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Arizona Votes for Opting Out of Federal Laws

If Arizona successfully opts out of enforcing a federal law like Obamacare, some see other states following suit.

Arizona now has a choice in whether it will actually enforce federal laws and regulations, after voters Tuesday approved a ballot measure that establishes a way for the state to opt out of certain federal law.

The measure, called Proposition 122, means that the upcoming legislative session could see proposals for the state to pull back spending on certain federal programs like the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. The measure passed with a 51 percent majority with 97 percent of precincts reporting.

Arizona is still subject to the United States Constitution. But now it won’t have to spend its own money enforcing a federal law if voters approve a referendum against that law, if lawmakers pass a bill against the law or if some other legal remedy (like a governor’s executive order) is applied. If such a measure passes, all political subdivisions of the state, including cities and counties, would be prohibited from using any personnel or financial resources to enforce, administer or cooperate with that federal action or program. Instead, the federal government would be responsible for enforcing its own law.

Interestingly, the constitutional change was rejected (albiet narrowly) by the state's two most populous counties, which accounted for about 800,000 of the nearly 1.1 million votes cast. Yet it garnered such support from nearly all of the remaining rural counties that it still passed, a feat that a Yes on 122 campaign spokesman said is a first in Arizona.

"The rural counties really feel more of the brunt of the federal government than the rest of the state because so much of those counties are made up of federal lands," said Jonathan Paton. "I think that distrust and dislike of the federal government probably had a role to play." 

But there could be setbacks. Recent history has shown that the state suffers when the federal government enforces some programs itself. In 2010, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took over issuing greenhouse gas permits in Texas because the state refused to enforce the Clean Air Act. As a result, permitting slowed down to a crawl, creating a backlog of expansion projects in the state. Earlier this year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality took back the permitting process from the EPA under a new agreement.

Prop. 122 is a much broader state sovereignty measure compared with the one that failed on the state’s 2012 ballot. That measure only targeted Arizona’s federally owned lands and would have given the state control over them. But this time around featured an organized campaign promoting the sovereignty measure. If Arizona is able to successfully apply its new rule and opt out of a federal law, Paton sees other states following suit.

“That will be the biggest selling point -- when you actually use it as a tool to do something,” he said. “People will see that and say, ‘Yeah, they really thought about this.’”

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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