Syms: a full report on my efforts at the Arizona Legislature

May 18, 2017
Paradise Valley Independent
Maria Syms

Sine Die. That is the new Latin phrase I learned that signaled the end of my first session as your Representative at the Arizona State House.

For the past five months, I have reviewed, debated and voted on hundreds of bills on topics ranging from job growth and expanding educational choices for parents to criminal asset forfeiture and speed cameras, to name just a few.

I serve on the House Commerce, Health and Public Safety/Judiciary Committees where I am hard at work to honor the trust you have placed in me by putting your priorities of fiscal responsibility, education and public safety first.

Five Syms Bills Signed into Law by Gov. Ducey
I hit the ground running in January, and I am now seeing the results of that work with Gov. Ducey signing five of my bills into law, all of them with unanimous legislative approval. These new laws are directed at helping women, veterans, victims and our most vulnerable.

Sexual Assault Kit Testing - #endthebacklog
I am most proud of HB1168 that requires testing of all sexual assault kits and addresses the backlog of thousands of kits currently sitting in storage. Women and victims of these horrible crimes often had to wait months to years before obtaining justice. By testing all kits, we are not only giving them the dignity they deserve, but we are also collecting valuable evidence that will keep criminals off the streets — a win for everyone. Indeed, we have already seen five new indictments as a result of efforts to end the backlog.

Veterans Service Counts Initiatives
My Service Counts initiatives — HB1170 and HB1171 — are aimed at giving occupational licensing and job certification education credit to veterans for training and education they already received while in service. Many folks do not realize just how much specialized experience veterans receive that can be directly applied to the workforce. By reducing the barriers to entry for our servicemen, we can ease their transition to civilian life and tap into a talented, workforce ready group of people to help grow our economy. It is the least we can do for those who sacrificed so much for us.

Victims’ Restitution and Confidentiality
As a former Assistant Attorney General and Assistant United States Attorney, advocating for victims has been a focus throughout my career. This session, the governor signed two bills that I introduced in conjunction with Attorney General Mark Brnovich and victims’ advocacy groups that will give victims priority for restitution and protect their privacy for communications to sexual assault counselors. Victims’ rights should always remain a priority in our criminal justice system.

Stopping Predatory Lawyers and Drive-By Disability Lawsuit Abuse
In addition to the foregoing legislation, I have also been hard at work to end frivolous drive-by disability lawsuits filed by predatory lawyers seeking to line their pockets on the backs of hardworking Arizona businesspeople. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed this year against unsuspecting businesses for minor things like the height of a sign in a parking lot. Through a long stakeholder process, with both the disability and business communities united in their desire to stop these opportunists, we now have a law that will hold drive-by lawyers accountable through sanctions and allow our businesses the opportunity to cure technical violations of the ADA.

2018 Budget - Making Good on Promises for More Education Dollars
Throughout the budget negotiation process, I have been a strong voice for more dollars in the classroom and specifically, increasing teacher salaries and investing in early childhood literacy/kindergarten programs for our most needy. I was disappointed in the Governor’s initial proposal for a .4 percent pay increase and remained a no vote on the budget until that number came up. As a state, we must respect and reward teachers as integral to the future success of our children and Arizona.

The governor ultimately signed a $9.8 billion budget that invests $4.2 billion in education. Included in the budget is $163 million for K-12, above the $131 million for growth and inflation. This is in addition to the $360 million schools receive each year as a result of the Prop 123 settlement of an ongoing legal dispute about inflationary dollars.

Here are some highlights of the new K-12 education dollars:

  • Teacher Pay Raises: An additional permanent 2 percent pay raise for every public school teacher over the next 2 years — a $68 million investment above the annual 1.3 percent inflation increase. This means an average of $1,000 more in every teacher’s pocket above any money they receive from Prop 123, inflation funding, overrides, or their districts (state school districts receive about $4 billion annually — nearly half the state budget).

  • Kindergarten Expansion: As a former Paradise Valley United Methodist Church Preschool Board Member, I understand how important early childhood development is to future success. The budget invests $20 million to kindergarten/early literacy programs over the next two years, starting with our lowest-income schools.

  • Rewarding Excellence: The new budget includes more than $37 million in ongoing revenue for results based funding for Arizona’s top performing teachers and public schools with half of the money earmarked for teacher raises.

  • Rural Broadband: The budget provides funds for expanding broadband to our students in rural communities for better education and career training opportunities. The state investment will generate $100 million in funding.

School Facilities Board: We are committed to investing $100 million in new construction of K-12 schools over the next two years as well as $17.2 million for building renewal.

In addition to K-12 funding, we are making a significant effort to restore funding to our public universities in order to foster the innovation and growth that will attract businesses and jobs to Arizona. With the state’s historic investment, the universities will have $1 billion in bonding capability. ASU President Michael Crow describes the budget as “ushering in a new wave of support for higher education.”

The above summary is by no means exhaustive of all the strides we are making in terms of investing in education, job growth and infrastructure for our state. Although we are out of session, I will continue to work on ways to build on these successes and reach out to you for your feedback.

Please contact me at maria@symsforaz.com with your ideas for Arizona and you will be hearing from me with periodic updates. In the meantime, I wish you and your families a happy and safe summer holiday!