Lawmakers are prepared to sine die Thursday afternoon and leave what’s become an increasingly toxic atmosphere at the Capitol as bipartisan coalitions in each chamber have seized control and began systematically approving Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget proposal in special session.
Senate President Andy Biggs said he’s hesitant to raise expectations, but hopes to adjourn both the budget and Medicaid expansion special session and the 51st Legislative regular session shortly after noon Thursday.
Other lawmakers and political observers agreed that few would want to continue working on bills in an environment where the Majority Party has been torn apart by the divisive Medicaid issue. It split the Republican Party and left some GOP lawmakers to watch helplessly as a budget that includes what they’ve labeled Obamacare was approved in the Senate Committee of the Whole.
Lawmakers in the House were taking similar votes early this evening, and are expected to stay at the Capitol past midnight to take a third and final read on the 10 budget bills in the early hours of Thursday morning.
The Senate is scheduled to return at 9 a.m. Thursday to finish work on a handful of bills and take a final vote on the budget.
The same coalition of senators that approved a budget plan four weeks ago remained intact Wednesday afternoon. Senate Majority Leader John McComish, Senate Majority Whip Adam Driggs, and Sens. Bob Worsley and Steve Pierce joined with Senate Democrats to approve 10 amendments, one for each budget bill, that included changes agreed upon between the coalition and the governor’s staff.
With little debate or grandstanding from the new majority, the coalition easily beat back 26 other amendments proposed by Senate Republicans. Some were designed to hinder Medicaid expansion, while others were pet projects of lawmakers trying to add funding to the budget, but none was given a chance to be approved, as the coalition quietly voted to move the budget forward.
Time and time again, Pierce, R-Prescott, the sponsor of each budget bill and successfully adopted amendment, declined to answer questions from his GOP colleagues. He noted this was the second time the Senate took votes on budget bills in COW this year.
“I think we have gone through all the questions and answers before,” Pierce said on the floor.
Worsley, R-Mesa, said there was no desire to jeopardize the agreement that was reached between the coalition and Brewer.
Anti-Medicaid Republicans, who called themselves the new minority at the Capitol, were critical of the coalition for refusing to yield to questions or debate any of the measures that were amended to the budget. A similar scene played itself out in the House Wednesday afternoon.
Biggs, R-Gilbert, called the lack of meaningful dialogue “a crying shame.”
“I’m not trying to embarrass anybody,” Biggs said on the floor. “It just seems to me that it’d be important for the body to understand as we try to vote on a budget today.”
Brewer called the special session on Tuesday after becoming frustrated with delays over the budget and Medicaid expansion.
The Legislature introduced 10 budget bills on Tuesday night, over the objections and protests of conservative lawmakers. Some denounced the governor’s decision to call a special session as unnecessary and antagonistic, while many avoided the floor and instead sat in the gallery. Others left their respective chambers in protest.
“This is just the first step. I think what we continue to see is there is a strong coalition, a strong bipartisan coalition in both the House and Senate to support the governor’s Medicaid plan. And I think over the next couple of days that will come to fruition,” Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said.
Negotiations over the budget and Medicaid expansion had been stalled in the House since the Senate approved a budget on May 16.
“Most Arizonans go to work on Wednesday. That’s generally considered a work day. So, I think that caught a lot of members by surprise, and you start to wonder what games are being played when you see things like that,” Benson said.
Opponents of Brewer’s plan, however, decried Brewer’s decision. In a scathing joint statement after the vote, Biggs and Tobin criticized Brewer and her staff for calling a special session without consulting them.
“We are disappointed and stunned that the governor and her staff would resort to such an unnecessary, impulsive and unprecedented tactic,” Biggs and Tobin said in the written statement. “We are frustrated and bewildered by her overt hostility and disregard for the budgetary process which was already well under way. The blatant disrespect and reckless practices exhibited by this Executive are less than what was expected of her and more than should be tolerated.”
Lawmakers in both chambers suspended the rules that require bills to be considered by a committee before advancing to the floor for consideration by the entire body. Each chamber is expected to begin floor debate of its bills Wednesday.
Republican Sen. John McComish made the motion to suspend the rules in the Senate. Republican Rep. Jeff Dial made the motion in the House.
Republican Rep. Adam Kwasman, R-Oro Valley, was the only lawmaker in the House to oppose the suspension of the rules. He called for a division vote on the motion, and he was the only lawmaker to cote against it. The rest of the anti-expansion Republican representatives present – 16 Republican lawmakers – sat in the chamber’s gallery boycotting the special session.
“This is happening whether they are a part of it or not. I will be here and I will fight, even if we get steamrolled,” Kwasman said.
He said the special session was unnecessary and the House would have finished its voting on
Medicaid expansion and the budget by the end of the week and the budget was already on a committee agenda.
“(The governor) chose to call a special session because she could not wait two more days for Obamacare. She wanted Obamacare so badly that she could not wait to impose high taxes and a huge government program on the people of Arizona,” he said.
The conservative critics of Brewer’s actions in the gallery said that their boycott of the special session was mostly symbolic, and they intend to fight the budget and Medicaid expansion on the floor tomorrow.
Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who sat in the gallery instead of her seat on the House floor, said the governor calling lawmakers back to work at 5 p.m. was unnecessary, disrespectful and inconvenient.
“I had to drag my kids here without dinner, and I didn’t appreciate it,” she said.
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said he wanted to boycott the first day of the special session to make it perfectly clear that he disagreed with the decision to call it and intends to fight Brewer’s agenda. That said, he intends to be on the floor when the budget gets debated and voted on.
“Up there was simply to say you stand alone on this. We’re not doing this, and you stand alone on siding with the governor and destroying the integrity of this system,” he said.
Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, said Tobin has been working with Brewer in good faith, and said the budget, including her Medicaid plan, likely would have been approved on Thursday, and even had a bill they could use as a vehicle for a strike-everything amendment.
“They had the votes to pass it on Thursday. In fact, they had the votes to pass it today,” Boyer said.
And House Speaker Pro Tem J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said the governor was trying to be intentionally antagonistic.
“This was meant to be, by design, the most offensive way possible for getting this done,” said Mesnard, who sat in the gallery.
Senators opposed to Medicaid expansion staged their own protest as well, walking off the floor after roll call was taken and leaving the coalition of Senate Democrats and Republicans behind to complete the work of first reading the new budget bills.
Biggs swiftly walked off the floor after the Senate adjourned and did not speak to the assembled members of the media. Lawmakers are scheduled to return Wednesday at 11 a.m., when the Senate is expected to begin the process of amending the bills.
Brewer’s allies defended her decision to call a special session.
“At the end of the day, once we passed that hundred-day mark, we really just needed to focus our efforts on the end, which is producing a balanced budget and passing the governor’s Medicaid restoration plan,” said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, who has spearheaded Brewer’s plan in the House.
Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, said state agencies have been unable to plan for the upcoming fiscal year because of “deliberate delays.”
“I don’t know what else to basically call it when you shut down right smack in the middle of the most important time,” Robson said. “We’re into the middle of June, and every day matters with respect to essential services.”
Benson said the special session was needed to prevent any further delays.
“At some point, days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, and that’s the reason it was necessary to move this forward today,” he said.
Negotiations leading up to Tuesday’s special session have been testy. In early May, Brewer threatened to veto any bills the Legislature sent her before they finished the budget and Medicaid plan. Later, she backed up her threat by vetoing five bills the Senate sent her.
As contentious as the beginning of the special session was, it could have been uglier. As the two chambers prepared to convene, rumors swirled unabated that Biggs and Tobin would be replaced as the leaders of their chambers, possibly replaced by Rep. Frank Pratt and Sen. Steve Pierce. But the rumors never materialized.
Robson said the ouster could have been used as a contingency plan, but said it was never anyone’s intent to remove the leaders of the chambers.
“There’s no intent to do any of that unless, procedurally, things don’t happen,” he said. “It was never the intent.”
Senate Majority Whip Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said some had floated theories that Biggs could be temporarily removed in the special session. He said he never considered removing Biggs. Senate Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix, dismissed the talk as merely a rumor.
Benson, too, said it was never anyone’s intent to remove either leader, and said Brewer is pleased Biggs and Tobin have retained their positions.
But some anti-expansion Republicans were openly concerned. Kwasman raised the issue in his fiery floor speech, and Boyer said he spoke with several colleagues before they went to the floor about the “disconcerting” rumors.
“I think it was a legitimate concern,” Boyer said.
The bipartisan coalitions in the House and Senate have agreed to 10 amendments to the budget bills, which closely resemble the bills as engrossed by the Senate weeks ago. Among the biggest changes are a $17 million cut in IT funding and $5.1 million in funding removed from the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix.
The community college rural capital fund would receive a $2 million funding increase and $4 million would be added for the Phoenix Medical School.