona's decision last year to enact its own laws dealing with illegal immigrants.
Jennifer Sweeney, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Counties, said she foresees practical problems with having the counties try to collect those federal fines. For example, she asked whether the county is supposed to act as a collection agency if the individual or business does not pay.
Crandell said the measure, which eventually will go to the full House, is limited to regulatory agencies. He said it would not affect criminal investigations or even inquiries by the Department of Justice for violations of the federal Voting Rights Act.
But Crandell said the measure would include efforts by the Internal Revenue Service to check someone's tax records.
"They could come and audit them," he said. "They would fill out an application with the county sheriff saying, ‘We're going to audit so-and-so.'"
And if those auditors found unpaid taxes, the feds would get only those taxes. Under HB 2077, any fees or penalties would belong to the state.
Not all the opposition was from Democrats.
"I don't think it's well crafted," said Rep. Steve Urie, R-Gilbert. He said while the concept may have merit, "it needs to be reworked and brought back."