PHOENIX - The Arizona Senate returned to work Friday and voted to adjourn for the year, but House Republican leaders refused to follow suit, throwing the Legislature into limbo.
Republican Senate President Karen Fann faced opposition from some in her own party who wanted to return to regular work that was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the Senate voted overwhelmingly to shut down.
GOP House Speaker Rusty Bowers late Thursday said he would not follow Fann’s move, leaving the Legislature's status in limbo with the House and Senate in a stalemate. Until the House votes to adjourn, the Senate remains technically in recess.
“We need to set an example that we are willing to work, and we have to set an expectation that we want them to work and that jobs are coming back,” Republican Sen. David Livingston said. “I don’t know how we can do that without being here.”
Livingston, who opposed adjourning, said ending the session would leave all power over coronavirus orders to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and leave businesses without liability protection from virus-related claims. There was hope among Republicans that new protections could pass before the Legislature adjourned its regular 2020 session.
“I don’t know why we would postpone that instead of coming together in the coming days” and shielding businesses from lawsuits, said Republican Sen. Eddie Farnsworth.
All of the Democrats and about five of the Republicans wore masks. Two Democrats, including Sen. Lupe Contreras who has contracted COVID-19, attended remotely.
Republicans were strongly divided. In the end, 11 of the 17 GOP lawmakers joined all 13 Democrats in supporting the decision to adjourn.
Fann said it's not safe to invite the public into the Capitol, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.
"We don’t do policy behind closed doors," Fann said.
Democratic Sen. Lela Alston, urged members to unite to close the session for safety reasons and reject the push by some GOP members to show the state can reopen.
“Staying alive is more important than going back to work,” Alston said.
The House can join the Senate in adjourning, she said, or the Senate would consider a handful of COVID-related bills with broad support.
Adjourning allows for future legislative action during a special session that can be focused specifically on COVID-19 without getting sidelined, she said. That's because the governor sets the parameters for a special session when he calls one, and lawmakers can't deviate.
The vote by the GOP-controlled Senate places the House in the awkward position of having the upper chamber in recess while it plans to continue working. That essentially means the House can do nothing.
Still, critics of the Senate's move said it’s pointless without the concurrence of the House, because the state constitution says one chamber cannot adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.
“I am opposed to the idea of forcing this down their throats,” Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard said of the House. Fann noted, however, that the Senate is technically in recess until the House goes along, so there's no constitutional issue.
By adjourning, the Legislature would abandon its role as a check and balance on the executive branch, Mesnard said.
Sens. Rick Gray and Sonny Borrelli, the No. 2 and 3 Republicans in the Senate, said lawmakers are still busy helping their constituents, including to resolve issues with their unemployment, even if they’re not in session. Another Republican, Sen. Vince Leach, said lawmakers on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee have been busy dealing with the financial fallout.
“My constituents, they’re not saying, ‘I want this bill,’” Gray said. “They’re saying, ‘I need help. I’m not getting my unemployment.’”
Friday’s developments aside, lawmakers expect to return in a special session that could be called by the governor in the coming months to deal with virus-related issues. They would include dealing with the effects on the state spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1 that passed in March.
The Legislature’s budget experts last month projected a $1.1 billion deficit. On Thursday, Joint Legislative Budget Committee analysts said the state collected $100 million more than expected in sales and income taxes due to higher-than-projected economic activity, but they did not revise their deficit projection.
The Senate’s lengthy debate was as much about the wisdom of Ducey’s stay-home order as it was about whether to adjourn.
Several Republican lawmakers aired their frustrations with the restrictions on economic activity, which Ducey imposed in March and has begun easing this month.
“Are we so afraid that we can’t take a risk and risk our lives?” said GOP Sen. David Farnsworth. “If you believe our lives are at risk from the coronavirus, are you willing to risk your life for liberty? Because we are losing our liberty.”
Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat, faulted the lawmakers who did not wear a mask and a group of protesters in front of the Capitol demanding the state be reopened without observing the social distancing recommendations issued by Ducey and public health authorities.
“You could have been exposed,” Quezada said. “And now you’ve impacted me. And you could have impacted my elderly father who was filling up at the gas tank next to you.”
Cooper reported from Tempe, Arizona.
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