WTF Pinal County Board of Supervisors?

In a 3/2 vote on this past Wednesday, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted to reject a $3.4 million federal grant for improving vaccine equity. Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh (District 1), led the charge to deny the funding, questioning whether Pinal County had a need for a “vaccine equity coordinator”, which the grant mandated be established. The grant also funded vaccination efforts like mobile vaccine clinics. County Public Health Services District employees were stunned by the move with the director, Dr. Tascha Spears, saying “I just simply would like to note that our public health team is deeply disappointed”.

According to The Arizona Republic, the grant would have come from federal COVID-19 relief funds provided to the state health department. County health services employees commented that the $3.4 million would have funded efforts (over three years) to educate underserved populations about the COVID-19 vaccine and help provide vaccines in underserved communities.

During the hearing this past Wednesday, Cavanaugh asked Spears whether or not her office sought the grant or did they see the grant available and look for a problem? He went on to say that “The questions I’m getting from my constituents are, you know, we have Walgreens, Walmart, (uh, no…don’t believe there is a Walmart in your district Kevin), everybody knows that there are free vaccines”. Dr. Spears responded that Pinal County has many rural areas where folks are farther away from bigger chains like Walmart. Of course, Cavanaugh was not however, swayed by this logic, nor did he obviously care about how the homeless or disabled might access these commercial providers.

Although appearing surprised by Cavanaugh’s move in the hearing, supervisors Jeff McClure and Jeff Serdy voted with him to reject the funding. The chairman of the Board, Steve Miller and vice chair Mike Goodman voted against the rejection.

“It made no sense to turn this down” was the response former Arizona state health director Will Humble (now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association), provided when asked about the Board’s action. As both Spears and Humble pointed out, the county qualified for the grant due to its social vulnerability index which included factors such as “the proportion of people with disabilities, unemployment rates and the number of single parent households”.

Cavanaugh though, was set on making this about disdain for the federal government saying, “The federal government, the best job they do, is wasting money”. He went on to say that, “this $3.4 million dollar grant would have provided one public health official here in Pinal County, a nurse. And the rest largely would have largely gone to some as yet unknown unnamed contractor”.

Well, let’s hope Kevin, that the the contractor is yet unknown and unnamed because I would expect government procurement rules would have been followed had the grant been accepted. Per A.R.S. 41-2533, that contracts must be decided via competitive sealed bidding (those under $100,000 in value have exceptions). Per A.R.S. 41-2561, Bid specifications are required to “promote overall economy for the purposes intended and encourage competition in satisfying this state’s needs and shall not be unduly restrictive”. Furthermore, under the competitive sealed bidding procedures, a state governmental unit must award a contract to the “lowest responsible and responsive bidder whose bid conforms in all material respects to the requirements and evaluation criteria” set forth in the invitation for bids. There are similar rules in federal procurement.

As a county supervisor, Cavanaugh should be very familiar with state procurement rules and therefor know it is disingenuous to make it sound like there would be no accountability for the grant funding if the Board had accepted it. There would of course be, unless Cavanaugh and his buddies didn’t properly fulfill their duties.

Speaking of fulfilling their duties, what were Supervisors Jeff McClure and Jeff Serdy thinking in voting with Cavanaugh to reject the $3.4 million? In an email afterwards, Serdy told AZFamily.com that he voted to reject the funding “in order to retain local control.” He went on to write “I’m not too concerned that our citizens don’t have access to the vaccine if they want it because it is now widely available for free”. McClure did not respond to the Arizona’s Family request for comment, nor did he respond to an email I sent him on the matter.

I should mention here, that I served on a school board with Jeff McClure for eight years and although there was much we didn’t agree on, I thought he was concerned about doing the right thing for our students and staff. His decision to reject this funding to improve Pinal County’s vaccination rate however, is definitely not doing the right thing for the people of Pinal County, which lags the state, at 56.3% and national at 61.5%, averages for vaccination with only 48.1% of those 12 and older fully vaccinated as of the Board’s vote.

And, according to former state health director Dr. Cara Christ, some of the federal vaccine dollars could go toward encouraging the continuance of routine school vaccinations that declined during the pandemic. “While we’re using that funding to ensure we are vaccinating in an equitable manner, we can use that funding to improve health equity in other arenas as well”, Christ told The Arizona Republic in July.

I don’t for a second believe Supervisors Cavanaugh, McClure and Serdy rejected the $3.4 million because it was the right thing to do for the people of Pinal County. Rather, I believe it was a purely political decision meant to appeal to their voting base. After all, when booster shots are authorized, or children under the age of 12 are approved to receive the vaccine, where will the money come from to help implement those additional protections?

Again, Pinal County Health Services District Director Dr. Tascha Spears said,

In Pinal County there are some communities who are underserved, who don’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines. So this is specifically to facilitate that, so that communities everywhere truly do have a choice about whether they would like to receive the vaccine or not.

That’s the thing see. If you don’t know what your choices are, or you can’t access the choice you’ve made, you have no choice at all.

Groundhog Day

We held another petition signing event at our house over the past couple of days and it occurred to me what long shots citizen driven ballot initiatives are. And, that they are often, reactive, not proactive. It may feel as though we are in the driver’s seat when pursuing ballot measures, but just as in Vegas, the “house” always wins, it seems that no matter what statutory changes we can force, the Legislature will always figure a way to fight back.

The real answer of course, is that we MUST take back the Legislature, or at the very least, one of the chambers. We do that by building a bench of qualified candidates through training them, supporting them with funding and ground game, and then winning seats on school boards, water boards, fire boards, city councils, and in county government.

Unfortunately, it takes time to be strategic and we are running out of that time. While the Democrats were focused on the White House during President Obama’s time, Republicans were busy taking over state governments. In fact, 29 state legislative chambers in 19 states flipped from Democratic to Republican during Obama’s presidency. Of course, Arizona Democrats lost control of our Legislature way back in 1966 and haven’t won it back since.

And although Arizona is one of the 13 states that use independent redistricting commissions to exclusively draw electoral districts boundaries, Democrats can’t necessarily count on that effort to help us. Yes, if the district boundaries are fairly drawn, demographics could deliver wins for Democrats. But, those who would vote for Democrats have to actually show up to vote and the Legislature is working hard to put even more roadblocks in their way. A good example is the July Supreme Court decision that gave states more latitude to impose restrictions on voting. The Arizona laws that drove the SCOTUS decision were that 1) voters who vote in the wrong precinct, will not have their vote counted and 2) it is a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot – either before or after it has been completed. Adam Liptak, for the New York Times, wrote:

[A]mong the most consequential in decades on voting rights, and it was the first time the court had considered how a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to restrictions that have a particular impact on people of color.

This SCOTUS ruling, no doubt helped clear the way for Texas to recently enact a slew of new voting restrictions, “including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tent to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities”. Where Texas (and Florida) go, can Arizona be far behind?

So, Democrats can win in Arizona if we can get liberals and left-leaning (or maybe just reasonable) independents to vote. Unfortunately, that’s a huge “IF”. Many of the people we need to vote are people of color who already feel disenfranchised or don’t trust the system, and the GOP’s incessant attack on those same people’s ability to vote, just makes it that much harder to persuade them to step up.

Of course, we can’t give up. We just have to be focused and strategic. That’s how Stacey Abrams and a network of activists, ten years to flip Georgia. In an interview with Politico before the 2020 election, she said,

“When you’re trying to not only harness demographic changes but leverage low-propensity voters, you cannot simply hope that they’ll hear the message. You have to treat them as persuasion voters. Only the message is not trying to persuade them to share Democratic values.  Your message is to persuade them that voting can actually yield change.”

So, Arizona Democrats need to focused, strategic, cohesive and demonstrate where we have the power, we know what to do with it. We need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that we know how to make government work. We also need to develop a bench of candidates to move up through the system. We do this by not leaving any seats unchallenged without Democratic candidates. And, we ensure those candidates receive training and support before they hit the streets. At the same time, we’ll need to continue to pursue whatever means we have to push back on the terrible laws our Legislature enacts. For now, at least, those means are initiatives, referendums and recalls which have been a part of Arizona’s governance from the beginning with women’s suffrage, passing by a margin of greater than two to one in 1912.

Both referendums and initiatives are processes for collecting and verifying signatures. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Initiative and Referendum Guide, “An initiative is the method by which voters may propose new laws or amend existing laws”, and a referendum is “the method by which voters may veto a law (or part of a law)”. A petition refers to the physical piece of paper used to collect signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. Recalls are a way to remove office holders who weren’t responding to their constituent’s wishes. 

The process for initiating initiatives is fairly simple, consisting of gaining clearance from the AZ Secretary of State to circulate a petition and then gathering the required number of signatures from registered voters. “If the signature requirements are met, (statutory changes require a number of signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the last gubernatorial vote, 15 percent for a constitutional initiative), the measure is placed on the next general election ballot for voters to decide by a simple majority.

But bringing an initiative home is another matter entirely. According to Dr. David R. Berman, Senior Research Fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 425 initiative petitions had been “taken out” between 1970 and 2013, but only 67 (16%) made it to the ballot. And, less than half of those (32) were approved by voters, “making for an overall success rate – from petition to passage – of just 8 percent.” In fact, Berman writes that a “commonly employed rule of thumb is that one out of four gathered signatures will be rejected – often because the signee is not officially recorded as a registered voter.” 

And although Arizona has led the nation in using the Internet for voting-related matters such as online voter registration, to include gathering signatures for candidates, our Legislature has not supported making the initiative signature gathering process simpler. They’ve effectively ensured the signature gathering process is cumbersome (as in requiring that petition signers may not touch any part of the box lines on the petition as they fill them out) and expensive (upwards of $1 million for a statewide effort).

And sometimes we are our own worst enemy when we run numerous ballot measures in the same election. Of course, the Legislature doesn’t help by placing multiple ballot measures of their own on the ballot.

In his 2013 report titled, “Initiative Refore in Arizona: Exploring Some Ideas”, Dr. Berman expressed concern about a large number of ballot measures appearing on the ballot at the same time:

“[W]hen faced with a large number of initiative propositions, voters are less willing or able to examine each individual proposition in detail. In this situation, many decide not to vote – in any given election, 10 percent to 25 percent of those who vote for candidates at the top of the ballot fail to vote on one or more of the proposition measures. Others play it safe by simply voting “no” on all or most of the propositions. Those who plunge ahead and vote on numerous initiatives may wind up voting for something they do not like or against something they do like. In either case, they may later regret their decision.”

It gives me pause then, to have had six petitions lined up for signature at one time. Three, seeking to repeal voter suppression laws and three to repeal laws designed to circumvent Prop 208 (to raise more funding for schools), by implementing a new flat tax rate. The final petition in circulation at this time is a Voter’s Right to Know initiative to stop Dark Money from influencing our elections. This is our third try for this one. And according to Ballotpedia, there are six other ballot measures that were filed with the Secretary of State’s office, as well as three Legislature driven referendums that will be on the ballot.

What are the chances voters will take the time to understand these laws and then vote to repeal them? Isn’t there already a problem with voters taking time to vote down ballot even when they do show up to vote? I am concerned about the viability of these efforts. Yes, Arizonans have had some recent success with initiatives such as Props 123 and 208, but seven initiatives (plus whatever else comes) are a lot for voters to get behind.

And although signing petitions makes voters feel like they’ve taken real action, in the end they may just feel even more discouraged when yet again, we are unsuccessful in driving change. If we really want things to change, we must be laser-focused on gaining seats in the Legislature. Otherwise, we’re just watching Groundhog Day on automatic replay.