PHOENIX — Contending that cities are ignoring the laws they pass, lawmakers voted Wednesday to let the attorney general direct that their state aid be withheld until they comply.
“There’s nobody in this room who, if they disobey state law or the state constitution, would not be subject to punitive measures,’’ Senate President Andy Biggs said. And he said local governments expect businesses and residents in their jurisdictions to obey their laws.
But Biggs told members of the Senate Government Committee there is a “growing disrespect for state law.’’ And he argued that some cities simply ignore mandates and restrictions figuring there’s little the Legislature can do about it.
“When we pass laws, we expect them to be obeyed,’’ he said.
Biggs said if cities and counties think the Legislature has acted illegally they have a remedy: sue.
“But when a subdivision of the state deliberately chooses to disobey a law ... they’re still bound to obey that law,’’ he said. Biggs said SB 1487 provides a mechanism to ensure compliance.
Under the terms of the measure approved by the committee on a 4-3 vote, any individual or business who thinks a local regulation is contrary to state law can complain to any legislator. That lawmaker, in turn, would require the attorney general to investigate.
If that inquiry concludes state law is being violated, the local government is given 30 days to comply. At that point, failure to do that would require the treasurer to stop providing state aid and redistribute those dollars to every other community.
Biggs did not name names. But based on his examples, two communities already could be in trouble.
He cited various state laws that restrict the ability of local governments to enact their own gun regulations.
Tucson officials already are embroiled in a dispute over two of its ordinances, including one that requires people who lose a weapon to report it to police. In fact, former Attorney General Tom Horne already has issued a formal legal opinion saying those ordinances are illegal.
City Attorney Mike Rankin disagrees. And the council has refused to back off.
Biggs also mentioned a 2015 law saying cities cannot regulate plastic bags.
Yet Bisbee has refused to rescind its ordinance. There, a city attorney said he does not read the law to overrule Bisbee’s already existing law.
Biggs said his legislation will ensure that local governments cannot simply ignore state statutes.
“The one thing that I’ve found seems to get the attention of every subdivision of the state and every agency or department is a monetary type of notification,’’ he said.
Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, acknowledged there are disputes between cities and the state over their respective authorities and roles. He said these have generally been resolved in court, with judges deciding who is right.
Many of those cases have ended with the Supreme Court siding with cities, as was the case after the Legislature tried to tell Tucson it could not have partisan council elections. The Legislature also lost its bid to bar cities from setting higher minimum wages, and Gov. Ducey has threatened to penalize those cities nevertheless.
Strobeck said the Legislature does have the constitutional right to control issues of statewide concern. But he said that is not an unrestricted right.
And he pointed out that there were cities before there was a state, with 20 communities already in existence in 1912.
Strobeck said the big flaw, though, is that it turns due process on its head. He said a city that disagrees with the attorney general loses money immediately and then would have to go to court to get it back — after posting six months’ worth of state shared revenues as bond.
“They are presumed guilty,’’ he said.
Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who supported the measure, said he doesn’t think it will ever come to that. He said just the threat of loss of revenues will be enough to convince cities to fall into line.
The measure now needs approval of the full Senate.