Tucson cannot force its employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine and the city puts millions of dollars of state revenue at risk if it continues to enforce a mandate handed down by the City Council last month, Attorney General Mark Brnovich said Tuesday.
“Tucson’s vaccine mandate is illegal and the city could be held liable for attempting to force government employees to take it against their beliefs,” Brnovich said in a released statement. “COVID-19 vaccinations should be a choice, not a government mandate.”
If the city does not rescind or amend the policy within 30 days, it could lose state revenue dollars, Brnovich’s office said.
The attorney general’s finding is the latest in a back-and-forth battle over COVID-19 safety measures between the city, state lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey’s office.
It also allows Brnovich, a Republican running for his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate race, to capitalize on divisive vaccine policy that favors personal choice over the advice of public health experts.
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In June, Ducey signed a bill into law that prohibits cities and counties from requiring employees to get the vaccine. State lawmakers sent him the bill as part of the budget.
Ducey then issued an executive order last month as a reminder and a warning after the Tucson City Council passed its ordinance that required city employees to get vaccinated.
Under the policy, employees were subject to disciplinary procedures and possibly a five-day suspension if they did not get the vaccine.
The policy allowed employees to seek exemptions from the mandate based on medical conditions or religious beliefs.
As of Aug. 24, 354 full-time or non-permanent employees of the city were not vaccinated and did not seek an exemption, meaning they were at risk of discipline. The city has 3,908 full-time employees and 482 non-permanent employees, who mostly work seasonal positions like lifeguards.
The attorney general’s conclusion was the result of an investigation started with a complaint by state Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa. State law allows lawmakers to request the attorney general investigate orders put in place by local governments, with the potential penalty for a violation being the loss of state revenue.
Brnovich spokesperson Katie Conner, who announced the investigation’s finding on a video call with Josh Kredit, assistant chief deputy, and Solicitor General Beau Roysden, said that what Tucson was trying to do was “offensive” considering that policy makers have “clearly spoken.”
Although the state law prohibiting vaccine mandates doesn’t take effect until Sept. 29, Tucson is technically in violation now because of Ducey’s Aug. 16 executive order, which “further supplemented” the law, Conner said.
The city will pause its program until officials have a “better understanding” of their legal position in light of Brnovich’s opinion, Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega said in a statement with other city representatives.
Mayor Regina Romero criticized Brnovich and linked his decision to his run for higher office.
“It is deeply unfortunate, but not surprising, that the attorney general is prioritizing his political ambitions over his responsibility to objectively interpret the law,” she said. “This report reads more as a campaign speech filled with political commentary rather than a fact-based legal opinion.”
Ducey did not immediately comment on the attorney general’s decision.
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