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Supreme Court case threatens further damage to strained relationship

Photo illustration by Gabe Turner

Photo illustration by Gabe Turner

The tension between Gov. Jan Brewer and the Legislature has been obvious for months while the two branches of government slugged it out over budget cuts and tax hikes. But the governor’s decision to sue legislative leaders in the state Supreme Court has some wondering whether their relationship will be able to survive the strain.

It could be that Brewer’s lawsuit in the Arizona Supreme Court is little more than politics as usual. The relationship between governors and lawmakers is generally combative, and some longtime Capitol observers said the latest court battle isn’t likely to have any kind of lasting effect.

Others, however, said the lawsuit could do long-term damage to a relationship that must weather at least one more legislative session.

“It’s a lot harder to patch things up after you’ve sued somebody than it is to be in a meeting and have a heated exchange. I’ve been in meetings with people and had heated exchanges with them, and then a couple days later go out and have lunch with them. Not a big deal,” said state Treasurer Dean Martin. “But once you get the lawyers involved, it tends to stick with you a lot longer.”

Rep. Nancy McLain, a Republican from Bullhead City, said the governor’s decision to file the suit was “ill advised,” and worries that the decision may have driven a permanent wedge between the governor and Republicans in the in the House and Senate.

“I just don’t see how relationships can be repaired after something like this,” McLain said.

Chris Herstam, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Fife Symington, called the incident “great political theater,” but he wasn’t sure whether it would have long-term ramifications.

“It will be interesting to see how this plays out and whether or not the results have a significant impact on the relationship between the governor and Republican legislative leadership,” Herstam said. “If President (Bob) Burns and Speaker (Kirk) Adams have developed a personal and cordial relationship with the governor, then their overall relationship should be fine.”

The relationship between Brewer and Burns appears to have deteriorated lately, with the governor holding a June 15 press conference to announce that the Senate president had walked out on budget negotiations. Burns said his departure was not meant to signal an end to negotiations, but Brewer took a harsher tone following the incident and filed suit in the state Supreme Court to force the Senate president to send her the budget bills, which lawmakers had been holding as a negotiating tool.

The Supreme Court agreed with Brewer’s premise that the Legislature was in violation of the state Constitution by not transmitting the bills, but declined to force Burns to do so. Both sides initially portrayed the ruling as a victory, with Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman saying the Supreme Court clearly ruled that the Legislature would be in violation of the state Constitution if it continued to hold the bills.

Adams said the court reached the wrong conclusion in its ruling, which he called “an impeachment of our legislative (power).” He and Burns, however, said they were pleased that the court declined to interfere in the current dispute. Burns continued to withhold the bills from Brewer, saying they would be transmitted no later than June 30.

Senseman said the governor did not view the lawsuit as something that could have a straining effect on her relationship with the Legislature. The ruling clearly prohibits the Legislature from withholding bills, he said, which will improve the relationship by effectively preventing lawmakers from using negotiating tactics that “aggravate the governor’s ability to weigh in on bills and issues.”

“I think what would have a straining effect on the relationship, in the governor’s view, would be if it (the Legislature) continued to hold bills from presenting them to her. If anything, this should be a productive step,” Senseman said.

Sen. John Huppenthal took a similar view, but sees the ruling as a clearer road map for the type of negotiating tactics that will be available to lawmakers in the future.

“They’ll probably stop the process an inch earlier. They won’t do that final third read. They’ll just stop it there, and that will be the point at which we hold negotiations,” the Chandler Republican said.
Within the Legislature, feelings are mixed. Adams said the lawsuit is “something we can get over,” though he said it must be done quickly, and House Majority Leader John McComish echoed that sentiment, saying “politicians have spats.”

The prospect of Brewer dragging the Republican leadership into a battle before the Arizona Supreme Court was unforeseen at the beginning of the legislative session. And likewise, several GOP lawmakers are said they are unable to predict if the bad blood will spill over into next session.

Burns responded briefly when asked about the future of the strained relationship, pledging to personally leave the fight in the past, although not going so far as to speak for his fellow Republican colleagues.

“I can’t answer for anybody else,” he said, adding that he hopes there is no remaining animosity ‘but it’s difficult to predict, being that far out.”

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Patterson, who served with Brewer in the Senate when she was majority whip, said the lawsuit shows a high level of animosity between the two branches, but believes the damage can be repaired. Brewer, though, will likely have to reach out to lawmakers, he said.

“I suspect the governor particularly would be highly motivated to repair relationships. If she’s going into an election year and, both from an electoral standpoint and a policy standpoint, it’s not going to be good going into that with a severely fractured relationship with the Legislature,” Patterson said. “I think the onus is on her really to do something to get that relationship back on track, and I suspect that she will, although she won’t want to admit the onus is on her.”

“Once the budget is done, then I think it will be in everybody’s interest to have a closing of the ranks, and that will happen – at least until the next budget,” he added.

Marty Shultz, a lobbyist for Arizona Public Service, has seen other lawsuits between the branches of government during his 30-plus years in the political arena, but said the crises always pass. This Brewer- Burns-Adams lawsuit, he said, is no more significant than those previous cases turned out to be.

“I think this is political hardball, not personal animosity,” he said.

Sen. Jonathan Paton doesn’t see the lawsuit as an issue of personal bitterness either. Tensions are high because of the budget and tax hike issues, the Tucson Republican said, but once Brewer starts signing bills and appointing more conservative judges, that tension will dissipate.

“We fight all the time in government. It’s not going to change anything, and at the end of the day … I think we’re going to see that there’s more that we agree on than we disagree on with the governor,”
Paton said. “That, to me, is a legacy that’s going to last beyond this budget fight and this court battle.”

Former Democratic Sen. Pete Rios, however, sees troubled times ahead for Brewer, Burns and Adams, though mainly because of the larger budget battle, not the lawsuit itself.

While Rios was in the Senate, he was party to a lawsuit against a sitting governor. In 1992, he sued then-Gov. Symington in the state Supreme Court over line-item vetoes, but said he would not have filed the suit had he and the governor been of the same political party.

The lawsuit, Rios said, simply shows the severity of the dispute between Brewer and legislative leadership, all Republicans.

“I think what it will do in the end, once they resolve this budget, it will make enemies out of those people,” said Rios, now a Pinal County supervisor. “They’re going to try to work together and resolve this (budget) issue, but once they’re over this hurdle, I think there’s going to be a lot of bad blood.”
That bad blood could come back to haunt Burns and Adams when pet bills reach the governor’s desk next session, Rios said. And the fact that so much intra-party dirty laundry has been aired in public could give voters the impression that the Republican Party is “woefully divided,”
he said.

“I suspect that the legislative leaders may be paying dearly for not working with the governor as closely as they should be working right now,” Rios said.

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