Caucus putting together plan to push agenda
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 14, 2006

Yvonne Wingett
It will be a watershed session for them, a high-stakes showdown that could change the state.

The Arizona Legislature's 18-member Latino Caucus is set to grapple with a number of issues that could affect their constituents and the state's 1.6 million Hispanics.

But even their forecasts for success this session are decidedly gloomy.
Outnumbered by Republican majorities in both chambers and even "betrayed" by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's plan on border security, some in the caucus see little chance of moving forward on the issues they deem critical.

A spending plan for a program for English learners, workplace sanctions for employers who hire undocumented workers, tightened restrictions on the payday-lending industry and other high-profile topics are doomed, too.

"It's pretty much zero to zilch for every Democrat regardless of whether he's in the Latino Caucus," said Rep. Ben Miranda, D-Phoenix. "I don't have much prospects (for this session)."

To "assess their situation," some Latino Caucus members, community leaders and activists will meet at 10 a.m. today in downtown Phoenix

In the past, Latino lawmakers have been inclined to champion so-called Latino causes, such as driver's licenses for undocumented workers, better access to higher education and child-care subsidies for poor families. In a state where at least 25 percent of the residents are Latino, issues such as all-day kindergarten, affordable higher education and workplace sanctions would have a tremendous positive impact on Hispanics, they said.

But despite huge population gains, only 17 Latinos have been elected to serve in the 90-member Legislature. One other member of the caucus is not Hispanic. With no Republicans, the mostly urban caucus cannot lead the debate on issues the members feel they should be shaping and must rest much of their hopes on the governor, who is in line with some of what they want to achieve.

"It's almost hard to separate the caucus from the governor," Arizona State University pollster Bruce Merrill said. "The fact that they would say that they are in despair would maybe be a ploy to try to get support or beef up these two very important issues (of education and illegal immigration)."

This year, Hispanic lawmakers' most immediate and pressing goal at the Capitol would be to develop a plan to comply with a federal court order to spend more on English-language learners. The state is under court order to assist thousands of students or face fines of $500,000 a day, the result of Flores vs. Arizona a lawsuit filed in 1992 on behalf of a Nogales family.

Republicans and Democrats have been deadlocked over how to address the judge's orders. Republican House and Senate leaders plan on fast-tracking a version of their grant program vetoed by the governor because she felt it did not guarantee future funding. Democrats are pushing a bill that would allocate $180 million for the program.

Still, like many of the issues the Latino Caucus has taken up, it will come down to the governor's negotiations with Republicans.

"We all argue that children and adults must master the English language in order to succeed," said Rep. Pete Rios, D-Hayden.

The caucus also will be play defense this legislative session on proposals related to illegal immigration, which is another key topic they won't be able to shape debate on. However, some have concluded they must revise their messages.

In line with the governor, they will address what they call illegal immigration's "root cause": employers. They hope employer sanctions will pressure the GOP business community to comprehensively tackle illegal immigration.

That's a significant turnaround from last year's message of the "symptoms,"
with Hispanic lawmakers talking often about the immigrant, state-funded programs, social services and Proposition 200, which blocked state benefits for undocumented immigrants.

"Hispanic legislators have been painted as a group that wants open borders,"
said Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "That's not what we want. The cause of illegal immigration is the employers hiring them. If the employers stop hiring undocumented workers, they'll stop coming."

The Latino Caucus has an uphill battle, said Senate Minority Leader Linda Aguirre, D-Phoenix, but she said they are determined to debate and influence.

"It's not a complete wash," she said. "We play a vital role. We're raising
(the) conscious level (of issues important to Hispanics)."