Postcard from Arizona to John Roberts: Money Corrupts

In a week in which the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to the reality of money corrupting politics, a story out of Arizona provides a clear example of the insidious influence of the private prison industry and its campaign contributions. 

Arizona has been at the forefront of bad prison policy and big profits for private prison companies. People For the American Way’s 2012 report, “Predatory Privatization: Exploiting Financial Hardship, Enriching the One Percent, Undermining Democracy,” explored how Arizona officials’ political and ideological commitment to prison privatization overrode good policy and common sense. Unbelievably, faced with evidence that privately run prisons were costing taxpayers more, not less, than state-run prisons, some legislators moved to stop the state from collecting the data.

This February, we wrote about Politico’s coverage of the private prison racket. “Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records,” author Matt Stroud asked, “So why do we keep giving them our business?” One answer is that the industry spends a fortune on lobbying and campaign contributions.

This week’s story shows how those investments can pay off. According to the Arizona Republic, House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanaugh tried to slip a last-minute $900,000 earmark for private prison giant GEO Group into the state budget. The company is already expected to get $45 million this year under contracts with the state that guarantee the company at least a 95 percent occupancy rate, “virtually ensuring the company a profit for operating its prisons in Arizona.” The state Department of Corrections said the extra money isn’t needed, but Kavanaugh heard otherwise from the company’s lobbyists. GEO executives gave Kavanaugh more than $2,500 in 2012.

The good news is that the Senate Appropriations Committee dropped the extra funding “following an uproar of criticism from Arizonans.”

PFAW

‘Right to Discriminate’ Bills, Meet Hobby Lobby

Last month, as Arizona governor Jan Brewer deliberated whether to sign or veto a law that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, the public outcry was immense. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain shared their opposition via Twitter. Companies including American Airlines, Apple, and AT&T urged a veto. Multiple state senators who had voted for SB 1062 asked Gov. Brewer to veto it. When she did, advocacy groups praised the decision and many in Arizona and across the country breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief.

But it turns out that sigh may have been premature.

This morning the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a case that, on its face, appears to be dealing with a different issue – women’s access to contraception – but in fact grapples with some of the same core issues in play with “right to discriminate” bills like Arizona’s. In the Hobby Lobby case, as in its companion case Conestoga Wood Specialities v. Sebelius, corporations are trying to avoid complying with the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. But both the Supreme Court cases and the “right to discriminate” bills address the question of whether for-profit corporations have religious rights and can use those “rights” in a way that brings harm to others. 

Comparing the vetoed Arizona bill to efforts to let companies deny covering contraception, National Women’s Law Center vice president Emily Martin put it like this: “What you’re seeing in both cases are corporations asserting the right to break the law in the name of religion, even if it results in harm and discrimination for third parties.” And The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin noted,

Indeed, a victory for Hobby Lobby might bring in an Arizona-style rule through the back door….The Arizona law and the Hobby Lobby case represent two sides of the same coin. Both assert that the invocation of a religious belief allows a company to opt out of a government requirement that applies to everyone else.

But corporations have never had religious rights, and as affiliate PFAW Foundation senior fellow Jamie Raskin wrote in a recent report, that concept is simply “absurd.”

[I]t is time for the Court to restore some reality to the conversation.  Business corporations do not belong to religions and they do not worship God.  We do not protect anyone’s religious free exercise rights by denying millions of women workers access to contraception.

PFAW

Urgent Action Needed on Georgia Early Voting Bill on Last Day of Legislative Session

Updated March 21: Georgia's legislative session closed without final action being taken on HB 891. According to Facing South, "House sponsors declined to take up a vote on the revised bill, and HB 891 was dead." The report quotes Kelli Persons of League of Women Voters of Georgia, "The message here is that it's very important . . . to pay attention to what's happening at the local level," in reference to the bill's impact on municipal early voting.

Earlier this month we told you about legislation in Georgia that would reduce the availability of early voting in municipal elections. While it was welcome news that the bill was amended to keep early voting at three weeks, requiring cities to pass their own legislation if they wanted to make further cuts, the League of Women Voters of Georgia is now reporting a flaw in the language that could take municipal early voting down to zero.

According to the League, it's time to act:

Please call, email, facebook/twitter & fax . . . Lt. Governor Cagle and Senate members,

And tell them to protect early voting and STOP HB 891 or FIX HB 891 before allowing a vote. It is a discredit to democracy to ask our Senators to vote on a flawed bill!

There is an "agreement" to correct the error before HB 891 is signed into law, but it should be fixed now – or stopped. Timing is especially critical as today, March 20, is the last day of Georgia's legislative session.

In other voting rights news, a federal judge has ruled in the Arizona-Kansas proof of citizenship case, early voting expansion suffers a setback in Louisiana, Virginia voter ID implementation moves forward – ahead of schedule, and Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans alike are speaking out against voter suppression.

Check out even more news from our friends at Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

From "Right to Discriminate" to "Don't Say Gay," Standing up in Tennessee

With "right to discriminate" bills making news across the country, Tennessee's "don't say gay" battle continues to have a lasting – and inspiring – impact.

In 2011, Tennessee made national headlines for its effort to pass a "don't say gay" bill that would have prohibited educators from discussing any sexual orientation other than heterosexuality with students in kindergarten through eighth grade. This not only applied to lessons in classrooms, but to all discussions between educators and students. Any acknowledgement that LGBT people exist was officially prohibited, a cruel effort to isolate and declare as abnormal any children who were LGBT or who had LGBT family members (including parents).

It's come back in various forms since then, but it has yet to become law – thanks in part to courageous young people like Marcel Neergaard, who has consistently spoken out against the legislation and its chief sponsor, John Ragan, and who has also advocated for policies to protect LGBT students in the Volunteer State.

This week, Marcel wrote for the Huffington Post:

I know I am not alone in my struggles. I know I have to be happy with the progress LGBTQ people have made. I also know that it's not okay to be called out for being different. I know I can be helped by Tennessee's Dignity for All Students Act (HB927). It is important to say students cannot be harassed, intimidated or bullied because they are gay or perceived to be gay. The Dignity for All Students Act specifies many other groups, like kids who are bullied because of their religion, race, gender, gender identity or gender expression. It even helps the kids who are brave enough to be friends with students who are "different."

I'm not the only gay youth in Tennessee. I'm not the only gay kid in Oak Ridge. I'm not even the only gay student in my school [–] I'm just someone who is standing up. I know I have written about bullying many times, but this is still happening to kids like me everywhere and I refuse to let it continue. I will go on educating my school system, and the people around me who believe the gay stereotypes, but we [cannot] do this alone . . . We need . . . to convince legislators that students everywhere deserve safe places to learn. We also need people to encourage our representatives, who are supposed to represent us, to pass bills like the Dignity for All Students Act and federal legislation such as the Safe Schools Improvement Act. I want to make sure other kids do not have to go through what I have. This week I will be in Nashville for Advancing Equality on the Hill Day talking to my senator and (hopefully) representative about making schools safer for kids like me. What will you do?

Marcel's words ring especially true in the month leading up to the Day of Silence, an annual event organized by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that is meant to draw attention to the "silencing effects" of anti-gay harassment and name-calling in schools and to be a way for students to show their solidarity with students who have been bullied.

As we approach April 11, this year's Day of Silence, PFAW will be doing its part to spread Marcel's message – the idea that all students deserve far better than what they're getting when it comes to bullying and harassment in schools.

In the meantime, check out Big Bullies: How the Religious Right is Trying to Make Schools Safe for Bullies and Dangerous for Gay Kids and its 2012 update.

In other LGBT news, Wisconsin marriage equality advocates are trying to get their litigation on the fast track.

Check out even more news from our friends at GLAAD, the Victory Fund, and the Washington Blade.

PFAW

Behind the Scenes with the Right-Wing on Arizona's "Right to Discriminate" Bill

At the end of February, Right Wing Watch introduced us to the Center for Arizona Policy's Cathi Herrod, who helped lead the effort to pass a "right to discriminate" bill in Arizona.

Cathi Herrod of the Center for Arizona Policy accused the bill’s opponents of “incredible hostility to religion.”

“Our first freedom, our ability to live out our religious belief as our founders intended, as wars have been fought for our right to live out our religious belief, that is what is very much under attack,” Herrod said, adding that she is shocked that people would oppose the right-to-discriminate bill. “This was non-controversial until the last four or five days.”

She told Perkins that listeners should “pray for a miracle and to pray for an intervention” for the governor to sign the legislation.

Now that SB 1062 has been vetoed, we're learning more about the Center's involvement.

Documents recently obtained by Capitol Media Services detail meetings between the Center and Governor Jan Brewer's office.

“But the intent of the meetings, the purpose of the meetings, was to thoroughly vet the language, address their concerns, and make changes in the language pursuant to their concerns,” Herrod said. She said her organization addressed every concern raised by Hunter and Sciarrotta with the idea that this year’s version would not meet the same fate as a similar bill Brewer vetoed last year.

What led to this year’s veto, Herrod insisted, had nothing to do with the wording of SB 1062.

“Opponents made the bill about something it was not,” she said, with Brewer reacting to the highly vocal opposition, particularly from the LGBT community, rather than the language of SB 1062. “The governor vetoed a bill that didn’t exist.”

People For the American Way President Michael Keegan spoke earlier about the Right's influence:

In Arizona and across the country, Americans can see through the Right’s continued attempts to cloak anti-gay bigotry in the language of First Amendment rights. We hope that the pushback Arizona received this week will be a message, loud and clear, to the states with similar bills pending. Americans don’t want to live in a country where businesses have free rein to post a ‘No Gays’ sign.

In other LGBT news, Illinois continues implementing marriage equality; court cases progress in the Michigan and Virginia marriage battles; and Oregon Republicans stand up for the freedom to marry.

Check out even more news from our friends at GLAAD, the Victory Fund, and the Washington Blade.

PFAW

Voting Rights News – 3/6/14

Ohio, a perennial hotbed of voter suppression activity, has been in the news recently for its brand new restrictive voting laws and its cuts to early voting. But Ohio is not the only state with voting rights issues on the agenda.

Here are a few others that you should know about.

Arizona – The SB 1062 veto was not the only action that Governor Jan Brewer took last week. She signed legislation repealing HB 2305, a 2013 law whose suppressive provisions affected infrequent voters wishing to remain on the permanent early voting rolls; community groups trying to get out the vote; third-party candidates and voter initiatives trying to get on the ballot; and more. While it's good news that this law is no longer on the books, some have expressed concern about robbing the people of the final decision.

Georgia – Early voting in municipal elections could be cut even further if HB 891, which has already passed through the Georgia House, is signed into law. In 2011, the available early voting period dropped from forty-five days to twenty-one days, and the new proposal would narrow it to just six days. It would also prevent municipalities from adding their own evening and weekend hours. While a House amendment made some changes, opposition is still clear among advocacy groups, and it remains to be seen what will happen in the Senate.

Michigan – Good news in the Great Lakes State: Flint legislators Woodrow Stanley (House) and Jim Anancich (Senate) are asking for a hearing on no-excuse absentee voting.

North Carolina – As litigation challenging last year's law moves forward, its suppressive impacts are becoming even clearer. While the law reduces early voting days, Governor Pat McCrory had said that it doesn't actually cut early voting because it keeps the same number of available hours on the books. Well, one-third of counties now have the go-ahead to make those additional cuts during the upcoming May primary. And Appalachian State University looks like it will once again be without its own early voting site.

Wisconsin – The NAACP/Voces de la Frontera and League of Women Voters cases challenging the state's photo ID law were heard by the state Supreme Court last week, and a ruling is expected by the end of June. Separate federal challenges to the law were heard in November; their rulings could come any day.

PFAW will continue its work on behalf of a 'Voters In' vision to enact needed reforms and will step up and counter threats when the right to vote is under attack.

Looking for even more news? Check out our friends at the Fair Elections Legal Network.

PFAW

Why the Defeat of Arizona’s “Right to Discriminate” Bill Matters

Ryan Hurst is the membership services program coordinator for affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials Network.

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, a bill that would have made it legal for businesses and employers to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people if it was due to a “deeply held religious belief.” Many Arizonans and national leaders on both sides of the aisle vehemently opposed it, including members of affiliate People For the American Way Foundation’s Young Elected Officials (YEO) Network.  US Representative Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-09) and Arizona State Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar spoke out on MSNBC. Tovar also said in a statement:

SB 1062 permits discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. With the express consent of Republicans in this legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation.

Supporters of SB 1062 and legislation like it have argued that it is necessary to protect the “right” of business owners to deny services to LGBT Americans. Why does fighting this flawed assumption matter? Why would LGBT Americans want to patronize a business that is trying to discriminate against them?

It matters because our values define who we are as a people.  Do we want to be an America that permits discrimination because we disagree with someone? An America that legislates away the dignity of a group of our fellow citizens? The desire to have and feel dignity is something that reaches into our very core. It is why African American students refused to get up from lunch counters during the civil rights movement. Though the circumstances behind those heroic acts were different, at least one of the core motivating factors is the same – the desire to have dignity and be valued as a human being.

We as a nation decided to set precedent as a result of the civil rights movement, that we would not allow ourselves to be defined by hate and ignorance, and that discrimination based on race, gender, disability, national origin, and religion would not be tolerated. Why would we hold love to a different standard? Like religion, it is deeply personal and central to who we are, and our freedom regarding that area of our lives is recognized as basic to the very concept of liberty. And we can no more change who we love than change our race, sex, or national origin.

Unfortunately Arizona was not alone in proposing a bill that would allow businesses to deny services to LGBT Americans. In all, 12 states had similar bills simultaneously working their way through their state legislatures. In the fallout from SB 1062, most of these states quietly killed these bills with little fanfare. But a few states like Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota are still considering similar legislation, and Oregon is even considering a ballot initiative.

It is time for us as a country to be bold and unapologetic about our rejection of discrimination. It is important for us to have conversations about why our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and neighbors and friends deserve dignity and equality. We must not be afraid to speak out in opposition to these bills if they are introduced in our state, and we must exercise our right to vote by removing elected officials from office that choose to support legislation that diminishes the dignity of others.
 

PFAW

A Small, But Important, Step Towards Common Sense in Judicial Confirmation Process

Last week, in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on six Arizona district court nominees, senior legislative counsel Paul Gordon asked if Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain would be able to convince their Republican colleagues to break what has become their practice of routinely delaying nominees’ votes. Since 2009, only five of President Obama’s judicial nominees had been allowed to have their committee votes cast without delay. Gordon urged the Senators to forgo this obstruction, especially given the enormous caseload in Arizona that is impeding the operation of the Arizona district court that has 6 of its 13 seats vacant. 

Yesterday, in a departure from their practice, the Committee actually voted on the nominees. 91. 5 KJAZZ reported:

“The liberal advocacy group People for the American Way called this a step toward fixing the judicial vacancy rate in Arizona, but noted that there are 28 people awaiting confirmation ahead of these nominees.”

Executive vice president Marge Baker also commented on the turn of events in an interview with Cronkite News:

“It wasn’t sustainable to keep delaying this process, and it seems that Arizona senators finally heeded reason. Arizona has had a terrible judicial vacancy rate. This is an important step towards fixing it.”

This was a relief for the state of Arizona, as well as a nice change of pace for Senate Republicans. But as a judicial vacancy crisis continues in Arizona and across the country, the work is far from over.

PFAW

Flake and McCain's Next Steps for AZ Nominees

Yesterday, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake persuaded Judiciary Committee Republicans not to delay a scheduled committee vote on six nominees from their home state. Chairman Leahy noted that the vote would not have happened but for McCain and Flake's efforts. The senators made their colleagues understand that six of their state's 13 federal district judgeships are vacant, and that the crisis is so serious that the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts has officially designated all six vacancies as judicial emergencies.

Now the question is whether they will try to get that message across to all the other Senate Republicans.

In ordinary times, having been confirmed by the Judiciary Committee, the six Arizona nominees would quickly get a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. But since Republicans are blocking votes on any and all judicial nominations, the Arizonans find themselves at the back of a ridiculously long line, with 28 nominees ahead of them.

So before anyone can even think about those vacancies in Arizona getting filled, the Senate will have to conduct 28 cloture votes to break 28 filibusters. This is an extremely time-consuming process, because Senate rules allow Republicans to demand hours of "post-cloture debate" before a confirmation vote. Absent Republican willingness to waive the rule (which we have not seen so far), each circuit court nominee will take 30 hours of the Senate's time for needless post-cloture debate. For district court nominees, the same 30-hour rule that usually applies to them has been reduced to two hours under a temporary rule that expires at the end of the 113th Congress (in early January 2015).

That's nearly 200 hours of time-wasting "post-cloture debate" before the Senate can finally get to the Arizona nominees. Assuming 40-hour workweeks, that's five wasted weeks of doing nothing else. Of course, the Senate does actually have other items on its agenda, so absent a lifting of the GOP's obstruction, the Arizona seats will remain empty for many more months.

But it doesn't have to be that way. McCain and Flake have already demonstrated their willingness to exercise their influence with those of their GOP colleagues who serve on the Judiciary Committee. Now the question is whether they will try to persuade the rest of their colleagues to end the blockade and eliminate the bottleneck so the Senate can get to the Arizona seats in a timely manner.

PFAW

Pressure Mounts for Brewer to Veto Anti-Gay Law

Ever since Arizona’s legislature passed a bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, pressure has been mounting on Governor Jan Brewer to veto the law.

The bill has drawn sharp criticism from LGBT and human rights groups (in addition to quick witted pizza shop owners and crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise) and now GOP politicians are lining up to call for it to be blocked. Last week, the state’s junior senator, Jeff Flake, tweeted his opposition to the law. This morning he was joined by the state's senior senator, John McCain. As if that weren't enough, TPM reports that state senator Steve Pierce, who voted for the legislation, is reversing himself and calling on Brewer to issue a veto.

It’s clear that the issue isn’t going away soon. Despite the already embarrassing attention that Arizona has received since the law was passed, Governor Brewer still has the opportunity to avoid adding another black mark on her state’s recent history. Millions of Americans are watching closely.

PFAW