***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include comments from various lawmakers.
Plans for the legislature to adjourn sine die on May 1 are on hold after the majority of House Republicans told Speaker Rusty Bowers that they’re not ready to call it quits yet.
Bowers, R-Mesa, and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, agreed on Tuesday to adjourn sine die on May 1 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has halted all legislative activity for the past month, with the expectation that they would return sometime before the end of June to deal with a projected budget crisis in a special session.
Doing so would have meant that hundreds of bills sponsored by Republicans would be dead, and they’d have to introduce new versions next year – if they win re-election this fall.
But the sine die announcement caught GOP lawmakers off guard, Republicans in both chambers told Arizona Mirror. And many were unhappy about killing off their bills.
In a statement provided to the Mirror, Bowers said he conveyed to Fann that most of his members want to return to the Capitol, which she said she would discuss with members of her chamber.
“My decision on Tuesday that the House would sine die was made with good intent. After speaking now with our caucus, a substantive majority of my members have expressed a strong desire to return and finish the work of the legislative session,” Bowers said.
Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for Bowers, said no decision has been made for when the House will reconvene, and that the House speaker and Senate president will have to agree to a plan.
Fann told the Mirror that she isn’t going so far as to say the legislature won’t end its session on May 1, though Bowers relayed to her that his chamber won’t do so. She said Bowers called her to say rank-and-file House Republicans don’t want to adjourn so soon.
Fann said she told Bowers that she would notify members of her chamber and asked him to let her know where the House wants to go from here.
“Right now, it is in limbo until we get more information,” Fann said of the sine die plan. “There’s just a lot of logistics that would have to be worked out and nobody’s worked through those logistics yet.”
Fann said in a press release that the sine die plans are hold until she talks with the Senate Republican caucus.
At a meeting of the House Republican caucus on Wednesday morning, Bowers agreed to scrap the sine die plan, Reps. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, and Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, told the Mirror.
“We’ve got work to do still. We’ve got a lot of bills out there still,” Payne said.
Payne said most members of his caucus were opposed to the plan and weren’t consulted before it was announced. He said the tone of the meeting was good, though, and that Bowers apologized to his Republican colleagues for not consulting with them first.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she spoke with Bowers on Wednesday and the speaker told her the May 1 plan is off the table.
“That’s what he told me, that we will be working on bills,” she said.
Fernandez said all 29 House Democrats were prepared to vote for sine die, but there’s an “unwritten rule” that you don’t vote to adjourn if the majority of your votes are coming from the minority party.
“I’m not happy at all,” she said of the change in plans.
There are 544 bills that have already passed out of one chamber but not the other. And that list includes a lot of priorities for GOP lawmakers.
Several lawmakers said they still hoped to pass several criminal justice reform bills that are still alive. Rep. Walter Blackman’s House Bill 2088, which passed unanimously in the House, would scale back Arizona’s strict “truth in sentencing” law. The bill would require prison inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses to serve at least 70 percent of their sentences, as opposed to the 85 percent they must serve now.
It seems almost certain that lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 to address a budget deficit. Legislative budget staff estimate that Arizona will face a $1.1 billion deficit due to the economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus crisis, though they said that number could be off by a half billion dollars in either direction.
Leadership’s sine die plan included an assumption that lawmakers would return to the Capitol in a special session so they could address the budget crisis when the time was right. The Finance Advisory Committee recommended not doing so until at least early June, when budget planners say they’ll have better data on state revenues.
Some GOP lawmaker questioned what they would gain by adjourning sine die when they could simply keep the session going and take care of whatever businesses they wanted to address.
“If we’re going to sine die, I don’t want to come back over and over again for special sessions,” Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said. “We have an open session where we can do any additional budgetary adjustments we need, as well as get through the bills that are still on the table.”
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said it’s premature to end the 2020 session when it’s possible that the pandemic could start abating and the state could start opening up again next month.
“Could there be a point where we have to call it and pull the plug? Yeah, there could be. But as folks are starting to think somewhat optimistically that maybe things start to open up in May, it would just be ironic that we’re shutting down,” Mesnard said.
Mesnard said the majority of Senate Republicans outside of leadership are opposed to the plan to adjourn on May 1.
Lawmakers haven’t been back to the Capitol since March 23, when they passed an $11.8 billion “skinny budget” and several other pieces of legislation. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has kept them away.
Before lawmakers left the Capitol, the House started allowing its members to vote remotely for the first time in the chamber’s history so they could attend to their business while maintaining social distancing guidelines that discourage gatherings of more than ten people and require people to stay at least six feet away from each other.
Payne said they could take similar steps if and when the legislature gets back to business. Some members can attend via Zoom or other digital programs, he said, which will leave enough room in the chamber for those who attend in person to maintain at least six feet of distance from each other.
Committee hearings will be more challenging, Payne said. He said some have suggested having members of the public testify to a camera or allowing people to only come in one at a time to testify on legislation.
“I like the people to be there. It’s the people’s house,” Payne said.