Every circus has its sideshows.
And this year, the state Capitol was crawling with them.
For the first time in more than a decade, lawmakers wrapped up their work in 100 days. And they did so in spite of distractions that came in the form of a roadside fracas that cost a Republican leader his post, a college football scandal that ensnared more than a dozen elected officials and a tragic shooting days before the session began that cast a pall over the entire process.
And that doesn’t even include the media scrutiny paid to any number of bills that seemed to take on lives of their own.
In fact, the Republican-led Legislature accomplished what its leaders had laid down at the outset of session.
Lawmakers passed a spending plan that, for the first time since the Great Recession began, didn’t rely on borrowing and accounting gimmicks. They approved a slew of tax cuts for businesses that supporters said would better position Arizona to capture companies that are fleeing high-tax states. They also enacted a bill that backers said would prevent the fiscal collapse of the state’s pension systems.
All told, they approved nearly 400 measures, including a ballot proposal that could spell the end of public campaign financing.
And all of that work was completed in slightly more than three months.
It was also a year when conservatism asserted its clout and the ideology’s followers approved bills that sought to ease gun restrictions, restrict abortions, expand a scholarship program for private school students, and chip away at organized labor.
“I don’t know how you can look at the results — the budget being passed in a timely and orderly fashion, the 100-day session, and all of the successes — and come to any other conclusion than they weathered all of those (distractions) rather well,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association.
In fact, those successes were often overshadowed by distractions. And it appears as if for every major accomplishment, there was a matching sideshow.
Even before legislators convened in January, the air was filled with anticipation following the Republican victories in the 2010 election. For the first time in state history, Republicans had a stranglehold on state government: a supermajority in the House and the Senate, plus every statewide executive position.
Giffords’ shooting forces a brief re-examination
But it was the shooting rampage in Tucson that killed six people and gravely wounded U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that set the tone at the beginning of session.
The tragic event led to a brief period of bipartisanship and to a lot of soul-searching about the meaning of civility in public discourse, and it derailed what was supposed to be a historic beginning to the 50th Legislature’s work.
Gov. Jan Brewer scrapped her planned State of the State Address, instead kicking off the session with a somber speech calling for prayer and mourning for the victims.
The Bundgaard saga
The Capitol soap opera with the highest ratings in 2011 was, without a doubt, the saga of Sen. Scott Bundgaard.
The Peoria Republican returned to the Senate nearly a decade after he last served, this time as the newly elected majority leader. But that all changed in February, after a physical altercation he had with this then-girlfriend escalated into a mess that imperiled his legislative career, left him waiting to see if he would face criminal charges and threatened to sidetrack his chamber.
As more details of the incident emerged, calls for his resignation as majority leader — and even from the Legislature — mounted.
Based on in-session law, Bundgaard wasn’t charged by the police, but the situation made his caucus vulnerable to criticisms that the majority was refusing to hold one of its own accountable.
An oft-repeated view was that, while the majority didn’t cause the situation, it exacerbated it by not acting decisively and quickly to remove Bundgaard from his post.
Senate Republicans eventually held two closed-door meetings in March, when they removed Bundgaard from leadership and then picked Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, to assume the position of majority leader.
The episode also had a surprising side effect. Some senators complained that TV crews trying to get a comment on Bundgaard were “shoving” cameras in their faces after daily floor sessions. In response, Senate President Russell Pearce decided on a new rule: The media could only approach senators on the floor if invited to do so by the senator.
Immigration measures fail, but stir up controversy anyway
Last year, Pearce said he would push for legislation to ultimately deny children born to illegal immigrants an automatic American citizenship.
The proposal opened up another front in the struggle to confront illegal immigration, and suspense over how the Legislature would treat the idea only grew when Pearce ascended to the post of Senate president.
In fact, the so-called birthright legislation dominated every discussion — until the Senate finally killed it, along with four other immigration-related bills, shortly after senators had approved their budget plan in March.
By that time, lawmakers had already spent hours arguing the immigration measures’ merits in two committees and on the Senate floor.
As expected, the proposals stirred up raw emotions. They also spawned daily protests at the Capitol.
Tension was so thick that even a Democrat who introduced an anti-human smuggling bill was heckled by activists during a media briefing. When they refused to calm down, the hecklers were evicted from the Senate.
And when some immigration protestors ignored security officers’ advice to refrain from clapping, booing or cheering loudly during a committee hearing in February, Pearce banned the agitators from the Senate building.
But perhaps more significantly, the immigration bills brought to the surface deep divisions among majority members about how best to tackle illegal immigration.
A dozen Republicans ultimately balked at some or all of the five immigration bills.
Some said the immigration bills distracted lawmakers from focusing on more pressing issues, like fixing the budget deficit and passing legislation to aid a hobbling economy. And it was the bills’ divisiveness, more than anything, that was distracting legislators from getting more important stuff done, they added.
But Constantin Querard, a Republican political consultant, slammed those who hold that view.
“If you live in Arizona and you think dealing with illegal immigration is a distraction, you are some kind of idiot,” Querard said.
Klein reads a disparaging letter
The immigration debate was inflamed further when freshman Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, read a letter on the Senate floor that painted a disparaging picture of Hispanic students.
The letter, which was penned by a substitute teacher, said most Hispanic students “do not want to be educated but rather be gang members and gangsters.”
“They hate America and are determined to reclaim this area for Mexico,” the letter said.
Offended, Latino Democrats called for a public apology and denounced Klein and Pearce, who had distributed the letter to fellow Republicans.
“Her willingness to associate herself with an anonymous letter that contains explicit racial connotations clearly reflects her views of Latinos, or her lack of maturity, and ignorance,” Rep. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, said in a media briefing.
Klein defended her action by saying she merely presented another side to an issue. Pearce, meanwhile, said he was shocked that Democrats were quick to “defend the actions of these troublemakers, and mock the frustration many teachers feel in bringing order to the classroom.”
Fiesta Bowl freebies ensnare legislators
Lawmakers faced one more controversy before they adjourned the session, and this scandal could have a bigger implication for their political careers.
An investigation into practices by Fiesta Bowl officials entangled several Arizona lawmakers, who received free tickets to games and whose trips were paid for by the bowl.
It also turned out that Fiesta Bowl trips and gifts that were perfectly legal weren’t listed on many of the lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms.
Some observers said the scandal would be most damaging to legislators who are seeking higher office.
In the early morning on April 20, the final curiosity of the session played out. Lawmakers adjourned the session sine die at 5:25 a.m., claiming victory in all that was accomplished during the “100-day” session.
The fact that it was actually the morning of the 101st calendar day of the session was irrelevant. With distractions overcome, lawmakers could celebrate their final accomplishment of the First Regular Session of the 50th Legislature: making a single legislative workday straddle two calendar days.