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Committee chairs seek balance between gatekeeper and ‘God’

The first major hurdle every piece of legislation faces in the House or Senate is a committee leader with the ability to unilaterally kill bills, and some chairs are more willing to do it than others.

While the vast majority of Democratic bills languish in committees, chairs typically let their Republican colleagues’ bills be heard. An Arizona Capitol Times review of data from Legislation On Line Arizona shows that a handful of committee chairs are difficult gatekeepers even for their GOP peers.

To some extent, that’s the job of a committee chair, Senate President Karen Fann said. As the Senate president and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, the Prescott Republican also has great leeway in keeping bills from getting votes on the Senate floor.

“This has gone on since day one and will go on for a long time as long as the system is the way it is,” Fann said. “As chairpersons of our committees, one of their responsibilities is in fact to not hear bad bills if they’re just plain bad bills.”

The risk, though, comes in making sure committee chairs don’t “play God” by deciding to kill bills because of their personal preferences, Fann said.

“There might be a perfectly good bill out there that 60, 70 percent of all the members think that it’s a really, really good bill and we’re all OK with it,” Fann said. “But when it comes to a committee where there’s a person who says, ‘Well no, I just personally don’t like it, I don’t care what the majority of the other people do,’ that’s wrong. That’s just totally wrong.”

Eddie Farnsworth

Eddie Farnsworth

The committee chairman who came under the most fire for holding bills that had support from a majority of lawmakers also proved to be the one with the third-highest kill rate for Republican bills. Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, killed 24 percent of the Republican bills referred to his Senate Judiciary Committee.

Farnsworth’s refusal to hear a bill written by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, to expand opportunities for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers contributed to a bitter showdown at the end of session as Boyer and Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, refused to vote for the GOP budget until they got a vote on their bills.

This year, Farnsworth also prevented a resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, supported by at least three Republican senators along with the entire Democratic caucus, from being heard in his committee. And he refused to hear a bill from Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, that would have prevented criminal defendants who have never before been sentenced from being charged as repeat offenders.

Toma and Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, succeeded in getting around Farnsworth by replacing one of Mesnard’s bills that had already cleared the Senate with the repeat offender legislation. An attempt to bring the ERA ratification to the floor failed.

Farnsworth did not return a message left with his assistant, and several phone numbers he has provided in response to Capitol Times questionnaires and on candidate filing forms with the Secretary of State’s Office have been disconnected. But earlier this year, he said he tried to kill Boyer’s statute of limitation bill because the founding fathers intended committee chairs to serve as gatekeepers.

“We are gatekeepers,” he said. “There are chairmen that hold bills.”

And in a 2011 interview with the Capitol Times upon his return to the House after two years away, Farnsworth said too many lawmakers were proud of the number of bills they got passed.

“The question for me is how many bills did I kill as a chairman?  In four years, I probably killed 500 bills,” he said. “I’m far prouder of being a gatekeeper of freedom than voting for a bill that tells people what to do. I’m very proud of my reputation.”

Boyer said he found Farnsworth’s refusal to hear his statute of limitations bill “frustrating,” though he acknowledged he probably frustrated plenty of members during his four years as chairman of the House Education Committee.

As a chairman, Boyer said he’d count votes on his committee ahead of time to avoid scheduling bills that wouldn’t pass, particularly if they were bills that would garner a lot of testimony or debate. And he said committee leaders’ personal opinions about bills shouldn’t determine whether they get heard.

For instance, Boyer had a bill this session to allow graduating high school students who have achieved a high level of proficiency in the fine arts to have a fine arts seal added to their diplomas. Rep. Michelle Udall, a Mesa Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, was not a fan of the bill, but the rest of her committee supported it so she heard it anyway.

“I think she was the only ‘no’ vote, to her credit,” Boyer said. “That was just a great illustration of a chairman doing their job.”

Anthony Kern

Anthony Kern

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, came under fire more than once this session for his role as the gatekeeper of the House Rules Committee. Bill after bill went there to die without explanation, and his colleagues noticed.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez made a point of calling attention to Democratic bills being held “hostage” in Rules on more than one occasion this year. She accused Kern of being vindictive toward her caucus’ bills, a charge Kern said impugned his motives and that prompted a defense from House Speaker Rusty Bowers who argued each chair was an extension of himself as speaker.

Nonetheless, after even some of Kern’s own Republican colleagues complained that he was negating some of their work on committees and overstepping, Kern began freeing dozens of bills in early March.

Kern did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he has gone on social media in the interim to note some of the casualties of Rules.

On June 14, he tweeted, “As Rules Chairman, I joined fellow House Republicans in making sure HB 2414 was held in committee. It would have made AZ part of an interstate agreement to decide presidential elections by popular vote alone. Founding Fathers had it right, every state matters!”

HB 2414 was sponsored by Tucson Democrat Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley and assigned only to House Rules in late April, when many bills were assigned to Rules strictly to comply with a requirement that all bills be assigned to at least one committee.

John Allen

John Allen

And Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, got more than he likely bargained for as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Before session kicked off, criminal justice reform measures were expected to go before the Sentencing and Recidivism Reform Committee Bowers had created for Prescott Republican David Stringer. As scandal unfolded around the now former representative, though, that committee was dissolved, leaving the Judiciary Committee to pick up where Stringer had left off.

Allen’s views then fell in line largely with Farnsworth’s, and bills aimed at restructuring aspects of the criminal justice system from fellow Republicans like Toma and Rep. Walt Blackman of Snowflake weren’t heard. In sum, 29 percent of the Republican-sponsored bills assigned to Allen’s committee never rated a hearing.

Like Udall, he did hear one bill despite his opposition and the impossibility of its adoption: freshman Democrat Rep. Raquel Terán’s HB2696, a bill she admitted had gone far beyond her original intent to repeal a law requiring a physician performing an abortion to use any means necessary to keep alive a fetus that is delivered alive.

Allen did not return a request for comment, but he explained his reasoning for doing at the time.

Realizing her mistake, Terán repeatedly asked Allen not to hear the bill after all. But he did not relent, and in the hearing held on the bill, he said this: “What we’ve talked about today shows the true nature of what some of the political conversations are,” he said, adding that the inclusion of House Democratic leaders as co-sponsors on the bill demonstrated how the issue is a core value of the Democratic party.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, did not grant hearings to nearly one-third of the Republican-sponsored bills assigned to her Senate Education Committee.

“If I’m not going to vote for it on the floor, I’m likely not going to hear it,” she said.  “I’ve had plenty of my bills held by chairmen, and I understand the process.”

Among the bills held in Senate Education were several of Allen’s own bills, which she said she realized needed more work. And in many cases, she said she talks with members ahead of time about issues with their bills and they agree that it’s not ready for a hearing.

“If I’m holding something, usually the member is not too upset that I’m doing it,” she said.

Members, particularly Democratic members, find that success often depends on what committee their bills are assigned to, said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, one of only eight Democrats who sponsored a bill that was signed into law this year. That bill, which deals with suicide prevention training in schools, was assigned to Allen’s committee and Bowie said she worked with him to get it out.

On the other hand, a bill he sponsored with Republican co-sponsors to ban conversion therapy landed in Farnsworth’s Judiciary Committee.

“Like a lot of bills that were introduced to that committee, it didn’t get a hearing,” Bowie said.

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(Photograph by Hank Stephenson/Arizona Capitol Times)

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