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A session to remember – even if you don’t want to

The wear and tear of the 2009 session was visible on the faces of virtually every legislator, lobbyist and staffer at the Capitol, leaving little doubt that this year will be etched into the memories of those who watched it.

“We’ve had some real doozies, but this year…” said Rep. Jack Brown, trailing off into silence and shaking his head. Brown, a Democrat from St. Johns, has represented eastern Arizona for a total of 35 years, stretching back to 1963.

Anyone who’s spent time at the Legislature, whether as an elected official or an observer, can attest that every session is unique. But Capitol veterans say this has been the most difficult they’ve been involved with.

“So little has been done this session, yet I am more exhausted after this session (than any other),” said lobbyist Kevin DeMenna, who has more than 25 legislative sessions under his belt. “I think (I) worked twice as hard to get half as much out of it.”

There are a multitude of things that set this session apart from past years, and they all collided to create a maelstrom like no one had ever seen. There was a change in governors, historic budget deficits, federal intervention, Republican infighting and nearly five months of inactivity on non-budget legislation.

The result was a 170-day session that ended later than any other session in state history, a budget that was vetoed hours after lawmakers adjourned sine die and a special session that began less than a week later.

“It feels like it never ended,” said Barry Aarons, a lobbyist for 38 years.

The failure to act on legislation for five months was something that had never been seen. Prior to the session, Senate President Bob Burns announced his chamber wouldn’t consider any bills that weren’t directly related to the budget until a state spending plan was stitched together. The House, meanwhile, conducted business as usual.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” House Speaker Kirk Adams said early in the session.

The move was unprecedented, but there was optimism that it would lead to a quicker resolution on a budget. That didn’t happen, and the logjam on bills in the Senate wasn’t broken until after senators approved a budget plan June 4.

“We did four or five months worth of work in the Senate in one fell swoop in June,” said lobbyist Nick Simonetta.

The result was a hurried process. Legislation moved along much quicker than normal, resulting in a lack of scrutiny on the contents of bills. On top of that, every lawmaker was scrambling to get his or her priority measures pushed through the Senate, as were the lobbyists.

“When you open a crack… everyone wants to jump through that crack. That created a lot of drama,” said lobbyist Mitch Menlove.

But the true star of the show in 2009 was the budget. Deficit estimates were horrible in January, but as the months passed, they became downright scary as Arizona’s depressed economy continued to erode revenue collections.

“Every time that you thought they were finally getting things together, JLBC would come out and say revenues slipped (again)…and it changed the dynamic,” Aarons said.

Devising a plan to address the shortfall, which eventually settled at about $3.5 billion for the 2010 fiscal year, became more and more challenging each time monthly revenue collections resulted in the state’s wallet getting lighter than expected.

“If I were to describe it in one word, it’s ‘struggle,'” Adams said of the session.

There was no shortage of struggles. Legislative leaders struggled to craft a plan that theoretically could get the needed votes. Adams and Burns – the latter, especially – each struggled to line up those votes. The pair also struggled mightily, and publicly, with Gov. Jan Brewer over a sales tax proposal she insisted on that was generally opposed by Republican lawmakers.

Individual lawmakers also struggled with what they were being asked to do. The realities of the state’s financial situation led Republican legislators, who controlled both chambers, to support deep spending cuts.

“There’s a real human effect, and I don’t think the legislators were unaffected by that,” Simonetta said. “That’s not something we see every year, and not to this magnitude.”

The conflict between Brewer and legislative Republicans took center stage in the budget debate. The governor got crosswise with fellow Republicans on March 4 when she addressed lawmakers and said she wouldn’t accept a budget that didn’t include a tax increase. Brewer said the situation was so bad Arizona had no choice, but lawmakers rejected the suggestion as poor public policy.

Things escalated in late May when word leaked that Brewer’s closest allies were organizing a $225,000 public relations campaign designed to target intractable Republicans. Shortly after that, the governor released a budget plan. GOP leaders responded by using the public relations campaign to unify their caucuses and gather the needed votes for a budget – one that didn’t contain a tax increase.

But rather than send the budget to Brewer, who had said she would veto it, Burns sat on the bills and used them as a way to force the governor to negotiate: She could either work on a compromise in good faith or risk the bills landing on her desk on the last day of the fiscal year, giving her the option of signing or vetoing the package and possibly shutting down state government.

The compromise came about on June 26, but Burns and Adams couldn’t find the support for a ballot referral of a sales tax increase. The Legislature ended up approving the rest of the deal, but Brewer rejected the bulk of it. She signed the general spending bill in order to prevent a government shutdown, but vetoed the rest and called for an immediate special session.

That special session is ongoing, but it probably won’t be the last time lawmakers tinker under the hood of the fiscal 2010 budget.

“The never-ending session is likely to continue through the 2010 (regular) session and the campaign season,” Aarons said.

As difficult as it was, though, the 2009 session was appreciated on some level. For freshman Rep. Debbie Lesko, it means things will only get better.

“I view it as a positive, because if I can make it through this session and next session, it will be a piece of cake from then on,” the Glendale Republican said.

Regardless of how the 2009 session is remembered in the future, it is without doubt that it will be remembered. With a sagging economy expected for several more years, the battle scars incurred this year are unlikely to heal quickly. Most of those scars are political, but some participants will have physical reminders of this session, too.

Adams remarked: “My wife tells me I have more gray hair, and the doctor says I need glasses now. That wasn’t true at the beginning of session.”

Major Events during 2009 Session

January 12
Session kicks off with dozens of new lawmakers being sworn in for the first time and Gov. Janet Napolitano giving her final State of the State address before leaving Arizona to take a job in President Obama’s administration. Meanwhile, Senate President Bob Burns places a hold on all non-budget bills until budget work is completed, following through on a statement he had made in November.

January 16
Gov. Janet Napolitano submitted a budget that called for less than $1 billion in suspensions of state spending over the next 18 months. She proposed securitizing both the Arizona Lottery and proceeds the state receives annually from a settlement reached with tobacco companies in the 1990s. Her budget staff estimates the state would receive $500 million for the former and $800 million for the latter.

January 21
Jan Brewer is officially sworn in as Arizona’s governor. The state Constitution dictates that the elected secretary of state fills any gubernatorial vacancy and, with Napolitano resigning to become director of the federal Department of Homeland Security, Brewer gets a promotion. Former lawmaker Ken Bennet is chosen to replace Brewer as Secretary of State.

January 28
Brewer calls the Legislature into a special session to address the crisis in the fiscal 2009 budget. The 49th Legislature, First Special Session, gets underway late in the evening.

January 30
Republican lawmakers approve a plan to patch together the fiscal 2009 budget, which had a shortfall of about $1.6 billion, through a combination of spending cuts and fund sweeps. Brewer signs the bills the following morning, and the special session adjourns.

February 17
President Obama signs the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which includes $4.2 billion in stimulus aid for Arizona government. However, the state is required to meet certain funding and eligibility thresholds for health care and education in order to receive the money.

March 4
Brewer makes a rare appearance before a joint session of the Legislature to lay out her vision for addressing the financial crisis facing the state. Her speech angers many of her fellow Republicans by saying she won’t accept a budget that doesn’t include a tax increase.

March 12
As the economy continues to deteriorate, lawmakers approve a second fix for the fiscal 2009 budget, this time with bipartisan support. It leans heavily on federal stimulus money to fill the hole.

March 30
House Democrats unveil their own budget proposal – a rare move for a minority party in Arizona.

May 13
A third, and final, correction to the fiscal 2009 budget is approved by lawmakers. With state tax collections continuing to erode, lawmakers use even more stimulus money to repair the budget. They also implement rollovers for K-12 and university funding.

May 22
Brewer formally applies for federal stimulus money and announces how she intends to allocate the money earmarked for education.

May 28
House and Senate Democrats release the second budget plan from the minority party. The plan includes shifting taxes to property owners, as well as lowering the state sales tax and expanding the base to include services, which they said would stabilize revenue collections in the future.

June 1
Brewer unveils her fiscal 2010 budget proposal, which includes a sales tax increase and fewer cuts than GOP lawmakers wanted. Also, only six bills have passed the Legislature at this point.

June 4
In response to Brewer’s budget, Republican lawmakers work late into the night to approve their budget bills.

June 16
After Republican leaders refused to send Brewer the approved budget bills, she sued them and asked the state Supreme Court to force the immediate transfer of the measures. Brewer had said they would be vetoed anyway, because they did not include a ballot measure to raise the sales tax.

June 23
Within hours of hearing arguments in the lawsuit, the Supreme Court rules that the Legislature didn’t have the right to hold the budget bills, but declined to force lawmakers to send them to her, saying the fiscal year was due to end in a week anyway.

June 26
Brewer and Republican leaders strike a deal after 1 a.m., and a push begins for a quick vote before the June 30 end of the fiscal year. The budget is very similar to the one approved June 4, with the most notable exception being the inclusion of a ballot referral for a sales tax increase.

June 27
Lawmakers show up at the Capitol on a Saturday for what was expected to be a budget vote. Instead, a House panel considered only a portion of the budget bills and no floor votes were taken in either chamber. The measures stalled in the Senate.

June 30
At about 11:30 p.m., the House passes a package of budget bills. Not included, however, is the ballot referral. Republican leaders in both chambers were unable to secure the needed votes in their caucuses.

July 1
In the early morning hours, the Senate approves the spending plan that already cleared the House. Although lawmakers have been working for more than 16 hours, both chambers continue to vote on bills until about 8 a.m., when the session officially adjourns sine die.

July 1
The budget bills land on Brewer’s desk at about 6 a.m. By early afternoon, she has vetoed all but the general spending bill, which she signed into law only after using line-item vetoes to eliminate spending reductions backed by GOP lawmakers. Brewer calls for a special session to fix the budget.

2009 Session Wrap coverage:
Brewer reflects on tumultuous first session as guv
Burns’ gambit: Inside Senate president’s strategy
House speaker says work remains on transparency
House minority leader gives Legislature an ‘F’
Garcia says he needed 1 more Dem in Senate
Capitol Quotes – Best of the Session

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