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Senate committee grills Hobbs' ADOT nominee but recommends confirmation

A Senate panel agreed Monday to recommend confirmation of Katie Hobbs’ pick to head the Department of Transportation — but not before the chairman grilled her on her personal beliefs and at one point suggested she was not being truthful.

The unanimous vote of the Committee on Director Nominations came after Sen. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) sought to ferret out how Jennifer Toth feels about certain transportation policies. And he singled out ideas some groups have promoted about road safety ranging from racism to toxic masculinity, issues surrounding where and how roads are built in communities and how driving habits affect traffic accidents.

“My job is to discharge the duties and the policies as set forth by the governor and the Legislature,” she said. “And if the Legislature wants to adopt those policies, then I’ll be willing to implement them,” said Toth, who until now had been the director of the Maricopa County Department of Transportation and the county engineer.

Hoffman, who chairs the panel, wasn’t satisfied.

“Do you believe that those statements have merit, not is that the official policy of ADOT?” he asked.

“My feelings aren’t relevant in terms of being able to implement those policies,” Toth responded.

Hoffman persisted.

“This committee is here to evaluate you,” he said. “And I feel that it’s relevant which is why I’m asking the question.”

Hoffman followed up with questions about the concepts of transportation equity and mobility justice. And he did not like it when Toth said she is unsure exactly what those are supposed to mean.

“I would question that you had not heard of transportation equity or mobility justice given that you’ve had an extensive career in the industry,” Hoffman said. And he noted that the Maricopa Association of Governments, which handles transit planning — and works closely with state and county transportation agencies — has mentioned the ideas as part of federal laws that require projects seeking federal funds to identify the needs of those with disabilities, older adults and people with low income.

“I find it hard to believe that you don’t know what that is,” Hoffman said.

“I’ll take you at your word,” he continued. “But I do think the public deserves honest and forthright responses.”

All that drew a verbal slap from Sen. Eva Burch (D-Mesa), who suggested Toth was being asked to answer questions about “contentious partisan semantics.”

The confirmation process itself has become more contentious this year as the Republican-controlled Senate scrapped the process that had been used for decades where gubernatorial nominees for various positions were screened by standing committees with areas of expertise.

That would have meant Toth’s nomination would have gone to the Senate Transportation and Technology Committee, one that Sen. Lela Alston (D-Phoenix) said might have had expertise in the kinds of transit ideologies on which Hoffman was grilling Hobbs’ pick for the job.

Instead, a special panel, with a 3-2 Republican edge, gets to screen all nominees.

While the full Senate still gets the final decision, the recommendation is given great weight. And it was its 3-2 recommendation against confirmation of Theresa Cullen as the state’s new health director that doomed that nomination.

Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said the change was designed to ensure that the qualifications for all nominees are thoroughly explored.

But what also changed is that the Republican-controlled Legislature is having to deal with a Democratic governor — and her nominees — for the first time in 15 years. And the GOP majority is seeking to use the nomination process as a method of potentially thwarting Hobbs from making policy changes through agency rules that Republicans may not like.

Hoffman conceded the point.

“What we know is personnel is policy,” he said.

“The clearest pictures of what Katie Hobbs’ policies will be is who she nominates to lead executive agencies,” Hoffman continued. “We’re here to thoroughly and objectively evaluate nominees for their commitment to execute Arizona laws rather than creating new public policies that are in conflict with constitutional separation of powers.”

Much of the focus of the questioning appeared to go to what would be ADOT’s strategies for reducing accidents.

Hoffman focused his attention on Vision Zero Network which had its own ideas like redesigning streets and slowing speeds. He claimed the policies, which have been implemented in other cities, actually have increased accidents.

Toth said she can’t speak to what has happened elsewhere. But she said that fatalities went up nationwide in 2021 as COVID emptied roads and those still on the highways were driving faster.

“It’s a nationwide issue,” Toth said.

She did say that ADOT has experimented with variable speed limits.

“And we’re finding that it’s not working very well,” she said. “So that’s something we need to take a look at to see if that is a viable strategy.”

But Toth declined to commit to any single method of reducing accidents and road deaths, saying the state needs to look at all options.

Separately Monday, Hoffman said has put off a hearing on Hobbs’ nomination of Karen Peters, a deputy Phoenix city manager, to head the Department of Environmental Quality.

“There was some concerning information that we’ve become aware of,” he said Monday without providing specifics. “And some additional investigation and vetting is necessary.”

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.