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Friday Q&A: Why does Arizona elect a mine inspector?
We're the only state that does it, but that's never stopped us before.
Welcome to the Friday Q&A, a recurring feature where we answer your questions about Arizona government and politics.
If you have a question, we’re all ears! There’s no question too basic or silly; in fact, the weirder, the more niche, the better. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get cracking.
Today, we’ll focus on the Mine Inspector, a position Hank wishes he could run for, though he’d need a law change to make that happen (and, as you’ll learn, a law change here isn’t unprecedented).
We’re answering this reader question: Why does Arizona elect a mine inspector? We can think of today’s Friday Q&A a follow-up to our question last week: Why do we elect the people, or these positions?
Arizona elects a state mine inspector, and we’re the only state that does that. Every four years, when the mine inspector comes up for reelection, it inspires a round of stories and questions about why we elect such a position.
The job is, you guessed it, to inspect mines. And over the years, there have been some characters who held or wanted the job — and one who needed the law changed so he actually qualified for the office he already held.
And not for nothing, mines still need inspecting. Far more inspecting than we’re doing, in fact. Falling in an abandoned mine while out exploring Arizona is no joke, and it happens every so often. The mine inspector’s office hasn’t been able to secure all 100,000 estimated abandoned mines in the state. Only about 19,000 of them were identified as of 2018, and less than that have actually been secured to protect the public, according to Cronkite News.
But the debate, since statehood, has centered around whether the position should be elected or appointed, and it has been contentious from the start.
Let’s go back to 1912, the year the Titanic sank and also the year when the Arizona Legislature, in its first session as a state, debated whether a mine inspector should be elected or appointed. (These two events are unrelated.)
During that time, Arizona was still very much a mining state. The mine inspector’s office estimates many of the now-abandoned old mines were worked from the late 1800s to the 1940s. Once they were tapped or the market ran dry, miners left them.
The first legislature debated a mining act that “touched off a bit of political fireworks,” a history of the session in the state archives’ Arizona Memory Project says. (We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: The state librarians are the absolute best. Paloma Phelps, a state librarian, helped us find legislative documents and news clips for this one.)
The mining code bill, which stemmed from a mining commission a previous territorial assembly created to tackle one of the state’s largest industries, called for the mine inspector to be appointed by the governor rather than elected initially.
The Arizona Gazette, a newspaper at the time, said voters could have their say on whether the office should be appointed by trying to undo what the legislature did at the ballot via a referendum, if they wanted. But that would mean the legislature could just come back and pass another bill the next session, if they wanted to keep the debate going. (This was before the Voter Protection Act.)
Miners and their unions wanted the position to be elected, as did critics of then-Gov. George P. Hunt, Arizona’s first governor. Another loosely-related fact: You can visit Hunt’s tomb at Papago Park, where his body is interred in a white pyramid that looks similar to actor Nicolas Cage’s future tomb in New Orleans.
The debate over elected vs. appointed went on for “several days,” the legislative history says. Hunt wanted to appoint the mine inspector — governors generally do like more power.
The Miami Miners’ Union, in particular, sent a resolution to Hunt and the legislature that included many of the cons of appointing the position. The people should choose, and they should have the ability to recall someone who wasn’t doing the job properly, the union argued.
Newspapers debated the issue in their pages, too. The Tucson Citizen agreed with Hunt, saying ballots should be shorter and the work was administrative, not elective, in nature.
Tucson’s other paper, the Arizona Daily Star, disagreed, saying this governor could appoint a qualified person, but future ones may not. And while the work of a mine inspector is technical, so too is the work of other elected positions, the paper noted.
By the time the bill reached Hunt’s desk, the mining code called for an elected mine inspector. Hunt signed it.
But the first mine inspector was actually appointed, according to the bill’s provision. It was G.H. Bolin of Bisbee, described in the legislative history as someone Hunt had “known for some time” and served alongside in the Constitutional Convention.
The Arizona Constitution now holds language saying the position is elected. The position was up for election every two years until 1992, when a proposition extended terms to four years. There’s a four-term limit, unlike other statewide elected offices, which hold two-term limits
(It’s not entirely clear to us why the language is in the constitution and not statutes since bills passed by the legislature typically just become statutes. It seems that the commission created for mining regulation played a role, the state library said. The 1910 proposed constitution for the state included language for a mine inspector who would be appointed until the next general election, which, as we noted, was then hotly debated in the 1912 legislative session.)
State statutes include a few requirements for the role: two years as an Arizona resident, at least 30 years old, and have worked in mines and mining in the state. This includes eight total years of experience, four or more in Arizona, “consisting of direct operational or management experience with mining operations at a mine and shall have knowledge of the state and federal regulations involving the health and safety of mining employees.” (Edited to add: These requirements actually became more specific this year, when a new law was approved.)
This has come up before. State statutes once called for “underground” mine experience specifically, and a Democratic challenger to current mine inspector Joe Hart called his experience in such mines into question. The law was changed in 2010 to simply say mining experience in general would suffice.
People tend to hold the position for lengthy periods of time: Hart has been in office since 2007. Before him, Douglas Martin served from 1991 to 2007.
Lawmakers over the years have tried to get the position to be appointed. Mine inspector isn’t the only office some lawmakers and pundits have argued over on this point, though. Frequent debates ignite over whether the Arizona Corporation Commission, county assessors, constables and justices of the peace and others should be appointed instead.
The wisdom often falls to the status quo: People should have a direct say in who does these jobs. It’s hard to take that away, especially if it’s been set in law for more than 100 years.
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