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Chairmen sift through 100s of bills with only 2 weeks left in fiscal 2009

As the Senate shifts to cranking out non-budget measures in the final weeks of session, some lawmakers are raising concerns that the rush will lead to defective laws that they would have to correct later.
One veteran lawmaker called it an “incredibly dangerous” period, during which legislation not fully understood or vetted could get through.
After all, the Senate has roughly two weeks to slog through roughly 500 individual pieces of legislation — more if you count the House bills that will have to pass muster in the Senate to become law. So far, the Legislature has passed only 17 bills, three that originated in the House and 14 that originated in the Senate.
What may appear at first glance to be small changes can actually turn out to be substantive modifications with big numbers attached to them, said Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican from Chandler.
For example, Huppenthal said he remembers lawmakers passing legislation in the closing days of one past session that called for spending $3 billion in retirement funds without realizing it. A fiscal note had stated it would cost only $22 million, he said.
“We are going to have to especially watch stuff as it relates to our retirement funds,” he said.
Sen. Ron Gould, chairman of the Senate Retirement and Rural Development Committee, warned it would be unwise to hurry the passage of complex issues.  
“If it’s an in-depth issue, I’d rather hold it off until next session, where we can have the time to properly consider it rather than ramrod things through that are bad,” Gould said. 
Indeed, fixing previous legislation is not novel. This year, lawmakers have had to restore some money to counties and municipal governments after a court overturned a decision by the Legislature last year to require that local governments pay the state $30 million in state-shared revenue.
The Senate had placed a moratorium on hearing non-budget bills for the first five months of session so lawmakers could concentrate on solving record-breaking deficits in the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years.
The Legislature passed a budget packet that addresses a $3 billion budget hole on June 4, but its leaders held off sending the spending plan to Gov. Jan Brewer. Negotiations on the budget continued last week.
Overnight, the Senate shifted its mode. Senate President Bob Burns opened the floodgates to hear non-budget bills on the day the Legislature passed its budget plan. 
Burns assigned 250 bills during the first part of the June 4 floor session. More were assigned later that day, and he said he would refer all bills to committees and let chairmen decide which bills to hear.
The 30-person chamber suspended its rules so committees could immediately hear bills on June 8. Committee chairmen have to decide, if they haven’t already, which bills to hear or not. More than 100 bills were initially scheduled to be heard, although some were later shelved. Of that number, only five were sponsored by Democrats.
The hearing of a bill is the visible end of an exhaustive process. Some chairmen prefer to know in advance if bills have support to pass on the floor before scheduling to hear them in committee.
Often, that means sponsors have to persuade chairmen that their measures have solid backing. Once the agenda is posted, committee members can then prepare amendments. Then those amendments have to be drafted.
Meanwhile, staffers have to prepare, if they haven’t already, fact sheets for each bill. They also have to familiarize themselves with amendments that are set to be offered.
And that is just the procedural part of legislating.
Lobbying is another side to it. Lobbyists push for measures they support and weigh in on those they oppose. Senators themselves lobby for their bills to be heard.
“I think there is a lot of scrambling that is going to go on, and everything you are talking about is sort of scrambling to address what appears to be a truncated time period,” said Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Republican from Tucson.
Paton was referring to strikers in committee and a possibly a long list of amendments during floor debates later.
Many chairmen intend to hear as many bills as they can squeeze in before sine die. That entails long work hours for everyone.
Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, a Chandler Republican, said on June 11 he plans to ask Senate President Bob Burns for permission to hold an additional hearing at 8 a.m. on June 16 — a Tuesday. The Government Institutions Committee, which the Chandler Republican chairs, holds regular hearings on Thursdays.
“We are going to get as many on the agenda and try to be fair to everybody,” Tibshraeny said.
Extended hearings, where committees start early and continue late in the afternoon or even well into the night, will probably become the staple in the next few days.
Take, for example, the Senate Appropriations Committee, which scheduled to hear 20 bills on June 9. While it eventually only tackled less than a dozen measures, its meeting lasted about four hours.
The committee did not get to all the measures on the calendar because some ballot referrals were yet to be assigned to the panel.
Other committees that normally don’t receive as many bills, such as the Senate Finance Committee, are preparing to hear a sizable number this month.
Sen. Jim Waring, the Finance Committee chairman, has drawn up criteria to help decide which measures to hear in his committee. For one, the senator said he would only hear measures that are going to pass on the floor and those that are important and may pass. He will skip ballot measures this year, he said.
In previous years, Waring said he has allowed a hearing on bills even though everyone knew they would fail on the floor or in committee. But that’s not the case this year.
“I think everybody understands there is just not really time to be doing exercises in futility,” Waring said. “You really don’t have time for that kind of stuff. I think members know it.”
Waring said he initially thought 96 bills would be assigned to his committee. He has since whittled down that list. Waring said he will now schedule about 15 bills each week. The Phoenix Republican added he is operating on the assumption that committee chairmen only have two weeks left.
Other chairmen said they would let some bills go through in committee when they would normally hold them pending amendments. These measures would be works in progress all the way through.
Sen. John Nelson, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources, Infrastructure and Public Debt Committee, said his panel approved several bills that need amendments.
“Rather than hold it and amend it in committee, you are going to pass it, let it go on through — if the committee agrees,” he said. “It will be with the idea that there would be floor amendments as it goes through rules and comes to COW (committee of the whole).”
Senate chairmen indicated they will also hear House bills. House Speaker Kirk Adams said he expects to meet soon with Burns to discuss a bill-hearing schedule so the two chambers can coordinate their efforts.
He said he expected all bill action to be completed by the end of the month and added that the House will likely begin working on Fridays, like the Senate, in order to deal with the glut of legislation.
Meanwhile, lawmakers can resort to a host of ways to speed up the process of legislating.
Employing strikers or crafting an omnibus to compile several measures into one bill are among the ways la
wmakers can save time.
Another option is to amend one version of the same measure to make a House and a Senate bill identical. Lawmakers can then substitute one version for the other and then vote on it.
Many substitutions are likely in the next several days. And amendments will be offered on the floor to revive legislation that may have fallen through the cracks.
Sen. Linda Gray, a Glendale Republican, said she anticipates moves to find “germane language” or hooks in existing bills to tack on legislation in the final days.
Last year, then-Sen. Robert Blendu argued that lengthy floor amendments should be avoided, particularly those that deal with numerous subjects. He argued that any legislation that did not pass muster under the scrutiny of a committee is probably not good enough to stand on its own and therefore shouldn’t find its way out of the Legislature as a floor amendment.      
Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia said if he saw lengthy floor amendments, he would the make a “Blendu point.”
One measure before the Senate Education Accountability and Reform Committee on June 10 was 170-plus pages long. Its fact sheet contains 11 subsections ranging from provisions that impact the State Board of Education to those that affect charter schools, fingerprinting statutes, employment benefits and Arizona’s national rankings.
“This is such a humongous bill,” Sen. Paula Aboud, a Democrat from Tucson, said during the hearing.
S1196 is a giant measure — literally — and it was adopted as a strike-everything amendment, or a “striker.”
A striker is legislation that is tacked onto an existing bill to correct an error in the original legislation that could not be corrected without rewriting it, or to insert altogether new legislation that has nothing to do with the original measure.
Bills or strikers that span scores of pages are not uncommon. Budget bills are often lengthy. But what is unique about S1196 is the special circumstance that led to its creation.
Huppenthal, the amendment’ sponsor and also the Education Committee chairman, said he estimates that between 20 and 30 bills were folded into S1196.
The reason is quite apparent.
Assuming that the Legislature wraps up the session by the end of the fiscal year, lawmakers have about two weeks to hear bills in committee, debate and pass them on the floor and send them to the governor. Omnibus legislation would be heard in committee and debated on the floor as one bill, which cuts down the process and saves everyone time.
It is also a testament to the ingenuity and persistence of lawmakers to advance legislation in the face of what is most likely a truncated session as far as tackling regular — meaning non-budget — policy measures.
S1196 — the omnibus education bill — is the product of meetings with stakeholders from January to April, according to Huppenthal.
This was how the process went: They looked at every single piece of legislation introduced that deals with education. They spent one to two hours each week deliberating the measures.
“We came up with a list of bills that everybody in there looked at and said, ‘We don’t have any problem with these bills,’” Huppenthal said. “That, to me, is the essence of a good piece of legislation — it solves problems without creating problems.”

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