PHOENIX -- Legislative leaders are planning to pull the plug on the 2020 session with the intent of not coming back to the Capitol to deal with outstanding financial and policy issues until next January.
Senate President Karen Fann told Capitol Media Services Tuesday that lawmakers will vote on May 1 to shut down the session that began on Jan. 13. They have been in recess since March 23, hoping to return once the COVID-19 pandemic had passed.
The plan had been not only to put the final touches on a budget for the new fiscal year but also to deal with some remaining hot-button and potentially controversial measures. These range from changes in water laws and re-regulating vacation rentals to ending social promotion, higher gasoline taxes and whether transgender females can legally participate in high school and college athletics.
Now, nearly a month later, the virus shows no clear sign of abating, with single-day deaths hitting a peak of 21 on Tuesday, bringing the tally to more than 500. And with non-essential businesses shuttered and a stay-at-home order by Gov. Doug Ducey, the state’s revenue picture remains no more clear than it was when lawmakers went home.
So, absent some need for a special session, Fann said lawmakers will be gone until a new session in January unless there is some need for a special session before then.
“The budget is pretty well secure right now,’’ Fann said, with lawmakers having adopted what amounts to an $11.8 billion “baseline’’ spending plan. That assumes continuation of all agencies with adjustments for growth in population and inflation.
Lawmakers did add an additional $105 million before packing up last month both in direct funds for the Department of Health Services to deal with the virus as well as for aid to renters, the homeless and small business.
Meanwhile, legislative budget staffers said they cannot predict how bad will be the hit to state revenues from the shutdown of local businesses and the sharp drop in tourism.
The most recent estimate put the shortfall at $1.1 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. But Richard Stavneak, staff director of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said that figure could be as little as $600 million -- or as much as $1.6 billion.
Nor can they accurately determine how much more the state will have to spend as the recession being created is making more people eligible for government-funded programs like Medicaid. The most recent figures showed enrollment grew by 2 percent in just a single month.
“There’s no way we’re really going to have a good handle on any new numbers until we really know where we’re going to go with this,’’ Fann said.
“Are we going to be able to start opening things up little by little over the next couple of weeks?’’ she asked. “Or is it going to take longer.’’
Anyway, Fann said, the state is in line to get about $2.8 billion in federal aid due to the pandemic, something she said can be used to plug a lot of holes until next January.
The state also is expected to end this budget year on June 30 with close to $1 billion in surplus, with a nearly identical amount in its “rainy-day’’ fund.
Not everyone is on board with the plan.
“This is the most God-awful, embarrassing thing we’ve ever done,’’ said Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa.
“What kind of policy is not going to happen this year because we decided we were afraid?’’ she asked.
Townsend said there’s no reason that lawmakers cannot meet online to finish the session. She pointed out the House already has set up a process that allowed several lawmakers to vote without being on the floor.
“We managed to do it for the budget,’’ Townsend said. “But we can’t manage to do it for the rest of the people’s business?’’
Townsend, who was part of the Monday demonstration at the Capitol demanding an end to the governor’s shut-down and stay-at-home orders, said that lawmakers can be creative, just as have other businesses.
“Walmart managed,’’ she said, remaining open with controls.
“Why? Because Walmart is considered essential,’’ Townsend said. “But the people’s business is not essential enough?’’
“Literally, there were hundreds of bills hanging out there,’’ Fann acknowledged. Also dead would be various proposals to cut taxes, including a plan by Ducey to eliminate income taxes on the pensions of retired military.
Fann, however, said that the fate of these bills left in the process is no different than it would have been had lawmakers gone through a full session and left issues unresolved.
“They’re dead for this year, just as they would be in any year’’ when the session ends without action. “And next year we’ll take them up again.’’
Fann acknowledged that many of the issues had been thoroughly debated and probably had merit.
“But good bills die every year,’’ she said.
And there was a practical matter: Who decides in what would be the short time remaining before the end of the fiscal year on June 30 which bills should get attention.
“Everybody thought their bills were important and critical,’’ Fann said. “It was just decided there was no way we could feasibly do it and be fair with everybody and actually get things accomplished.’’
And then there is the reality of working against a deadline on issues that could prove controversial.
“The longer we get in to session, the worse the politics are getting,’’ Fann said.
That goes beyond the normal partisan bickering. This is an election year, with even some intramural spats anticipated among Republicans vying for the same seats.
“So are we really going to get anything accomplished?’’ Fann asked.
She said the prime goal is to “get the state back up and running.
“Then we can work on the stuff next year,’’ Fann said.
Townsend, however, has another theory about why legislative leaders want to end the session.
She pointed out that Arizona law prohibits legislators from raising money from lobbyists during the legislative session. This is an election year.
That prohibition would go away on May 1 if the session is over, providing time for seeking donations before the Aug. 3 primary.
“We should go hang our heads in shame,’’ Townsend said.
Fann said the decision has nothing to do with fundraising.
Ending the formal session on May 1 would also resolve another potential controversy for lawmakers.
With the session only in recess, all 90 of them have been entitled to collect their daily allowance seven days a week even though there have been no sessions since March 23. That amounts to $35 a day for lawmakers from Maricopa County and $60 a day for out-county legislators.