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Pay hike flap leaves rank and file lawmakers with little to do

(Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Thousands of teachers, students and Red for Ed supporters gathered at Chase Field on April 26 before marching to the Arizona Capitol on the first day of a statewide strike. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

As teachers around the state prepared to strike, legislators sat nearly idle for four days as they got into a stand-off with Gov. Doug Ducey over how to give teachers pay raises.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, announced on April 19 the schedule for April 23 to April 26 would likely be fluid because lawmakers were “running out of things to do.”

Work nearly came to a halt after Ducey vetoed 10 House bills on April 20, asking that the Legislature instead focus on passing a budget that includes funding for his proposed teacher pay raises, in addition to restoring district and charter additional assistance.

Though the move appeared to break the budget logjam, sparking serious budget discussions between House and Senate leadership and the governor’s staff, other business at the Capitol slowed considerably, sidelining the vast majority of lawmakers who weren’t part of the budget negotiations.

Some lawmakers were frustrated for being left out of the budget conversation, or wished they could be back in their district talking to constituents, or campaigning.

Rep. Drew John, R-Safford, said though the easy schedule would give the Legislature more time to concentrate on finding a sustainable funding source to pay for Ducey’s proposed 9 percent teacher raise in FY2019, most members were just waiting to see a plan.

Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, who is running for state treasurer, said it has been difficult balancing having to be on the floor and traveling throughout the state to meet with voters.

While the Senate debated several bills in Committee of the Whole, and gave third and final readings to a few others throughout the week, the House had nothing substantive on the calendar.

It’s unlikely that the House, for the time being, will send many more bills to the Governor’s Office, if any at all, said Mesnard.

“I’m not really planning on sending more bills. I don’t have very many left anyway,” he said.

On April 23, the House gaveled in, read messages from the Senate and Governor’s Office, and adjourned in less than 15 minutes. Floor sessions usually last more than an hour.

The following day, the House met for roughly 30 minutes, but didn’t vote on any measures.

On April 25, again with little work to do on the floor, House members spent more than 90 minutes debating the offensiveness of rap lyrics after Democratic Reps. Reginald Bolding and Gerae Peten took issue with a commentary written by Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, that they said not only sought to discredit the #RedForEd leaders but also disparaged black people.

Things got so slow that Mesnard even toyed with the idea of canceling the April 24 floor session, a suggestion that he said was not well received by some members.

“We contemplated not having to do the pray, pledge, adjourn maneuver, but some said that would look bad,” he said. “My thought was: Why pull everybody in if they could be having conversations with teachers in their districts and other constituents?”

Even if they aren’t on the floor, it doesn’t mean they aren’t working, Mesnard said, adding that members have met throughout the week to discuss the budget.

But there were other outstanding issues to tackle.

Ducey’s school safety plan is slowly making its way through the Legislature, getting the nod in the Senate Rules Committee on April 23. Three Senate bills were approved in the House Rules Committee and in caucus this week. And both chambers introduced a resolution on April 4 to approve the appointment of Lindsey Perry as auditor general, which is being fast tracked through the Legislature, but still needs to be voted on.

Mesnard said leadership also needs to discuss what ballot referrals will be sent to the Secretary of State’s Office this year.

One incentive that might push lawmakers to sine die soon – starting on the 120th day of session, legislators will get a smaller subsistence allowance. Instead of $60 per day for non-Maricopa County lawmakers, the per diem drops to $20, while for Maricopa County residents, it dips to $10 from $35.

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