Senate votes to end 2020 session, puts decision on recalcitrant House




Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock, speaks on the Senate floor on May 8, 2020. Screenshot via azleg.gov/Granicus

The state Senate voted to adjourn sine die, likely bringing an effective end to the 2020 legislative session, even as recalcitrant House Republicans insisted on remaining in session.

After nearly three hours of often impassioned debate, a majority of Senate Republicans joined their unanimous Democratic colleagues in voting to end the session, which has been on hiatus since March 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, had long insisted she wouldn’t entertain such a vote without the support of a majority of her caucus. Only six of the Senate’s 17 Republicans – Sylvia Allen, David Farnsworth, Eddie Farnsworth, David Livingston, J.D. Mesnard and Michelle Ugenti-Rita – opposed adjournment. The chamber voted 24-6 to end the session.

The move likely kills hundreds of mostly Republican-sponsored bills that were still working their way through the legislative process. There are 544 bills that have passed out of one chamber but haven’t been signed into law by the governor, all of which will now go into the legislature’s proverbial dustbin. Gov. Doug Ducey has signed 58 bills into law.

Nonetheless, the vote may not bring the 2020 regular session to a final conclusion. Senate GOP spokeswoman Dajana Zlaticanin said the Senate didn’t vote to adjourn sine die, only to send a sine die motion to the House of Representatives for that chamber to consider.

Fann said there are two options for how the House and Senate can proceed together. They can reconvene in a special session, which is a near certainty, to tackle a handful of pressing issues, including a projected budget deficit and protections from legal liability in COVID-related lawsuits for businesses that reopen. She said special sessions – she predicted more than one – would focus the legislature’s attention on high-priority issues.

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Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, speaks on the Senate floor on May 8, 2020. Screenshot via azleg.gov/Granicus

Or, Fann said, the House can pick out a small number of bills it still hopes to pass and the Senate can come back to vote on them.

“Because they need more time over there to be able to come to a consensus, which we have tried to do for the past four (or) five weeks, this is our way of saying, ‘We still want to work with you,’ but putting the ball in your corner,” Fann said. 

The legislature’s parliamentary rules allow for a chamber that approves a motion to sine die to also vote to rescind that motion, which would need to happen if the Senate were to take up any more legislation this year.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, had initially planned to convene on Friday at 1 p.m. to vote on sine die as well. But he called off that plan after a majority of the Republican caucus opposed it. 

And following the Senate vote, the speaker showed no inclination to follow the Senate in sine die adjournment.

“Members of the House Republican Caucus intend to remain in session and, together with the the Senate and Governor, work in support of the safe and expeditious reopening of our society, our economy, and protection of our state’s small businesses and communities,” Bowers said in a statement provided to Arizona Mirror.

Several critical issues remain on the legislature’s plate, which are expected to be subjects of special sessions in the near future.

One is the budget. Legislative budget analysts are projecting a $1.1 billion deficit as a result of the economic downturn caused by COVID-19, and lawmakers will have to return to the Capitol to address the problem. 

Legislators, business advocates and others are also calling for a bill that will protect businesses from legal liability from coronavirus-related lawsuits. Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said it’s a certainty that people who contract COVID-19 will sue businesses where they believe they contracted it. And he said it’s imperative that they be shielded from legal liability, suggesting that businesses should be protected unless they act in a grossly negligent manner.

Farnsworth also advocated protections for people and businesses who run afoul of Ducey’s stay-at-home order. He said Ducey started with a light-handed approach. But people began to feel threatened when the governor emphasized that anyone who violates his order could face fines of up to $2,500 and up to six months in jail, while also warning that restaurants and bars could lose their liquor licenses if they defied his order.

“COVID-19 is real. I’m not suggesting it’s not. I’m suggesting that life is also real, having to make a living, having to feed your family, having to make sure your business doesn’t collapse,” Farnsworth said. “People have a right to defend their business and to make a living and to support their children.”

While some sine die opponents lamented that the Senate was abandoning the legislature’s unfinished work, others acknowledged that lawmakers couldn’t conduct much legislative business because they can’t safely hold committee hearings amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. 

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Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, speaks on the Senate floor on May 8, 2020. Screenshot via azleg.gov/Granicus

But some questioned how the legislature can act as a check on Ducey and his executive orders that shut down many businesses in Arizona if they’re not in session. Sen. J.D. Mesnard, a Chandler Republican, said Ducey is doing the best he can, but there’s no harm in keeping the legislative session alive for now. Mesnard has been critical of what he views as an unnecessarily slow pace in reopening the state.

“If we end the session, our ability to be a check is seriously diminished,” he said. “We will not have the power to push back on things we may disagree with.”

On April 29, Ducey announced that he would allow non-essential retail businesses to reopen their doors, which went fully into effect on Friday. After several days of criticism from protesters, GOP lawmakers and others, Ducey further relaxed his executive order, permitting restaurants to resume dine-in service and giving salons and barbers the go-ahead to reopen.

Still, some critics, including several Republican lawmakers, are bristling under the remainder of the stay-at-home order, which expires on May 15. The order prohibits large gatherings, requires businesses such as bars, gyms and movie theaters to remain closed, and limits – albeit with a wide array of exemptions – when people can leave their homes.

Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, urged an immediate re-opening, noting that 20 million Americans are now out of work, including about 400,000 Arizonans, and that the unemployment rate is nearing 15%. He questioned what could be more important than getting Arizonans back to work and bringing jobs back to the state.

And Livingston decried the restrictions imposed by Ducey’s executive order, both those that have been lifted and those that remain.

“Making people stay home. Making, forcing businesses to lock their doors. Telling people they can’t have funerals. Telling people they cannot visit their families at assisted-living nursing homes. Heavy hand of government, folks,” he said.

Sen. Lela Alston, a Phoenix Democrat who first served in the legislature in the 1970s, said there is still something more important than getting people back to work.

“As the oldest members of this body and the longest serving member of this body, I am compelled to share with you, Mr. Livingston, and others, staying alive, in my opinion, is more important than going back to work,” she said.

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Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, speaks on the Senate floor on May 8, 2020. Screenshot via azleg.gov/Granicus

And in a fiery speech, Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, argued that there are good reasons for the restrictions Ducey enacted to remain in place. He pointed that he had to walk past protesters on his way into the Senate, many of whom weren’t wearing masks. And he noted that 13 of his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor weren’t wearing masks, either. 

As a diabetic with a compromised immune system, Quezada said other people’s decision not to take such protective measures has a potentially serious effect on him.

“That’s exactly why we need a heavy hand of government, because that lack of personal responsibility is affecting people like me,” Quezada said.

This isn’t the first time that the one chamber has adjourned sine die without the consent of the other. The Senate did so in 2015 after senators grew weary of waiting for the House to complete its drawn-out proceedings. But in that situation, the House simply voted to sine die after being informed mid-debate that the Senate had adjourned and its members had left the Capitol.

***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include additional information.