Arizona Cities And State Brace For Legal Battle

By Jude Joffe-Block, Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, December 8, 2016 - 3:27pm
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2016 - 3:29pm
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A major legal fight is brewing between Arizona cities and the state Legislature.

There may soon be dueling lawsuits between the city of Tucson and the state. At the heart of the matter is what policies are up to local control, and what the state can preempt.

The state Legislature passed a new law this year called SB 1487 that allows the attorney general to withhold shared revenues from cities if the city has a policy that violates state law.

It recent years, the conservative, Republican-led Legislature has passed legislation to block progressive policies coming out of cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Tempe and Flagstaff. The phenomenon of Republican state Legislatures trying to preempt liberal city policies is playing out in other states around the country.

SB 1487 takes this battle a step further by adding the threat of taking away city funds.

The first test of SB 1487 is playing out over a Tucson policy of destroying forfeited firearms.

Tucson city leaders favor destroying these guns rather than allow them to keep circulating. But there is an Arizona state law that requires firearms to be resold, not destroyed.

Under a new legal mechanism created by SB 1487, Rep. Mark Finchem filed a request in October to have Attorney General Mark Brnovich investigate Tucson’s policy to determine if it was in violation, and if Tucson should lose its shared revenue of over $100 million.

Finchem argues it is inappropriate for Tucson to pass up the revenue it could get from re-selling firearms.

Brnovich’s office determined that the Tucson ordinance may be a violation of state law and warned the city there would be legal action if the city did not change its policy. At a city council meeting on Tuesday, the council declined to do so and voted to instead fight the matter in court.

Shortly afterward, the Attorney General’s Office filed in Supreme Court to have the court evaluate whether Tucson’s ordinance violates state law, and whether the city should lose its shared revenue. SB 1478 requires Tucson to post a bond of half of its annual yearly shared revenue — more than $50 million in the case of Tucson — to defend the city policy.

Tucson leaders say they are a charter city and that charter allows them to decide local matters, like how to dispose of property, including firearms. Not only did the council vote to defend their policy in court, they also authorized the city attorney to challenge the constitutionality of SB 1487 in the hopes of striking the law down. That means the city could file a counter lawsuit against the state, though the city has not yet taken action.

“This is an assault on chartered cities and the Arizona constitution and the authority it gives chartered cities,” said councilwoman Regina Romero on Tuesday before the council voted unanimously to fight the state law.  “We should be taking this matter to court and challenging its unconstitutionality, and I am proud that we are taking this step.”

Phoenix has also had its share of tension with the state legislature over its policies in recent years. State lawmakers have passed legislation blocking city environmental initiatives and the creation of a business district on Roosevelt Row.

Stanton told KJZZ he is very supportive of Tucson challenging SB 1487 in court and says this law has to be fought. In the meantime, he said the city won’t change what it is doing.

“We're going to keep adopting smart public policies here in the city of Phoenix that advance that advance our city regardless of whether you know rural legislators happen to like it,” Stanton said.

Stanton said it is inappropriate for legislators to threaten to withhold shared revenues from cities because it is shared revenue, and not the state’s money to take away.

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