Legislature to scrap session amid COVID-19, but may return in June




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The COVID-19 pandemic will lead to an abrupt end to the legislative session on May 1, though legislative leaders expect they’ll return to the Capitol sometime before the end of June to deal with any pressing business, which may well include a massive budget deficit.

Doing so means all of the policy proposals that were put into a deep-freeze on March 23 when the legislature went on hiatus are officially dead.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann have agreed to reconvene their respective chambers so they can officially end the 2020 legislative session, said Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the House Republican caucus. 

The last order of business for lawmakers when they suspended their session last month was to pass an $11.8 billion “skinny budget” that largely continued funding levels from the current fiscal year. Lawmakers tentatively planned to reconvene on April 13, though the COVID-19 crisis nixed those plans, delaying their return indefinitely.

Wilder told Arizona Mirror that Bowers and Fann expect to return for a special session “at an appropriate later time to address necessary business.”

That necessary business will almost certainly include a budget crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread shutdown of economic activity that Arizona and other states imposed to slow the spread of the virus.

The Finance Advisory Committee warned lawmakers earlier this month that the state budget, which had previously been looking forward to a billion-dollar surplus, will face an estimated deficit of about $1.1 billion. The committee acknowledged that its projection could be off by a half billion dollars in either direction, meaning the deficit could be as low as $600 million or as high as $1.6 billion.

The committee urged lawmakers to wait until at least early June, when it will revise its estimates based on better, more up-to-date information, before reconvening to make any cuts or other decisions regarding the budget.

The 2021 fiscal year begins on July 1. Wilder said it’s a safe assumption that lawmakers will return sometime before then.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, did not say when the governor would call lawmakers into special session, but said the governor’s office is coordinating closely with legislative leaders. 

Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, signalled that there could be resistance among GOP lawmakers to the sine die plan, writing on Twitter, “I can’t speak for every single house member, but its (sic) my understanding that there is not consensus within the republican Caucus to Sine Die.”

Even if Bowers and Fann lose some votes among their Republican colleagues, they may find support on the other side of the aisle. House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said House Democrats approved of the decision.

“We can always come back in Special Session to deal with COVID19 issues. COVID19 appropriation was always the priority,” Fernandez told the Mirror via text message.

If the legislature adjourns sine die, any bills that haven’t been passed yet will be dead for the year. They could be reintroduced during a special session, but only if they’re related to issues identified explicitly in the special session call.

Lawmakers introduced 1,605 bills this year, 58 of which have passed and signed into law by the governor. Of the remaining bills, 544 have passed out of one legislative chamber. 

One way in which the adjournment could help lawmakers is by allowing them to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists, which is prohibited during the legislative session. This is the first year Arizona will hold its primary election in early August instead of at the end of the month, which has given lawmakers less time than in previous years to raise money.

Tuesday was the 100th day of the legislative session. May 1 will be the session’s 110th day.