Restless Republican lawmakers not ready to overturn Ducey — yet




Doug Ducey covid-19 coronavirus update
Gov. Doug Ducey gives an update on the COVID-19 pandemic response during an April 22, 2020, press conference. Photo by Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic & USA Today Network | Pool photo

It seems highly unlikely that there are enough GOP votes in the state legislature to reverse Gov. Doug Ducey’s emergency declaration, but Republican lawmakers are chafing under the extension of his stay-at-home order and are hoping leadership can convince the governor to make substantial changes soon.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, has proposed a resolution that would overturn the emergency declaration that Ducey issued on March 11, which allowed him to issue a host of executive orders aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Most significant among those is his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy, Stay Connected” order that closed most businesses deemed non-essential and imposed restrictions on the reasons why Arizonans can leave their homes.

Though Townsend quickly rallied public support from a handful of GOP lawmakers, she doesn’t appear to have enough votes in either chamber of the legislature. 

But that doesn’t mean Republicans are falling in line behind Ducey.

Townsend proposed the resolution on Wednesday, shortly after Ducey announced that he was extending his stay-at-home order until May 15. Ducey modified it to allow retail businesses that weren’t already deemed essential services to reopen on Monday. And he said he wants to let restaurants resume dine-in service sometime in May, with a target date of May 12. 

But the remainder of the order remains in effect for at least the next two weeks. 

And that isn’t sitting well with many Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, said the majority of his caucus opposed Ducey’s decision. At a private caucus meeting April 30, not a single House Republican spoke in support of the governor’s decision, Pierce said.

Still, Pierce said that doesn’t necessarily mean he backs Townsend’s push to end the emergency declaration. 

“I would have to see what it is and what happens. I’m not going to say I won’t, but I’m not saying I will,” he said.

Other Republican lawmakers took a similar position. They want Ducey to move much faster in reopening the state and said they’re being bombarded with calls and emails from constituents who are eager to go back to work and re-open their businesses. They think the COVID-19 crisis is abating and that Arizona has “flattened the curve.” 

But they are not yet ready to directly challenge the governor.

‘Nuclear option’ still on the table

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said overturning Ducey’s emergency declaration would be too aggressive at this point, and would be an especially hostile move toward a governor from the same party, even though she was disappointed by his extension of his stay-at-home order.

“The nuclear option is probably your last option. I’m not saying it can’t be used. But I think that’s an option that you should look at if nothing else works,” Cobb said.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, took a similar position.

“I wouldn’t vote for it. I’m sympathetic. But I don’t have all the same information, frankly, that the governor has. I respect the decisions that he’s making, even if I don’t know that I agree with him. But supporting a resolution is a little bit too far. Maybe if things continue past May 15, my feelings might change,” he said.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said he couldn’t commit to anything without seeing the actual language of the resolution. 

“I think the governor should rethink his position. But for now, it is what it is,” Kern said. “The governor sees things that I don’t see, so I don’t want to make any judgment calls yet.”

Some are pinning their hopes on the possibility that House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann can convince Ducey to make more changes. House Republicans urged Bowers to negotiate with Ducey on the issue.

Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, isn’t necessarily looking for the entire order to be lifted immediately. But he’s hoping the governor will agree to allow more small businesses to reopen, even if some – such as bars and movie theaters – might take a bit longer.

“I have faith in the governor to get things opened. But the governor’s got to come to the table,” said Dunn, who wouldn’t comment on whether he’d support the kind of resolution Townsend is proposing.

Ducey will announce additional moves next week, according to Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, who tweeted that he met with the governor on Friday “to urge reopening Arizona’s economy ASAP.”

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Ducey, said the governor’s office will have additional announcements and guidance early next week after it analyzes coronavirus data from over the weekend. He said the administration is talking to various stakeholders, including legislative leadership and other lawmakers who own businesses.

Townsend’s resolution may not be the only option for fed-up legislators. Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said he expects an alternative plan to emerge from the Senate, though he said he’s not at liberty to say more.

Farnsworth said he supports Townsend’s proposal, though he conceded that it likely doesn’t have enough votes to pass. He said he’ll support the most aggressive plan that comes up for a vote.

Townsend wants a vote on her proposal, regardless of whether it has enough support to pass. Doing nothing is not an option, she said. 

If nothing else, Townsend wants her colleagues to all go on the record – in an election year.

“If somebody wants to vote ‘no’ to that, they’ll have some explaining to do,” she said. “I’m not going to not put it forward because we don’t have the votes. It needs to happen.”

The deadline to introduce bills has passed, meaning lawmakers can only introduce new legislation with the permission of the House speaker or Senate president, as well as the approval of their respective rules committees. But Townsend could seek a vote to waive those rules.

Exactly when lawmakers will even reconvene so Townsend can try to introduce her resolution is unclear. Bowers and Fann initially planned for the legislature to adjourn sine die on Friday, then return for a special session in a month or so to address what is expected to be a severe budget shortfall. 

But they scrapped that plan when it became clear that there was little appetite among their GOP colleagues to sacrifice the hundreds of bills that are still working their way through the process. Townsend also said leadership might have called off their plans to reconvene out of a desire to head off a vote on her proposal. And Mesnard noted that ending the legislative session would remove any leverage the legislature has in pushing Ducey to reopen the state. 

Many Republicans are looking to May 15 as the day of reckoning. If Ducey lifts the remainder of his stay-home order, they’ll be happy. But if he extends it or leaves too much of it in place, some may reassess their positions. 

“Then, I think you would talk more of a nuclear option,” Cobb said. 

GOP support for Ducey extending his order

At least one Republican lawmaker is firmly in Ducey’s corner on his decision. Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, called Townsend’s resolution a “proposal from the ready-fire-aim crowd.” Nobody is happy that the lockdown will continue, she said, but Ducey made the right decision because Arizona still needs to see better COVID infection numbers before the state reopens.

“I think we weren’t ready, and he’s smart to not pick a date certain,” Brophy McGee said. “He stuck to it, and I’m proud. I’m glad he did.”

Brophy McGee said the legislature should also heed Fann’s recent warning that Arizona will lose millions of dollars in federal aid if it ends its state of emergency. Townsend and supporters of her plan cast aspersions on Fann’s desire to not lose those funds. 

But Brophy McGee found it to be a compelling argument. Fann also pointed out that many of the other executive orders that Ducey has issued in response to the COVID-19 crisis would also expire if lawmakers rescind the emergency declaration.

“Why would we do that? We are in dire financial straits, right? We need to work together with the federal government and make use of the resources they’ve provided,” Brophy McGee said.

Fann declined to comment on Townsend’s proposal or any possible negotiations with the governor’s office. A spokesman for Bowers did not respond to messages from the Mirror.