The 2021 regular legislative session was one of the longest and most dramatic sessions on record in Arizona. Under the shadow of a global pandemic, lawmakers navigated significant challenges to pursue their policy goals. Many were successful at enacting changes to state laws; others ran into roadblocks and will have to try again next year.
The effects of COVID-19 were apparent from the very start of the session. Governor Doug Ducey gave his State of the State speech remotely, and COVID-19 protocols limited access to the building. An ongoing debate about the need for such protocols turned face masks into a visible symbol of disagreements about the virus, the vaccine, and the role of government in a public health emergency.
Some legislators got and recovered from COVID-19. One was hospitalized for other health reasons, and another got hit by a car. In the House, Representative Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren replaced Representative Arlando Teller, who resigned to take a job with the federal government. The House and Senate expanded remote voting options to allow legislators to participate in committees and floor sessions from their office, their vacation, their hospital bed, or even their car.
When schedules got complicated and Republicans could not find the votes they needed for a state budget, the House and Senate took a very unusual two-week break from work at the Capitol while leadership teams negotiated behind the scenes. Work on the regular legislative session also slowed to allow legislators to focus on a week-long special session to enhance the state’s resources to fight and prevent the growing threat of wildfires.
The session finally ended on June 30 – the 171st day of a session filled with highs and lows shaped by several main factors:
Legislators introduced 1,899 bills, memorials, and resolutions – the highest number in recorded history at the Arizona Capitol. Some were identical to bills that did not make it to the Governor’s desk due to the abbreviated 2020 legislative session, which interrupted the consideration of most legislation. Others were duplicates – multiple versions of the same idea shared by multiple bill sponsors. Most, though, were the result of ambitious legislators who came into the new term determined to see their proposals in print after long months on the campaign trail.
Almost 75% of those ideas did not succeed. Just 486 proposals passed the legislative process; 459 were signed into law or recorded with the Secretary of State, three were forwarded to the 2022 General Election ballot, and 28 were vetoed.
Arizona legislators had a lot of money to spend this year. The federal government directed billions of dollars into the state through a series of COVID-19 aid packages. While most of the federal funds were under the direction of the Governor and other elected officials, those funds offset costs to some state agencies and therefore redirected excess dollars to the state’s bottom line.
Arizona’s strong economy also played a key role in the notable cash balances: Month after month, tax revenues far surpassed economists’ predictions and overcame any shortfalls caused by the impact of the global pandemic. The excess revenues highlighted the sharp disagreements between and within political parties as lawmakers negotiated individual priorities to obtain the votes they needed to pass a budget.
Bipartisanship…and the Lack of It
There were hopes that the unusual dynamics of this session would deepen cooperation between legislators who were navigating the uncertainties together, and, in the beginning, that was the case. Republican committee chairs scheduled more hearings for bills sponsored by Democrats, and even some Democratic budget priorities advanced through the Appropriations Committees.
Tension grew, however, as lawmakers’ diverging perspectives put their differences at the forefront. There were long floor fights about policies and priorities, and partisan differences over small things like face masks spilled over into frustration about differing views for broader goals, as well. The state budget, and many other high-profile policy changes, passed on party lines.
Balance of Power
The Republicans’ one-vote majority in the House and Senate amplified the importance of every member of their caucus – a fact that made it challenging to get party unity on some priorities like the state budget. It also required full participation since one Republican’s absence could disrupt the majority party’s plans for the day.
In the House, Republican absences enabled Democrats to organize a walkout that delayed debate on a Republican budget proposal. In response, House Republicans voted to change their rules and sharply limit discussion on the budget proposals.
Some of the dramatic moments and interpersonal divisions stem from legislators’ personal and partisan ambitions. So far, ten legislators have announced their candidacy for another office this year, and more are expected to do so. Legislators who aren’t running for Congress or statewide office are divided in their support for those colleagues who are.
In many ways, this was a year for the record books. For Republicans who saw their tax cut and policy priorities signed into law, it was a reason to celebrate. For Democrats who felt sidelined and unable to enact their ideas, it was a months-long source of frustration. For everyone involved, it was a roller coaster of a year with highly unusual challenges.
The Road Ahead
There will be obstacles ahead as legislators prepare for the 2022 session, as well. Elections for statewide and legislative seats will create new friends and foes within and across party lines, and tensions from this year will continue to shape the climate for future conversations. Arizona legislators all have one thing in common, though: They made it through the 2021 session, and they’ll never forget it.