PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona lawmakers are prohibited by law from voting on legislation that directly affects themselves or a family member — unless it also affects at least nine other people.
The broad loophole to the state conflict-of-interest law has long allowed members of the state's part-time Legislature to vote on bills that many say are blatantly in their own interest. But it is a peril that comes with being a part-time body where members earn only $24,000 a year and where almost everyone has an outside job, according to Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard.
"Everything we do effects everything out there, so all you can do is try to come up with logical parameters to make sure folks aren't down here working for themselves," Mesnard said of the rule of 10 exemption. "And candidly, I have not met a single lawmaker who came in the Legislature poor and left rich."
Mesnard said the easiest way to consider the dilemma lawmakers face is to consider tax cuts.
"When I cut taxes, is that selfish? Because I'm going to get a tax cut, and so are a myriad of other people," he said. "That's why you have numbers like 10 or whatever makes sense to people, that try to say whatever we're doing here has got to be broad and not just about you."
The most obvious potential conflicts come from two prominent Republican lawmakers: one runs a chain of charter schools; and the other a nonprofit that takes in tax-credit donations from corporations and distributes them to parents to pay private school tuition. Senate President Steve Yarbrough runs the so-called School Tuition Organization, and has long been criticized for voting in favor of or supporting legislation that would help groups like his.
Yarbrough consistently brushes off any criticism, saying he ran the organization long before he entered the Legislature and has been completely transparent about his interest in the school choice movement.
In a nationwide review, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers around the country reported outside income or employment in 2015. While that might give lawmakers expertise in certain policy areas, many of those income sources are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures.
The review was based on an analysis of disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers in the 47 states that required them. It found numerous examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances. The practice is enabled by limited disclosure requirements for personal financial information and self-policing that often excuses seemingly blatant conflicts.
In Arizona, only seven members of the state Senate and 14 representatives declared specific conflicts in the past two sessions, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The recusals come from both parties, and many deal with proposals that would specifically affect a business run by or that employs the lawmaker.
One of those who sat out votes was Democratic Rep. Mark Cardenas, who recused himself from voting on two proposals that would tighten oversight of people who gather signatures for voter initiatives. He has an interest in a company that gathers signatures.
Cardenas said in an interview that he was told he didn't have to sit out the votes because of the exemption, but he just didn't feel it was right.