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Arizona Republicans want to rein in the executive branch's authority to declare emergencies

It's a simple proposal for Republican lawmakers: rein in the powers of the Arizona governor to declare emergencies and keep them open so the executive can oversee recovery operations without legislative oversight.

But a proposed constitutional amendment that is one vote away from being sent to the 2024 ballot for voter approval will have far-reaching impacts on how the state oversees disaster declarations and potentially impact millions of dollars in federal funding. That's because it would require monthly Legislative approval for any emergency declaration.

Only thing is, there are 41 currently open state disaster declarations.

Doug Ducey
Doug Ducey in 2021.

And each is dependent on having an emergency declaration in force, even if they are years old. Depending on how it is interpreted, the law could require regular — a monthly — legislative review of just a few of the current emergencies, including the border crisis declared by former Gov. Doug Ducey in 2021 that remains in effect.

The proposal is rooted in the state of emergency called by Ducey early in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country. The ongoing emergency -- it lasted nearly two years -- incensed many Republicans who believe he overstepped his powers by restraining business and school operations for too long.

Last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed and Ducey signed a measure sharply limiting public health emergencies, although it did not take effect until he left office.

Any health emergency declared by new Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is now limited to 120 days. After that, the Legislature would need to approve an extension every 30 days.

But under the new proposal from Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale) lawmakers would have to come back into session every 30 days for any governor’s emergency declaration to be continued.

Chaplik and other GOP proponents of HCR2039 argue that the Legislature has a duty to review emergency declarations, which are most commonly issued after floods and wildfires.

"This bill will put the power to deal with these emergencies on a long-term basis back in the hands that it always should have been in the first place, the primary branch of government, the Legislature,'' Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, said during the House vote early this month.

Democrats call the proposal a recipe for political skullduggery to be injected into declarations that are best handled by the executive branch. They worried at a state Senate hearing on the voter referral this past week that injecting partisan politics into the process that maintains declarations for decades-old items — like the statewide drought declaration that has been in force since 1999 — could hamstring the system.

"If this federal funding was dependent on us getting together every 30 days to argue over whether or not the drought is real and upends the whole practical approach to dealing with the drought, we're never going to actually get to the problem,'' Sen. Juan Mendez (D-Tempe) said. "We're just going to keep fighting about whether or not the problem exists.''

The new proposal, approved by the Senate government committee Wednesday on a party-line vote, covers all emergency declarations.

Of the 41 state declarations now in force, half are more than a decade old, according to the state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. Another 18 federal disasters remain open and would not be affected.

Whether the law covers all open state disasters or just those currently happening in the so-called "incident period,'' like the drought and border crisis, is open to some interpretation.

The measure now goes to the full Senate The House approved HCR 2039 along party lines earlier this month, so Senate approval is all that is needed to get it on the ballot. Hobbs has no say on referendums the Legislature sends to the ballot.

Sen. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) said it makes sense for the Legislature to have oversight of lingering emergencies.

He noted that the Free Enterprise Club of Arizona, a major proponent of the voter referral, pushed similar legislation last year. And he said it's not partisan as it would affect whatever governor was in office, regardless of party.

"It is our job as Legislature to have a say and have a voice on behalf of our constituency when it comes to these things, regardless of who that governor is,'' Hoffman said. "That's why I like this measure.''

But Sen. Priya Sundareshan (D-Tucson) said that emergency declarations last a long time because in many cases they are required to be in place to qualify for federal funding.

"Our understanding and the interpretation is that you do need that active state of emergency declaration in order to be able to access the federal disaster funding'' Sundareshan said. Allowing the Legislature to weigh in or rescind a state of emergency is something "that would have some pretty grave consequences.''

That’s actually true, according to information from DEMA, which handles state emergency declarations.

Federal funding for disasters is linked to a state emergency declaration. And more to the point, they must be maintained for funding to continue to flow, according to DEMA.

It also can — and often does — take years, sometimes even decades, for a disaster to be closed. That’s because while a flood or fire may happen over a short period of time, the actual damages can take months or years to assess, sign contracts for repairs, do the work and close the books. That is followed by an audit, which adds even more time.

The oldest active statewide emergency disaster declaration is from 1991 and provides federal cash for search and rescue operations. The 1999 statewide drought declaration is the next-oldest. Disaster declarations for flooding from 2006 and two from 2010 also remain open.

In the past 10 years, $273 million in federal funding has helped the state recover from floods, fires and other emergencies.

Sundareshan said the voter referral just goes too far and puts federal funding at risk for no good reason.  

"To require the Legislature to reauthorize these states of emergencies every 30 days or at all is excessive,'' she said. "It simply adds to the bureaucracy while taking away our ability as legislators to participate as citizen legislators by going back to our communities and back to our districts and back to our other jobs.''

Hoffman had a completely different take, saying it was the job of the Legislature to act as a check on the executive, even if that means coming back to work each month when the Legislature is not in session.

"The way that our founders here in Arizona formed the state, the way that our founders at the federal level … formed this country, they intended for the Legislature to be the most powerful branch of the government,'' Hoffman said.

"It was never designed to be a government ruled by executive fiat,'' he said. "But yet that's what we have.''

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.