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Schools Are The New Pandemic Battleground In A Controversial Arizona Budget

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to masks, a key tool in the fight against COVID and, in many places, the focus of raging controversy. Arizona banned mask mandates in K-12 schools. Now there's a new lawsuit fighting how that ban came to be.

Ben Giles from member station KJZZ in Phoenix has more.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: There are things you expect to see in a state budget - funding for schools, pay for state workers, allocations for new programs. But if you leaf through Arizona's most recent spending plan, you'll see things that have nothing to do with the budget at all. There's rules for election administration, regulations for what teachers can and can't talk about in their classrooms, and, yes, the ban on local school leaders from requiring students and staff to wear masks.

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JOSEPH CHAPLIK: I said, I'm not signing onto the education budget if we don't have control of the masks.

GILES: That's Republican State Representative Joseph Chaplik on a conservative talk radio show days before a June deadline for lawmakers to pass a state budget.

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CHAPLIK: When I say control it, the parents should have control. The children and the parents should have control, not the school board, not the school districts.

GILES: Chaplik said he'd refused to vote for the budget if it didn't include a ban on mask mandates in schools.

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CHAPLIK: It's a game that a lot of people play.

GILES: The game is called horse trading, lawmakers leveraging their votes for the budget to get something in return. It's a common tactic in many states, even in Congress. But Chaplik wasn't horse trading for a specific budget item, like money for new roads. He wanted a regulation on Arizona schools that has no connection to state spending. That's where attorney Roopali Desai says Republican lawmakers got it wrong.

ROOPALI DESAI: There's not any budget provision relating to a prohibition on COVID-19 mitigation policies. It's simply a substantive policy that was put in here because certain legislators insisted that it be in there if somebody wanted them to vote on the budget.

GILES: When there's nothing connecting a policy adopted in the budget to actual state spending, Desai says that's a violation of the Arizona Constitution, which requires that a bill can only tackle one thing or one single subject at a time. In this case, the subject is how to spend taxpayer dollars. Desai filed a lawsuit citing that rule on behalf of a coalition of education and civic groups. The city of Phoenix makes the same case against a law Republicans designed to undermine civilian oversight of the city's police department. City attorneys argue that policy shouldn't have been included in the budget and cite the same constitutional rules used to argue a ban on mask mandates doesn't belong either.

KAREN FANN: To get that budget moving, that's what we had to do.

GILES: Republican Senate President Karen Fann spoke publicly about the budget last month, blaming her party's dwindling numbers at the Capitol for a budget packed with significant new policy. The Republican majority was so slim that to pass a budget on party lines, all 31 Republicans in the House and all 16 in the Senate had to vote for it.

FANN: Everyone knew that they were either number 16 or number 31. We ended up having to put policy in the budget that not necessarily everybody was on board with.

GILES: Desai said the abuse of the budget process this year was unprecedented. And a court order could serve as a course correction.

DESAI: Lawsuits are brought to put folks back on the right track. Like, this is what our Founding Fathers required and sort of envisioned for the process, the legislative process. It's in our Constitution. We've gone astray from that process. We need the courts to set those boundaries.

GILES: Desai asked the court to stop the mask mandate ban and other new laws from taking effect on September 29. For NPR News, I'm Ben Giles in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM'S "LICORICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.