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What Arizona's 2021 Legislative Session Will Look Like As The Pandemic Continues

MARK BRODIE: Today is the day the Electoral College meets around the country to cast their ballots for president and vice president. Arizona's 11 electors will cast their votes for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at 10:00 this morning. At this hour, the Arizona Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting. On the agenda are presentations from Maricopa County election officials and members of the Arizona attorney general's Election Integrity Unit. Some Republican state lawmakers have called for hearings into alleged fraud and irregularities in last month's election, although there's been no evidence of either. The 2021 Arizona legislative session is scheduled to begin in less than a month on Jan. 11. Usually, that would include Gov. [Doug] Ducey giving his State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate in a packed House chamber. But with the coronavirus pandemic still continuing throughout Arizona and the rest of the country, next year's session will likely not be the same as usual. With me to talk about what it might look like is KJZZ's Ben Giles. And Ben, let's start with the start of the session. Do people have a sense yet of what's going to happen on opening day in less than a month?

BEN GILES: The biggest sense that everyone has around the Capitol is no clue, no idea what exactly might transpire on Jan. 11, let alone the rest of the session as it's regularly scheduled. I mean, as you mentioned, the House floor is designed to fit 60 representatives comfortably. In a normal year, they would have 90 lawmakers and guests and staff and all sorts of other people invited onto the floor, jam-packed, close quarters. So I sincerely doubt that that is what will occur on Jan. 11. But at this point, legislative leaders in the House and the Senate are still mulling their options, still trying to figure out how do we have a session safely in a pandemic. And there's just not a lot of answers to those questions, at least that have been shared publicly at this point.

BRODIE: Well, so let's talk about the rest of the session, because as you referenced, the House floor is made for 60 representatives, the Senate floor made for 30 senators. The rest of those buildings are not what you would call spacious. I mean, you and I have both worked down there extensively. It's not spacious. It's kind of close quarters. How do you try to hold a session that in theory involves social distancing when people are kind of crammed on top of each other?

GILES: Yeah, these are sort of, I think, brutalist type buildings, this architecture that houses the House and Senate. Not a lot of windows in either building. And that is the concern. How do you welcome the public into the building to be part of the process that there needs to be a way to let them have a say, to let them play a role in the process, but safely. And there's been some meetings that have been conducted, at least in part, virtually. Just two weeks ago, there was a meeting of the Senate where there were Republican lawmakers maskless at the dais sitting in person in front of a bunch of captive staffers who were wearing masks and Democrats who actually called in virtually. So there doesn't even seem to be any agreement on how to operate safely between the two political parties who are so closely divided in both chambers.

BRODIE: Right. Well, Ben, how do you see that playing out? Because we've heard calls from Democratic leadership for things like mask requirements for everybody in the building. And it seems as though Republican leadership, at least so far, has not fully embraced that.

GILES: There does not seem to be a desire among Republican leaders to police the activity of their caucus. It's going to be a little bit chaotic in that regard because you're going to have different lawmakers on each side of the aisle just behaving in completely different ways.

BRODIE: And then in the middle of all those lawmakers, you reference staff. And there's a lot of staff workers at the Capitol who are kind of stuck between them. What's the deal for them?

GILES: Yeah, we've heard that as one of the most frustrating dynamics from Democrats at the Capitol, that there is this captive audience. There are these staffers who really make the legislature run, and they are captive. And they've got to work with Republicans even if they won't wear masks, and they've got to work with Democrats, too, in whatever capacity —perhaps virtually, that might be — the Democrats want to operate. And I think that, unfortunately, they are sort of the forgotten folks at the Capitol.

BRODIE: Ben, what are you hearing from advocacy groups, lobbyists, other people who generally spend time at the Capitol about what they're thinking about how the session might go and maybe ideas for how it can go safely?

GILES: Well, certainly the first thing on their mind is making sure that if there is a session with votes on the floor, but more importantly with hearings on bills at the Capitol, that they have some kind of access to that. There was a group of about a few dozen advocacy organizations who sent a letter to legislative leaders last week asking for a mask mandate. And we already discussed that that does not seem likely. And perhaps in the event that they anticipated that won't happen, they want some remote access to these hearings, to these public hearings.

BRODIE: So, Ben, based on folks with whom you've spoken, is there a sense of what might happen, what the rules of the road might be if the legislature will try new things that they haven't done before to try to keep people safe and alleviate people's health and safety concerns?

GILES: My advice would be, don't place your bets on anything at this point. There's just no telling what might go down. I mean, we've already seen one example of how the legislature sought to deal with the pandemic earlier this year — in March, they just shut things down. The safest thing to do, they thought, was send everybody home. And they briefly came back in May but did not accomplish too much. And if you remember, in May there were some lawmakers who were allowed to cast votes virtually, though the chatter has been that there's not really a strong desire from Republicans running the show to let virtual votes become kind of the norm. So I wouldn't be surprised by anything that happens at this point. If they all try to cram into the Capitol on Jan. 11 and have as normal of an opening day as possible. If they delay the start of session. Perhaps they come in just to pass a spending plan for the state — a budget — and then go home again like they did in March. Just get the bare minimum done to keep the state running, but wait it out after that. Only time will tell.

BRODIE: All right. We'll certainly be keeping our eyes on that. That is KJZZ's Ben Giles. Ben, as always, good to talk to you. Thank you.

GILES: Thanks, Mark.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.