PHOENIX — One Republican proposal would ban state enforcement of federal gun laws.
Another would require that hospitals check the citizenship of anyone treated in an emergency room.
Still another would call for students to pledge loyalty oaths to the Constitution before high school graduation.
It’s early on in the Arizona legislative session, but so far the proposals described by one top Republican as “esoteric” and criticized by Democrats as unconstitutional have dominated the headlines — despite promises from GOP leaders to focus on top-tier issues such as balancing the state budget and improving education.
It comes as Republicans nationally try to rebrand the party, highlighted by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal calling on his GOP colleagues to “stop being the stupid party” and focus on issues that matter to more Americans.
In Arizona, bills like those being pushed early this session often make headlines but often don’t get far in the legislative process.
Together with proposals that would block a plan championed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the measures from some Republicans have prompted criticism that they aren’t focused on important issues. Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, and Democrats say their rivals are more interested in running headfirst into confrontations with the federal government and pushing their conservative agenda.
It remains to be seen how much time lawmakers will devote toward such plans.
“You’re always going to have members that introduce legislation that is very partisan, very divisive, very polarizing,” said Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo. “The question is: Will they, the president and the speaker, let these bills move through the process?”
Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin are tasked with determining whether proposals advance to a full legislative debate. Both said before the session they didn’t expect to spend much time on hot-topic bills like immigration that had dominated the Legislature in recent years.
Biggs said Monday he would assign each bill introduced in his chamber to a committee, where the measures could die or change significantly before reaching his desk, at which point he could decide either to spike a plan or bring it to the full Senate for consideration.
He said he didn’t think any of the bills would become distractions, saying that he expects such measures from a citizen legislature that represents views of constituents in their districts.
“I wouldn’t call them fringe bills. I would call them esoteric bills,” he said with a slight smile. “I would call them bills born of passion.”
During the first weeks of any legislative session hundreds of bills are introduced, many of which go nowhere. Often, Democratic bills in the GOP-controlled Legislature meet such a fate. Republican-sponsored bills, however, have a better chance of advancing — even when critics say they’re unconstitutional.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, a freshman tea party Republican from Flagstaff, was one of five House members who signed on to the bill that would make it a felony for a state official to enforce any new federal firearms law or regulations that tried to enforce an assault weapons ban or limit the size of ammunition magazines. It also would make it a felony for a federal official to enforce such a law.
Should the bill become law, it would surely set up a fight with Washington officials, who could argue that under the U.S. Constitution federal law trumps state law.
Thorpe and fellow opponents of gun control legislation, such as Rep. Carl Seel and Sen. Don Shooter, don’t see it that way. They say they’re trying to protect Second Amendment rights.
“I think it would hold up in court,” Seel said. “What the bill does is clearly say that if some federal regulator comes into this state and tries to enforce, in essence, a law that is unconstitutional and infringes on a citizen’s right to bear arms, it’s patently unconstitutional.”
“When the federal government oversteps its boundaries,” Thorpe said. “I truly believe that things like nullification, for example, can be used at the state level to nullify laws that we feel are unconstitutional.”
A companion bill passed a Senate committee Wednesday after a sharp exchange between Shooter, the bill’s co-sponsor, and a Democratic lawmaker who called the proposal a waste of time and questioned how it could be enforced.
Shooter defended the plan by saying, “The country is called the ‘United States.’ It’s not called the ‘federal government.’ The states are sovereign.”
Democratic Sen. Anna Tovar, the minority whip, laughed when she thought about the flurry of conservative bills, and singled out the gun proposal as a distraction.
“It would be non-enforceable, I would assume, because federal laws would supersede,” she said. “This bill adds fuel to the fire. It scares people. It makes people nervous. And it doesn’t tackle the issue. Not to mention it’s a waste of taxpayer money,”
House Speaker Andy Tobin wouldn’t say whether he’d back the bill.
“I don’t know if it’s unconstitutional,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day it’s probably worth having a conversation over a president that issues executive orders” affecting gun ownership.
Tobin’s comment referenced a belief among gun rights opponents that President Barack Obama would use his authority to try to ban some weapons.
A series of executive orders Obama issued Jan. 16 did not seek to ban guns or ammunition. The president mainly addressed health care rules, school safety, gun tracing and background checks. Obama’s proposals that would outlaw new assault rifle sales and limit the size of ammunition magazines require congressional action.
Thorpe also filed a bill that would require high school seniors to swear a constitutional oath before they could graduate, setting off a flurry of criticism that led him to back off and say he would make the oath voluntary.
“The whole purpose of that bill is not to get some standard of loyalty from an individual,” Thorpe said. “It was really to hopefully encourage our high school students to take an active interest in what our Constitution is.”
He addressed those who might see a contradiction in his actions, on one hand setting up a federal fight and on the other seeking to require that students swear allegiance to the federal government. Thorpe says those who perceive inconsistency misunderstand his thinking. He says he is a constitutionalist, who seeks to uphold its principles.
Thorpe, Seel and Rep. Steve Smith are also sponsoring the bill requiring hospitals to check the citizenship status of people seeking treatment. Smith also has sponsored a proposal that would require school districts to collect information on students’ immigration status.
Smith said the hospital bill is intended only to count the number of illegal aliens seeking care.
“It doesn’t deport. It doesn’t deny care. It doesn’t do anything other than put a number on the problem,” Smith said.
Versions of both bills have been rejected the last two years.
Gallardo said he understands policy differences, but laws like Smith’s just make him shake his head.
“If those bills start moving through the process, the Legislature is no longer focusing on school safety, on education, on Medicaid expansion, on the budget,” he said. “We’re now focused on these polarizing bills that do nothing but cause chaos.”