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This morning, we waved a final, abrupt farewell to the 2nd Regular Session of the 54th Legislature.
We’re used to comparing the legislative session to a roller coaster, but this year’s 135 days were filled with more twists and turns than most. A record high number of bills were dropped, thanks to the pressure of the 2020 election. A record low number of bills were passed, thanks to the outbreak of a global pandemic. And the final motion to adjourn came as a surprise, with three Republicans crossing the aisle to join the Democrats in voting to close shop before dealing with several dozen outstanding pieces of legislation. Suffice it to say, this session taught us to be surprised by nothing.
It can be hard to quantify the successes of a legislative session. While several news outlets have already classified the session as a “bust,” we at Farm Bureau tend to disagree. Politics is a game where all forward motion counts, and often, success doesn’t necessarily mean a bill with the governor’s signature on the bottom line. Any time a Farm Bureau member shares a positive message about agriculture with influential decision makers, that’s a success. Any time a good idea is given the green light by a committee, that’s a success. And, any time a bad idea is stalled or quashed, that is a success.
Among our top priorities for the legislative session was stopping an HSUS-supported bill that would have required all eggs produced and sold in Arizona to come from cage-free hens. Despite garnering bipartisan support in the House, this bill stalled in the Senate, ultimately never receiving so much as a committee hearing in that chamber. The timing of this bill’s demise was critical as well. The House saved it for the last week of committee hearings, and the Senate waited on it for quite some time even before COVID-19 shut down proceedings. By the time it was ultimately disposed of, HSUS was too late to gather the necessary signatures for the ballot initiative they threatened if the bill didn’t pass legislatively. As of today, no ballot initiative has been filed, and it’s highly unlikely that HSUS would be able to file and gather more than 237,000 signatures by July 2. That means that, for the time being, our eggs (and egg prices) are safe from HSUS’s intervention.
One of the most unfortunate consequences of this session’s abrupt end was the death of several water bills. A trio of proposals were aimed at encouraging conservation by discouraging outdated aspects of Arizona’s water law: a bill codifying the “futile call” doctrine into Arizona law, a bill preventing forfeiture of surface water conserved as an overall management plan, and a bill allowing the substitution of water on inefficient acreage for use on more efficient acreage in the same farm unit. A fourth bill on water would have established a priority date for each well adjudicated to exist in a subflow zone, protecting the right to use water from that well as of the date the well was drilled. This would have cleared up significant roadblocks in the ongoing stream adjudications, as well as increased certainty for well owners whose livelihoods are at risk because of those adjudications. But the timing of the COVID shutdown made it difficult to tie up the loose ends needed to get enough votes on board with the bills, and ultimately, none of them were passed out of the Senate.
While the legislation didn’t get past the finish line, it did create significant momentum in the conversations. Farm Bureau members spent their precious time at the Capitol testifying on contentious issues, especially the issues of well date priority, showing each legislator on the committee the weight of these issues for rural Arizona. Farm Bureau was able to partner with a diverse group of stakeholders in discussing these issues, and while we didn’t agree on all things, we agreed on enough to partner with conservation and industry groups alike on the Futile Call bill and the Conservation Plan Non-Forfeiture bill. And even in disagreement, the conversations we had, and continue to have, are advancing ideas that will be beneficial to all – especially agriculture.
The solitary water bill that did reach the Governor’s desk was a technical correction to 2019’s Temporary Irrigation Efficiency Projects fund, which was created to facilitate state support for DCP-induced water infrastructure projects in Pinal County. The bill corrected the wording of the fund to make sure that no Pinal County irrigation districts were accidentally excluded from funding.
But while good bills were stalled, there were quite a few bad bills that never saw the light of day. Proposals to meter wells in rural Arizona and to decrease the gallons per minute capacity that qualifies as an exempt well were never given so much as a committee assignment, much less a hearing. A bill that would have made the implementation of an Irrigation Non Expansion Area, or INA, vastly easier was held in committee. This prevented the Department of Water Resources from being able to make predictions about future water use to make these designations, rather than being limited to the factual calculations of past water uses when determining what level of additional regulation is necessary. Similarly, a bill that would have established “Rural Management Areas,” water regulatory schemes almost entirely at the will of Boards of Supervisors, was given a hearing but never brought to a vote.
Two Steps Back, Many Steps Forward
Despite its unexpected – and at times outrageous – end, we have quite a few reasons to look back on the session confident that, politically, agriculture is better off than it was when we began. And perhaps more important, we have momentum to capitalize on for next year. This year’s forward progress is one big step closer to seeing meaningful, ag-friendly legislation in sessions to come.