Arizona lawmakers unable to decide whether to pull plug in this year's session

Arizona lawmakers unable to decide whether to pull plug in this year's session

From the May's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Arizona schools to reopen in August, Tucson council approves plan for funding series

The Legislature adopted a budget for the coming fiscal year, the only thing it is required to do.

PHOENIX — A plan to finally pull the plug on the 2020 legislative session is now up in the air.

Senate President Karen Fann said Thursday she has more than enough votes among Republican and Democratic lawmakers to formally wrap up the session that has been in recess since March 23. The thought at that time is that lawmakers would be able to resume debate on outstanding issues within weeks.

Fann acknowledged that some restrictions are being lifted, including allowing small businesses and restaurants to reopen, albeit with requirements for safety procedures like masks and social distancing.

But Fann told Capitol Media Services that really isn't possible for the Legislature.

"The restrictions will not be lifted for large crowds or 100 people sitting next to each other in a committee room or somewhere else,'' she said. "It will not be safe for us to come back in and open our doors up to the public for at least another month, maybe longer.''

The Prescott Republican dismissed suggestions to reconvene what could amount at times to a "virtual'' Legislature, with some members opting to participate through the internet.

"It takes away the transparency,'' she said.

She said while technology like Zoom allows people to vote remotely, they really can't participate in debate. Then there's the fact that there are several hundred bills that may have to go through committee hearings and floor sessions, both of which would have to remain closed to the public.

"I am not going to do that behind closed doors,'' Fann said. "Everybody needs to have the ability to see what's going on and be a part of our process.''

The one big unanswered question is what happens at the House.

Late Thursday, Speaker Rusty Bowers rescinded his plans to call members to the floor Friday to give them all — including the 29 Democrats in the 60-member chamber — a chance to vote whether to stay or go. Instead he said this is a decision of the majority of the 31 Republicans.

"Members of the House Republican caucus believe there is important work for us to do on behalf of the people of Arizona,'' he said in a prepared statement. And Bowers is counting on Fann to back down.

"We intend to remain in session and, together with the Senate and the governor, work in support of the safe and expeditious reopening of our society, our economy, and protection of our state's small businesses and communities.''

The move is a victory for elements of the House GOP like Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who called any decision to go home "nonfeasance.''

"Nonfeasance means you know what you're supposed to do, but you don't do it,'' she said.

Bowers sought to end the session last month, only to back down when he admitted he had not first consulted his members.

But if Fann has the votes, what happens in the House is irrelevant: One chamber cannot enact legislation.

Fann did not return calls late Thursday seeking reaction to what Bowers is doing.

There are dozens of issues that would be left unresolved, ranging from changes in election laws and regulation of vacation rentals to higher gasoline taxes and banning transgender females from participating in high school and college sports. It also would mean the death of several tax-cut proposals, including one by Gov. Doug Ducey to eliminate income taxes on military pensions.

Fann said anything related to the pandemic can be dealt with in a special session later this year. But one thing already on her agenda is whether the state should provide some legal immunity from being sued for any virus-related deaths or injuries.

Business interests and doctors have been pushing for liability limits for more than three decades. But voters have refused to repeal two sections of the Arizona Constitution that prohibit lawmakers from limiting the right to sue.

Ducey opened the door last month with an executive order providing immunity from liability for health-care workers, hospitals, nursing homes and other health-care institutions for any acts taken in "good faith'' by an employee or volunteer while providing services supporting the state's public health emergency. Fann said there are reasons to extend that to some non healthcare operations.

"If you have a small mom-and-pop business and they open back up and they follow all the CDC guidelines with distancing and sanitation and everything else, and if someone were to come in and later try to claim they got COVID-19 going into their business ... then the small business owner is having to defend all these potentially frivolous cases,'' she said.

That could prove controversial, and not just because of the constitutional constraints.

Rep. Diego DeGrazia, D-Tucson, said he understands small business owners, not experts in science, would want to be able to rely on standards set by entities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine what they should do to protect themselves and their customers. But he said there are "nuances'' that need to be studied, ranging from what would be defined as "best practices'' to gain some legal protections to differences between for-profit and non-profit businesses.

Among those opposed to shutting the session down is Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria. He said there are crucial issues left unresolved, unrelated to the pandemic, that can't wait until a new session convenes in January.

One goes back to legislation approved two years ago allowing use of "personal delivery devices.'' These pint-sized autonomous robots can deliver everything from mail to hot pizza. But they needed authorization for them to use the sidewalks.

Only thing is, legislators wanted to see how they worked. So the law allowing their use as temporary expires at the end of August.

Livingston's SB 1305 legislation removes the "sunset'' clause and sets new speed and weight limits.

It was approved 29-0 by the Senate. But the House recessed without acting on it.

Absent a new law, they become illegal on Sept. 1.

"They are being used,'' Livingston said. "Especially with what's happening with the virus, there's many companies that want to do it even more, including UPS and FedEx, especially for regular packages.''

Livingston said there are procedural maneuvers that can slow the process and give him a chance to try to convince colleagues to reject the motion to adjourn. But the ultimate weapon for senators is effectively a filibuster: There is no rule that limits how long a senator can take to explain his or her votes.

The Legislature did complete the only thing it is legally required to do: adopt a budget for the coming fiscal year. But it is only an $11.8 billion "baseline'' spending plan to continue all agencies with adjustments for growth and population.

Lawmakers did add an additional $105 million before packing up in March in direct funds for the Department of Health Services to deal with the virus as well as for aid to renters, the homeless and small businesses.

But fiscal questions remain, including how much the pandemic will affect state revenues. Legislative budget staffers said it could slash tax collections by about $1.1 billion.

At the same time, the state is likely to incur more expenses as more people qualify for programs like Medicaid.

The unemployment situation — more than 500,000 have lost jobs since the outbreak and the restrictions imposed by the governor — does not affect state spending. The cost of state-provided benefits is borne by a tax on employers; an additional $600 a week approved by Congress is funded from Washington.

Finally ending the session does have one immediate benefit for lawmakers looking for another term.

Arizona law prohibits legislators from raising money from lobbyists during the legislative session. This is an election year. That prohibition goes away Friday, providing time for seeking donations before the Aug. 3 primary.

Ending the formal session also means no more daily living allowance.

With the session only in recess, all 90 of them have has been entitled to collect their daily allowance seven days a week even though there have been no sessions since March 23. That amounts to $35 a day for lawmakers from Maricopa County and $60 a day for out-county legislators.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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