Business opposition doomed Ariz. immigration bills
Friday, March 18, 2011; 6:43 PM
PHOENIX -- Dozens of Arizona CEOs from hospitals, construction companies and other major businesses joined to turn back new get-tough legislation on illegal immigration, citing worries that emphasis on the issue could hurt the state's struggling economy and cost jobs.
The result Thursday was something much different from a year ago, when Arizona's governor enacted a tough local enforcement measure that put the state at the heart of a fierce national debate over the issue. This time, numerous Republican senators joined with Democrats in rejecting bills dealing with health care, government benefits and everyday activities like driving.
Besides business groups' opposition, others factors came into play: There isn't an election looming this fall, some GOP senators had never been too enthused by the severity of some of the bills and many lawmakers have simply become tired of the issue.
Getting the clear "vote no" signal from so many major employers provided political cover to lawmakers whose constituents could demand explanations for votes against the bills, said Bill Hart, an analyst for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.
"They'll be able to say the top business CEOs in Arizona were very forcefully against it," and that packs some punch as the state continues to deal with economic troubles, he said.
Arizona's approval last year of the get-tough illegal immigration law, known as SB1070, produced protests, boycotts and court fights. The business CEOs cited concerns in a letter hand-delivered to lawmakers on Tuesday that more of the same would come from new legislation, with possible economic fallout to tourism and the hosting of industry conventions.
"They really wanted to go on record letting the legislators know what they needed," said Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce president Todd Sanders, adding that it wasn't hard to get business leaders to sign on. "For us the surprise was how fast the replies came back - 'sign me up.'"
The letter - a joint product of the Phoenix chamber, its statewide counterpart and another business group - said the best answer to the illegal immigration issue is federal action on border security, identity theft, a workable employment verification system and creation of a guest work program. Several senators mentioned the letter during Thursday's floor session.
Thursday's votes showed last year's overwhelming margins of support among Republican legislators for SB1070 stemmed from election-year pressures, said Constantin Querard, a Republican consultant whose clients mostly voted for the bills on Thursday. It's evident now, however, that many Republican senators aren't that concerned with the issue, he said Friday.
Republican legislators had already been saying for months that boosting the Arizona's economy and fixing the state's budget troubles were bigger priorities than illegal immigration.
"The Legislature and the people ... are also suffering from immigration fatigue," said Sen. John McComish, a Phoenix Republican who voted against the bills. "We're totally distracted and it's divisive."
The Senate's actions also illustrate limits on the potency of the tea party movement's ability to decide legislative action, said Pat Kenney, an Arizona State University political science professor.
"This is driven ideology that isn't mainstream with other Republicans - the business leaders, the moderate Republicans," he said. "They have some things in common but they don't have everything. There's a split there."
Also, specific provisions of the bills defeated Thursday troubled lawmakers. Requiring hospitals to report people being treated if they lack insurance and could not produce documentation of legal status could burden hospitals, some senators said.
Others questioned whether two of the five bills, which were aimed at forcing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, would produce the desired result.
Business lobbying on the issue included reminding lawmakers of commitments made last fall that economic development and fixing the state budget would be the big priorities for this year's session, Sanders said.
Sen. Russell Pearce, who was elected incoming Senate president last November and is the chief legislative champion of bills on illegal immigration, was among those making the promises. The Legislature last month approved an economic development package with phased-in business tax cuts, and the Senate on Wednesday approved a budget plan drafted by the chamber's majority Republicans.
However, there's no budget agreement yet with the Republican-led House or Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.