Senate panel advances last minute bills on Arizona initiatives, schools

The Arizona Senate’s appropriations committee on Wednesday advanced a series of last minute measures on hot-button issues as the Legislature prepares to adjourn for the year.

The new or revived bills that now move to the full Senate include a big new tax credit for film production, a measure requiring a supermajority vote for initiatives if they increase taxes or other fees, and a bill that would force failing schools to implement improvement plans.

The school improvement plan measure is backed by Republican Rep. Michelle Udall of Mesa. It requires schools that have a "D" or "F" grade on their yearly state assessment to participate in a school improvement plan and partner with an approved school improvement partner. High-poverty schools with a "C" grade can participate.

The new bill comes with $58 million in funding, distributed at $150 per student to help fund the improvement plans.

Udall said that students and parents deserve state action to ensure their schools are getting better at providing a good education.

"School improvement takes serious work and its takes serious commitment," Udall told the committee. "This bill is about putting the resources and the effort there to make that happen."

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The measure passed the committee unanimously and now moves to the full Senate.

The committee also passed a bill that would require initiatives that need funding to get 60% of the vote to pass. The state constitution says only a majority vote is required, so the measure will go to the ballot in November if it passes both the House and Senate. It passed with only Republican support.

Republicans have long complained that citizen initiatives require only a majority vote, saying the Voter Protection Act makes it virtually impossible for the Legislature to change them. They have significantly tightened the rules in recent years to make it harder to get initiatives on the ballot and easier to kick them off.

But last year, they sent two measures related to initiatives to the 2022 ballot.

One would change the constitution and give the Legislature more power to alter citizen initiatives approved by voters if any portion is found to be unconstitutional. It also would water down the Voter Protection Act, which sets a high bar for lawmakers to change voter-approved initiatives and prohibits changes that undermine voters’ intent.

The second limits initiatives to a single subject, which would have affected a minimum wage initiative passed by voters in 2016. That measure also required employers to provide minimum amounts of paid leave, a provision challenged by business groups who lost in court.

The film tax credit will give production companies tax credits for shooting movies in Arizona. Backed by Sen. David Gowan of Sierra Vista, it requires the use of production facilities in Arizona. Plans are being made for new facilities in Buckeye and Scottsdale.

The tax credit starts at $75 million in 2023, goes to $100 million the following year and tops out at $125 million in 2025 and subsequent years. One film can only receive $25 million.