During his first year as speaker of the House, Republican David Gowan of Sierra Vista came under fire from members of his caucus, not for his legislative policies or plans for the state, but for his loose spending with the House budget.
Upon being selected by a majority of his caucus as their next speaker of the House in November 2014, Gowan immediately started hiring his own crew of loyal top staffers. Spending on employees soared.
He replaced the sergeant at arms with a former lawman from his neck of the woods, Cochise County. He paid the new hire $80,000, double the rate of the last sergeant at arms. He got a new House Republican spokeswoman, at a 30 percent pay increase over the previous spokesman. He created several new positions, including majority strategy and policy adviser and a new policy adviser to the majority leader. He gave big raises to those he promoted from within, including his chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. And he even gave raises to those he didn’t promote, including his general counsel, who received a $23,000 raise, and a handful of policy advisers, who received raises between $10,000 and $18,000 for doing the same jobs.
The number of new hires and the very generous pay increases to existing employees raised some eyebrows from fiscal hawks and critics in his caucus. But staff changes are a normal part of new leadership in the House, which rarely sees the same speaker for more than two terms. His fellow House Republicans were hesitant to criticize their newly elected leader for the changes.
Then the construction started.
While Gowan was still speaker-elect, the House received a $375,000 pre-session facelift. Gowan characterized the renovations as mostly safety-related in the old, asbestos-infused building. But more than $193,000 of that was budgeted to create three new offices and accommodate more of Gowan’s allies on the second floor, where GOP leadership and their staff reside, and where the big decisions are made.
Then in April, the Arizona Capitol Times reported that Gowan had authorized a massive renovation of the building. Estimates ran to the tune of slightly more than $2 million. The plans included a workout room and showers in the House basement, along with $341,000 worth of new carpet throughout the building.
Many rank-and-file Republicans were furious at the proposed spending, especially since it came shortly after they approved a state budget requiring many state agencies to make more cuts.
Eighteen House Republicans, half of the caucus, penned a scathing rebuke of the speaker declaring they didn’t trust him with the power of the House purse.
After many Republican lawmakers found out about Gowan’s planned construction project through the press, rather than from the speaker or staff, the 18 GOP lawmakers signed a letter calling for the speaker to appoint a bipartisan committee to oversee and approve any expenditures of more than $25,000.
“This excessive spending occurred at a time when the state has been facing a well-known fiscal crisis,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are convinced there are many other ways the taxpayers’ money could be better appropriated. As Republicans, we support limited government and policies that promote fiscal responsibility. This should extend not only to state policy, but also to policies within the Arizona House of Representatives.”
The letter also asked that the committee review the $375,000 construction project that was completed before the session.
Gowan claimed he was as surprised as anyone to see the $2 million price tag. He said he authorized staff to prepare some construction plans, but he hadn’t ever officially signed off on the plan. After meeting with many of the Republicans who signed the letter, he still defended his desire to fix up the old and deteriorating House building.
“We’re having conversations about anything we need to do to keep (the) House up. I mean, you wouldn’t let your house go to waste, and we are the people who are here for the citizens, and if we’re here watching it deteriorate, then what are we doing to salvage the people’s House?” Gowan said in April.
Then, just as the plans to renovate the House brought a lot of unwanted scrutiny to Gowan’s spending, three members of the House GOP leadership team received new office furniture, costing more than $17,000. That prompted further outcries from fiscal hawks in his caucus.
Due to the public outcry and pushback from his own caucus, Gowan eventually canceled his plans for a massive renovation of the House basement, complete with showers and a workout room.
But he still pushed forward with more than $1 million in renovations to the rest of the building. That included installing new carpeting on the first, second and third floors, renovating the chief clerk’s office, replacing the hearing rooms’ audience chairs, and re-upholstering the lawmakers’ chairs.
In fact, when Gov. Doug Ducey called lawmakers into a special session in November, the House was in a state of disarray from ongoing construction projects. Plastic sheets hung in the lobby, carpet was torn up throughout the building, painting projects were in progress, chairs were being reupholstered, the coffee bar was taped off, and crews were still re-roofing the building.
But Gowan turned lemons into lemonade by moving lawmakers into the Old Capitol building for the special session’s opening day, providing for a better photo for the event than the torn-up House chambers.
His spokeswoman even sent out a press release shortly before the special session convened, giving a little history about the historic chambers and setting the narrative about the new location. She noted that the last time the House met in the old chambers was 1960.
“Interestingly… (lawmakers then) were discussing the state’s budget and public education,” she wrote.