Some lobbyists and lawmakers have a pitch for legislative leaders dallying over plans to adjourn or resume the session – find a middle ground.
Friday, May 1, was once going to be the day lawmakers ended the session with a quick ceremonial adjournment, killing all remaining bills. But after rank-and-file Republicans revolted, leaders tossed those plans and reverted to the holding pattern they’ve been in since recessing in mid-March.
Now, lawmakers really only have two choices, longtime lobbyist Barry Aarons said. One option is to adjourn sine die and develop a list of essential bills and issues that must be taken care of in a special session. The other is to identify a date that will be safe to return to session as normal.
“I think if you asked each member one-on-one, I think the majority would say the first option is probably the most logical and reasonable solution,” Aarons said.
But with 90 elected lawmakers and many more people paid to lobby them around the Capitol in normal times, there are many more than 90 different opinions on what constitutes an “essential” bill.
Arizona schools want to see a few pieces of legislative business addressed before the next school year, either in a special session or a postponed return to regular session, said Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Chris Kotterman. But lawmakers don’t have to return to the Capitol right now to address school needs, he stressed.
“We certainly wouldn’t want anybody to risk getting sick over a school issue,” Kotterman said. “Now that you have a senator who’s sick, it’s hard to say what their level of comfort is coming back to the Capitol.”
Before recessing, lawmakers passed bills to ensure that schools remained funded through the end of the current school year, regardless of whether they were able to physically reopen or were ordered to remain closed. But with the future of the pandemic uncertain and the possibility of a second wave hitting in the fall, even if COVID-19 rates fall off in the summer, schools don’t know how many students they’ll have on campus come August, or even if they’ll be cleared to resume in-person classes.
Even if schools return as normal, parents may insist on keeping students home. And because the state’s entire school funding model depends on how many students are in classrooms each day and how long they’re there, schools stand to lose out on funding next year.
School districts would like the option to receive funding either through the current-year funding model that’s been in place since the 2016-17 academic year, or through a pre-2016 funding formula based on the previous year’s average daily enrollment, Kotterman said.
The former, calculated based on how many students are enrolled on each day, up until the 100th day of the school year, could help schools that have more students attend. The latter could help schools that lose students during the year.
Another school-specific bill Kotterman said would need to pass before the next school year is a measure from Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, that would give schools an extra year to implement mandatory dyslexia screening requirements approved last year without funding, and modify the screening criteria so it can be included as part of a standard screening process.
“If they don’t change it, then schools will have to find a way to administer that little piece of the assessment,” Kotterman said.
Along with his dyslexia bill, Boyer said Senate staff are identifying a handful of other bills that should pass. One is school-related: an election law measure that contains provisions for school districts to cancel their elections.
Another on the Senate staff’s short list is the only bill Aarons is still pushing: Sen. Tyler Pace’s bill to allow cities or counties to form tourism marketing authorities funded by a new room tax.
The state’s tourism industry has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, Aarons said, and Pace’s bill will help tourism bounce back.
Kevin DeMenna, another longtime lobbyist, said something like the Senate’s list could be done with bills that could form a consent calendar.
“Anything that’s passed a chamber and a half, a chamber and three-quarters, there are bills out there that equate to clerical processing.”
But while some may be easy to pass, he said there isn’t necessarily a list of anything — beyond budget issues — that need to be addressed this year.
“The urgency isn’t there. But taken as a whole, I think Arizona’s government is capable of rubbing its head and patting its stomach at the same time,” DeMenna said.
Any bill that doesn’t directly address the virus or the related economic fallout will have a hard time getting support from Democrats, especially in the short-term, said Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson.
“I’m sure there’s legislation that needs to be passed before next year, but I believe the only reason we should go back is to pass legislation dealing with this crisis,” he said.
Lisa Otondo, a Yuma Democrat on the Senate minority leadership team, said Senate Democrats likewise see no need to focus on any issues beyond COVID-19 and its economic impacts. Lawmakers can come back for a special session to deal with those issues, she said.
“Right now, the way that COVID-19 has affected the economy and workers, I think we need to focus on the problem at hand,” she said.
Friese mapped out three categories. The first includes policies that are necessary to immediately alleviate suffering. The second pertains to “repair and recovery,” such as efforts to waive late fees and interest on delinquent property tax payments, a popular proposal among some county treasurers in the state.
And the third includes plans for how the state can better respond to the next crisis. He would only consider returning to address legislation in the first category, while the rest can wait for a special session over the summer, he said.
Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist with the progressive firm Creosote Partners, agrees.
“As a lobbyist, I have pet issues and client issues that I would love to see get across the finish line,” she said. “But it would be selfish of me to try to push my own issues. Anything that was going to pass would have passed earlier on in the session. Anything that’s still active is not super critical.”
On this, there might be some bipartisan agreement. There are hundreds of bills that Republicans would like to see passed, ranging from nuts-and-bolts legislation concerning data collection on veterans’ suicides to controversial headline grabbers, said Rep. John Kavanagh.
But so long as Democrats insist on not returning to the Legislature — and so long as Boyer and fellow moderate Sen. Heather Carter keep their promise to only vote for COVID legislation — those bills won’t get heard before the end of the session, the Fountain Hills Republican said.
“This is the perfect storm for the mass death of bills,” Kavanagh said.
Even looking toward the end of the fiscal year, Kavanagh said his fellow lawmakers would be wise not to get too attached to any of their projects.
“The odds are slim we’re doing regular bills, though we’ll certainly deal with the budget,” he said.