Cite spirit of cooperation;<BR>District 1 lawmakers call session a success

PHOENIX – District One's state legislators say the Legislature met its goal this year to be more cooperative.

"I think it was a kinder, gentler legislative session this year," said Rep. Linda Binder, R-Lake Havasu City. "The East Valley lost its stronghold, which made it a lot better for rural Arizona to have a voice."

Binder was referring to the voters' ouster last fall of powerful former House speaker Jeff Groscost and some other conservative Republicans.

Binder limited her comments on the session to two short phone messages. She has spent most of her time the past few weeks helping her husband cope with a serious illness.

Outside that personal tragedy, the legislative session that ended Thursday went well, Binder said. Others agreed.

"I don't believe I heard anybody say they were disappointed," said freshman Rep. Henry Camarot, D-Prescott. "I think there was a good attitude."

The Senate cooperation got a boost from the fact that it has a new 15-15 split between Democrats and Republicans.

"I think it turned out surprisingly positive," said Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, because "You had to find somebody in the opposing party who would support your ideas." That even split made it different from the previous two years he has served in the Legislature.

Being the chair of the Senate Education Committee during one of its most important sessions in modern history also was a new experience for Bennett.

He became a driving force in how to implement Proposition 301, an education reform bill with a sales tax increase that voters approved last November.

The implementation bill was one of the few to get mired in party politics, Bennett said. Now the Legislature plans a special session in June to vote on the bill.

The two parties disagree on major policy issues dealing with accountability and local control. For example, Democrats thought Bennett gave too much power to the state education chief in deciding how to define a failing school.

The devil's in the details, Bennett said. As another example, what is the definition of a "teacher," in relation to who should get raises? Should everyone from counselors to nurses be eligible for the raises, too? He hopes to work with key Democratic senators during the next month to sort out a compromise.

"I'm sticking to the commitment I believe we made to voters:

accountability," Bennett said. The commitment also includes more money to classrooms, compensation for good teachers, and a focus on academic progress, he said.

Bennett and Camarot have met with local educators to get their opinions on the bill, Camarot said.

It's important to implement the proposition correctly the first time, Bennett said, because it's hard to change such laws later.

The Education Committee also dealt with about 90 other bills, three times what some committees heard, Bennett said.

"I found it more challenging, but also more rewarding, especially a committee that's so near and dear to my heart," he said.

Bennett carried several education bills as chairman, including one that will allow schools to hire temporary teachers if a teacher is sick or they can't find a math teacher, for example.

He also kept some bills from committee hearings, such as one that would have allowed local governments to charge impact fees on new homes for schools. That would have revived the constitutional issue of district funding imbalances based on wealth, he said.

Usually citing concerns about future revenues, Gov. Jane Hull vetoed all or part of at least 37 bills that the Legislature sent to her.

Those vetoes included the $2.5 million the Legislature appropriated to the Water Protection Fund for water improvement projects and studies next year. That prompted criticism from local officials, including Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis. Hull didn't veto the $2.5 million for the second year of the budget.

Hull also vetoed some bills that didn't involve money, including an expansion of county government powers, Binder's bill meant to make the state land appraisal process more fair, and the Agricultural Heritage Act that Yavapai County's District 1 and 2 legislators and farmers promoted.

In her letter explaining the heritage act veto, Hull complained that the bill would create a fund without any appropriation, and those two things should go hand in hand.

Camarot supported an unsuccessful legislative attempt to override Hull's veto of $25 million worth of mental health funding. At the least, Camarot argued, the governor could have put the money on a "trigger" list of programs to support if more money becomes available.

Bennett, however, didn't support the override, saying it's better to err on the side of conservative revenue estimates. He noted that the state still increased mental health care spending by $458 million over the next two years.

Camarot and Bennett also stood on opposite sides of the fence when voting on a bill that repealed so-called archaic sex laws. Camarot said it sends the wrong message to have a law that no one has any intention of enforcing.

"If it was (enforced), all of us would end up in jail," said Binder, who also supported the bill, in a March interview.

Bennett agreed that police shouldn't enforce the laws, and he himself violates at least one that says people shouldn't have any form of sex that isn't meant to produce a child. However, he doesn't like the fact that eliminating the laws makes unmarried couples eligible for the same federal tax benefit as married couples.

Bennett said he got a lot of calls from his constituents on that bill, and his vote did not mean he thinks the government should be telling people what kind of sex to have with whom.

"Obviously, my background is very supportive of the traditional family, yet I have an awareness of and empathy for those who choose to live their lifestyle in a different way," Bennett said.

The Legislature produced 1,219 bills this session, Camarot said, and he tried to read them all.

He was pretty successful at that goal until the last few weeks of the session, when more and more strike-everything amendments appeared in place of original bill subjects.

Camarot has proposed legislative rule changes to stop strike-all amendments.

He also has proposed reviewing the multitude of sales-tax exemptions. Although he introduced a bill on the subject, his real goal was to get a study committee to look at the exemptions first, he said. He's happy that House Speaker Jim Weiers has agreed to appoint a study committee between sessions. That committee could produce a study for legislators to read before they actually vote on a bill, he said.

The bill to implement Proposition 204 is one of the most important from the session, Camarot said. It uses tobacco settlement money to raise the number of those eligible to receive state assistance for health care services.

The Legislature also created a prescription drug program for rural low-income seniors. Camarot would like to see that expanded next year to help more seniors.

Binder is on a statewide health care task force, and she said she supports more accessible and affordable health care.

Contact Joanna Dodder at jdodder@prescottaz.com