Political fighting and fireworks dominated the Capitol in a record-breaking 2023
The Arizona legislature recently ended a record-breaking 204-day-long session filled with partisan fighting, resignations, expulsions and more.
And with a Democratic governor facing off against an increasingly conservative Republican legislative majority, there were plenty of fireworks — but not necessarily much to show for it, Capitol veterans say.
“It was less productive than most sessions are, which is not surprising,” Chuck Coughlin, president of public affairs firm HighGround, told the Arizona Mirror. Coughlin said that it was the first year for new Republican and Democratic leadership, meaning “there was a lot of time spent on political posturing.”
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The legislative session not only broke records for its length, but for the number of bills Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed: 143 of the 348 bills sent her way since the session began in January wound up earning a veto. Only 205 bills have been signed into law this session, a smaller number compared to sessions of the past.
Other than 2020, when lawmakers abruptly ended the session amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2009, when the state was being hammered by the Great Recession and lawmakers were facing some $2.5 billion in deficits, this session marks the fewest bills signed into law since 2009.
But quantity is only one measure of success, and many lawmakers are instead focusing on the importance of what was accomplished.
“Budget, prop 400 and rental tax repeal (are) all huge wins in spite of divided government,” Senate President Warren Petersen said in a text message to the Mirror. “For the most part we accomplished our majority plan.”
The passage of Senate Bill 1102, which will put Proposition 400 to Maricopa County voters for the third time since 1984, when it was initially approved, was the final act of the session. But it also marked the start of a battle between the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus and other Republican lawmakers.
The bill includes a $24 billion plan over 20 years, with 40.5% allocated to freeways and highways, 37% to public transit and 22.5% to roads and intersections.
Voters last approved the tax in 2004 and it is set to expire at the end of 2025. It has funded projects like the light rail, State Route 51, State Route 24 and Loops 101, 202 and 303.
An earlier version that Hobbs vetoed would have required Maricopa County to put two separate questions to the voters: One asking if they would continue putting the majority of the tax money collected to support roads projects and another asking if they would back putting the remainder of the funds toward public transportation.
The version approved on the final day of the session, which Hobbs swiftly signed into law, consolidated the transportation spending plan into one question, which angered members of the Freedom Caucus, who vehemently oppose light rail and generally dislike public transit spending. Why, they asked, should such a large portion of the tax money was going to pay for public transportation when only 1% of Arizonans use it?
Democratic leadership applauded the passage of the bill.
“Passing Prop. 400 will allow our cities to make plans for roads and public transit that will reduce traffic congestion and keep our economy moving,” Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein said to the Mirror. “It is vital planning and a sensible approach to managing traffic as our cities grow, rather than waiting to react to problems.”
To other Capitol insiders though, this session wasn’t about the accomplishments.
What did get done? Or not.
While Coughlin said things like Prop. 400, money to help homelessness and the elimination of the rental tax were all successes, it was the lack of work done that makes this session stand out in his mind.
“There’s not really much else you can put up in the headlines,” Coughlin said on “big wins” for the legislature or Hobbs, adding that this session was mostly “a bunch of politicians screwing around and not getting a lot done.”
Gaelle Esposito, a lobbyist with the progressive firm Creosote Partners, said she is glad that the session is over.
“My first thought is just that I’m glad it’s over and they can’t hurt us anymore,” Esposito said, adding that the biggest difference from this session was that we’ve entered “an era of vibes-based policymaking.”
“There isn’t a care for what the policy actually does in practice,” she said. “What we saw is legislation for the talking point or headline, or if they felt like they liked the person (or) organization behind it.”
Many of those bills were swiftly vetoed by Hobbs, who told lawmakers she would veto them if they made them to her desk, such as bills targeting transgender Arizonans and drag performers.
Lawmakers introduced 13 bills this session targeting the LGBTQ+ community and drag shows, often gaining national attention for doing so. Some of the bills also mirrored national legislation on the issue.
“Fortunately, Governor Hobbs vetoed over a hundred bills that the Bad Bill Kings sent to her,” Epstein said about some of those bills. “Republican legislators pushed extremist notions like attacks on the rights of people who are transgender and banning books. They pushed bills that were redundant; we already have laws for that. They passed bills even though they were not workable and had not had sufficient vetting — not ready for prime time.”
Petersen did not respond to questions about how Republicans might try to avoid Hobbs’ veto pen in the future — assuming they do — and said the Senate majority won’t release its plans for the 2024 session until January.
But Democratic leadership already seems to be planning.
Epstein told the Mirror that affordable housing, schools and balancing the budget will be part of the Democratic leadership’s key priorities next year, and part of that will be a fight over the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, school voucher program.
Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes is already warning parents about the ESA program and Hobbs has said the state’s price tag for the universal ESA program could cost in the billions of dollars — costs she said could bankrupt the state. Republican leadership expanded the program in 2022 to allow every Arizona student to participate.
“I think the Republicans’ priority will be to preserve educational choice,” Coughlin said about the next legislative session.
While he thinks the 2024 session will be shorter than this year’s — historically, lawmakers strive to end early in an election year so they can hit the campaign trail and raise money from lobbyists, which they are barred from doing during the session — Coughlin said impending budget shortfalls will likely create drama.
“Where is the state budget going and how do you react to those revenue shortfalls in terms of addressing them? That will be a challenging issue,” Coughlin said, adding that many of the one-time spending used as bargaining chips for both Republicans and Democrats to get support for the budget this year may see the chopping block come next session.
Epstein said Republicans will need to take a different approach to budgeting next year, given there almost certainly won’t be a surplus like there was this year.
“Going forward, we have a lot of work to do because our Republican colleagues have made no plan for their extravagant spending increase for private school vouchers, nor is there adequate revenue to address numerous other responsibilities, leaving everybody from teachers and students to fire fighters worrying about next year’s fiscal predicament,” she said.
Coughlin said he anticipates that Republicans will look to make cuts to state-shared revenue to cities to make up for the shortfalls or look at the one-time funding of Democratic programs used to get bipartisan support as ways to rein in spending.
Hobbs’ own priorities from her State of the State did not get accomplished this session as much as she likely hoped, Coughlin said, likely due to everyone “feeling each other out,” which might get better as time goes on.
“You would hope to see in the future less reaction from the Governor’s Office and more leadership,” Coughlin said. “It doesn’t surprise me though, she was drinking from the firehouse on Day One.”