A state Republican lawmaker says his party may be using the state budget to send Maricopa County Sheriff a message -- step up your immigration enforcement of face the budget ax.
On Wednesday, legislators moved forward with the nearly $10 billion state spending plan that strips Paul Penzone's office of $1.6 million for gang and immigration enforcement.
In the past, Arizona's largest county had no problems getting state aid for the Gang & Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission (GIITEM) task force.
In November, Penzone, a Democrat, defeated the longtime Republican sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Since taking over, Penzone has taken a softer approach to immigration than his predecessor, who was nationally known for his hard immigration policies.
"I know that Sheriff Penzone has sent messages that he's not interested in immigration, or as interested in immigration enforcement, so perhaps it's a message being sent," said Rep. T.J. Shope, a Republican from Coolidge.
Because if this, Democrats say the cuts to Penzone's office are politically motivated.
"We have a new Democratic sheriff in Maricopa County and then we have a new Republican sheriff in Pima County and so they've kept their funds but you've stripped all ...gang enforcement funds from the sheriff of Maricopa County," Democratic Rep. Mark Cardenas said during the committee hearing. "I'm wondering if anyone can answer why."
Daniel Scarpinato, Gov. Doug Ducey's spokesman, said the swept funds will be still be appropriated toward public safety, and noted they will be used to take action on Arizona's untested sexual assault kits.
"The governor believes that this issue of the rape kit backlog is one that is very critical to public safety," Scarpinato said. "So this from our standpoint is a very relevant use of these dollars for public safety."
Scarpinato said resources like partnerships between Maricopa County and the Arizona Department of Public Safety dealing with drug crimes and trafficking make it possible to continue to make gang enforcement a priority while also dealing with the untested kits.
Cardenas said the task force funding is used in Maricopa County to enforce immigration laws on gang members who are felons operating within his district.
"I think people who are running the drugs, people who are stuffing people in a hotel room -- 30 to 40 people at a time -- I think it's universal that these people need to be found ... they are committing violent crimes in my neighborhood."
Under the proposal, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb would receive $500,000 in funding while Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier would get $400,000.
Mark Casey, a spokesman for Penzone, said the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is in the process of analyzing the impact the provision would have.
Democratic Rep. Ken Clark said it was reprehensible the committee would allow the proposal to pass when members could not explain the reasoning behind the stripped funding.
"We're going to lower public safety for people evidently just in Maricopa County, and that's not doing our job," Clark said when he voted against the proposal.
The proposed budget deal has yet to be finalized. However, state leaders are hopeful they can approve the deal sometime on Thursday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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