Chandler’s legislators prioritize COVID-19 relief - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler’s legislators prioritize COVID-19 relief

December 22nd, 2020 SanTan Sun News
Chandler’s legislators prioritize COVID-19 relief

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Chandler’s representatives at the Arizona Legislature say they’ll be pushing for more resources to help small businesses hurt by the pandemic during the upcoming legislative session.

All the elected leaders representing legislative districts 17 and 18, which encompass Chandler and Ahwatukee, believe recovery from the pandemic will be their main focus when the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 11.

During a recent meeting with the Chandler City Council, the delegation discussed how the lingering health crisis may affect the state’s budget and any bills they might introduce next month.

“COVID-19 will be the overarching issue this session,” said state Sen. J.D. Mesnard of LD17. “The good news is, unlike last session, there are fewer unknowns.”

The Republican south Chandler senator said Arizona’s revenue picture doesn’t look as dismal compared to the start of the pandemic and could open the possibility for more spending.

The “skinny” budget rushed through the Legislature earlier this year left out many expenditures that could come up again in the next session’s budget, Mesnard added,

“It may not be a fat budget per se but I think it won’t be the literal bare bones like the last one,” Mesnard said.

Chandler’s two legislative districts will be represented this session by two Republicans and four Democrats – a bipartisan mashup that’s shares many of the same priorities at the Capitol.   

Mesnard said he and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Sean Bowie of LD18, agree on prioritizing issues like infrastructure and higher education.

Bowie has further hinted at a desire to have the Legislature address the state’s lack of affordable housing, an issue that’s notably gotten worse in Chandler in recent years due to rising rents.

A 2019 survey by the city found that affordable housing was the most pressing concern among Chandler residents.

“I’m hoping we can do something around affordable housing whether it’s a tax credit or it’s an investment in our housing trust fund,” Bowie said.

Some of the delegation’s other Democrats are hopeful to see some legislation that will provide more relief to small businesses attempting to weather the pandemic’s economic woes.

Since the pandemic started in March, the City of Chandler has reported more than 80 local businesses shut down and many more have depended on funds from the federal government to stay afloat.

“Retail is really, really hurting right now,” said LD 18 state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine. “Restaurants are really hurting.”

Jermaine said she is working on providing relief exclusively to businesses with fewer than 15 employees because they’re the “backbone” of the local economy and need additional support.

Domestic violence will also be a priority for Jermaine during the next session since she’s worried by the growing number of cases that have been reported by police departments across the Valley throughout the pandemic.

LD18 State Rep. Mitzi Epstein of Tempe said she plans to introduce legislation aimed at helping small businesses remain open during another health emergency

The Democratic legislator is further examining Arizona’s unemployment trust fund and looking for additional sources of revenue to keep it fully operational before it becomes too late.

The trust fund has dropped substantially over the last few months, Epstein said, and Arizona will need nearly $1 billion to bring the fund’s balance back to where it was earlier this year.

The pandemic’s economic ripples have caused Arizona’s unemployment rates to nearly double over the last year, putting added pressure on the state Department of Economic Security.

Epstein said she’ll be signing a letter to Congress asking for funds to ensure Arizona’s unemployment trust won’t run out money in the coming months.

“We want to make sure we have a good plan for unemployment insurance,” she said. “If Congress doesn’t want to help, then we have to get really creative.”

Though COVID-19 relief will be occupying the time of most legislators, LSD17 Rep. Jennifer Pawlik is continuing to work on issues impacting public education.

Pawlik, a teacher herself, said she’ll specifically focus on funding for special education and new technology.

The pandemic has made Arizona’s digital divide much more apparent over the last year, the Democratic legislator said, as many students have found themselves unable to access their classes virtually from home.

“We really need to look at making sure broadband is available for everyone,” Pawlik said, “I’m hoping that’s an area we can all work on together.”

When it comes to matters unrelated to the pandemic, some legislators are still finding time to study other issues that appear to be getting lots of attention from their constituents.

Sen. Mesnard said he’ll be focusing on trying to restore public confidence in Arizona’s elections after many members of his party have made accusations of widespread fraud during November’s general election.

Mesnard said he can’t dismiss the lack of trust many Republicans currently have in the election’s results, which saw Arizona pick Democrat Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by about 10,000 votes, so he’ll be trying to increase transparency in the state’s elections.

Mesnard did not outright condone his party’s fraud allegations but indicated he’s worried about the “existential threat” that may occur if Arizonans lose trust in the electoral process.

“I’ve been keeping my own thoughts close to the vest,” Mesnard said, “but I think we should all be concerned when that many people don’t trust the system.”