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Home / 2011 Session Wrap / Tea Party Influence: New GOP legislators pushed ideological needle to the right

Tea Party Influence: New GOP legislators pushed ideological needle to the right

Friendly to faith-based legislation and deeply rooted in a small-government and fiscally disciplined philosophy, Arizona’s new legislators helped define and successfully push a conservative agenda at the Capitol.

The GOP lawmakers, who rode to victory in November on the coattails of voters’ frustration with President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress, promised sweeping changes to how government conducts its business. To the extent the legislative process permitted, they succeeded in at least getting those measures to the governor.

They delivered votes for long-coveted Republican goals, including passing a slew of phased-in corporate tax cuts that supporters say will help lure businesses that are fleeing states with higher taxes, including California.

Instead of remaining in the background, which is typical when trying to learn the craft of legislating, these lawmakers helped set the tone at the Capitol. They hugged the headlines as much as veteran politicians did by tackling some of the biggest and most controversial measures to emerge this year.

All told, Arizona’s newest lawmakers were vocal, passionate, and willing to take on giant issues, sometimes biting off more than they could chew.

But their biggest victory is the state’s 8.3 billion spending plan, which, for the first time in years, is virtually structurally balanced.

Indeed, Republican leaders can take credit for passing a budget that eschewed borrowing and accounting gimmicks as balancing mechanisms — but it was the conservative rank-and-file members that gave them legs to push for the plan’s provisions.

Barry Aarons, who has been lobbying at the Capitol for four decades, said Republican leaders understood the philosophical position of rank-and-file members.

“A lot of these folks were products of conservative movements like the Tea Party who came in and said, ‘Look, we want a balanced budget. We want to cut spending. We don’t want gimmicks,’” Aarons said.

“You had a leadership who wanted to do it and you had freshmen who had been elected by people who were expecting them to do it.”

Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs said the new legislators may have been somewhat demure on the floor during the budget process, but they were emphatic in their conversations with leaders.

“That was really integral to moving the ball the way that we did, because, otherwise, it’d just sort of have been me kind of hanging out there on a flag pole by myself,” Biggs said.

Not everything was successful

This political diptych — conservative leadership and a rank-and-file with Tea Party leanings — left its mark in other areas, including legislation that wasn’t ultimately successful but helped reinforce the ascendancy of conservatives at the Capitol.

Indeed, with leaders like Senate President Russell Pearce at the helm, it’s easy to overlook the extent of new legislators’ contribution in moving the political needle to the right.

A proposal by Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem, to give legislators the authority to nullify any federal law further placed Arizona in the vanguard of the states’ rights movement.

Klein’s colleagues ultimately killed the idea, but not before generating intense reaction from critics, some of whom seriously considered splitting Arizona into two, with the state’s southern portion becoming the nation’s 51st state.

In remarks that most likely summed up this new crew’s view, Klein said as the session was winding down: “I came here thinking I was going to revolutionize our tax system, open Arizona for business, get rid of the personal and corporate income tax, lower property taxes for business to make us more competitive. I thought I was going to be able to do it. And I realize that there are so many people with so many vested interests in keeping the status quo.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, tried to pass legislation to require the Arizona Department of Education to collect data about students who cannot prove their lawful presence in the United State and to research the “adverse impact” of these students’ enrollment as well as provide for an estimate of the cost of educating them.

Smith also proposed requiring hospitals to verify a person’s legal status at some point while giving medical care. The bill wouldn’t have denied illegal immigrants medical care, but would have mandated hospitals to notify law enforcement if a patient’s citizenship or legal status could not be verified.

The two measures were among the five immigration bills that the Senate rejected in March.

By then, Arizona’s freshmen legislators had solidified their reputation as right-wing hawks.

Looking back at the session, Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers commended Brewer for vetoing some of the measures that reached her desk.

“But I think this will still go down in history,” Rogers said, “as the most extreme Legislature in the history of America.”

Freshmen help negotiate cease-fire on impact fees

Not everything the new legislators did garnered so much attention.

Some took on lower profile, but difficult and highly contentious issues.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, hunkered down, away from the limelight, to help municipalities and home builders negotiate a substantive deal on how impact fees are calculated, collected and used.

The final agreement didn’t generate as much attention, but it’s remarkable that the two sides, which had been feuding for years, buried the hatchet.

Many credited the persistence of Mesnard and Forese for the successful outcome.

Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, took on bullying legislation and pieced together a proposal that many agreed was a big step in the right direction. The bill updates laws to address cyber-bullying and also lays down stricter reporting requirements for school employees who witness a bullying incident.

Former Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Democratic from Phoenix, used to say one of the best things that a new legislator can — and should — do is to “listen and don’t talk.”

Cheuvront’s point is that it takes years to learn the ropes, and it would serve a new legislator to concentrate on acquiring expertise on an issue first before talking about it.

That advice certainly didn’t apply to this year’s batch of freshmen legislators, and, for some, at least, their boldness paid off.

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