Backer of religious rights bill in the spotlight

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX (AP) -- A group known as the Center for Arizona Policy usually gets its way in the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature, pushing through anti-abortion bills and social policy embraced by conservative Christians.

But twice in the past year, the group has made political mistakes in pushing for legislation at the heart of its mission - most recently a religious freedom bill known as Senate Bill 1062 that expanded the rights of businesses to refuse service to gays and brought such an unwanted spotlight to Arizona that Gov. Jan Brewer slapped it with a veto this week.

Last year, the group's effort to tack abortion restrictions onto Brewer's Medicaid expansion proposal drew the wrath of the governor and a veto stamp.

The resulting negative focus on the group and its president, Cathi Herrod, raises doubts about whether it can continue to wield strong influence at the Capitol. But political observers and Herrod dismiss those doubts, and her track record supports the stance.

"The Center for Arizona Policy has been here for many years and will continue to be here for many years," Herrod said in an interview on the eve of Wednesday's veto. "Many, many Arizonans support our work and we're not going anywhere."

Herrod's group has sway among Republicans who control the Legislature. She's considered so powerful that even GOP lawmakers who oppose some of her legislation decline to speak in detail about their reservations.

Her efforts routinely draw scorn from Democrats, and a group called Citizens for a Better Arizona vowed this week to pressure lawmakers to stop backing her bills.

Brewer has signed many bills sponsored by Herrod's group over the years. For instance, the Legislature approved and she signed a 2012 bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks. That action came despite knowledge by all parties that it ran afoul of U.S. Supreme Court precedent. The resulting legal battle ended with the ban being overturned after a costly legal battle.

Another 2012 bill banned Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services, from receiving any state Medicaid money for its other services. That too, was slapped down by the courts.

When Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062, she made no mention of the bill's legislative sponsors or Herrod's group. But it was clear that Brewer believed the proposal was unnecessary, saying it was aimed at a problem that didn't exist in Arizona, was broadly worded, and could result in "negative and unintended consequences."

Despite the losses, Herrod continues to press her agenda at the Capitol. In addition to the religious freedom bill, she's pushing a measure that would drop a requirement for an administrative search warrant before an abortion clinic is inspected after a complaint. The House gave initial approval to the proposal Thursday, despite warnings from Democrats that it would surely lead to costly litigation.

A federal appeals court ruled in 2004 that warrantless inspections allowed under a 1999 Arizona law were unconstitutional, and a final 2010 settlement of the case put in place the current system. The warrants have rarely been used, only once in the past three years, calling into question the need to ditch the system.

The Center for Arizona Policy is also joining with the Goldwater Institute to push a major expansion of the state's school voucher program.

Brewer is an advocate of many of the group's positions.

"The governor has been very supportive of a lot of the pro-life issues that Cathi has advocated since she took office," said Doug Cole, a political consultant who has worked on Brewer's campaigns. "On the other side, Cathi's organization last session was extremely unhelpful on the Medicaid restoration and expansion debate - very unhelpful - so it's a mixed bag."

The national attention that 1062 battle brought on the state hasn't been wasted on Herrod, who needs ongoing donations to fund her group. In an email to supporters Friday, Herrod said she was headed to New York to appear on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's nationally televised talk show.


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