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Home / 2012 Session Wrap / As new Senate president, rancher Pierce deftly stepped through political minefields

As new Senate president, rancher Pierce deftly stepped through political minefields

Senate president Steve Pierce (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate President Steve Pierce, a rancher from Prescott, has a habit of walking into difficult situations.

He did it once three years ago, when he became the de facto majority whip after the leadership team fractured over the governor’s proposal to temporarily raise the sales tax in the middle of a recession.

The then-Majority Whip Pamela Gorman opposed the tax hike, which meant she could not effectively do the job of rounding up the votes for it. The task fell to Pierce.

Pierce did it again last year, when he vied for the position and became Senate president after Russell Pearce was ousted in a special recall election in November.

The extraordinary circumstance of Pearce’s exit served as a sensitive backdrop throughout the session, and Pierce had to navigate through the myriad landmines it created.

That’s not to mention the other big challenges in front of him: negotiating a budget with House leaders and the governor, finding the right chemistry in dealing with Gov. Jan Brewer, passing legislation to aid the state’s economic recovery, and his favorite — trying to keep Arizona out of the spotlight.

He couldn’t keep Arizona out of the spotlight — no one leader could. But he at least minimized its exposure to negative coverage. Lawmakers, for example, avoided going through another immigration wringer. He admitted later he deliberately blocked controversial measures from going forward.

But Pierce’s immediate challenge was to diffuse the tension that arrived with Sen. Jerry Lewis, the charter school executive who defeated Pearce.

Many in the Republican caucus remained loyal to Pearce, and saw Lewis as a pariah. Others clearly disliked Pearce’s politics, and embraced Lewis as an ally.

As one Republican put it, what they had was a “10-5-6” caucus: 10 were Pearce supporters, five didn’t care for Pearce and six were neutral. In a way, it fell on Pierce to act as mediator between the factions.

Lewis had a rough — some said rude — welcome when he attended his first meeting with fellow Republicans, some of whom questioned his party loyalty.

But Pierce set the tone by saying the recall election was over and that the new senator now represented Mesa. He also assigned Lewis to four committees, another signal he wanted his caucus to move on.

Publicly, at least, most did.

“He acted as the adult in the room,” said Stan Barnes, a political consultant and former legislator. “He decided that was then and this is now. Jerry Lewis is a senator. He’s a member of the majority, and needs to be treated as such. I’m proud of him for moving forward, instead of dwelling on what could have become a time-wasting and caucus-breaking civil war.”

Republicans and Democrats gave Pierce good grades in handling the situation, but not everybody was happy. Privately, some questioned why he allowed Sen. Don Shooter, a first-time legislator from Yuma, to remain as chairman of the Appropriations Committee when they felt he was too green for the job. Others concluded it was wise he didn’t fiddle with committee chairmanships. Otherwise, he would have kicked the hornet’s nest.

Interestingly, Pierce began and ended the session by having to deal with the fallout of Pearce’s ouster.

The Mesa Republican’s allies made a last-minute push near the end of session to pass legislation that would have created the legal framework to reimburse recalled officers for their campaign expenses.

The measure could have paved the way for Pearce to be reimbursed $260,000 — the amount his campaign spent in contributions fighting the recall.

With strong indications it didn’t have the votes, Pierce let the idea run its course rather than block it. The proposal fizzled out on its own.

Actually, some of his challenges began early. Then-Sen. Scott Bundgaard faced an ethics inquiry, and Sen. Ron Gould, the chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, was bent on pursuing the investigation.

Gould said Pierce told him the ethics inquiry shouldn’t be a distraction. The signal to Gould was clear: Get it done and over with — before the session started. As the pressure from the inquiry built up, Bundgaard quit before he was scheduled to give his testimony — just days before the session opened.

But passing a spending plan was Pierce’s biggest challenge, especially since the situation, unlike in the year before, was reversed. Instead of a deficit, the state was collecting more revenue than was anticipated.

The governor had identified key areas where she wanted to put some of that money. But many Republican lawmakers weren’t in the mood to ramp up spending.

The dilemma can be summed up this way: The governor was optimistic that the economy would produce the revenue to cover her spending initiatives and still leave enough for the state to effectively deal with the expiration of a one-cent sales tax increase in about two years. But lawmakers, many of whom were scarred by painful budget cuts at the height of the fiscal crisis, wanted to stock up for the rainy days and were extremely wary of rosy revenue estimates.

The conditions were set for a stalemate.

In fact, the governor threatened to veto all bills that reached her desk until they had a budget deal in place — another sign of frustration with the budget talks. Knowing the governor had the upper hand, Pierce and House Speaker Andy Tobin complied.

Meanwhile, some Republicans earnestly began budget talks with Democrats, believing the negotiation with the governor was deadlocked.

Pierce now says he sanctioned the talks with Democrats, but when it was happening, he told the Arizona Capitol Times that reaching a budget deal with the minority was risking the governor’s ire and her veto stamp on other bills.

That scenario was averted when the governor finally agreed to adopt lawmakers’ revenue estimates. In turn, she got a significant amount for her spending initiatives.

Bas Aja, a lobbyist for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association and a good friend of Pierce, said what the Senate leader possesses are very good instincts, something that is honed by decades of ranching.

“His experience in life and in the livestock business is that sometimes you’ve got to make animals move a little bit, and they don’t necessarily want to go there,” Aja said. “But you’ve got to give them a little room. You’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to give them a little time, and they will kind of move. Now, I don’t say that they moved politically, but they moved with their votes — toward the budget and those other things.”

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