Unlike the supermajority Senate Republicans enjoyed under the leadership of Russell Pearce and Steve Pierce in 2011 and 2012, Senate President Andy Biggs has been forced to work with the chamber’s slimmest majority in years, leaving little room for error on the Senate floor.
The Senate is more evenly divided this session, with 17 Republicans and 13 Democrats representing Arizona’s 30 legislative districts. The chamber was last split along those same numbers in 2008, and the new scenario has caused relief for Democrats, who are now able to find more creative ways to influence the legislative process.
When the absence of one or more Republicans favor Democrats, the minority party has been able to delay votes on bills in committees and even stall hearings altogether by walking out of the room and leaving Republicans without a quorum. The tactic was used by Senators Robert Meza, Ed Ableser and Steve Gallardo in a Senate Commerce, Energy and Military Committee hearing on March 6.
And if any two Republicans are missing from the Senate floor for the Committee of the Whole or a final vote on bills, the GOP-led chamber loses its majority altogether, forcing delays in votes on legislation that would only pass on a party-line vote.
“I don’t have much wiggle room,” Biggs, R-Gilbert, told the Arizona Capitol Times. “Since part of the job of being president requires that everybody is going to be mad at you at one time or another, when you have a few more votes that you can play with, it’s a lot easier than when you have just two votes to play with.”
Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, warned that the slim margin for error figures to play a key role in negotiations on Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget proposals and Medicaid expansion plan. Biggs has said he won’t preclude the possibility of bringing the Medicaid proposal to a vote on the Senate floor, but said he would only do so if a majority of his caucus supports the measure.
Biggs is no fan of Brewer’s plan to move AHCCCS toward a full implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. The Senate president has said he’ll only allow a vote on Brewer’s proposal if a majority of his caucus supports the measure, so by his rules, Biggs would have to convince at least nine GOP senators to oppose Medicaid expansion to ensure there won’t be a vote. And that’s only one of the challenges he faces.
“One of his biggest challenges is to make sure that every one of his members is either in committee or on the floor,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. “The second challenge is getting them all to agree on his policies, whether it be a budget or pieces of legislation.”
With a supermajority, some of the more controversial Republican bills might have fared better in the Senate, but some matters that divide the GOP caucus amongst themselves have failed to clear the chamber.
Sen. Kelli Ward’s SB1112, a measure to prohibit the enforcement of any new federal gun laws limiting the sale of semiautomatic weapons and high capacity magazines, cleared its Senate committee assignment with ease, but ran into trouble in the Rules Committee when some members of her own party expressed doubts the bill would survive a court challenge.
The measure was ultimately cleared by the Rules Committee with the understanding that amendments must be made to win over Republicans reluctant to vote for the legislation, but Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, was unable to amend the bill in an acceptable manner.
“They want ‘kumbaya,’” said Meza, D-Phoenix. “That’s why bad bills haven’t been coming forward. The bills tend to be more to the middle as opposed to the extremes.”
Yee focused on the positives of having a slim majority in the Senate, pointing out the need for bipartisan efforts to move bills forward, especially in instances when there’s a disagreement within the Republican Party.
“The numbers change everything. For any sponsor of any bill, you really have to count your members,” Yee said. “I think it’s a great thing to be able to work across the aisle to ensure that you have the votes with Democrats and Republicans… It does force that type of approach and I think it’s a good thing.”
At the same time, some bills are always going to be approved on a party-line vote, and while Republicans hold a majority, senators must be careful how bills are maneuvered through committees and floor votes.
“We haven’t been in this place for a long, long time,” Yee said.
The opportunity for political shenanigans rises with a more equal split of the Senate, much to the delight of Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who uses every legislative trick in the book to push back against what has for nearly two decades been a solidly Republican majority.
Gallardo worked with Meza and Ableser, D-Tempe, to stall a vote on HB2147, a measure to amend how Arizonans obtain unemployment benefits.
Democrats say the bill will make it harder for the recently unemployed to claim benefits.
At a March 3 committee hearing for the bill, Sen. Michele Reagan was absent — out sick at the time — leaving a 3-3 split in committee.
Meza, being the only Democrat who made it to the meeting on time, decided to walk out of the room. He convinced Gallardo and Ableser to stay out of the meeting, too.
The three Republican senators on the committee were without a quorum or an opportunity to vote on the measure.
“I’m able to look at myself in the mirror when I know I showed up for a fight,” Gallardo said. “It’s shameful when we don’t push back. These bills they’re pushing through the Legislature, it’s their agenda. Why would we help them push their agenda down our throat? It’s their job to make sure their members show up to vote.”
Biggs said he doesn’t appreciate tactics that simply delay the inevitable. HB2147 was approved by the committee on March 13 and cleared the Senate on March 21.
“We all know it’s going to pass out of there, so it delayed it,” said Biggs, who later chastised Democratic leadership for the tactic and refused to allow votes on any Democratic bills for two days following the episode. “But at the same time I do respect that when you’re in the majority, some of this procedural stuff is all you’ve got to combat what you may think is a bad bill.”
Sometimes Biggs’ troubles arise from within his own party, as was the case with a controversial proposal to prohibit automatic paycheck deductions for union dues.
Biggs, who supports the bill to require government workers to annually authorize third-party deductions from their salary, faced opposition from a block of four GOP lawmakers who joined Democrats to vote against the bill. The measure, SB1112, died three times on the Senate floor — a preliminary vote in the Committee of the Whole, a subsequent roll call vote, and another roll call vote when a senator attempted to revive the bill one last time on the floor.
“You do the best you can and sometimes you’ve just got to realize you’re going to lose your bills,” Biggs said. “Sometimes that’s just the way it is.”
Two more paycheck deduction measures cleared the Senate Rules Committee, which Biggs chairs, earlier this week. Votes on either bill have not yet been scheduled on the Senate floor, so it’s unclear if Biggs has given up on the measures.
But Senate Majority Leader John McComish, one of the four GOP lawmakers to break ranks and vote against the bill, told the Arizona Capitol Times he sees a similar fate for the new round of bills.
“It’s the same thing and I would expect the same result,” McComish said.