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The superminority quandary

House Democrats have introduced 178 bills in the 2011 legislative session, and at the 52-day mark only 19 of those bills remained alive.

It’s a number that Minority Whip Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, said he is pleased with, and for good reason: Thirteen of the bills, more than one-third of the 32 he has introduced, are his.

One even passed the House with a three-fourths vote, HB2585, which would add medical marijuana to the controlled substances monitored by the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy.

Rep. Edward Ableser, D-Tempe, has a bill on the still-breathing list as well: HB2264, which would require that a subdivider disclose the availability of water in any proposed subdivision outside of an Active Management Area — an area where the groundwater is managed and use regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. It’s the only one of the 25 bills he introduced this session that has made it through.

Though Heinz is, statistically, having a better session than Ableser, and though the two Democrats have nearly opposite approaches to writing legislation, paradoxically, they both see themselves as succeeding.

Of the surviving Democrat-sponsored bills, most are so innocuous that they can barely be classified as belonging to any political party. Fifteen of the 19 passed all committees with unanimous votes, and 11 are co-sponsored by Republicans.

“You’re not going to get, from our side, any abortion bills,” Heinz said, referring to the three controversial and hotly debated abortion-limiting bills that Republicans have introduced.

The moderate nature of the surviving Democratic bills, Heinz said, is deliberate. There’s no way for the Democrats to force through anything, so he said he and his colleagues have had to make the extra effort to ensure their bills are palatable to the other side.

But Ableser said he doesn’t approach his bills with pragmatism uppermost in his mind.

If it’s something he believes in, especially something driven by his beliefs as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he’ll introduce it, he said.

“My religion is my guiding principle every day,” Ableser said. “I have to draft legislation that’s consistent with that, which is abiding by this notion of a social contract. That’s how I get to sleep at night.”

Ableser’s philosophy is perhaps best illustrated with his HCR2038, a resolution to keep five fundamentals in mind when discussing the immigration issue. All are certain to make some Republicans recoil: immigration is a federal policy; local law enforcement should center on criminal activities and not civil violations of the federal code; families should not be unnecessarily separated; immigrants play a significant economic role in Arizona; and immigrants are integrated into communities across the state.

Despite its inconsistency with many Republican efforts this year, the resolution had a chance, Ableser said, if it had been assigned to a committee comprising other members of the LDS church. Instead, it landed in the House Government Committee and died of silence.

Though Ableser said the more centrist approach of some of his fellow Democrats doesn’t bother him, House Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley, D-Tuscon, said he doesn’t see the point in some of the bills that get passed.

 He conceded Heinz’s point that it’s easier to get a moderate bill through, but said there is such a thing as being too moderate. Inoffensive bills that can’t possibly attract any “no” votes may mean they go somewhere, but they aren’t always effective, he said.

“Maybe I’d have more bills with my name on them if they had more consensus but didn’t do anything,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the best strategy. We aren’t here for our own political gain. We’re here to serve our constituents.”

That’s exactly what Heinz argues he is doing by taking a centrist approach. Considering that Arizona registered voters are

32 percent independents and 31 percent Democrats, he said he thinks his constituents are best served by governing toward the middle.

Heinz attributes part of his success this year to losses last year. Having begun conversations on some of the bills in 2010, he said he was in a position to “tweak” them so they have a better chance of advancing.

But his success also is the result of talking to members to gain their support, reaching out to committee chairmen who are going to hear the bills, and trying to work with potential opponents to find a middle ground. The first battle is won, he said, when a lawmaker can recruit Republican co-sponsors, a characteristic of many of the surviving Democratic bills.

That’s easier when the bills save money, which many of them do.

Heinz’s HB2548, which has passed the Health and Human Services Committee but hasn’t been put on the Committee of the Whole calendar yet, would direct the Department of Health Services to limit the use of medical helicopters for non-trauma patients, a move that would save the state Medicaid money.

HB2651, sponsored by Rep. Reuben Gallego, D-Phoenix, would screen military veterans applying for coverage under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to see if they are eligible for care at a Veterans Affairs hospital.

Both are cost-saving measures for the states, and both have bipartisan support.

“You have to deal with reality,” Gallego said, “and I think for good bills that are really finding efficiency in government, you can really find bipartisan support.”

A lot of the Democrats have succeeded in getting Rep. Cecil Ash, R-Mesa, on board: He is co-sponsor of four of the 19 survivors.

In addition to signing on to HB2540 and HB2651, he also is co-sponsoring both HB2554, a bill introduced by Rep. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, that would reform the disciplinary statute for dentists; and Heinz’s HB2585 about monitoring medical marijuana.

“My thinking is, after the elections, it doesn’t matter which party you’re from,” Ash said. “If it’s a good bill, you should support it. If it isn’t, you shouldn’t.”

For bills with a Democrat as the only sponsor, such as Ableser’s HB2264, staying alive is a matter of reaching out.

After HB2264 passed unanimously in the Agriculture and Water Committee, Ableser approached Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, chairman of the Commerce Committee, which also was to consider the bill. Weiers liked it enough that he withdrew it from the committee and sent it directly to the House floor.

Even the Democrats with bills still moving say they wish they could have done more, or that they could have gotten some more demonstrably liberal bills through.

Heinz, for instance, said that while he supports unions, he knew better than to introduce a pro-union bill this session, because it wouldn’t go anywhere.

And while Gallego wouldn’t give any specific examples, he said there were a lot of bills he wanted to introduce, but he decided against them because he knew the Republican supermajority would crush them.

It’s a fact of life in the superminority, he said: “You’ve got to make friends and influence people, and that wasn’t the way to do it.”

Ableser saw a lot of his bills die this session. He said it’s not necessarily about what gets passed, but knowing that he tried and fulfilled what he sees as his duty as a legislator. Pragmatic or not, he said he’ll keep introducing bills he thinks are important, regardless of their chances of passage.

“For me, I’m going to approach every piece of legislation like every one has a chance of getting through the process and getting to the governor’s desk and signed,” he said. “I have to be hopeful, otherwise I’d just have to give up.”

Republicans’ view: ‘We’re not always at each other’s throats.’

Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, is frustrated. Getting a bill passed in the House is hard enough for members of the majority party, as the 78 percent death rate for Republican bills demonstrates. But as a member of the minority party, it’s twice as hard, he said.

“One of the things you learn is that as a Democrat,” Farley said, “you have very little chance of getting something through if it has your name on it.”

The numbers argue in the Republicans’ favor: The 19 Democratic bills that are still moving represent 11 percent of the total bills introduced with a Democrat as a primary sponsor. Republican-sponsored bills, meanwhile, have a 22 percent success rate so far, with 132 of the 606 bills still moving.

Each bill has to go through an obstacle course of procedure before it even gets to the floor, and in the meantime, there are a lot of chances to get tripped up: The bill might not be assigned to committee, or it could never be heard in committee, or be voted down in a committee, or be held by the Rules Committee, or never be put on the Committee of the Whole calendar.

A lot of the steps mean opportunities for the bills to be blocked, Farley said.

But the Republican leadership denies that there’s any deliberate effort to block Democratic bills. The bills that are good keep going, they argue, and the ones that aren’t, stall out.

“Typically, bills that meet a certain threshold of being OK move through the process,” House Speaker Kirk Adams,

R-Mesa, said. “Usually the membership makes that decision.”

Majority Leader Andy Tobin, R-Prescott Valley, and Majority Whip Debbie Lesko,

R-Glendale, say this session has been comparatively bipartisan. There’s no effort to shut Democrats out just because they’re in the opposite party, Tobin said.

“They represent a third of the population,” Tobin said of the Democrats. “When you have something to say that’s worth considering, it’s considered.”

 With the exception of HB2001, the Republicans’ so-called jobs bill, most bills that have passed from the House have had at least some Democrat support, Lesko added. It’s only about 10 percent of the bills that draw a lot of contention.

“I think we’ve always had bipartisanship,” Lesko said. “We’re not always at each other’s throats.”

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