After a decade of total control at the Capitol, in-fighting between Republican leadership is exposing divisions within the party.
The Arizona House returned to the Capitol on Tuesday after a two-month recess triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and despite the Senate’s decision to try to adjourn for the year.
House Majority Leader Warren Petersen said Saturday that the plan is to take up more than 60 Senate bills in the coming days. That includes holding committee hearings, floor debate, and votes.
“Most people at least want to get work done,” Petersen said. “The stay-at-home order was lifted on the 15th, and we want to be safe and use best practices, but we want to finish the people’s work as best we can.
He added, “But we’ll see – you never know what’s going to happen.”
The Legislature has been on recess since it passed a basic state budget on March 23, along with a series of bills that provide more than $100 million in emergency funding for health and community relief during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate only returned once since recessing—to move to end the session. The House, however, must approve, and GOP leaders don’t plan on following suit. This division signals a rift within the party, as House Republicans’ decision to continue passing legislation challenges the Republican-led Senate’s resolve to adjourn.
One proposal House and Senate Republicans are united in supporting is a measure that would shield businesses choosing to reopen from lawsuits. It would also protect them from being financially responsible if workers or members of the public are infected with COVID-19, unless they are grossly negligent. Majority Republicans who control the Legislature and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey have sought such protections, saying they’re needed to prevent frivolous litigation that could damage businesses.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers said Monday that the protections are needed if businesses are to reopen and not be subject to “trial lawyers” who may see an “open season” on litigation brought against businesses.
“Our goal and hope is to move business forward, to remove the obstacles that keep them from opening so we can get people back employed and to open up society,” Bowers said. “One of the major challenges to all businesses right now that they have expressed to us is their fear of uncontrolled liability in a very hyper-litigious society.”
But the contents of the bill put the Legislature at odds with the governor. Along with liability protections, the proposal removes criminal penalties for businesses that ignore emergency virus orders Ducey has issued. And it bars the state from suspending or revoking business licenses for violations.
It’s unclear if the governor would agree to such provisions. “We don’t comment on draft legislation,” said Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak on Sunday.
As the law currently stands, violations of the orders are considered misdemeanors, and carry a potential six-month jail term and a $5,000 fine. Most of Ducey’s orders restricting how businesses can operate have expired; bars are the only major businesses still under shut-down orders.
While Republicans battle amongst each other, House Democrats have remained largely united in wanting to end the session. And with 29 members, they only need two Republicans to vote for adjournment to upend the plan to resume regular work.
One such republican is Rep. Anthony Kern, who has been vocal about his preference to align with the Senate and end the Session.
Kern, who chairs the powerful Rules Committee and can stop all legislation from making it to the floor, said other than the liability proposal and potentially a couple other virus related bills he believes the House should close up shop for the year.
“Other than that, I don’t see a reason to stay in session,” he said.
But Kern wouldn’t commit to voting to adjourn.
Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers isn’t sure what will transpire, although he advised against holding committee hearings that some chairs insist should resume. And he said plans to send legislation to the Senate after the chamber has voted to adjourn may not end well.
“I have no shortage of people that dream big and have great plans, and I will see how many work,” Bowers said. “The point is to send over some bills; if they pass them great, if not we’ll know what the pitch of the roof is. And I hope that will temper some of the zeal of some of my members.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.