Arizona lawmakers end regular session - East Valley Tribune: Politics

Arizona lawmakers end regular session

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Posted: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 7:05 am | Updated: 6:43 pm, Wed Apr 20, 2011.

State lawmakers finally wrapped up the 2011 legislative session early this morning.

But unlike some years, this session appears to be fading quietly. The state budget, which in some years was the last battle, was enacted weeks ago.

That left only a handful of controversial issues for last-minute action.

One allows one of the spouses to delay a divorce.

Arizona is a "no fault'' divorce state: The only grounds for seeking to end a marriage is that it is "irretrievably broken.'' A judge can grant a divorce decree 60 days after the petition is filed.

The measure lets a judge grant an extra 120 days if either party "establishes good cause'' for the extension. But it also says the judge cannot delay the process if the other party has "good cause'' for objecting.

But what is perhaps the biggest news of the session that began in January

is what did not happen. This is the first year in a long time that lawmakers did not enact some major measure aimed at illegal immigrants.

That's not for lack of trying by Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, and some of his allies on this issue. They sought measures ranging from requiring proof that children are legal residents to enroll in school to seeking to provoke a court challenge over whether babies born in this country are automatically entitled to U.S. citizenship regardless of the legal status of their parents.

And despite the heavy Republican majorities in both the House and Senate, lawmakers refused to ask voters to constitutionally cap future state spending.

But abortion foes did make major strides this year in erecting new hurdles in the path of women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. These include limits on who can perform an abortion, new regulations that clinics would have to follow and even making it a crime for doctors to abort a child if he or she knows that the mother's reason involves gender or race selection.

And legislators made some changes to the state's four separate retirement systems in a bid to help nurse them back to fiscal solvency, including requiring workers to contribute more.

One of the big issues left unresolved, though, is whether state laws dealing with gifts need to be fixed.

An investigation revealed that many legislators took out-of-town trips financed by the Fiesta Bowl. While accepting plane tickets, hotel reservations and meals is not illegal, many did not report the gift, which is required.

A separate law, though, precludes legislators from accepting tickets to the sports events, Some lawmakers, claiming ignorance of that law, did not reimburse the Fiesta Bowl for the tickets.

There also is a chance lawmakers will be back before next January.

Nearly half of the $1.1 billion deficit legislators had to make up came by directing Gov. Jan Brewer to pursue a proposal to reduce the number of people enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicaid program. While some of the changes in eligibility are entirely within the state's control, other cost-saving measures like co-pay requirements need federal approval.

Potentially more problematic for the state is that it was voters who decided in 2000 that everyone below the federal poverty level is entitled to care through AHCCCS, a figure that translates out to about $18,300 a year.

Attorney Tim Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest vowed to sue, saying Brewer and legislators are powerless to alter that without taking the issue back to the ballot. The governor, however, is relying on language from the 2000 measure which says the expanded coverage is paid for by tobacco taxes, a lawsuit settlement and other "available sources.''

If the courts side with Hogan, that would leave a $500 million hole in the budget.

Other measures acted on in the last hours of the session include:

- requiring communities that use photo enforcement to inform those who get notices of violation in the mail that they have no legal force and that vehicle owners don't need to identify who was using their car or truck;

- reducing by half, to six months, the amount of time some convicted drunken drivers have to install ignition interlocks on any vehicle they drive to prevent them from starting unless there is a "clean'' breath sample;

- creating a host of new alternative license plates to benefit everything from the Tea Party to public television, multiple sclerosis awareness, litter prevention and cleanup, hunger relief and childhood cancer;

- giving employers some guidelines for dealing with workers who test positive for marijuana but who also have been certified by a doctor to use the drug for medical reasons;

- hiking unemployment taxes on businesses to help pay off the money Arizona had to borrow from the federal government after the jobless trust fund went broke;

- imposing new restrictions on when cities can impose "impact fees'' on developers and home builders;

- allowing hunting within city limits if there is no occupied structure within one-quarter mile;

- permitting the state to take donations to build its own border securing fence along private lands;

- giving candidates more right to put their campaign signs on public rights of way;

- making it easier for some suburban areas to incorporate as cities without having to get permission from nearby communities;

- preventing the Board of Regents from altering the board or controlling the operations of UA Healthcare for the next 18 months.

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