PHOENIX — (AP) — Police fired tear gas to disperse anti-abortion protesters from outside the Arizona Capitol on Friday night, forcing lawmakers to briefly huddle in a basement inside the building as they raced to complete their 2022 session.
Thousands of protesters had earlier gathered on the Capitol grounds in Phoenix, split into groups supporting and condemning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Department of Public Safety SWAT team members fired tear gas from the second floor of the old Capitol building to disperse protesters in the mall between the current House and Senate buildings. KPHO-TV reported that officers opened fire when several anti-abortion protesters began banging on the glass doors of the Senate building.
Authorities said there were no injuries or arrests.
The incident sent Senate lawmakers into the basement for about 20 minutes, Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said. Sharp tear gas then ripped through the building, forcing the Senate to move its proceedings to a courtroom instead of the Senate Chamber.
Republicans had enacted a 15-week abortion ban in March, and a pre-Roe law that bans all abortions remains in effect, requiring providers across the state to stop offering abortions earlier Friday.
Republican lawmakers previously approved a massive expansion of Arizona’s private school voucher system with Republican support alone. Another flagship measure was approved with broad bipartisan support: a major plan to strengthen water supplies. The Senate and House both approved a billion dollar plan to boost supply after adding another $200 million for water conservation efforts.
Senate Republicans have pushed the voucher program that has already passed the House. It allows every student in Arizona to take public money to attend private schools, even the nearly 60,000 whose parents already pay for that education.
The vote came after GOP leaders voted to block Democrats from debating or proposing changes to the voucher bill, sparking a heated procedural fight that left Democrats furious.
The plan would open the program to all 1.1 million public school students. Currently, about 255,000 public school students are eligible for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, although fewer than 12,000 participate.
About 59,000 private school students would be eligible under the new plan championed by House Majority Leader Ben Toma.
Toma and other advocates say money shouldn’t be a barrier preventing children from attending private schools. Democrats fiercely oppose the bill, saying there is no test or other mechanism to ensure children actually learn.
Their efforts to try to add accountability mechanisms, or at least force a vote on the issue, were thwarted when Republicans voted to suspend rules that would generally allow such changes.
Democrats have spoken out against the measure, saying it would divert much of the more than $500 million from new spending K-12 lawmakers signed into law earlier this week.
“It’s going to cost the state an additional $125 million by 2025,” said Sen. Christine Marsh, a Democrat from Phoenix. “It’s not just fiscally responsible for us to try to run two separate systems at the same time.”
Republican Senator TJ Shope of Coolidge said the measure does not go far enough. “I think in an ideal situation we would fully fund the student wherever the parent chooses to send their students,” Shope said.
Lawmakers were also considering a massive new water bill Governor Doug Ducey requested earlier this year, designed to help the state pay for new water sources.
Ducey called for major new water investment in his January state of the state address, implying that some of that money would be used to build a desalination plant in Mexico. While the money can be used for this purpose, it can also be used for conservation, groundwater development, or possibly importing water from other states.
The House briefly rejected a measure allowing the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Rehabilitation to continue operating for another eight years due to bipartisan concerns that the agency is too secretive and fails to implement reforms suggested by the state auditor. Without the bill’s passage, the agency’s authorization would expire at the end of the month.
Lawmakers instead voted to impose new transparency requirements on the prison system.
“I’m not asking the department to do anything it’s not already legally required to do,” said Rep. Shawnna Bolick, a Republican from Glendale who lobbied for the additional demands. “I just want to make sure there’s accountability at the end of the day.”
The House and Senate voted on dozens of other bills, most of them noncontroversial measures that passed with bipartisan majorities.
But one of the final votes of the night was a Republican proposal that makes it illegal to teach so-called critical race theory, a hot topic for GOP politicians. Democrats called it an assault on public school teachers that will deter them from teaching about race in America, but not stop students.
“If you tell a child not to learn something, not to read something, what’s the first thing he’s going to do? Quezada asked. “They’re going to go study it, they’re going to get those books.”
Republican Senator JD Mesnard said his bill is being misinterpreted, that while preventing divisive concepts, it will teach about topics like slavery, race and others.
“I challenge anyone to explain again why promoting or defending any of these things is okay,” Mesnard asked.
The Legislative Assembly adjourned at 12:26 a.m. Saturday.
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