Rumor of late legislative session floats through capitol

late session, sine die, lawmakers, fall, Toma, Petersen, Epstein, Coughlin, Esposito

It’s unknown what tricks or treats state lawmakers have up their sleeves for the rest of the session, which could last into the fall, a season when Schnepf Farms, pictured here, in Queen Creek, draws visitors for its popular Pumpkin & Chili Party. The rumor that lawmakers won’t adjourn sine die anytime soon has been spreading through the state capitol for weeks, even if nobody is ready to publicly endorse the idea. (Photo courtesy of Schnepf Farms via Facebook)

Rumor of late legislative session floats through capitol

Could the legislature stay in session into the fall, or until the end of the year? The rumor that lawmakers won’t adjourn sine die anytime soon has been spreading through the state capitol for weeks, even if nobody is ready to publicly endorse the idea.

“There’s whispers all over the Capitol crowd about that,” said Stan Barnes, a former lawmaker and longtime Republican consultant.

late session, sine die
Chuck Coughlin

“I think … they just want to have authority over whatever she’s (Gov. Katie Hobbs) going to do,” said Chuck Coughlin, another GOP strategist. “Some of them want to have the ability to hang the legislative authority over her head.”

“I think Petersen and his folks on this probably want to prevent recess appointments from the governor,” said Gaelle Esposito, a progressive consultant, referring to Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert.

Petersen and Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, the top lawmakers in the Senate and House, respectively, didn’t respond to questions about the possibility of keeping the legislature in session well past the new fiscal year, which begins on July 1. But there’s no denying that the idea is in the air in Phoenix, where this year’s legislative session has already taken several unexpected turns.

late session, Esposito, sine die
Gaelle Esposito (Photo by Emily Mai/Cronkite News)

Staying in session through or beyond the summer would mark another dramatic break from precedent. The official schedule of the legislature contemplates wrapping things up for the year in April and, although lawmakers have usually stayed past April in recent years, sine die has never come later than July 1 going back to at least the 1960s, according to records kept by the Arizona Capitol Times.

“The concept of it … just blows my mind,” Barnes said. “It’s really interesting times we’re living in.”

Rep. Andrés Cano, D-Tucson, the House minority leader, said he’s heard the rumor and doesn’t like the idea.

“The budget is done. If the MAGA majority can’t fathom working with Democrats on the few priorities left, it’s time to sine die,” he said in a text message.

Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Phoenix, the top Democrat in the Senate, said she wants the legislature to address Proposition 400 and do something about the ballooning cost of the universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program – and then wrap things up.

“My greatest concern, if we continue to go that long, is that the bills cannot go into effect until 90 days after sine die, so why delay like that?” Epstein said.

Sine die is Latin for “without day,” and in the context of the state capitol it means that the Legislature’s work for the year is adjourned without a set return date. Arizona lawmakers typically celebrate the last day of the legislative session – which often comes in the hot summer season in Phoenix – by sharing ice cream.

Extending the session past July wouldn’t mean that lawmakers keep working on the floor every day, but that they would take lengthy recesses without officially ending the annual session.

“What they [could] do is, they just recess for a month at a time. Come back for a day, and recess again,” Esposito said.

Already this year, lawmakers have taken recesses amounting to more than a month. They’re on break now and scheduled to gavel back in on June 12. One of the remaining items that Gov. Katie Hobbs and lawmakers have talked about working on this year is Proposition 400, the soon-to-expire Maricopa County transportation tax.

Democrats will also want to do something to address rising spending on school vouchers – a report put out this week estimates that the new universal voucher program will cost the state $900 million per year – but Republicans are likely to resist limits on the program they were proud to pass last year.

(A spokesman for Hobbs declined to comment on the prospect of a continuing legislative session.)

Coughlin said he thinks the idea to prolong the legislative session is mainly circulating among members of the Freedom Caucus, the far-right group of GOP legislators that’s frequently taken aim at Hobbs this year. For some lawmakers, he said, taking issue with executive power even dates back to former Gov. Doug Ducey’s moves during the Covid pandemic.

Petersen is widely viewed as friendly with the Freedom Caucus crowd, and Esposito said that she’s heard that the Senate President supports the idea, but Toma, the Speaker of the House, doesn’t.

Skeptics have at least a few questions about the idea.

One is Epstein’s concern: what would happen to the bills that lawmakers passed this session? New laws that aren’t part of the operating budget and aren’t passed with an emergency clause go into effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session.

Mike Braun, executive director of the Legislative Council, said there’s really nothing lawmakers can do to get around that timeframe, which is set by the state constitution.

Some observers think that preventing new laws from taking effect wouldn’t be such a big deal. Barrett Marson, a GOP consultant, said lawmakers haven’t passed much big-ticket legislation this year, anyway – Republicans blocked major Democratic policy proposals and Hobbs vetoed strident GOP bills that reached her desk.

Coughlin, on the other hand, emailed a list of bills he called “critical,” including supporting budget bills that give detail on how money will be spent, laws continuing state agencies and a measure to provide mental health counseling for 911 dispatchers.

“I just don’t think they can afford not to let all the laws take effect,” he said in a phone call.

Another issue is ongoing payments to state lawmakers, who collect per diem while the legislature is in session, but not once the session has ended.

“I think at some point, the publicity of continuing to collect a per diem, when they’re not actually [actively] in session, is going to make that idea die,” said Democratic consultant Stacy Pearson. “You can’t continue to collect taxpayer funding to do nothing.”

While Petersen and Toma exercise significant power over the Legislature, they don’t necessarily have a stranglehold over when the chambers adjourn. It just takes a simple majority vote in both chambers to adjourn sine die.

Coughlin said he doesn’t think that a majority of Republicans back the idea of continuing the session indefinitely, but that doesn’t mean that GOP leadership couldn’t exercise some sway over their members.

And Epstein said there’s precedent for sine die coming without agreement among all the lawmakers, citing a year when the Senate adjourned before some in the House were ready.

“So yeah, that can happen, but it’s not the best way to do it,” Epstein said. “It’s so much better when we collaborate and make a plan and manage the work that still needs to be done.”

Arizona Capitol Times reporters Camryn Sanchez and Jakob Thorington contributed reporting.