Pressured by members of his own party, House Speaker David Gowan on Tuesday morning suspended his ban on reporters on the floor who have not first undergone extensive background checks.
But they still don’t have full access.
House Republicans also voted Tuesday to preserve Gowan’s unilateral authority to decide in the future whether to rescind overall access, whether to require extensive background checks and even to ban a single reporter for any reason at all.
In a brief statement, House Republican publicist Stephanie Grisham said the badges that had been given to regular Capitol beat reporters that opened certain doors are not being reactivated. That had provided easier access for reporters to go to lawmakers’ offices, including that of the speaker.
Instead, there will be a sign-in process available only when the House is on the floor.
Gowan’s decision to suspend his own policy comes less than a week after he claimed that House members had demanded he tighten up security procedures. That followed a disturbance in the public gallery.
But it turns out the letter from GOP legislators that Gowan said led to the policy change never actually mentioned concerns about reporters on the floor. Instead, it simply asked Gowan to spend money in the House budget “for the purpose of improving the physical security of the Arizona House of Representatives building.”
“The speaker stands by his security plan,” Grisham said Monday. But she acknowledged there had been pressure on her boss to reverse his stance, saying he “has a responsibility to his members and public who expressed concern.”
Hours later, House Democrats moved to preclude Gowan or any future speaker from further curbing access.
That’s a right he now has.
House rules require there be a place for the press, with no requirement it actually can be on the floor. That concerned Rep. Lisa Otondo, D-Yuma.
She acknowledged reporters can view and record floor speeches from the gallery. But Otondo said that precludes reporters questioning lawmakers afterwards about their statements.
“When we really have to answer the questions is when they’re an arms-length away,” she said.
Rep. Diego Espinoza’s proposal would have required the press gallery be on the House floor, as it has been for more than three decades. And it would preclude House staffers from demanding background checks that could be used to disqualify a reporter absent a specific threat or concern.
Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, suggested the press in Arizona has more access than some other places. For example, he noted that Congress does not grant floor privileges to reporters.
But Bowers acknowledged afterwards that, unlike the Arizona House, reporters in Washington are free to go the offices of federal lawmakers.
And Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said it’s irrelevant what happens elsewhere.
“This is Arizona,” he said. “We do things as what we think ought to be done.”
No Republican stood up to defend Gowan’s now-suspended policy. But Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said that does not mean the rules should be changed, suggesting Democrats might have a different point of view if and when that party ever takes control of the House.
That doesn’t mean Campbell and other GOP lawmakers were pleased about the actions the speaker took last Thursday, a move that came as a surprise to many of them when they went to the floor only to find reporters who refused to consent to extensive background checks banished to the third floor gallery.
“I’m happy you guys are back down here,” Campbell said.
“I’m not going to criticize the speaker,” he continued. “But I’m glad he saw the light.”
And Campbell said there was concern that the actions taken by Gowan reflected badly on the GOP majority.
“I don’t want to get tarred that we’re anti-press,” he said.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who could be the next House speaker, said after the floor debate he saw no reason for the change that Gowan had implemented.
“I was comfortable with the policy we had in place before,” he said. “I think many of my colleagues were.”
That included electronic badges which opened inner doors to not only the House floor but also the hallways leading to lawmakers’ offices, though reporters were supposed to call ahead first.
In the now-suspended — but not revoked — policy, Gowan had demanded not only that reporters consent to examinations of criminal and civil records but also provide information about driver’s license and prior addresses. More significant, his policy said anyone convicted of certain specific crimes would never be allowed access.
That included not only serious felonies but also the crime of trespass — the Class 2 misdemeanor which would have disqualified Hank Stephenson, the Arizona Capitol Times reporter who discovered that Gowan had used $12,000 in state resources for travel for both personal purposes and in his congressional campaign.
Gowan refunded the money and insisted it was an error by a staffer.