The ultra-conservative Arizona Freedom Caucus has cultivated a highly visual and vocal presence at the Capitol in its first legislative session since launching last summer.
But the caucus, which seemed to drive many of the policy priorities of the one-vote GOP majorities in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, ended the session with a loss that put on public display a divide between its members and their Republican colleagues who are cut from a less populist cloth.
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Members of the Arizona Freedom Caucus, modeled after the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, played a big part in setting the tone and the agenda this legislative session, helping to move the legislature as a whole further to the right.
Caucus members made up an outsized proportion of the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee, which, along with the Senate Elections Committee, invited elections conspiracy theorists to present before the legislators and entertained and even promoted bills based on some of those theories.
Some of the most controversial of those bills never made it to the House floor for a vote, and the ones that were approved by both chambers of the legislature were swiftly vetoed.
There were obvious differences of opinion between the caucus and Republican leadership throughout the year, but things came to a head on the final day of the lengthy session, when the Legislature returned after a six-week break to vote on a measure to give Maricopa County voters the choice to extend a half-cent transportation sales tax in next year’s election.
Proposition 400, originally passed by the voters in 1984 and renewed again in 2004, funds highway, street and public transportation projects in Maricopa County. The passage of Senate Bill 1102 on July 31 allows county voters to decide if they want to continue the tax which expires at the end of 2025, for another 20 years.
Republicans in the House and Senate passed a different version of the Prop. 400 bill in June, along party lines, but Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed it. Since then, Republican leadership worked with Hobbs to come to a compromise on a new version of the bill.
But members of the Freedom Caucus were outraged with the bill that ultimately passed through the legislature with bipartisan support and was then signed into law by Hobbs. And they were not shy about vocalizing their displeasure.
“Republicans should have never accepted Hobbs’ deal,” the Freedom Caucus declared in a post on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. “Republicans should have stood united, passed the responsible version of Prop 400 again and sent it back to Hobbs’ desk.”
Money for light rail, public transit fueled the rift
While Republican legislative leaders like Senate President Warren Petersen publicly praised the bill as “the most conservative transportation plan in the history of Arizona,” and urged legislators to approve the measure, members of the Freedom Caucus voted against it en masse.
They particularly took issue with the bill’s only posing one question to the voters, asking them if they support extending the tax, when the earlier version separated the questions about spending for freeways and highways and funding for public transportation, including light rail. Freedom Caucus members vehemently oppose light rail and generally dislike public transit spending, and argued that, if the questions were asked separately, the public would approve funding for roads, but not for public transit.
“Don’t believe the R establishment’s lies,” Tucson Republican Rep. Rachel Jones, a member of the Freedom Caucus, wrote on X. “They are in complete panic mode because, deep down, they know they just voted on a very bad bill. Notice who’s standing with these self-proclaimed conservatives: Liberal news outlets, Democrats, and Hobbs. Don’t let them gaslight you.”
Petersen declined to comment when the Arizona Mirror contacted him about this story, but he engaged in a lengthy debate on X with Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, about their disagreements on the bill, with both accusing the other of sharing misleading information about the bill’s contents.
“Results of Prop 400: Democrats Happy! Governor Hobbs Happy! Moderate Republican lawmakers happy! Mag Happy! Laurie Roberts happy! No conservative Republicans happy No conservative groups happy,” Parker wrote. “Now WHY did Warren (Petersen) think this was a good thing?”
Parker said that, despite promises from Republican leadership that the bill prohibited the Prop. 400 tax funds from being used to pay for light rail expansion, it would not actually stop light rail expansion, since cities could still use local transportation money to pay for light rail expansion.
Petersen answered that the legislature did bar any Prop. 400 expansion money from being spent to expand light rail service, but has no way to control how cities use tax money that is not tied to Prop. 400.
“We eliminated light rail expansion from the bill,” Petersen wrote on X. “All but only a few legislators support the bus system. That means buses had to be part of the package or there was no pathway to passage.”
Petersen added that, in his view, the final legislation was not that different from the previous version passed in June, which Parker supported.
“Hobbs certainly doesn’t think it’s the same bill,” Parker retorted. “Zero democrats voted for it last month, zero conservatives in the House voted for today’s version, while democrats were jumping for joy. Clearly you’re missing something & the versions are vastly different.”
Petersen answered that some conservatives did vote for the new version of the bill, while some conservatives and some populists voted against.
“Wow… did Rusty Bowers just jump into your fingers right then?” Parker shot back, referring to the former speaker of the state House who was viewed with disdain by far-right lawmakers. “Calling conservatives populists is the line he & everyone else we primaried used… this is a very troubling trajectory.”
Bowers, a Republican, was censured by his own party last year for working with Democrats on a range of issues, including school funding and LGBTQ rights.
In the censure, Republicans called Bowers “unfit to serve” and party leaders outside the legislature called for him to be voted out of office. Bowers’ censure last summer came shortly after he gave testimony in front of the Jan. 6 Committee, where he admitted that former President Donald Trump and his allies pressured Bowers to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Arizona.
Bowers was trounced by David Farnsworth in last year’s Republican primary for a state Senate seat.
A victory for Hobbs is a loss for the Freedom Caucus?
In addition to their complaints about the policy itself, Freedom Caucus members were also displeased that they weren’t included in the negotiation or amendment process, only receiving a copy of the new Prop. 400 bill about 48 before voting on it.
“Even the hardliners, the most conservative in the Freedom Caucus, all of us understand, look, we have a Democratic governor for the time being, and we’re not going to get everything that we want, there’s going to have to be some concessions and compromise. But we want to be included in the planning and the strategy,” Rep. Justin Heap said during a livestream on Wednesday. “We want to be able to negotiate with the governor as a legislature and as a caucus. The frustration for us is that really is not what happened.”
In Heap’s eyes, Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma gave too many concessions to the Democrats, basically handing Hobbs and her party a win.
“She’s already taken a victory lap on this as a signature achievement,” Heap said.
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Alexander Kolodin agreed with Heap’s take that it wasn’t necessary to pass the new Prop. 400 bill this session, since the existing tax doesn’t expire until the end of 2025.
He believes that the Republicans in the legislature should have stuck to their guns, keeping the questions about freeway funding and public transit funding separate, even if that meant another veto from Hobbs.
“We send up bifurcated bills and if she doesn’t want to sign them, then the tax expires,” Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, told the Mirror. “It’s not going to expire until 2025, so we could have done it this year, we could have done it next year. She would either decide to send it to the voters, so they can make an independent choice on roads and transit, or we’ll let this tax expire. I think either way is a win for conservative body that is dedicated to low taxes and fiscal responsibility.”
But, as the July 31 vote demonstrated, the majority of Republicans in the legislature do not agree with Kolodin. During debate on the measure, some noted that, if the Maricopa County tax expires, that will put rural areas in competition with the state’s largest county for limited state transportation funding to build and maintain their own roads.
Despite the heated debates that surrounded the vote on the Prop. 400 bill, both on the floor of the House and Senate and online, Kolodin said he did not want to pile on the legislature’s Republican leadership.
He added that the Freedom Caucus took home some wins this legislative session, before their late-in-the-game loss on Prop. 400.
For example, Kolodin himself played a major role in writing the bill that restored water access to the community of Rio Verde. He added that the legislature as a whole passed the first tax rebate to Arizona families in decades and adopted a budget that Kolodin believes is fiscally conservative, given the circumstances.
“I think the session, given the political landscape — one vote majorities with Democrats in the executive branch — was a homerun, personally,” Kolodin said. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to cast aspersions on leadership. We might have differences of opinion on a certain vote, or whatever, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the entire session as a whole was a very, very successful one for the conservative majority, at least from my perspective and for the Freedom Caucus, as well.”
With this year’s session now at a close, members of the Freedom Caucus are already thinking about recruiting candidates in the hopes of obtaining a majority in the legislature.
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