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Arizona lawmakers struggle to stay on priorities

Thursday - 1/31/2013, 5:24pm  ET

Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) - One Republican proposal would ban state enforcement of federal gun laws.

Another would require that hospitals check the citizenship of anyone treated in an emergency room.

Still another would call for students to pledge loyalty oaths to the Constitution before high school graduation.

It's early on in the Arizona legislative session, but so far the proposals described by one top Republican as "esoteric" and criticized by Democrats as unconstitutional have dominated the headlines _ despite promises from GOP leaders to focus on top-tier issues such as balancing the state budget and improving education.

It comes as Republicans nationally try to rebrand the party, highlighted by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal calling on his GOP colleagues to "stop being the stupid party" and focus on issues that matter to more Americans.

In Arizona, bills like those being pushed early this session often make headlines but often don't get far in the legislative process.

Together with proposals that would block a plan championed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, the measures from some Republicans have prompted criticism that they aren't focused on important issues. Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, and Democrats say their rivals are more interested in running headfirst into confrontations with the federal government and pushing their conservative agenda.

It remains to be seen how much time lawmakers will devote toward such plans.

"You're always going to have members that introduce legislation that is very partisan, very divisive, very polarizing," said Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo. "The question is: Will they, the president and the speaker, let these bills move through the process?"

Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin are tasked with determining whether proposals advance to a full legislative debate. Both said before the session they didn't expect to spend much time on hot-topic bills like immigration that had dominated the Legislature in recent years.

Biggs said Monday he would assign each bill introduced in his chamber to a committee, where the measures could die or change significantly before reaching his desk, at which point he could decide either to spike a plan or bring it to the full Senate for consideration.

He said he didn't think any of the bills would become distractions, saying that he expects such measures from a citizen legislature that represents views of constituents in their districts.

"I wouldn't call them fringe bills. I would call them esoteric bills," he said with a slight smile. "I would call them bills born of passion."

During the first weeks of any legislative session hundreds of bills are introduced, many of which go nowhere. Often, Democratic bills in the GOP-controlled Legislature meet such a fate. Republican-sponsored bills, however, have a better chance of advancing _ even when critics say they're unconstitutional.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, a freshman tea party Republican from Flagstaff, was one of five House members who signed on to the bill that would make it a felony for a state official to enforce any new federal firearms law or regulations that tried to enforce an assault weapons ban or limit the size of ammunition magazines. It also would make it a felony for a federal official to enforce such a law.

Should the bill become law, it would surely set up a fight with Washington officials, who could argue that under the U.S. Constitution federal law trumps state law.

Thorpe and fellow opponents of gun control legislation, such as Rep. Carl Seel and Sen. Don Shooter, don't see it that way. They say they're trying to protect Second Amendment rights.

"I think it would hold up in court," Seel said. "What the bill does is clearly say that if some federal regulator comes into this state and tries to enforce, in essence, a law that is unconstitutional and infringes on a citizen's right to bear arms, it's patently unconstitutional."

"When the federal government oversteps its boundaries," Thorpe said. "I truly believe that things like nullification, for example, can be used at the state level to nullify laws that we feel are unconstitutional."

A companion bill passed a Senate committee Wednesday after a sharp exchange between Shooter, the bill's co-sponsor, and a Democratic lawmaker who called the proposal a waste of time and questioned how it could be enforced.

Shooter defended the plan by saying, "The country is called the `United States.' It's not called the `federal government.' The states are sovereign."

Democratic Sen. Anna Tovar, the minority whip, laughed when she thought about the flurry of conservative bills, and singled out the gun proposal as a distraction.

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