Updates: Adds comments from Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, made on March 2.
Democrats in the state House of Representatives voted “no” against every single bill up for a floor vote on Tuesday and Wednesday to protest Republican leadership.
House Minority Leader Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, said in a Feb. 28 written statement that Democratic members were told they must obtain signatures from at least 16 of 31 Republican members in order for their bills to get a full vote on the floor, which triggered the “no” vote protest.
“Democrats in this Chamber have had enough. Today a number of our bills cleared Committee of the Whole debate – meaning they should be put on the board of truth to see if they have support from a majority of this body – but now we find that the goal posts have been moved yet again,” Cano said in the statement.
Cano continued and called the action a “new and completely arbitrary rule” that has been imposed upon Democratic members. Several Democrats were seen on Feb. 28 approaching Republicans with green slips of paper asking for signatures on their bills.
Republicans say this isn’t a rule as it’s not written in the House’s rulebook. But members did say this is a common established practice that’s existed in the Arizona Legislature for years – also applying to GOP members for their bills.
“It’s not a new rule for them. It’s not a different rule for them. It’s the exact same rule for everyone,” said House Majority Whip Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande.
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said Wednesday that the Senate has the same majority of the majority requirement that the House does, although it doesn’t require members to go get signatures from Republicans. He noted that policy was temporarily dropped under former Senate President Karen Fann, but President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, has reimplemented it.
Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, wrote in a tweet that former Republican Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers didn’t implement this practice either.
“It’s not as daunting as it sounds,” Shope said. “That’s been kind of the floor unwritten rules for a very, very long time.”
Petersen also defended the policy in a text on Wednesday.
“As long as I have been at the Legislature the majority has used that as a consideration as to whether policy should advance or not. But it’s on all bills both Republican and Democrat. It’s common sense really. If there is a lot of opposition then you take a closer look at something,” Petersen said.
Democrats argue the practice is unfair because a Democrat bill could have more than a supermajority support in both chambers – 22 votes in the Senate and 44 votes in the House – and the bill still won’t be considered for a vote.
“The voices of well over a million Arizonans are not being heard. This state did not just elect Republicans. My district elected representatives that would listen to our constituents no matter the letter next to their name,” Rep. Lorena Austin, D-Mesa, wrote in a tweet about the policy.
House Democrats didn’t have every member joining the protest. Rep. Amish Shah, D-Phoenix, initially voted with Republicans to pass a bill that funds groundwater delivery to the Ak-Chin Indian Community. The bill was one of the first bills up for a vote on Feb. 28 and when it became clear that Democrats were voting against every bill, Shah left the floor and didn’t vote on any other bills read.
Senate Democrats didn’t display a protest to the similar practice in the Senate and have voted “yes” on several bills.
Republicans passed two of Shah’s bills read later that afternoon as Democrats still voted “no.” His bills did receive applause from House Democrats upon passage. House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci said after floor session that Democrats were punishing Shah and other Republicans took to Twitter to make similar accusations.
“Democrats ran a member of their own party off the floor today for not following democrat leadership marching orders. Is this the dictatorship they hope to bring to AZ,” Parker wrote in another tweet responding to the protest.
Shah was also not present on March 1 and unavailable for comment as Democrats continued their protest. Cano and Minority Whip Marcelino Quinonez, D-Phoenix, denied accusations that the caucus was punishing Shah on Wednesday.
“Rep. Shah is elected by his district and has the full support of our Democratic caucus. We’re just not going to entertain more conspiracy theories from the Republican party,” Cano said.
Shah attended floor session on March 2 and joined the Democrat caucus in voting against the three bills put up for a vote. He said the protest was sudden to him and conversations he had with fellow Democrats got “tense” as he was trying to understand the situation.
“Sometimes these kinds of things happen. I’ve been here five years and you run into tense situations. I wanted to have the chance to study things, as well,” Shah said about his absence.
He continued and said he spoke to several Democrat members while he was absent, and he understood the issues they had with the policy. He said the issue must be addressed and he feels both parties are close to a resolution.
“I think there were issues with the implementation of (Republicans’) policy and I felt as though the members that I had spoken to over on the Democratic side – particularly the freshmen, had legitimate grievances about how that was happening,” Shah said.
Former Republican Rep. Joel John said the “unwritten rule” was not equally applied to all bills while he was in the House – usually dropped for “noncontroversial” bills. He continued and said the majority could now be playing hard ball with Democrats as the Legislature has grown more partisan.
“I think that’s kind of silly,” John said. “If you whip up 31 votes regardless, put it up. That’s just a way for the more extreme members of the caucus to exert some influence.”
During a Republican caucus meeting on Feb. 27, Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, said he is against putting up Democrat bills for a vote unless they were “signed and returned.” Republicans were discussing a Democrat-sponsored resolution to have members of the Legislature recognize April 1 as Assyrian New Year. The resolution has wide bipartisan support and 44 co-sponsors.
Cano noted Kolodin’s comment on Feb. 28 and said it sends a bad message to Arizonans about both parties’ inability to work together. He also said members of the Arizona Freedom Caucus “caved” to the protest and voted for several appropriations bills that members typically would not have voted for.
“For freedom caucus members to vote on appropriations bills today is actually a really good step in the right direction. I hope they continue to do that for the budget,” Cano said.
John also said the practice of requiring a majority of Republican signatures for Democrat bills made more sense to him when there was a Republican governor who may have shown more reluctance to sign a Democrat bill. With Democrat Gov. Katie Hobbs, he said he expects Democrats to unify in the Legislature to get more influence.
“If (Republicans) want to get bills passed, you have to remember you have a Democrat occupying the ninth floor,” John said.
Hobbs has vetoed all 14 Republican bills that have made it to her desk so far – 13 of which were in a “skinny budget” package. Republicans argue that dynamic with the Hobbs necessitates the majority of the majority rule.
“Is the governor vetoing all of our bills fair or democratic? Honestly Laurie? No. The democrats CONSTANTLY invoke the governor’s office. If you ask me, we should hold democrats to a MUCH higher standard to even things out & wait to see if Hobbs signs anything. THAT would be fair,” Parker responded in a tweet to The Arizona Republic Columnist Laurie Roberts.
Other bills that may not have had total Republican support haven’t gotten a third read despite being on the calendar. On Feb. 28, 22 bills sponsored by both Democrat and Republican members weren’t read. The next day, a bill sponsored by Rep. Neal Carter, R-San Tan Valley, that would allow people convicted of a misdemeanor to petition the convicting court for an expungement failed when Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, voted against the bill.
Arizona Capitol Times reporter Camryn Sanchez contributed to this report.