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Hobbs unsure if she can find someone to head state health department



PHOENIX — Gov. Katie Hobbs said Wednesday she’s not sure she can find someone to head the state health department that would meet with the approval of Republican lawmakers.

The governor’s comments come just a day after Pima County Health Director Theresa Cullen withdrew her name from consideration for the job. But Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, insisted on taking a vote to formally reject the nomination saying the Senate secretary had not be notified.

All that occurred after what amounted to a three-hour grilling of Cullen and criticism — and some derision of her — by Republican lawmakers about the decisions she made while Pima’s health chief to deal with the COVID outbreak. That included not caring whether students lost out on learning opportunities and suffered depression because of school closures and Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, who chairs the Director Nominations Committee calling her “disingenuous” for claiming it was the board of supervisors and not her who made final decisions.

“What they did was beyond reproach,” Hobbs said. “It was inexcusable.”

What it also did is leave the agency with no permanent leader, with Jennie Cunico, a deputy director as the agency, as acting director. More to the point, the governor said that there is no one else currently being considered for the job.

“We are back to the drawing board,” Hobbs said.

Separately, the governor made it clear that she is ready with her veto stamp to reject the $15.1 billion spending plan approved earlier this week by the Republican-controlled Legislature and sent to her desk on Wednesday. Hobbs said that should finally pave the way for negotiations with the GOP majority between what they want and the $17.1 billion budget she has proposed.

“I introduced my budget, they introduced theirs,” she said.

“There was no discussion on this budget,” the governor continued. “They weren’t interested.”

And Hobbs said another veto awaits a measure approved by both the House and Senate to end the ability of cities and towns to tax what renters pay their landlords.

Proponents say the measure would promote housing affordability. And the governor said she supports that goal.

“But these are not savings that are going to be passed on to renters,’’ she said, echoing comments by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, that landlords will simply raise the rent knowing that’s what tenants are willing to pay.

Petersen disputed that, saying taxes are listed as a separate line item in leases. And there is a provision on the measure saying  by the end of this year landlords must reduce the rent equal to what they are saving by no longer have to pay in local taxes.

Hobbs now turns her attention to finding another nominee to run the health department.

She said, though, that getting someone else to agree to go through the legislative review process may not be easy. And that goes to what happened when Cullen went before the the Senate Director Nominations Committee last week.

“What I’m worried about is the chilling effect that this is going to have another qualified candidate coming forward and being willing to put themselves through this exercise,” Hobbs said.

And she laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Republicans.

“I don’t know that we’re going to find a qualified candidate that’s going to meet whatever weird requirements this legislative committee and the Senate has,” the governor said.

It’s not just the health department. Hobbs needs to get all of her other picks for agency chiefs confirmed by the Senate.

The Director Nominations Committee did vote last week to recommend approval of Angela Rodgers to head the Department of Economic Security. And Hobbs appeared gladdened by the fact that all of her nominees are not going to get rejected.

But there are many more to come.

The panel is set to meet Monday to consider three more Hobbs picks: Jennifer Toth for the Department of Transportation, Karen Peters for the Department of Environmental Quality, and Elizabeth Thorson to run the Department of Administration. Hobbs said her staff is working to help ensure they have smoother sailing than Cullen.

“We are certainly working with all of our nominees, making sure that they feel prepared — and that we’re anticipating some of the garbage that might be thrown at them,” she said.

Still, Hobbs said she’s not sure Cullen’s nomination could have been salvaged, no matter what.

“I don’t think anything could have been done that would have prepared anyone for what they did to her,” the governor said, right down to questions Cullen was asked about a Twitter post she made three years earlier.

Hoffman was unapologetic for what Cullen was put through.

“We did exactly what we said we would do, which was a thorough, factual and honest vetting,” he said.

That Hoffman said, included questioning her on the policies she recommended that the county board of supervisors and others which they adopted, including curfews, mask mandates and school closures.

“Whether or not she wants to stand by those policies is her decision,” he said of the nominee. “But they were nonetheless the policies Dr. Cullen advocated.”

Hoffman acknowledged some of those same policies actually were implemented by Doug Ducey when he was governor. He issued executive orders for people to remain at home except for “essential” travel, the closure of schools and recommendations for people to be vaccinated.

But Hoffman said that is irrelevant to the questioning of Cullen.

“The Republican governor wasn’t up for confirmation to lead the Arizona Department of Health,” Hoffman said. “Dr. Cullen was.”