Arizona governor vetoes controversial bill: What went into her decision?

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday vetoed a bill that caused a national stir over gay rights and religious freedom. Her record as governor holds clues about how she made her decision.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer speaks at a news conference announcing she has vetoed SB1062, a bill designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays, in Phoenix on Wednesday.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) on Wednesday vetoed a bill that caused a national stir over gay rights and religious freedom because it offered legal protection to business owners who choose to deny services based on religious beliefs.

In announcing her decision, the governor said she gave the legislation careful deliberation, talking with her lawyers, residents, and lawmakers on both sides of the debate.

"My agenda is to sign into law legislation that advances Arizona," she said. "I call them like I see them despite the cheers or the boos from the crowd."

Governor Brewer said the bill, which had quickly become known as anti-gay, was broadly worded and could have unintended, negative consequences.

The legislation "could divide Arizona in ways we could not even imagine and no one would ever want," she said.

Brewer had come home from a short trip on Tuesday to intense public pressure surrounding the bill, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last week. Gay rights advocates, business leaders, and national politicians bombarded the governor with calls for a veto of SB 1062, calling the measure discriminatory and disastrous for the economy. Organizers of the Super Bowl, set for Arizona next year, also voiced opposition to the bill, and even some of the state lawmakers who voted for it had a change of heart.

How did she come to her decision to reject the bill? A review of her handling of other controversial matters, as well as her relationship with the business community, holds clues.

"She's not afraid to surprise or battle her own party or allies," says Doug Cole, a longtime adviser to the Republican governor. Speaking before Brewer’s announcement, he also said, "The governor is going to go through her normal, very deliberate process."

Brewer, in fact, rejected similar legislation last year, although she did not explain why. Before the veto, lawmakers had defied orders to stop sending her bills until they tackled Medicaid expansion, which she championed amid a rift with party allies.

In some ways, the issues of gay rights and religious rights have not figured prominently in Brewer’s governorship before now.

"Those haven't been issues that have been front and center during her administration at all," Mr. Cole says.

In 2008, when Brewer was Arizona’s secretary of State, Arizona passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which was already prohibited by law.

In 2009, Brewer’s first year as governor, she supported a law repealing her predecessor's executive order that had granted medical benefits to state employees’ domestic partners – gays and others. She portrayed the action as a cost-saving tactic. Several gay employees sued, and a federal judge issued an injunction that ordered the state to keep providing benefits to employees. Brewer took the case to the US Supreme Court, which in June 2013 declined to take it up.

As Brewer considered SB 1062, gays and their supporters held various demonstrations.

"Our message to Jan Brewer is really simple: Do the right thing," Carol Grimsby, the leader of Wingspan, an advocacy group, told reporters at a protest Monday in Tucson, Ariz. "Do not legislate discrimination in the state of Arizona."

Brewer heard similar pleas nearly four years ago, but on another subject: the anti-illegal immigration law known as SB 1070. Her signing of that bill brought boycotts and protests, but it was also considered a key factor in her reelection in 2010.

In the case of SB 1070, even its opponents acknowledged "the very real problem with our immigration system," says Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

By contrast, the bill that Brewer just vetoed "feels to us like a solution in search of a problem," Mr. Hamer says.

The blowback to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as it was officially called, surprised Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative group in Phoenix that pushed for passage of the legislation.

"The bill is not about discrimination, it's about religious liberty," she said prior to Brewer’s announcement.

The center, which opposes abortion and gay marriage, has long supported the conservative Brewer, who, adviser Cole notes, is a devoted Christian and often turns to her religious community for guidance.

But Brewer’s push for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act put the governor at odds with former collaborators. Brewer's support for a temporary sales tax to boost the economy also caused her to break with Republican lawmakers.

A priority for Brewer, as she noted in her announcement Wednesday, has been to improve the state's economy. She’s worked to entice companies to relocate to the Grand Canyon State through tax breaks and other incentives.

Apple announced in November that it plans to build a plant in the Phoenix area. Recently, the governor traveled south of the US-Mexico border to promote new joint trade ventures with the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora.

"She's someone who is direct and communicates why she takes action very well," CEO Hamer says.

In an interview before Brewer’s announcement, Paul Bender, a political scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe, saw business interests as weighing heavily in her decision. "She doesn't want to go down as the governor who lost business for the state or drove the NFL away from here," he said.

Brewer’s term as governor expires at the end of this year, but she has said she might challenge the state constitution to run again. She was appointed to a two-year term after then-Gov. Janet Napolitano resigned in early 2009 to become President Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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