House resumes legislative session, looks to adjourn at week’s end

Photo by Wars | Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Arizona House of Representatives is shrugging off the Senate’s attempt to end the 2020 legislative session, resuming its long-postponed business on Monday with a goal of passing dozens of bills before adjourning sine die later in the week.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, emailed a schedule to lawmakers on Monday that lays out a week of committee hearings and floor votes. The full House will hear 19 bills on Tuesday, which will be the first time the chamber has taken the floor since March 23, when it recessed in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

The House committees on commerce, education, elections, federal relations and natural resources all released agendas for meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Bowers’ schedule includes meetings later in the week for the committees on health and human services, judiciary, land and agriculture, public safety, technology and ways and means.

Between Tuesday’s floor calendars and the committee agendas that have been posted, the House has signalled that it will take up at least 42 pieces of legislation this week, not counting the bills that will be heard in committees that haven’t yet released agendas. All of those bills have already been approved by the Senate.

And the House is expected to take up at least two new pieces of legislation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The House Rules Committee gave Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, permission to introduce a bill that would provide protections from COVID-related lawsuits to businesses and other institutions that reopen. It would also reduce penalties for people who violate Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order, which expired May 15, and subsequent executive orders related to the emergency declaration he issued in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Kavanagh told Arizona Mirror that the liability protection bill will cover businesses, nonprofits and schools, including universities. It will require anyone suing those institutions to show that they committed gross negligence, rather than the current standard of negligence. And it would require that juries find clear and convincing evidence or wrongdoing, rather than a preponderance of evidence, which Kavanagh described as “50% plus a feather.” 

In addition, the bill will drastically reduce the penalties for violating the governor’s executive orders related to the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, anyone found guilty of violating the orders, which is a class 1 misdemeanor, can face fines of up to $2,500 and up to six months in jail. The bill would reduce the penalty to a civil violation, which is punishable only by a small fine. Violators must be given an opportunity to remedy the situation before they are cited, which would codify a provision in Ducey’s stay-at-home order. And prosecution would be dropped for anyone who remedies the problem within 24 hours of being cited.

Kavanagh said his bill will also include a provision on unemployment insurance. There may be separate legislation authorizing the use of money that the legislature approved in a “skinny budget” in March for child care.

Passage of that legislation will put the ball in the Senate’s court. The Senate voted to adjourn sine die on May 8, with the intention of returning in the near future for at least one special session to pass coronavirus-related legislation and tackle a looming budget crisis. Bowers called off similar plans in the House after a majority of Republican lawmakers objected. 

Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, told the Mirror that the Senate will remain in recess unless and until the House sends over legislation that it must act on.

The House won’t need the Senate’s cooperation for any legislation that the Senate has already passed. As long as the House doesn’t amend them, bills that have already made it out of the Senate can proceed to Ducey’s desk. Technically, it’s up to the Senate to transmit its bills to the governor after they’ve been approved by both chambers. But the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the legislature has no say in the matter and that any bill that’s ready for the governor must be sent to his desk.

The House is already considering several resolutions that don’t require the governor’s signature.

But if the House passes the bills on civil liability protection and penalties for violating executive orders, the Senate must approve them, as well.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the House will be conducting businesses much differently than normal. All lawmakers, staff and members of the public will have to wear masks and abide by social distancing guidelines and other recommendations established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to curb the spread of COVID-19, according to Bowers’ email. Public attendance will be limited.

The House Rules Committee convened on Monday morning to approve a handful of bills, with members wearing face masks and keeping empty chairs between them as they conducted business.

Twenty-five of the House’s 90 members have received approval to vote remotely, though some will be doing so from their offices at the legislature. Discussions are underway as to how many lawmakers will be permitted to attend remotely, said Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for the House Republicans.

Bowers’s plan is for the House to adjourn sine die on Thursday, though his schedule left open the possibility that the chamber will have to come back on Friday if there’s any outstanding business to attend to.