The 2021 legislative session will begin January 11 in an exceedingly unusual fashion, with sharp limits on public access and increased security left over from post-election unrest.
Double rows of chain-link fencing now surround the Capitol complex, following massive protests on January 6 that resulted in a cracked window at the old Capitol Building. New security measures have already been put in place for the Executive Tower, which houses the offices of the governor and secretary of state, to limit access into the building for everyone. An Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman said they monitored the “stop the steal” protest rally at the Capitol.
The Department of Administration, however, has already been leading an effort to beef up security measures – mostly for the protection of Gov. Doug Ducey and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who’ve been dealing with their own threats and harassment stemming from the November election.
Nobody will have access to the basement, seventh, eighth or ninth floors of the building without an escort. Media and members of the public used to be able to access all but the ninth floor without a security badge. Neither agency would provide specific information on the new security measures that took effect on December 14 and will remain in place indefinitely.
“Security procedures at the state Capitol have been enhanced not for any one specific event but just to ensure the safety of the public. … Our policy is not to discuss specific security measures,” a DPS spokesman said.
The Senate told its employees to head home early January 6 afternoon and offered security escorts to their cars. Other state agencies soon followed suit.
The Arizona Supreme Court closed on January 7 at the urging of the Department of Public Safety and the Governor’s Office also alerted all other agencies to do the same.
Along with lingering threats of political unrest connected to the 2020 election, the Covid pandemic will upend what is normally a boisterous day of festivities. Ducey will present his State of the State Address by video from his office, rather than on the House floor in front of 90 lawmakers and their guests.
The speech will be broadcast on the big screen in the Senate, but most lawmakers expect to watch from their offices. Senators, who will be sworn in earlier in the day, are allowed to bring two guests but most have opted to take their oaths of office without friends or family watching.
In the House, new freshmen will each be allowed to bring two family members, but no returning lawmakers will get guests. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, praised that plan as a way to balance the need for safety with allowing new lawmakers to mark a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“You don’t get to recreate special moments like this in your life,” he said.
The field-tripping school children, advocacy groups and observers who normally fill the House and Senate galleries won’t be welcome this year, as the Senate has already adopted policies to limit attendance and the House appears likely to follow suit.
Under a set of Covid rules produced by the Senate late last year, members of the public would only be allowed in the building to attend a committee hearing for a measure they intended to testify on. They must wear a mask and pass a temperature check to get in, and must leave immediately after the hearing concludes.
On January 6, Senate President Karen shared an even stricter set of guidelines to follow in the event that she, Majority Leader Rick Gray and Minority Leader Rebecca Rios determine that an in-person meeting would cause increased health risks. In those cases, only five lawmakers would be allowed in a committee hearing room with the rest participating by video call from their offices, and the lobbyists and citizens testifying on bills would also be given information to call in to the hearing.
The updated rules also include incentives for lawmakers to keep their masks on: if anyone removes a mask or otherwise fails to comply with the Senate’s Covid rules on the floor or in committee hearings, the hearing or floor session will recess until the offending lawmaker complies with the rules.
Fann and Rios also confirmed plans to bar reporters from designated press desks on the Senate floor. This will primarily affect the Arizona Capitol Times, the sole media outlet that stations a reporter on the floor during every floor session.
Instead of the press tables on either side of the Senate president’s dais, Fann intends to set up two big screens for lawmakers who are participating by Zoom.
“We want to try and maintain that social distancing and it would be very, very difficult with the media right there in those press boxes,” she said.
Reporters will instead be allowed to view action from a gallery overlooking the chamber, and members of the public who normally fill the gallery won’t be permitted in the building. Several lawmakers, including influential Senate Appropriations Committee Chair David Gowan and Vice Chair Vince Leach, only answer media questions in person.
“It’s going to be easier for members who want to avoid reporters or their constituents,” Rios said.
A legislative chamber last tried to bar reporters from the floor in 2016, when then-Speaker Gowan demanded that the Capitol press corps pass background checks in an apparent act of retaliation for negative coverage in the Capitol Times. He quickly rescinded that policy under pressure from fellow lawmakers.
The new rules would permit any member of the Senate to participate in a floor session from their offices, provided Fann approves their request 90 minutes before it begins.
-Yellow Sheet Report Editor Hank Stephenson contributed to this story.