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Seasoned lawmakers work to thwart freshman confusion

Freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat, said he’s still getting acquainted with his legislative schedule of caucus and committee meetings in the House. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat, said he’s still getting acquainted with his legislative schedule of caucus and committee meetings in the House. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

House Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, a Glendale Republican, remembers the feeling of being a brand new state lawmaker.

“It was opening day (in 2009), and I didn’t know how to introduce a guest,” Lesko said. She repeatedly pressed the button at her desk that let the speaker of the House know she wanted to address the chamber, not realizing the speaker can see a queue that keeps the order of speaking requests.

“I kept standing up and sitting down,” Lesko said. “Someone told me I looked like a ‘whack-a-mole’.”

To help avert that sort of confusion this year, Lesko used her discretion with the House seating chart to put freshmen next to returning lawmakers, with the hope that newcomers are never too far from voices of experience.

It’s just one of several things legislative leaders, who remember the confusion peculiar to the new job, are doing to help new lawmakers begin working effectively as soon as possible, especially with freshman filling one-third of the House seats this year.

The state’s 50th Legislature opened Jan. 10.

“It’s a new job for them, so it’s like any new job,” Lesko said. “They might not know how to speak or what to say, but it will all come with time.”

Newly seated Rep. Michelle Ugenti, who called her first days in the Legislature “overwhelming,” listed learning where to be, how to manage time and general procedures and customs as among the biggest challenges for a freshman.

“I always asked people ‘What does an average day look like?’ and I could never seem to get an answer,” Ugenti said. “Now that we’re going through the process, things are starting to click.”

Rep. Carl Seel, a Phoenix Republican returning for his second legislative session, said he remembers the same overwhelmed feeling from the beginning of his first term.

“It was like a fire hose of information for the first couple weeks,” Seel said. “About three weeks in, I really had an epiphany.”

Rep. David Stevens, a Republican from Sierra Vista who is starting his second term, said the best thing for a freshman to do is just dive in.

“Get as involved as possible,” Stevens said. “Try to bring amendments to bills. Try to make relationships.”

Lesko said that making sure every committee vice chair position is filled by a freshman should help acquaint newcomers with the duties of the Legislature.

“It’s a good way for them to learn and be trained about how committees run,” Lesko said.

House Majority Leader Andy Tobin, a Republican from Prescott Valley first elected in 2006, helped organize a three-day orientation in early December for all the new House members. It familiarized them with their roles and the processes they’ll participate in, he said.

A class called “the law school,” designed to help freshmen understand the delicate language that goes into bills, came along with a class on Arizona history, the Arizona Constitution and up-to-date budget briefings, Tobin said while leaving the House floor Jan. 11.

In the same breath, Tobin then turned to freshman Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat, to remind him which committees were about to meet and in which room.

Gallego said that in addition to trying to maintain good communication with constituents, he is struggling to keep his schedule straight.

“Caucus meetings, committee meetings, time management: I’m still trying to figure that all out,” Gallego said.

But as majority whip in the House, Lesko has to corral votes in the chamber, even among the large group of freshmen, many of whom made sweeping campaign promises before they were elected.

Both Tobin and Lesko said they haven’t seen any reason to think any new members’ campaign pledges or personal agendas will conflict with the legislative priorities of their caucus.

Lesko said the swift passage Jan. 11 of a bill curbing funeral protests provided an opportunity to first tap the policy side of her whip duties with new lawmakers.

“I wanted to make sure all the members, especially the freshmen members, knew what was going on,” Lesko said. “Right before we were on the floor, we met with some freshmen and just explained what was happening.”

The bill went on to pass unanimously in the House and Senate.

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