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Predicting Brewer vetoes is difficult; reasons vary

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer delivers her 2013 State of the State address. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Figuring out how to avoid Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto pen is a guessing game that leaves even some of the most seasoned veterans at the Capitol perplexed.

Many lawmakers and lobbyists say there are no hard and fast guidelines for avoiding a veto from a governor who vetoed 91 bills in her first four legislative sessions.   And because Brewer doesn’t comment on bills until she acts on them, she rarely tips her hand in ways that are useful to legislators.

But those rules aren’t definitive, and there are exceptions to each rule. Even bills that dovetail with her agenda or some of her core conservative beliefs, such as Second Amendment rights, school choice and regulatory reform, aren’t guaranteed a gubernatorial signature.

Adding to the difficulty is what many lawmakers say is a lack of communication from the Ninth Floor. Even when lawmakers reach out to the Brewer administration, the governor’s staff doesn’t always say when Brewer has a problem that makes a bill unacceptable. And even when they recommend changes, it doesn’t mean Brewer won’t ultimately veto the bill anyway.

“I don’t think you predict what the governor is going to veto,” said Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler.

There are some general trends that have emerged since Brewer took office in 2009. She is often wary of appropriations bills that come to her desk before a budget is finished. She is generally supportive of law enforcement and local government. Hardline ideologically conservative bills often hit a roadblock on the Ninth Floor. And like most governors, Brewer has a history of vetoing legislation that infringes on executive power.

But there are exceptions. Brewer has vetoed legislation expanding gun rights and school choice, and has signed bills opposed by local governments, such as a 2012 bill forcing cities to consolidate their elections with the state and counties.

In 2009 and 2010, the governor signed major gun rights legislation, including a bill that made Arizona just the third state in the country to allow concealed weapons without a permit. But in 2011, she struck down two bills that would’ve allowed people to carry guns on college campuses and in most public buildings.

In 2011, she signed a bill creating voucher-style “empowerment accounts” for parents of disabled students who pull out of the public school system, which replaced an earlier program that was struck down by the courts. A year later, she vetoed another bill expanding the program.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, who sponsored the 2012 empowerment accounts bill, said Brewer vetoed the legislation because of the budget, not because she disagreed with the proposal. Brewer and the Legislature had not yet reached a budget deal, and the governor did not want to sign bills that had fiscal impacts until the budget was finished, Lesko said. Later in the session, Brewer signed a similar proposal after the budget and after Lesko made some changes to the bill.

“It had to do with the budget last year. It wasn’t about the policy,” Lesko said.

Lobbyist Barry Aarons, who worked in former Gov. Fife Symington’s administration, said the budget priority is one of the few discernible trends that has emerged in Brewer’s vetoes.

“I know that they’re more open with people on money bills and the fact that money bills going up prior to budgets and so on might be in trouble,” he said.

Lesko said Brewer has also made clear to her that she doesn’t like bills that impose spending limits on the state, and has vetoed similar legislation that the Peoria lawmaker has sponsored.

The birther veto

One of Brewer’s most famous vetoes was her 2011 rejection of the so-called “birther bill,” which sought to require presidential candidates to submit their long-form birth certificates in order to get on the ballot in Arizona. The veto, which included a harshly critical rejection letter, made national headlines.

Lobbyist Chris Herstam, a former lawmaker and chief of staff to Symington, said the increase of ideologically driven bills, such as the birther bill or resolutions vowing to fight United Nations invaders, has led to some of Brewer’s vetoes.

“It would appear … that Governor Brewer has chosen to veto many bills because she doesn’t like the quality of the legislation or the public policy that it expresses,” said Herstam, of the firm Lewis & Roca.

Sometimes a veto can be more about a bill’s sponsor than the bill itself, which Senate President Andy Biggs referred to as the “sponsor problem.” Lobbyist Chuck Coughlin, a longtime adviser to Brewer, agreed, saying if legislators have a habit of badmouthing a governor, the governor may send them a message with a veto.

“They all use the veto to send messages on behavior,” Coughlin said. “You better be able to be respectful of the caucus of one. And if you fail to do that, you may get an uncomfortable veto message.”

Senate Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix, said some of Brewer’s vetoes have puzzled him at first glance. But the more he thought about it, he said, the more sense they made.

“Certainly the governor is conservative, but she has a pragmatic streak, so she’s not totally ideologically driven,” McComish said. “There’s been very few where, long term, I’ve been surprised.”

Coughlin emphasized that governors are accountable to the entire state, not just a legislative district, and have to act accordingly.

“You’re accountable to such a small part of the electorate and you can hide amongst your fellow, quote-unquote, libertarian-conservatives and you don’t want to have to debate that at the next precinct committee meeting,” Coughlin said of legislators. “Any executive is going to have to be more accountable because they answer to more people, a bigger constituency.”

Reaching out to the governor

Brewer’s habit of not commenting on bills can be vexing. Often, the only way to counter it is to keep the Governor’s Office well informed and do everything possible to see if Brewer has any problems with a bill that can be addressed before it reaches her desk.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said he advises new legislators to reach out to the Governor’s Office, get to know Brewer’s staff and to keep them abreast of any changes to their legislation.

“Maybe you can’t fix a bill. Maybe you just can’t,” Tobin said.

That’s the advice that freshman Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, received when he came to the Legislature. But after he got his first two bills signed, Brewer nixed his HB2578, which sought to establish new penalties for government officials who deny licenses to individuals and businesses for reasons outside of the law.

Petersen said he spoke to the Governor’s Office about a month before the bill landed on Brewer’s desk.

“They said they’d look into it and get back to me,” he said.

Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, said lawmakers shouldn’t be afraid to contact Brewer’s staff and try to work with them on legislation.

“They don’t make any promises, but then at least it’s not a big surprise,” Reagan said.

Reagan has had only one bill vetoed by Brewer. But that one veto, on a 2011 bill creating a property tax incentive for major economic investments, showed that communicating with the Governor’s Office doesn’t guarantee Brewer’s signature. Reagan and other supporters of the bill worked with Brewer’s staff and made substantive changes to the bill, only to see Brewer veto it at the end of the session.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said Reagan addressed some of Brewer’s concerns in that bill, but it wasn’t enough to get the governor on board.

“It didn’t make the rest of the bill OK. It just made it something she would consider,” Mesnard said.

Mesnard spent a substantial amount of time last session working with Brewer’s staff on an economic development bill to avoid a veto after the Ninth Floor voiced some concerns about how much it cost.

When lawmakers work with the Governor’s Office, it’s far easier to veto-proof bills, Mesnard said. But the administration doesn’t always give the feedback that lawmakers seek.

“The problem is, they’re very selective on what they engage,” Mesnard said. “You’re fortunate when they engage on your issue because it means they’re probably going to work toward making it something that they want to sign or will sign.”

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said it’s sometimes unfortunate that Brewer and her staff don’t engage with lawmakers more on their bills. But he said it’s understandable that they don’t, because then they would ultimately get involved in “massive indirect bill-writing,” which would be time consuming and controversial.

“No governor wants to get involved in wholesale bill writing, which is what it would come down to,” Kavanagh said. “If a governor was known to communicate yes-or-no veto issues, then they’d have to have three staff members just to handle the phone calls from members saying, ‘How about this? How about that? What about this?’ That’s unmanageable, unfortunately.”

Some bills may just end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. When budget negotiations reached an impasse last year, Brewer threatened to veto any legislation that hit her desk before a budget was finished. Some politicos are expecting the same this year after Brewer urged the Legislature to slow down the pace of bills until lawmakers tackle her major priorities, primarily Medicaid expansion.

“It will be interesting to see if the governor uses her veto stamp to send political messages to those that oppose her number one priority,” Herstam said.

Sometimes there’s simply nothing that can be done. Some changes may make a bill more palatable to Brewer, Biggs said, but might be unacceptable to the actual sponsor.

“If I had a bill I thought was excellent policy and was told there was going to be a veto, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t run that bill, because it’s good policy,” said Biggs, R-Gilbert.

No poison pill

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said there’s really no single rule that lawmakers can use to determine what the governor will do with their bills.

“I don’t think there is a single poison pill. The governor weighs these proposals in their entirety,” Benson said.

He said Brewer is strongly supportive of Second Amendment rights, limited government, local control and law enforcement, and is wary of approving new appropriations without a budget in place. But there are always exceptions, he said.

“This is the essence of governance. The governor doesn’t weigh these issues in a vacuum. She has to look at every impact that they have,” Benson said.

Gun rights are a good example of this principle.

“Governor Brewer is probably the strongest gun rights supporter this state has had on the Ninth Floor. But she also recognizes that there’s a balance with public safety, an expectation people have that there won’t be guns in every public place, that there won’t be guns in schools,” Benson said. “That doesn’t make her any less supportive of the Second Amendment.”

Benson said the administration tries to pass on its concerns about legislation to the sponsors. But sometimes lawmakers aren’t interested in hearing about those concerns. And the Governor’s Office doesn’t have the manpower to staff every bill, he said.

And sometimes, Brewer, who spent 14 years in the Legislature, simply prefers to keep the branches of government separate.

“Sometimes they prefer that we not play in their sandbox, so to speak,” Benson said. “We try to leave the legislating to the legislators, so to speak.”

Veto Leaders

Vetoes Governor Year
58 Janet Napolitano 2005
43 Napolitano 2006
32 Napolitano 2008
29 Jan Brewer 2011
28 Jane Dee Hull 2001
25 Brewer 2012
22 Brewer 2009
22 Napolitano 2007
22 Hull 1999

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