Speaker stands up Yuma delegation
A large delegation from Yuma County traveled to Phoenix on Thursday to meet with House Speaker Andy Tobin to discuss their concerns about a controversial water bill he sponsored, only to be stood up by the lawmaker when they arrived at the Arizona Capitol.
The bill, HB 2338, would authorize establishment of water augmentation authorities with the power to buy and sell water. The bill was held by Rep. Brenda Barton, chair of the House Ag and Water Committee, after a number of people spoke in opposition to it during a hearing last week.
Yuma County is staunchly opposed to the bill, seeing it as a water grab of its rights to water from the Colorado River that is vital to its agriculture industry.
Tobin later vowed to press forward with his comprehensive water augmentation plan this year, saying he would find a way to make the bill work — one way or another.
Nineteen people from the Yuma area representing the city, the county, business and agriculture made Thursday's trip for a meeting Tobin agreed to, only to be told through a third party that the lawmaker refused to meet with the delegation.
“The meeting had been set up,” said Ken Rosevear, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce. “We were told he would meet with the Yuma delegation at 1 p.m. We sent word we were there.”
Other interests were there as well, including representatives from the Arizona Cattlemen's Association and Western Growers. Even Herb Guenther, former head of the Arizona Department of Water Resources and still an authoritative voice for the state's water issues, was on the phone.
The offer was made to clear the room of all but 12 people from Yuma after Tobin expressed concern about the size of the group.
The message Tobin sent back, according to Rosevear, is that “it's too late, I've already made up my mind.”
The reaction of the group was shock at the speaker's “unprofessionalism ... asking people to come to the table, then not showing up and deciding he didn't want to participate,” Rosevear said.
Russ Jones, former Yuma County representative, said that while not unprecedented, Tobin's action was “extremely unusual ... our group was invited to speak on the issue, then once the group is in the room to tell us through a third party he won't meet with us.”
Jones said the issue goes “way beyond Yuma. It wasn't just a small Yuma group.”
He also believes the issue is really one for Prescott, a city that is struggling with a sustainable water supply. It also happens to be in the legislative district that Tobin represents.
“This is the speaker's last turn in the House,” Jones said. “He's using the bully pulpit to an issue that's near and dear to his heart. But I sincerely believe the bill isn't even in the best interests of Prescott.”
Jones warned that HB 2338 would make water a commodity, one that opens the door to anyone being able to buy the state's water, even interests beyond Arizona and the United States.
“I'm really disappointed,” Rep. Lisa Otondo of Yuma County said of Tobin's no-show at the meeting. “If divide and conquer is what he's trying to do when it comes to Yuma agriculture, you just can't do that. We will make sure we have a strong group at the table. We have solidarity on our side. This crosses party lines.”
Rep. Darin Mitchell, who represents Legislative District 13 that includes part of Yuma County, said his district was treated poorly “when the speaker refused to meet with us to discuss the possibility of writing a new water bill for next session.”
He continued: “I do not support HB 2338 in its current form and believe it is too flawed to amend. I will fight to kill this thing whenever it shows itself ... and work with all interested parties who want a seat at the table to hammer out an acceptable bill for the next legislative session.”