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New lawmakers face steep learning curve

New lawmakers face steep learning curveThe incoming class of lawmakers contains a relatively high number of new members — and like children heading to their first day of school, those newbies bring with them outside experiences, fresh ideas and optimism. But one thing they often don’t bring is a working knowledge of the issues and the process.

Excluding the lawmakers changing chambers, nearly one-third of the class of 2013 are brand new to the job.

In all, the 51st Legislature will consist of 37 fresh faces — legislators who are entering their first term, are new to the chamber, or are returning after leaving the Legislature in the past — a number only surpassed (since 1966 when the Arizona Capitol Times started keeping records) by the incoming class of 2002, which contained 40 new faces.

“There are a lot of new people down there, and those people will have to get up to speed on the issues,” said Barry Aarons, four-decade Capitol insider and lobbyist at The Aarons Company. “And I always remind people that there are a plethora of issues that are discussed down there that the average person isn’t familiar with… And that’s why God created good lobbyists.”

Those 37 fresh faces make up 41 percent of the Legislature and include seven former representatives moving to the Senate, a trio of lawmakers who served in the past but not the previous session, and one senator who shifted to the House.

Aarons said redistricting is probably the main reason there was such a high turnover in 2002 and 2012, though there are other factors at play, too.

This year, several lawmakers decided to retire or move on because they were drawn into districts with people they didn’t want to run against, or into districts they couldn’t win. A handful tried to run in the unfavorable districts and lost.

Aarons said he didn’t think the public had a “throw the bums out” attitude this year, and that the high turnover is just part of the process.

“I don’t see it as a sea change in public opinion. I just think it’s all of the normal political circumstances that occur after redistricting, and periodically we have people who are moving on,” he said.

He also cited the implementation of term limits, Clean Elections and an independent redistricting process as some of the reasons the number of new legislators per election has been on the rise.

In the 1970s, the average number of new legislators, including former lawmakers and those changing chambers, was nearly 25 per election.

That number dropped in the 1980s down to about 16, and began to rise again through the 1990s, when the average was 23. From 2000 through 2010, the average turnover per election was almost 27 — far less than this year’s 37.

Term limits, which came into effect in 2000, only allow members to serve four two-year terms per chamber — though they can switch back and forth between the House and Senate indefinitely, assuming voters elect them.

The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections system allows relatively unknown candidates to have a chance at knocking off incumbents and winning a seat, although Aarons said that because of a loss of matching funds, the system’s influence is becoming “less and less as time goes on.”

An independent redistricting commission was first used to draw the political maps in 2000. Before that, the Legislature drew the maps, and there was an unwritten agreement that the parties would each protect their own and not draw incumbents into unfriendly districts, Aarons said.

“Back then, you didn’t see (things like outgoing Republican Rep. Ted) Vogt thrown into a Democratic district, you didn’t see (outgoing Democratic Rep. Tom) Chabin drawn into a Republican district,” he said.

Despite the high number of new lawmakers, Aarons said he doesn’t expect much to change. He said Arizona’s strong committee system helps legislators get educated on specific topics quickly, and the House and Senate leaders still have significant experience to teach the freshmen.

“I think it’s pretty much business as usual, and the new members will get up to speed pretty quickly… The first year there will be growing pains, but you’ve got pretty effective leadership in both chambers,” Aarons said. “It’s pretty much business as usual.”

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