The highs and lows of the 2019 legislative session can be measured by how well legislators worked together with the smallest of margins.
Republicans in both chambers could have accomplished everything that needed a simple majority vote without the help of a single Democrat – save for a few holdouts as seen during budget negotiations – but that’s not how the session went.
At the highest, the Legislature voted unanimously 108 times in the House (when all members voted) and 178 times in the Senate. At the lowest, the House voted 64 times down party lines; the Senate 22 times. But there were also lows where bills did not make it past a committee hearing.
On February 20, Rep. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, was used by the Republicans as an example of what can happen when ideas aren’t fully fleshed out.
The Phoenix Democrat introduced legislation that would repeal a law that requires a doctor to ensure all available means and medical skills are deployed to promote, preserve and maintain the fetus’ life if the baby is delivered alive during an abortion.
Terán asked the House Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, to hold the bill because she knew it would not have enough votes. Allen denied her request and heard the bill anyway.
Terán introduced the bill for a personal reason – her sister had a miscarriage – and said that Republicans were not looking at this to have a conversation.
“It’s totally political,” she said.
Allen didn’t relent.
“The idea that you drop a bill and never want it to be heard is not lawmaking. It’s politics,” he said. Nobody voted for it.
The 134-day session was not all ugly, as legislators were able to unanimously vote on a bill regarding empowerment scholarship accounts – one of the most divisive issues.
Several Republicans support an ESA-expansion, while Democrats don’t. Voters overwhelmingly rejected an expansion in 2018, but that didn’t stop Republicans from introducing legislation this year.
No ESA expansion bill came to fruition during the session, but one bill through ups and downs was able to make its way to the governor’s desk.
In the eleventh hour, controversy started brewing as a direct result of an Arizona Department of Education audit into ESAs. The ADE found several families in Window Rock on the Navajo Reservation who were using their approved-ESA vouchers for private schools across the state border in New Mexico, though the school was still on the reservation and only minutes away from the border itself.
This was mistakenly approved by the previous administration, a spokesman for ADE said at the time, and the ESA director sent letters to the families demanding repayment of the amount used or they would lose voucher access.
Once the Legislature found out, both majority leaders sponsored mirror bills to fix the issue. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman did not work with Rep. Warren Petersen or Sen. Rick Gray directly, but had discussed potential solutions with other legislators – including the three who represent the Navajo Nation in Legislative District 7.
Once a solution was reached, one that did not involve a voucher expansion, both the House and Senate approved the measure unanimously, and Gov. Doug Ducey signed it at the deadline, vowing to make it part of his agenda next session to allow Native American students to spend public monies outside the state’s borders.
The ESA bill was one of the final decisions Ducey made during the session, which means the session began and ended with immense bipartisan supported bills.
The first piece of legislation Ducey signed this session was the Drought Contingency Plan. There were a few bumps in the road, even post-signing, but the state was able to make its first DCP deadline with all but three legislators voting “aye.” The three Democratic senators voted against it because they thought the drought plan didn’t adequately address the issues of water scarcity and conservation.
The Legislature completed its two bills in time to meet federal standards, except it wasn’t good enough.
On January 31, the day Ducey signed the measures, he was with Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and members of the Legislature and boasted about the historic moment.
“We did it by bringing everyone to the table, putting party labels aside and placing Arizona first,” he said. “The Drought Contingency Plan is a historic, bipartisan achievement.”
Other instances of highs and lows involved a religious mocking and a heartwarming moment in the final minutes before sine die.
Rep. Athena Salman, a known atheist, was in charge of delivering the opening prayer and chose to do so about nature. Rep. John Kavanagh, the following day, decided to introduce his “guest” in the gallery – it was God, and that led to a protest from Salman.
The final moments of the session did involve an uplifting situation in which Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix was physically lifted, in her wheelchair, onto the speaker dais. All other 59 representatives were able to sit in the chair all year, but not Longdon who has pushed for accessibility even before she was elected.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers then pulled out a measuring tape and vowed to fix this problem for next session.
“We can do this,” he said.