Lawmakers’ voting participation remains high in shorter session
Published: May 16, 2011 at 11:41 pm
By keeping a 100-day session — the length prescribed by legislative rules — 27 of the Legislature’s 90 members voted on every bill that was brought to the floor, and only one lawmaker missed more than 20 percent of floor votes.
The figures show a slight improvement from 2010, when four lawmakers missed more than 20 percent of their chamber’s floor votes and only 25 members voted on every bill. That session went 109 days.
But in the 2009 session, which ran 170 days and ended on July 1, there were 21 lawmakers who missed more than 20 percent of their chamber’s floor votes and none voted on every bill.
In addition to the length of the session, House Republicans chose to scrap a rule requiring at least 24 hours’ notice to schedule a conference committee in 2009, in an attempt to allow more nimble latesession negotiations.
Those who supported deleting the rule later admitted the decision exacerbated the members’ already poor voting records, which to some degree resulted from the length of the session.
Following the poor level of participation in 2009 — and the negative media attention that followed — leadership in both parties stressed to lawmakers the importance of being there for floor votes.
As the 2011 session began, leaders in both chambers said they didn’t feel compelled to browbeat their members about how lackluster vote participation reflects on the state’s legislators.
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said there was no “voting participation” pep rally before the session began for members of his Democratic caucus.
“We didn’t talk about it any more than we normally do,” the Phoenix Democrat said. “I mean, leadership always tells new members that being down there to vote is important, that’s it.”
Former House Speaker Kirk Adams echoed what Campbell said about not feeling the need to formally address the issue with members, but rather “informally reminding members that it’s important, and those things do matter.”
Adams said the decision to shoot for a 100-day session this year, and the resolve necessary to make that happen, is a lingering effect of the protracted 2009 session.
“The President (Russell Pearce) and I met well before the session and decided we wanted to do it in 100 days or less. For me, the memory of 2009 was stuck in my brain,” Adams said. “It takes a daily conscious effort.”
Pearce said he’s learned that at least bringing up the issue at the outset of the session is something that needs to happen.
“There were a few absences that concerned me, but attendance, overall, was very good.” Pearce said. “People paid attention to business.”
As is the case at the end of every session, lawmakers with less-than-stellar participation records had explanations for their absences.
Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, who missed 32 percent of floor votes in the House, said he didn’t show up for 171 floor votes this year because he was attending to his pregnant wife and writing a doctoral thesis.
“There were a lot of doctors’ appointments, making sure my wife and the baby were healthy. That stuff doesn’t revolve around our schedules,” Ableser said. “For me, I would sacrifice some of my time to be with my wife and see the ultrasounds of my baby daughter. It was mostly in March.”
Ableser said he chose to miss a handful of days during the session to focus on his dissertation, too.
But he also noted that, as a Democrat, he’s come to believe that his absence during a floor vote is just as good as a “no” vote on a bill. Because the agenda was dominated by Republicans, he was able to choose which days to miss based on what bills were being brought to the floor.
“When the Republicans were going to ram through their legislation or totally discard what the Democrats voiced, I chose to spend my time working on my dissertation,” he said.
Ableser added that, because of Democrats’ diminished influence when it comes to passing or defeating bills, their time can sometimes be more efficiently spent talking with constituents and trying to address concerns they might have.
“You can go down there and vote and give very passionate floor speeches, but a big portion of our jobs is the personal advocacy for people in our communities who ask for help with a problem they run into. And, as a Democrat, that’s something we can actually do,” Ableser said. “I don’t think I should even waste my time on the crazy, Looney Tunes legislation like the ‘birther’ bill, which not only moved, but passed.”
Ableser said that even arguing over what he saw as unreasonable legislation gives it undue credibility.
Despite his misses, Ableser said he thinks his constituents understand that he’s working hard on their behalf, and that his record will not pose a problem during the next election cycle.
The attendance and voting of one member, Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, stood out for the high number of daily roll calls missed, but the low number of floor votes missed. Meza missed 22 percent of his chamber’s daily roll calls, but managed to vote on all but two floor votes.
He said the constant absences he racked up, according to the roll call, doesn’t mean he was habitually running late on his way to the Legislature. Rather, it was the result of his efficiency-oriented nature.
Meza said he regularly skipped the opening daily activities — aside from the roll call, the chamber prays, says the pledge of allegiance and members make floor speeches — because he was in his office talking with his constituents. Once the body was ready to begin voting, he said he would go to the floor.
“We have an acronym in the business world: W.O.T. Waste of time,” Meza said.
“I actually kept a log of the time we spent on the floor, but not voting. I think it was about 200 hours one session. I think I can spend my time being more efficient by calling my constituents in that wasted time, not listening to legislators tell stories about this or that.”