Dems want special legislative session to address coronavirus

By: - March 11, 2020 1:07 pm

Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror

Democratic lawmakers want Gov. Doug Ducey to order a special legislative session to address coronavirus in Arizona.

But that doesn’t appear likely to happen, at least not right now.

“If we don’t pay attention to this now, we will find ourselves behind the eight ball and find ourselves trying to catch up,” Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, said to the Arizona Mirror

The virus, which causes the illness COVID-19, was declared a worldwide pandemic on Wednesday by the World Health Organization.

Friese, a surgeon, told Arizona Mirror that members of the Democratic caucus met on Tuesday with Ducey’s office and the Arizona Department of Health Service’s Director Dr. Cara Christ to discuss COVID-19 in the state. During that meeting, he said Democrats voiced their desire to have a special legislative session to address its spread. 

Ducey’s office didn’t commit to a special session, but he said Democrats will be meeting with the governor’s office again Wednesday afternoon.

Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptack told Arizona Mirror that the governor doesn’t believe a special session is necessary “at this time.” The state’s latest efforts will be detailed in a press conference Wednesday afternoon, he said.

Friese said that the special session could help with appropriating monies to agencies like ADHS and the Arizona Department of Public Safety for emergency measures related to coronavirus. 

“This is not a political issue, no one is casting blame,” Friese said, adding that the special session would be about finding ways to help prevent further community spread of the virus, gathering additional information on its spread and expanding education efforts. 

Other policies Democrats would like to see addressed in a coronavirus special session include expanding paid sick leave so that workers don’t feel compelled to show up to their jobs even if they are ill, Friese said.

Special legislative sessions are traditionally ordered by the governor, although the legislature can call itself into a special session with the support of two-thirds of lawmakers.

“I think we have an opportunity here as a government to be thoughtful and get ahead of this,” Friese said.

More and more businesses are beginning to practice social distancing as the coronavirus spreads.

Social distancing is a practice used to help contain the spread of a virus or other contagion that includes practices such as having employees work from home, canceling large scale events and other measures in an attempt to slow the spread of a contagion. 

“We also asked the governor, what should the trigger be for (declaring a state of) emergency?” Friese said, adding that they have not received an answer yet. 

On Tuesday, Ducey said he was leaving the decision of whether to cancel business conventions, sporting events or other large public gatherings up to organizers, and his spokesman dodged a question about whether lawmakers should suspend the legislative session. Those comments were published by Yellow Sheet Report, a subscription insider newsletter aimed at lobbyists and government officials.

Ptak told the publication that business will continue as it normally would at the Governor’s office.  

He said that Ducey’s office would allow employees to work remotely if needed, but that isn’t feasible for lawmakers who have to be present to vote. 

Ptak wouldn’t directly answer when asked what threshold would need to be met for the Capitol to consider temporarily shutting down. Asked if he was aware of any discussions the Ninth Floor has had with legislative leadership on whether and when to suspend the legislative session, he said he would have to check. 

“We’re taking it on a day-by-day basis,” Ptak told Yellow Sheet Report.

Currently, there is no plan to send Arizona lawmakers home, but Republican leadership is watching developments around the virus closely, legislative spokesmen told the Mirror.

In the nation’s capital, a similar situation is unfolding, as leaders in both parties have stated to their members that there is no immediate plan to close Congress even with several members who are in quarantine for exposure to COVID-19

“Staff has been instructed to wipe down all railings and door handles and knobs every two hours,” Mike Philipsen, a spokesman for the Senate Republican caucus, said. The Senate also has installed 10 hand-sanitizing stations throughout the building. 

The House is taking similar measures by disinfecting frequently touched surfaces. 

Representatives of GOP leadership in the House and the Senate said business will continue to move as usual, and there are no plans to pause the legislative session or keep the public out of legislative buildings. 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.