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Arizona lawmakers mull shutting down session to prevent coronavirus spread

Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Arizona Capitol Building (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

A House Democrat has announced he’ll be stepping back from most lawmaking duties for the remainder of the session amid calls from some legislators to temporarily suspend the session to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, announced on Facebook Friday that he will “no longer be able to attend the Arizona House of Representatives in person in 2020” so that he can work scheduled shifts in the emergency room. Shah is an emergency physician with Dignity Health. 

For me, it’s a duty to work in the emergency department and take care of patients,” Shah, who has notified legislative leaders of his decision, said. “It’s important to be here. It would be irresponsible to go down to the legislature and be around all of those people.”

Shah’s decision comes as legislative leaders debate next steps for the Capitol, which has sat in the shadow of uncertainty since Gov. Doug Ducey declared a public health emergency last week.  

Legislative leaders plan to meet Monday morning to discuss how to proceed with the session. Lawmakers already decided yesterday to shut down the Senate and House galleries and limit public testimony on bills as safety measures. And state Sens. Heather Carter and Paul Boyer pledged to stay away from the Capitol for the foreseeable future to promote “social distancing,” taking with them two votes needed to pass any partisan legislation. 

Shah’s hiatus changes the legislative math for House Democrats, who began the session on the losing end one-vote Rebublican majority — nonetheless a slim enough margin to kill the occasional GOP proposal. Now, the seat split sits at 31-28. 

Shah said that he will still participate in meetings so long as he can attend remotely, but he won’t be returning to the Capitol in person. House rules require a lawmaker to be present to participate in committee meetings or action on the floor.

Senate President Karen Fann texted the 16 members of her Republican caucus on Friday afternoon to tell them she would meet with House and Senate leaders, according to a copy of the message shared with the Arizona Capitol Times. Neither Fann nor Senate Minority Leader David Bradley immediately returned phone calls. 

House Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, told the Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Capitol Times, that he thinks the Legislature should take a break until April 6.

Waiting until April also means lawmakers will see March revenue numbers and revise budget requests accordingly, he said. While revenues have been higher than expected throughout the year, the COVID-19 outbreak and related closures are expected to slow the economy. 

“With spring training canceled, those revenue numbers will have to come down,” he said. 

Both chambers on Thursday unanimously authorized the state health department to spend up to $55 million to combat the spread of COVID-19. Moving quickly on the funding was necessary “on the slim chance that if we had to suspend session and would not be here, we would have the funds to handle it,” Fann said. 

Legislatures in Colorado, Georgia and Vermont already announced temporary shutdowns. Several other states, which pass budgets every two years instead of annually as Arizona does, already ended their short sessions. 

Boyer, R-Glendale, and Carter, R-Cave Creek, said they would be working from home for the foreseeable future. Boyer, a high school teacher, and Carter, a university professor, are already doing their day jobs from home as universities and schools shuttered or moved online, but they can’t vote on legislation unless they’re physically in the Senate. 

Lawmakers shouldn’t be voting on anything if they’re not allowing public input, Boyer said. House Education Committee Chair Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, and House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, announced they would run their committees on Monday without an audience or public testimony, and other committee chairs are weighing their options. 

“My two cents is it’s just not fair to the public,” Boyer said. “If we’re not allowing public input on bills and then voting on them, it’s not right.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to include information on Rep. Amish Shah deciding not to return to the Capitol. 

 

2 comments

  1. If Ducey is serious about protecting the public then he should care about the legislative staff as well or else this is nothing but a ruse to shut up public testimony while they pass these horrible anti-democracy bills.

  2. Meanwhile… Most of these legislators will return from all corners of the state possibly bringing the virus with them many of them are elderly to boot! Makes no sense Postpone the legislature if you’re really not just using Corona to shut out the public at the Azleg gov Ducey !

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