After two years of intraparty fighting, drama and chaos, 2011 must have been a welcome relief for Gov. Jan Brewer.
The 2011 legislative session was the smoothest one Brewer has had since taking over as governor in January 2009. The constant feuding with her fellow Republicans that marked Brewer’s first two years on the Ninth Floor was gone, replaced with greater cooperation and more closely aligned agendas between the executive and legislative branches.
There were many milestones in the 100-day session. Brewer reached a budget agreement with GOP lawmakers. She helped shepherd a massive tax-cut package through the Legislature. And she replaced the Arizona Department of Commerce with the quasi-public Arizona Commerce Authority.
“She hit her stride. I think this is a defining session,” said lobbyist Marty Shultz, senior policy director for Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
The greatest factor in the transformed relationship was likely the end of Brewer’s year-long struggle for a temporary sales tax increase. The battle that defined her first year in office and carried into the second ended with a victory for Brewer, and brought an end to the greatest source of friction between her and the Republican-controlled Legislature.
That tax hike fight left little room for other parts of Brewer’s agenda, said Rep. Jim Weiers. In his estimation, the circumstances surrounding Arizona’s disastrous fiscal situation and budget forced Brewer into a solution she didn’t like, but felt was necessary.
But with all that in the past, Weiers said, Brewer was able to pursue the agenda she wanted.
“That had to be done before anything else could go through,” said Weiers, a Glendale Republican. “There’s a difference between what you want to do and what you have to do.”
In 2011, Brewer got to do what she wanted to do. After two years of talking about future tax cuts in her “five-point plan,” Brewer was able to move on to the tax cuts, the main provision of the Arizona Competitiveness Package.
When former House Speaker Kirk Adams pushed a similar package in 2010, Brewer scuttled it because it conflicted with Proposition 100, the one-cent sales tax increase she finally got on the ballot. But this year, she worked hand-in-hand with Adams and Senate President Russell Pearce to craft a new proposal, one that included the Arizona Commerce Authority, a major plank of her agenda for the past year.
Things got so bad in 2009 that Brewer sued Adams and then-Senate President Bob Burns when they refused to send her a budget she opposed, and then vetoed the bulk of it when it eventually landed on her desk.
House Majority Whip Debbie Lesko, a Glendale Republican, said the vetoes and fighting over the budget generated animosity toward Brewer. But once the Governor’s Office and the Legislature were able to focus on common goals their relationship improved.
“We have shared goals, and that obviously makes it easier to work together,” Lesko said. “We certainly were pleased that there wasn’t going to be any more talk about tax increases.”
The learning curve is pretty steep for new governors, Weiers said, and after two years, Brewer got her “sea legs under her.”
Brewer agreed and said the severe fiscal problems facing the state when she took over made an already difficult situation worse. But things got better as time went on, and winning a voter mandate after two tumultuous years made a difference.
“After the election, of course, we knew the direction I had put my platform down. I knew the direction of where I knew I needed to take the state, and we were able to execute that. It was, I think, easier. It was, of course, easier,” she said.
Adams said the tension between the governor and Legislature was exacerbated by the fact that he, Burns and Brewer were all learning their new roles. Learning to deal with each other while learning on the job caused friction, Adams said, especially considering the controversy surrounding her tax hike proposal and the manner in which she proposed it.
But after 2009, the three learned to trust each other more, Adams said, enough that, “when I counseled her that we didn’t have the votes or we did have the votes, that she came to the point where she believed me and that it wasn’t a matter of posturing or a matter of trying to stake a negotiating position.”
Most Republican lawmakers say the relationship between the two branches improved significantly in 2010. The war over the tax hike crested, the three leaders learned to work better together and many lawmakers said Brewer’s decision in the fall of 2009 to replace Chief of Staff Kevin Tyne with Eileen Klein improved the working relationship by leaps and bounds.
But in 2011, there was one major change that wasn’t present the year before, even after the relationship improved. She won a full term in convincing fashion, riding a Republican wave and SB1070, the state’s controversial illegal immigration law, to victory.
Brewer said winning, rather than simply inheriting her job, made a significant difference.
“With the overwhelming margins that I won by, it was very encouraging that the people of Arizona supported me overwhelmingly,” she said.
Political consultant Jaime Molera, who experienced a similar transition while working for former Gov. Jane Hull, said winning the election probably made Brewer more comfortable in the job and gave her a sense of a mandate. And lawmakers, business groups and others who operate at the Capitol have to respect that.
“It makes a huge difference. It makes a difference to the legislators. It makes a difference to the business community,” he said.
Molera said the election solidified Brewer’s position, as evidenced by a flurry of session-ending vetoes, many of which riled her Republican allies in the Legislature.
“Had she not been elected, I’m not sure it would’ve happened,” Molera said of the vetoes.
Some, like Sen. Ron Gould, question how long that improved relationship will last, considering the anger over some of her vetoes. One of Brewer’s most outspoken critics on the GOP side of the aisle, Gould said Brewer “strong-armed” the Republican caucus into supporting her budget plan in years past, and predicted that some of those Republicans will still be upset next year over her similar approach to the vetoed bills.
“I think the conservatives in the caucus probably have a new opinion of Governor Brewer,” the Lake Havasu City Republican said.
But Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, who consistently opposed Brewer’s tax hike proposals during her first two years, said it helped that the governor and the GOP caucus were on the same page on the most of the important issues in 2011, such as cutting the budget and scaling back Medicaid.
There are still disagreements, but Biggs said Brewer has learned a lot more about the Legislature’s priorities and the Legislature, in turn, has learned more about hers.
“I just think there was less surprise and more ability on both sides to normalize their expectations a little bit,” Biggs said.