#AZ Senate Votes to End Session. What about the House? (video)

Rep. Pam Powers Hannley

I drove to Phoenix last Thursday (May 7) because Speaker Rusty Bowers and President Karen Fann had called the Legislature back for a sine die vote (a vote to end the second session of the 54th Legislature). We have been adjourned and working remotely since March 23.

Unfortunately, I made that trip for nothing. On May 7, after the morning email notice to report for work, House Republicans held a closed-door caucus for several hours (as long as six hours by some reports).  At about 8:20 p.m. on May 7, when I was already in Phoenix, Bowers sent a second email saying that the House would not reconvene on Friday (May 8) for the sine die vote. (I drove two hours to a canceled meeting, and Rep. Myron Tsosie drove 5.5 hours from Navajo.)

Senator David Livingston
Senator David Livingston spoke forcefully in favor of opening up Arizona for business ASAP– even though his zip code has been particularly hard hit, by his own omission. He and Senators Eddie Farnsworth (seated), David Farnsworth, and Michelle Ugenti-Rita don’t think Governor Doug Ducey is moving fast enough to open up Arizona for business.

The Republicans are in complete disarray. For the second Friday in a row, Republicans have scheduled a sine die floor session and canceled it because they can’t agree. I would have driven to Phoenix last Thursday (April 30), also, but that was the day of the LD9 town hall. The May 1 Legislative floor vote was called and canceled before I got in the car.

Bowers has a revolt on his hands, obviously. There is a small but vocal group of Arizona representatives and senators who want to buck Governor Doug Ducey’s executive order to stay home and keep businesses closed. Ducey has flip-flopped several times in recent weeks due to pressure from Libertarians (who, regardless of the public health costs, want to open up the state for business, force people back to work, and rescind Ducey’s executive order closing the economy) and Democrats (who are clamoring for more testing, more contact tracing, more transparency in the data, workplace protections, continued shelter in place, and not opening up too soon). The Open Up Arizona Republicans are marching in lock step with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council). In fact, 11 Arizona Legislators signed an open ALEC letter to President Trump asking him to open up the economy: Senate President Karen Fann, Senators Vince Leach, Rick Gray, David Livingston, and Reps. John Allen, Walter Balckman, Nancy Barto, Ben Toma, Becky Nutt, Frank Carroll, and Leo Biasiucci.

Since I was already in Phoenix, I stopped at the capital on May 8, to watch the Arizona Senate sine die. It was pretty easy to do social distancing in the Arizona House because no one was there, except a handful of staff in their offices and a few DPS officers. There were about 25-30 Open Up Arizona protesters in front of the Senate and hassling members like Senator Victoria Steele in the Senate parking lot. I thought I would be able to get into the Senate Chamber to watch the festivities… but no visitors. I am grateful that I ended up in my office to watch the debate, since the Senate, in uncharacteristic fashion, had a lot to say– three hours worth– and 13 Republican Senators weren’t wearing masks. All of the Democrats, most of the staff, and a handful of Republicans (Senators Tyler Pace [who owns long-term care facilities], Sine Kerr, and Kate Brophy-McGee) wore masks on the Floor. (Senator Heather Carter, who cares for an elderly parent, watched from her office and came down to vote.)

Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita
Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita spoke and voted against sine die on May 8. She is in the camp that wants to continue to hear and pass bills that would otherwise die. Together, she and Rep. Kelly Townsend have ~20 voter suppression bills that could die with sine die. Both Townsend and Ugenti-Rita are clinging to their pet bills and standing against Ducey. What voter ever said: please make it harder and more complicated to vote.

A vocal minority of Senators talked against sine die and against Ducey’s exec order to close down the economy to beat COVID19, and for opening up businesses at a faster pace, for opening up the Legislature to regular business, and for saving their bad bills. Senator David Livingston spoke forcefully about opening up Arizona for business and putting people back to work ASAP — even though his zip code has been particularly hard hit, by his own omission.  He and others talked about a business liability bill that is important to pass. Apparently, several Senators want businesses to open up at a faster pace than outlined by Ducey, BUT… wait for it… they want to pass a bill that will hold businesses harmless if they open too soon, COVID19 cases and deaths spike, and someone gets sick or dies because their business disregarded the public health warnings, believed the Republicans, and opened too soon. I think businesses should be held responsible for their business decisions.

This business liability bill is right out of the ALEC playbook for the COVID19 response. Here’s an excerpt from the ALEC letter signed by the above Arizona Republicans.

“As the economy reopens, the principles of limited government and fiscal responsibility must be restored. This includes stopping trillions of dollars of new federal spending, which adds to our national debt – now exceeding $24 trillion. [Ending Ducey’s executive order would stop most relief payments to workers.]

“The key to rapidly rebuild the economy is the proven formula of tax relief, deregulation [voting to not sine die gives them more time to pass tax cuts and deregulation bills that would otherwise die] and lawsuit reform [Arizona’s business liability bill]. This formula will unlock the potential of entrepreneurs, businesses and employees. The creativity and tenacity of private sector entrepreneurs and innovators – not the government – is the key to bringing our economy back to full health.”

Senator Lela Alston answered Livingston and said his focus was on calling people back to work to get the economy going, while her focus was on keeping everyone healthy and beating the virus by continuing to follow existing public health guidelines.

Senator Lela Alston answered Livingston and said his focus was on calling people back to work to get the economy going, while her focus was on keeping everyone healthy and beating the virus by continuing to follow existing public health guidelines.

Apparently, the Senate has no time limits for vote explanations or comments, and they don’t have correctness police like Reps. Warren Peterson, Mark Finchem, John Allen, Travis Grantham, and Kelly Townsend to tell others… Democrats, of course, … that they are off-topic and disobeying Mason’s Rules.  Both Senators David and Eddie Farnsworth likened Ducey to King George and urged that Senators to vote “no” on sine die and “yes” to rebel against Ducey’s executive order to keep the economy closed. Freedom-loving Arizona Republicans are fighting for the freedom to open businesses across the state (including bars, restaurants, and salons) and your freedom to choose to go to those businesses– safe or not– even without any protective precautions on your part or the businesses’ part. Republicans see themselves as American Revolutionaries rebelling against the modern day King George– Doug Ducey.  Several Republican Senators talked about the tyranny of the COVID19 public health measures, the freedom to open your businesses if you want to, the freedom to go to those businesses, and, most importantly, the freedom for businesses to avoid lawsuits [the proposed business liability bill] if workers or customers get sick or die from COVID19 and the Open Arizona movement. (What would our state be like if more Legislators worked for the voters and for not the Koch Brothers?)

Several Senators like Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita lamented the loss of their pet bills and wanted to go back into session to “do more work.” Senator Marin Quezada said that the Senate “can pass anything we want today” as long as the bills can garner “yes” votes from two-thirds of both houses, but that would require “true bipartisanship.” Quezada is right. With two thirds of the Senators on board, the Senate could have suspended the rules on Friday and heard a handful of bills that have bipartisan support. Ugenti-Rita’s voter suppression bills and Livingston’s business liability bill, probably wouldn’t meet that threshold. Ugenti-Rita’s voter suppression bills and Livingston’s business liability bill probably wouldn’t meet that threshold.

Fann and Minority Leader David Bradley spoke last. Bradley said that Ducey was no King George. He added that we can’t have “true freedom”– not just economic freedom but freedom from unnecessary fear, isolation, death, and disease related to COVID19– without “shared responsibility”. (This is a theme that Bradley and I have both touched on in the past.)

Senate sine die vote on May 8, 2020.

The vote was 24-6 for sine die. Fann acknowledged the bills that will be lost but said voting to sine die was the best decision. She said that after sine die, we can come back to special session(s) to discuss and craft legislation to tackle the important tasks at hand– like the public health and economic issues around COVID19. She gave a heart-felt shout-out to Bradley, who is retiring after this session. She urged the House to vote to sine die but left the door open to hearing and voting on a select set of bills that have bipartisan support, like sentencing reform, the grandparent stipend, or long-term care center reforms.

Now the question is: what will Speaker Bowers do? Will the House be called back to sine die?

What about if we allowed the more majority of the Legislature to make decisions rather than relying on the majority of Republicans to make decisions? I think that the House vote and rhetoric on sine die would be similar to the Senate’s. What are we waiting for? Let’s shut the session down and focus on the virus response.