The Arizona Legislature just ended a contentious 171-day legislative session, the third-longest in the state’s history. It was marked by bipartisan cooperation on a few issues but also by partisan clashes on topics such as the budget and voting rights, an audit of the 2020 vote in Maricopa County by the Senate that is still ongoing, and a contentious budget process that resulted in the passage of a 2.5% flat income tax. In a recent interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, discussed the highlights and disappointments of the 2021 session.
What do you think were the biggest accomplishments of this year’s session?
Well, I have on a personal (level) the water legislation, I (think) will prove still to be very critical if we’re able to leverage a sizable appropriation into some type of long-term, large water quantity solution. … I think the tax cuts, the restructuring of our tax system to the extent we did, that was hugely important, and to Mr. Toma and Mrs. Cobb, they did far beyond that, they did great work this year. That would probably be one of the seminal accomplishments. Replenishing the unemployment insurance, replenishing that fund, getting that healthy again so we can lower the cost to employers and increase the reliability of the fund to those who need it during emergencies.
The exercise of emergency governance powers, I think we made some progress there, and we’ll take part of that to the folks in a vote and see what they say. I think those were big. There (are) other little things all along the way that I was happy to see. Some personal projects on the House, the old Capitol building, will be fun and necessary. Improvements for security, personnel, for security, increasing the size that we need to operate in, those will all be important. … Lot of other stuff that’s crammed in there, too. When I think about all of the things that we did do and the work that we did do in spite of the challenges from the membership and what I would call the bullying tactics of some, we got a lot done, and it wasn’t cheap. and I don’t mean financially, I mean just in the cost to the body of relationships and challenges. And so, we’ll see how that all works out over time.
What were your disappointments about this year’s session?
I wanted some justice reform. I think what was up was a really modest effort by comparison with what I hear in the general public for demands, and so – that went down in the Senate. … I’m glad civil asset forfeiture got out. That’s long overdue and, I think, it even needs to be stronger.
What’s going to happen on criminal justice reform next year?
We’re going to stay at it. Mr. Blackman is energized. Mrs. Bolick’s energized. I’m energized. We’re going to bring it back, and … I think most of just regular people that are not activists, they’re not on the payroll of some group that wants to defund the police or whatever, but most people would like to see an equitable and fair justice system. But there’s so many little parts of it that make it difficult to rationalize or justify some of the positions that we’ve taken over time in the name of protection.
Were you happy with how the budget turned out?
We made good expenditures where we needed to. We increased spending for education again. Year over year, we’ve increased the spending for education in a very large way. … We’ve since added more money for fire, which is kind of an extension of the session, and out of all of it, there are some major things that needed to get done budgetarily, but it’s never enough. To some, the fact that there is an unmet need in society means that we are the ones who need to meet that need, and I think that’s a great weakness in our society. But we did make incredibly important investments in some things, and so, there will be more to come. Water is going to be huge in our future. I’m grateful to those who prayed for rain and I’m grateful we got a little rain today. We need several of those long, soaking rains to help Arizona and the West snap out of this drought. But we’ll see how it all works out.
Any chance of a special session to deal with anything the audit turns up?
As you know, I have been rather quiet about the audit. The Senate has chosen a different, much more public path, and now they’re going to recount the overall ballots. I just, I would just rather stay away from the audit. I support the professionalism that was shown by officials in Maricopa County and in Coconino County. … There’s always another smoking gun out there that somebody proposes that needs our review and attention. I know some view me as a traitor, but I have just tried to stay away from the whole thing. I have to focus on what my legitimate duties are. … I would like to say I’m very grateful as a citizen of the state of Arizona for thousands of volunteers, Republicans, Democrats, independents, parties not affiliated, who manned the polls and who exercised themselves professionally in a workmanlike manner, followed their procedures and turned us out to vote at all. When you compare around the world, I am very grateful to those people, and I hope that they are not offset by the accusations of fraud and abuse that they would think to not come back next time.
A year from now, your members are going to be running for re-election, asking voters to return a Republican majority. Why should they? What’s your message to voters?
The first thing I would encourage every voter to do is to turn on their computer and look at the bills that were passed and ask themselves how does this affect my family, me. … I filled out my tax estimates … when I go through the tax tables, I know what 2.7 means, it’s lower than 4, and that means something to my family when in the last month, inflation was up almost a full percent and it’s been up over 5% this year. Those things have real effects on people. We have, I think, with the hundreds of bills that passed, many of those bills directly improve some aspect of my cultural, family, individual, economic life. They help improve me, more than they did before.
You’re term-limited, right? What are your plans?
We’ve had some stellar freshmen. We’re going to be out looking for more people to serve. Mr. Nguyen, Mr. Kaiser, others, have been great coming in. Others, frankly, have picked up some bad habits. But we have some good people. Mr. Wilmeth, it’s fun to have him back. Supportive, hard-working folks. Anyway, I’m grateful to have them. So, there will be some recruitment stuff that I’ll be doing. There will be work on the physical plant … that’s a vision that Karen (Fann) and I have shared, to improve the usability and functionality and the security of the old building. So, there will be plenty to keep me busy in the off-season. But I know it’s my last season as a House member, and I’m honored to have been able to serve in this capacity, and I’ve done it honorably. By the time you’re experienced around here, you’re usually unemployed, and so I understand that and … we move forward.”
Correction: A previous version of this story had a headline that incorrectly referred to House Speaker Rusty Bowers as House Majority Leader.