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Lawmakers put pet projects in perspective as virus rages

Rep. John Kavanaugh, R-Fountain Hills, left, and GOP Chief of Staff Michael Hunter, center, listen to House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, before a floor session at the Capitol in Phoenix, March 18. The Legislature passed  a bare-bones, $11.8 billion budget March 23 before adjourning until the coronavirus crisis ebbs, leaving almost 1,700 bills to die or in limbo. PHOTO BY BOB  CHRISTIE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rep. John Kavanaugh, R-Fountain Hills, left, and GOP Chief of Staff Michael Hunter, center, listen to House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, before a floor session at the Capitol in Phoenix, March 18. The Legislature passed a bare-bones, $11.8 billion budget March 23 before adjourning until the coronavirus crisis ebbs, leaving almost 1,700 bills to die or in limbo. PHOTO BY BOB CHRISTIE/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Lawmakers introduced a record 1,731 pieces of legislation this year, from small tweaks to sweeping changes to state statutes.

They could end the session with fewer than 60 bills — including a last-minute budget and legislation to guide schools and unemployment administrators through the current COVID-19 pandemic — passed into law.

While lawmakers began talks of passing a skinny budget and recessing with the idea that they could return in a few weeks after the outbreak blew over, it has become increasingly clear that the policy goals and line-item budget spending they crafted months ago will be completely overshadowed by the need to respond to the pandemic and its impact on Arizona’s economy.

“I had a lot of bills die that I think were very important, but I absolutely have to put them into perspective,” said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican who typically leads the Capitol in the number of bills introduced and the number signed.

Key to passing a bare-bones $11.8 billion budget on March 23 and associated $50 million COVID-19 relief package out of the Senate were two agreements between members of both caucuses: none of the bills they fought so hard for would move forward, and they would leave an option to return and try to pass those pieces of legislation if feasible.

The state of play is similar in the House, where dozens of legislative priorities fell by the wayside as lawmakers marshaled a response against the virus. And while the hope is that the Capitol will come alive after April 13 — the date that House and Senate leaders chose to return, with some flexibility — it may only be to pass further legislation to help the state respond to a still-growing public health crisis, not to reinitiate old battles over policy.

“I think anybody that thinks they can come back and push for whatever they pushed for before is being shortsighted,” said Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who was a key supporter of both a series of tax cuts and criminal justice measures.

A bill restoring the ability for cities to regulate vacation rentals remains Brophy McGee’s highest — non-coronavirus-related — priority. That bill, hashed out over hundreds of hours of meetings, would have effectively repealed the most controversial part of a 2016 law that welcomed Airbnb to the state, giving cities that have since been overrun by short-term rentals the ability to slow their spread.

John Kavanagh

John Kavanagh

The bill passed the Senate with strong support and had a path forward in the House, where Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is a staunch ally who has been fighting against short-term rentals since he voted against the 2016 law.

That made the bill’s likely death by pandemic so anguishing, Brophy McGee said, but so many of the other bills her fellow senators gave up on were similarly heartbreaking. Buckeye Republican Sine Kerr’s priority bill giving food stamp recipients incentives to buy locally grown produce and Phoenix Democrat Lela Alston’s bill to raise the $75 stipend Arizonans can receive for fostering their grandchildren, nieces and nephews to $250 were especially important, Brophy McGee said.

Key legislation to establish an early release program for thousands of people incarcerated for non-violent crimes faced a similar fate, despite clearing several important hurdles.

The bill would grant one day off an imprisoned person’s sentence for every six days served, and one-and-a-half days off for every six served if the person also completed a drug treatment or other “major self-improvement program.”

It was one of a series of criminal justice change measures favored by a broad bipartisan coalition and championed by Rep. Walt Blackman, R- Snowflake, who entered the House last year with remaking sentencing laws as his signature issue. Arizona’s sentencing laws – namely the truth in sentencing law, that requires inmates to serve at least 85% of their sentences – are among the strictest in the country, and have largely resisted major changes even as other, similarly conservative states have mustered the political will to enact changes.

Blackman’s bill looked to change that. While a version he introduced last session didn’t get off the ground, he was granted his own ad hoc committee to investigate the issue. That committee helped draft language for the current bill and several other efforts, though it was clear that release credits might be the best hope at reducing the state’s bloated prison population.

Indeed, the bill fared far better than its predecessor, passing through the House Judiciary Committee after months of work with stakeholders and the committee chair, Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale. Passage through the full chamber ensued shortly after.

But it hadn’t made it any further by the time lawmakers passed the skinny budget and adjourned.

“While I’d like to see the ERC bill go across the finish line, the priority … is making sure the people in the state are taken care of,” Blackman said. “That’s a priority above anything else. If that has to be put on the backburner until we get everything stabilized, I’m fine with that.”

Toma, another in a growing cadre of Republicans seeking changes to sentencing laws, agreed that the Legislature’s short-term focus should be the economic recovery of the state, though he is still intent on passing sentencing changes and an expungement bill for some low-level crimes.

“There’s always hope,” he said. “Things take time to percolate.”

And Allen, who has been both an ally and a confounding variable in the push to pass such legislation, said it’s impossible to predict what issues will still have energy behind them once lawmakers return – or whether Blackman’s two-year crusade becomes a three-year slog.

“You have to calculate this ten different ways depending on what happens,” he said. “If we go four more weeks and we’re starting to dip into the rainy day fund for social services, job support and rent, all the other things that might be necessary … we might be in a whole different conversation where these things might be superfluous.”

Some lawmakers were less acquiescent than others.

Heather Carter

Heather Carter

Two Republican senators — Heather Carter of Cave Creek and Paul Boyer of Glendale — were practicing social distancing and not permitted to call in to the closed caucus meeting where their peers agreed to give up all of their legislation. The two returned to the Capitol on March 19 determined to fight for the same issue they have been doggedly pushing for all session: ensuring firefighters who contract cancer on the job receive workers’ compensation and cities are able to pay for those benefits.

The pair were willing to concede language in Carter’s original bill that would have declared most firefighters’ claims that their cancer diagnoses were caused by fighting fires “irrebuttable,” making it next to impossible for cities and insurance companies to deny workers’ compensation claims.

“I know that that bill has tremendous support, and what’s really frustrating is that people keep telling Paul and I privately and firefighters to their faces that they support the bill,” Carter said.

But they weren’t willing to give up    $28 million in funding for cancer prevention and aid to cities to pay those claims, and worked with Democrats in both chambers to introduce unsuccessful hostile amendments to budget bills.

Boyer and Carter both intend to push for this issue if and when the Legislature returns to normal business, but are far from optimistic that they’ll succeed.

“If they’re not going to support fire funding right now, I promise they won’t vote for it two months from now,” Boyer said.

Coming back to fight for policy makes sense in theory, but not if the state won’t have the money to do it, Brophy McGee said. Already, the number of unemployment claims in the state shot up by 30,000 in a single week, and lawmakers don’t know how much worse it will get.

“We’re not sure where the freefall is going to be or where it’s going to end or when we’ll know more,” she said.

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