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Conservatives scrambling to get bills through with supermajority

Having a Republican supermajority at the Legislature is turning out to be like borrowing a Ferrari — you might as well push the limits, because you might never have the chance again.

The unprecedented supermajorities the GOP won in both legislative chambers in the last election are likely nearing an end. Between the natural loss of seats most observers expect this November — following the 2010 Republican wave — and the lingering uncertainty from the redistricting process, 40 and 21 will almost certainly be a thing of the past.

With the window closing on the two-thirds majorities some conservative groups are acting with a greater sense of urgency.

Legislative Republicans have an ambitious agenda this year, including bills that would ban abortions after 20 weeks, prohibit state money from going to Planned Parenthood, eliminate collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions, allow guns on college campuses, make it more difficult to sue businesses for damages, and force cities to consolidate their elections with the state.

“I think a lot of people are thinking along those lines,” said Tom Jenney, the Arizona director for Americans for Prosperity. “We may be close to a high-water mark for conservative representation in the Legislature.”

Many conservative groups, such as the Goldwater Institute, say they aren’t pursuing a more ambitious agenda than usual. But they acknowledge it’s only going to get more difficult to pass controversial bills after this session.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for conservative legislators, a conservative governor and a conservative group like ours to be able to move the needle in a major way,” said Starlee Rhoades, executive vice president at the Goldwater Institute. “This is the time that major conservative policy should be getting done. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that we don’t miss this opportunity, because we don’t know what it’s going to be like in the future.”

Close votes on some of the Goldwater Institute’s top-priority bills show just how important the supermajority is to conservatives — or how damaging to their cause it would be to lose it.

HB2826, Rep. Michelle Ugenti’s bill to force cities to consolidate their election dates with the state, barely passed on a 31-24 vote, with seven Republicans voting against it. Many Republicans believe the low voter turnout in off-year elections helps labor unions — that work hard to get their supporters to the polls — maintain their strong influence in municipal politics. If the election dates are consolidated, the higher voter turnout could result in more conservative city councils and mayors.

And the supermajorities may be the only hope for the institute’s bill to ban collective bargaining by government employee unions, Sen. Rick Murphy’s SB1485. Even with a supermajority, the bill is stalled in the Senate.

But two other Goldwater-backed anti-union bills — one that would restrict automatic paycheck deductions for union dues and another that would ban the practice of “release time,” in which employees are paid for union activities — made it out of the Senate by votes of 18-11 and 19-11, respectively.

Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said his organization’s tort reform bill, SB1336, could be in a similar position. Hamer said the bill, which passed 19-11 in the Senate, might not have had enough votes if the GOP didn’t control two- thirds of the Legislature.

SB1336 would prohibit lawsuits for damages against companies if their product, service or activity complied with government regulations.

Tort reform is an area where the chamber has always lost some Republican votes, Hamer said, and it’s always good to have a cushion in case that happens. A medical malpractice bill the chamber lobbied for in 2009, when Republicans had 35 in the House and 18 in the Senate, only passed because six House Democrats — two of whom are doctors — voted for it, he said.

“There’s been some votes to spare on certain issues, like tort reform,” Hamer said. “We need to do everything we possibly can to move the parts of our agenda through that would be more difficult to move through with a House and Senate composed in a different way.”

Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, said his HB2416, which would require Tucson to provide water to a housing development outside the city limits, likely wouldn’t have passed if he couldn’t afford to lose as many Republican votes as he did. The bill originally failed by two votes, but later passed 32-26 on reconsideration.

“It does make everything harder,” Stevens said of the likely end of the supermajority. “(Currently) you can afford to lose nine votes and still pass something out. If it was down to three or four, it does make it more difficult.”

Some Republicans, however, say the window isn’t closing — it’s already closed.

Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said 2011 was the time to take advantage of the supermajority. In an election year, fewer lawmakers want to take risky votes.

“Last year you had the chance to put a lot of stuff through and then everybody had the chance to … go back and temper all their constituents after they did that. Now, it’s less likely they’re going to do stuff because a lot of these guys are going to be in competitive races and they’re not going to want to push that envelope,” he said.

One example may be SB1474, which would allow people to carry guns on college campuses. The Legislature passed the bill in 2011, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, revived the bill in 2012 with a handful of changes suggested by the normally pro-gun Brewer.

But the bill, which sailed through the Senate in 2011 with the vote of all 21 Republicans, doesn’t have enough votes to get out of the Senate this year.

Todd Rathner, a lobbyist for the Arizona State Rifle and Pistol Association, said he thinks some people are running bills on issues like abortion, homeowners associations and illegal immigration that they likely wouldn’t run if it weren’t for the supermajority. But for the gun lobby, two-thirds hasn’t been enough, at least not in 2012.

“As far as having greater majorities, of course it makes things a little bit easier. But when you have Republicans who are more concerned about getting elected and getting re-elected than supporting the Second Amendment, the supermajority doesn’t matter,” Rathner said.

“Do we say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a supermajority?’ It certainly helps, but it’s not helping enough, when you look at what’s going on with the campus-carry bill right now. The supermajority is not doing us any good.”

Gould said his caucus is too fractured to take advantage of its historic Republican numbers, and doesn’t think the supermajorities have met the expectations conservatives had after the 2010 election.

“You hear comments like, ‘We have a supermajority, we should probably use it,’” Gould said. “Twenty-one Republicans doesn’t mean you have 21 conservatives. Apparently, you don’t have 16.”

Stevens agreed with Antenori’s assessment that 2011 would’ve been a better year to pursue an agenda fit for a supermajority. But he said former House Speaker Kirk Adams’ congressional aspirations kept many conservative bills on the shelf.

The one time where a two-thirds vote was truly needed to advance a Republican issue — the November ouster of Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Chairwoman Colleen Mathis, which required 20 votes in the Senate — was later overturned by the courts.

While Republicans such as Gould and Stevens say the supermajority has been a letdown, others say that’s a good thing. Rep. Jack Harper, R- Surprise, said GOP leadership has been cognizant of the need to not antagonize voters by overreaching. He said Arizona shouldn’t make the same mistake congressional Democrats made after the 2008 election.

“Certainly there are groups that want to put the pedal to the metal, is the quote that I’ve heard. But on the other hand, I’ve seen even conservative members push back against those groups and say we’re not going to do any crazy thing that a special interest group wants, just so they can get it while it’s available,” said Harper, R-Surprise.

But some on the left say Republicans have been emboldened by their supermajorities and have already overreached. Liberal activist John Loredo, a former Democratic lawmaker, said GOP bills aimed at cracking down on organized labor, restricting abortion rights and freezing the state’s minimum wage show that Republicans are trying to take advantage of their opportunity while they still have it.

“I think they’ve been more extreme. There are a greater number of more extreme bills that have been introduced,” Loredo said.

If Republicans don’t maintain their supermajorities after the 2012 elections, lawmakers will also lose the ability to override a gubernatorial veto, an ability the current Legislature has not yet exercised.

Brewer struck down a slew of conservative bills after sine die last year, and some Republicans bemoaned their decision not to stay in session long enough to try to override some of those vetoes.

Even with 21 and 40, overriding a veto would be extremely difficult and few observers, including GOP lawmakers, believe there would be enough support to reverse a Republican governor’s veto.

Stevens said it’s a wasted opportunity. Stevens said Republican lawmakers should be very selective in which vetoes they should try to overturn, but should take the chance while they have it.

“There’s always that concern. I’m 50 years old now. I don’t think I’ll ever see a 40-20 majority here again,” he said.

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