Rep. David Cook

Rep. David Cook chastizes some of his House colleagues on Thursday for wasting time on proposals to amend a fire fighting bill that don't have the necessary votes. (Capitol Media Services photo from video)

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a $100 million fire fighting and relief plan, but not before refusing a Democratic bid to add another $5 million specifically earmarked for small business.

And the Republican majority refused to put in any limits on the number of days in a row that inmates work directly fighting fires.

Republicans on Wednesday pushed back on climate change comments, and that continued Thursday. House Speaker Rusty Bowers responded by saying “I know that we would love to go beyond the scope of the bill, talking about climate change. Great climates do change,” pointing out a National Geographic story on tree ring studies that showed the current drought is not the worse in state history.

The same issues were discussed in the Senate, and one Republican said he was willing to listen. Sen. T.J. Shope of Coolidge said other factors are making fires worse, include limits on grazing that can lower flammable materials.

“No one silver bullet is going to solve what we face,” Shope said. ”I look forward to ideas from all facets of the communities."

The approval was not unanimous.

Democratic Reps. Athena Salman of Tempe and Melody Hernandez refused to go along in the House. Neither explained their vote.

But Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, took colleagues to task for calling a special session to address this issue.

She pointed out there was no real reason for the special session, given that lawmakers already are at the Capitol wrestling with a budget and tax-cut plan. Ducey called one anyway, with press aide C.J. Karamargin saying it would ensure a laser-like focus on the issue.

Ugenti, however, said the time a special session was needed was last year as the state and its residents were trying to deal with the pandemic.

"People needed us to step us and see that we were willing to work out, in real time, all of the impacts of COVID-19 and what we were facing,'' she said.

"Every single day, we had new death tolls,'' Ugenti-Rita said. "And it was horrible to see and we did nothing.''

The bottom line, she said, is the whole purpose of this special session, in the middle of a regular session, is to make it look like something is really being done.

"To me, this is more about optics,'' Ugenti-Rita said. "And I can't support that, knowing what the public went through.''

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, had a similar response, albeit for a different reason. He said lawmakers, while rushing to put money forward to deal with the current fires, continue to refuse to address the causes, including climate change.

"I wish this special session was more than just smoke and mirrors,'' Mendez said.

"These aren't even short-term solutions,'' he continued. "We're literally moving money around so some people don't have to wait to be reimbursed by the federal government.''

And Mendez questioned whether lawmakers would even be at the Capitol if Republicans already had gotten through their pet proposal for a flat tax rate, or that House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, had not lost a cabin due to the Telegraph Fire.

"This has got to be the model of white privilege response to the climate crisis, and I'm not surprised,'' he said. That drew a slap from Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott.

"We are not going down the path of white privilege,'' she told him.

Still, most other legislators supported the package.

"There are people that need this money today,'' said Rep. David Cook, R-Globe.

It includes $75 million for immediate fire response, preparing for flooding that is likely to follow during the monsoon rains, and providing some ready cash to landowners to make repairs to infrastructure like water and sewer lines.

They did agree to cap how much private landowners can get of that fund to $10 million, with a requirement that these dollars be used only as a last resort, after people have tapped things like federal grants and private insurance. Sen. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma, said that will ensure all the dollars are not eaten up with these issues.

But the House rejected a proposal by Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, to add another $5 million to the package specifically to help small businesses.

"What I'm asking for is a lifeline,'' he told colleagues, for firms that were already suffering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, pointed out that many business owners are not landowners, making them ineligible for the other dollars already in the bill.

Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Phoenix, had no better luck with his proposal to provide a bit of a benefit to volunteer inmate crews that are fighting the fire.

He pointed out that, given the way the governor called the special session, there was no way to increase the $1.50 an hour that prisoners on the front lines are paid. Ditto, he said, of any opportunity to provide them additional credits that could reduce their sentences.

So Rodriguez proposed a requirement that inmate crews would have to get a break after working seven consecutive days on the fire line. But Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, the sponsor of the House version of the package, told Republicans who control the House to reject it, which they did.

What remains is close to $25 million for separate efforts to clear brush and other burnable materials away from urban areas and homes, with most of that money going to pay to hire people to supervise inmates who would earn $1 an hour for those efforts.

The votes were not without technical glitches.

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, who is on Air National Guard duty, sought to vote by text.

House rules do allow people to vote through video programs. But Bowers said that Grantham apparently lacked enough bandwidth to actually remain online.

After an objection, however, the speaker concluded that it is improper to let someone cast a vote without at least hearing the floor debate.

Across the courtyard, Otondo was telling colleagues about reading how temperatures in Arizona could reach 127 degrees this summer when there was a comment from Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, who has been allowed to vote remotely while he is on vacation in Michigan. Apparently unaware his microphone was active, he called her "a f---ing idiot.''

Livingston did not return a text message seeking comment.

Karamargin said Ducey will sign the legislation, likely on Friday.


The Associated Press contributed to this story.