The Arizona House of Representatives is set to hear potentially dozens of bills this week — including a measure to shield businesses from legal liability if a patron or employee gets COVID-19 — even as the Senate sits recessed, poised to finalize last week’s adjournment motion and end the session.
Work officially began this today with a meeting of the House Rules Committee, which gave party-line approval to ten Senate bills and voted to allow the late introduction of a liability bill sponsored by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. The Legislature has long passed the official deadline for the introduction of new bills, which can only be circumvented through a vote in the Rules committee.
In the coming days, 11 House committees will meet to hear a bevy of unamended Senate bills leftover from the first half of the session, according to an email House Speaker Rusty Bowers sent to members and staff obtained by the Capitol Times. These committees may consider more than 60 bills, House Majority Leader Warren Petersen told the Associated Press this weekend — though how many will actually make it to the floor is unclear.
And Tuesday at 1:15 p.m., the House will take to the floor for the first time in months to begin voting on some of the bills that will have by then made it out of committee.
House leadership is imposing a variety of safety protocols — members, staff and guests in committee hearings must wear masks and follow federal social distancing guidelines, for example.
The primary reason for returning to work is to pass that liability bill, Petersen, R-Gilbert, said in the Rules committee today. If passed, the bill would require those who sue a business as a result of contracting COVID-19 to prove gross negligence with “clear and convincing evidence,” a lofty legal standard. The legislation would also decriminalize violations of executive orders related to COVID-19 and stop the state from seizing the licenses of non-compliant businesses, churches and other entities.
Kavanagh had hoped Democrats would come on board, giving him the two-thirds supermajority necessary to pass the bill as an emergency measure that can be enacted quickly.
Kavanagh has yet to file a final version of the legislation, though Petersen today referred to it as a liability, enforcement and licensing bill, which could hint at its content. Kavanagh said the language is “up in the air,” as he had hoped Democrats would come on board, giving him the two-thirds supermajority necessary to pass the bill as an emergency measure that can be enacted quickly.
But if today’s Rules meeting is any indicator, the proposal has few fans in the Minority. Three of the committee’s four Democrats — Rep. Domingo Degrazia of Tucson was absent — voted against the motion to allow the late introduction of the bill.
They said they wouldn’t vote for a motion to only allow a single liability protection bill from one Republican, effectively preventing them from introducing their own version of the bill. Plus, they said, the language wasn’t yet publicly available.
“This is not a bipartisan process,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe.
Democrats have been working on a similar proposal that would include protections for workers, said House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez.
“We have to make sure … that if we’re going to hold a business harmless, they have to be doing everything they can to protect the patrons and the workers that are there,” the Yuma Democrat said. “You can’t protect a business that has everybody crammed in there.”
She said her caucus members might vote for the Kavanagh bill if he’s open to an amendment. But she said she hadn’t seen a copy of the bill yet, and as such, can’t commit to voting one way or another.
The liability measure, as Petersen said, is this week’s primary focus. The hope is that the chamber adjourns by Thursday night, prompting the Senate to get the votes together to come back to the Legislature — currently, it’s in a recess as it awaits the House’s approval on an adjournment measure passed last week — and hear the bill.
What might sweeten the pot is the dozens of other Senate bills the House will be taking up this week. In theory, these are non-controversial bills that passed out of their chamber of origin with broad bipartisan support. These range from symbolic resolutions to a bill that would facilitate adult adoptions.
“We have no plans to put up bills with amendments since the senate has indicated they won’t do anything but the liability bill and a couple bills that are ready for 3rd read on their side,” Petersen said to his fellow Republicans in a text obtained and verified by the Capitol Times.
But Democrats are poised to put up a fight, as they see these bills as extraneous distractions that are diverting time and resources from further coronavirus aid.
“My caucus has been and remains ready to work on COVID relief,” Salman said this morning. “But the time has passed to resume business as usual. As you can see, every person in this room is wearing a mask. We are not living in usual times.”
She continued: “This agenda does not reflect that.
If Democrats succeed in pushing back, Republicans will paint them as an obstinate opposition that’s stopping the state from returning to those halcyon pre-COVID days.
“We need to constantly push the narrative that the Ds are stalling and keeping AZ society from getting back to normal as needed,” Petersen said in the text.
Regardless, it’s not yet clear whether every bill that lawmakers debate this week will be as uncontroversial as promised.
Rep. Kelly Townsend’s House Elections Committee was on Tuesday set to hear SCR1018, a voter referral that would limit the ability of the Independent Redistricting Commission to draw legislative district boundaries, constitutionally prohibiting the population of the largest legislative district from exceeding the population of the smallest district by more than 5,000 people. But the committee meeting was abruptly canceled Monday evening.
As is often the case with the House, there are no guarantees. The tempestuous chamber has twice promised to return to the floor only to balk at the last minute. Ill-will between the parties has intensified during the break, and the Senate’s role in all of this is still an unknown variable.
“I don’t necessarily buy that this will go off without a hitch,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who serves as speaker pro tempore. “Now we’re just waiting to see where the hitch is.”
Julia Shumway and Hank Stephenson contributed to this report.