Legislative Roundup: Tuition laws, Rio Nuevo, homeless vets and Safe-To-Tell

Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey started this week by weighing in on the national gun debate with a press conference that laid out his goals for looking at background checks. In a somewhat contradictory set of statements, Ducey claimed that the law shouldn’t prevent a grandpa from passing down a shotgun to a grandson, but should require private transfers to go through a federal firearms licensee. How those two positions are reconciled remains to be seen.

Otherwise, the Legislature inched closer to closing with a week devoted to moving bills from committees to the floor. Here are some of them:

Tuition Hikes to Have Higher-Up Oversight

The House Education Committee advanced a bill Monday that would add an additional layer of oversight on tuition and fees levied on college students in Arizona. Sen. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford)’s bill, SB 1422, received a “Do Pass” recommendation with eight representatives in favor, one absent and one not voting.

The bill would divide up money earned from tuition and fees into sub accounts for each state university, depending on whether those charges were part of the school’s operating budget. Additionally, the Arizona Board of Regents would be required to vote on all price hikes for tuition and academic fees. Currently, there are exemptions for rate increases and fees that apply only to the university that apply them, so ABOR isn’t involved.

“This just takes it one step further,” Rep. Paul Boyer (R-Glendale) said.

This bill would cover increases for newer programs such as online classes as well. The votes and ABOR actions regarding tuition and fee increases would also be made public.

“With the huge shift from the classroom to online, it has cost my family a lot of money and I’d rather that be in public,” Rep. Russel Bowers (R-Mesa) said.

School Secret Police

Both the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would establish an anonymous reporting system for students in school. HB 2489, introduced by Rep. Paul Boyer (R-Glendale) creates a program called “Safe-To-Tell” and is modeled after a similar program in Colorado.

If the Legislature has its way, AZ students will have a path to anonymously report dangerous behavior. (Photo by: https://safe2tell.org/)

Safe-To-Tell is designed to be an outlet for students to anonymously report dangerous activity in their schools, alerting authorities to troubled teens and threatening behavior before it can develop into violence. The Colorado system was developed after the Columbine school shootings and has led to over 9,000 reports from students. Fourteen-year-old Riley Wilson spoke to the committee in favor of the bill, emphasizing the importance of anonymity in reporting.

“There is a saying at school: Snitches get put in ditches,” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, the regular way of reaching out to school officials leads to being called out of class and leaving no question of who “snitched” on the dangerous activity. The Safe-To-Tell reports instead are going to go straight to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office — Boyer claims Attorney General Mark Brnovich supports the program and is willing to host it.

The program will be funded with a $400,000 earmark from the state’s general fund. Boyer hopes that the initial appropriation will be bolstered by federal funding and private donations. If the legislation makes it through the Senate floor and the governor’s desk, then it will begin in earnest — regardless of whether or not it has enough money.

“The catch 22 is we need to establish the program before we can get the program up and running,” Boyer said.

Rio Nuevo

The Senate Commerce and Public Safety Committee voted 5-3 in favor of a “Do Pass” recommendation for the continuation of the controversial Rio Nuevo Project in downtown Tucson. HB 2456, first introduced by Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley), would provide funding to keep the doors open through 2035.

Funding for this would come through tax increment financing (TIF) which is the expectation that using state tax collection to invest locally will create tax dividends for the future.

“The TIF should be seed money for private investment,” Rio Nuevo Director Fletcher McCusker said.

Downtown Tucson has been getting a facelift through this private investment, with renovations and growth in an area that has been in need of it for quite some time. Enter Rio Nuevo. The project first got its start in 1999, and the ongoing saga has its fair share of mismanaged budgets and waste — as well as some resounding successes in recent times.

The state government has oversight over the project, and has required the administration of Rio Nuevo to provide detailed expenditure reports on its website and undergo audits every three years. On top of that, the board of directors is appointed by the Senate president, governor, and speaker of the house.

“If we truly serve at your pleasure, and you don’t like the direction we are going, fire me,” McCusker said. “Fire all of us.”

Aside from ensuring continuation, the bill lays out procedures for what will happen to properties that are owned by Rio Nuevo when the project ceases operation. The committee’s recommendation means that the bill goes to the Senate Rules Committee next, where a similar recommendation will put it on the Senate floor.

Homeless Vets

Homeless military veterans may soon have an easier time improving their situations, thanks to a unanimous vote by the Senate Transportation and Technology Committee on Tuesday. Rep. Reginald Bolding’s (D-Tempe) bill HB 2575 would exempt vets who were homeless or living in shelters from having to pay fees for copies of identification cards and documents.

“Not having identification can present a barrier,” Bolding said.

According to the Homeless ID Project, about 7% of their clients are veterans.
Photo by Callie Kittredge/Arizona Sonoran News Service

With virtually all government services and job applications requiring ID, lacking one is just another hurdle to overcome on the road to ending homelessness. The fee for a new ID card in Arizona is $12 — which may seem small, but can have an out-sized effect on those who are penniless.

According to Bolding, the cost to the state in lost revenue for these homeless veterans comes out to $2,900. With veterans a small percentage of the homeless (which are a small percentage of Arizonans) it would be one of the smaller revenue cuts faced in the Senate this year.

The Homeless ID Project is an organization dedicated to helping the homeless on the path to recovery through the first step of obtaining proper ID. The project’s executive director, Rick Mitchell, said over 500 clients of his organization’s clients last year were veterans.

“The mission is to allow a person to end their homelessness,” Mitchell said. “A person without ID is a person without a voice.”

For Bolding’s bill, the next step is the Senate Rules Committee — another “Do Pass” recommendation there will mean a vote on the Senate floor before going to the governor to be signed into law.

“Our veterans deserve this,” Mitchell said.

 

 

Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu.

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