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'Better law takes time': What a Capitol observer expects this legislative session

The 2024 legislative session is in its third week, and already, partisan disagreements have sprung up — on issues like school vouchers, the size of the budget deficit and the future of the Arizona Commerce Authority. Last year’s session was the longest in state history, and Gov. Katie Hobbs set a new record for the number of vetoes.

To get a sense of how this session may be shaping up, The Show spoke with Kevin DeMenna, a longtime lobbyist and Capitol observer.

MARK BRODIE: Now that we're in year two of divided government based on what we saw last year and what you've noticed so far this year, what kind of session do you think we're in for?

KEVIN DEMENNA: Well, there's clearly an intent to make it a short one, but I don't know if that's what's in the cards. The constitutional requirement to begin the session, the second Monday in January, doesn't have a complimentary book end to it that says you must be done. The beginning of the fiscal year, ending June 31 starting July 1, has always been this clear and present deadline, but there's been a push to shoot for 100 days. That's advisable this year, looking at the volume of bills, the number of bills in the area of water, law, education and certainly elections. It doesn't seem 100 days as possible. It's a great target, great goal.

BRODIE: Well, when you talk about bills in areas like water, like housing, sort of these big complicated issues that tend to take more than one year, more than one session to make appreciable difference. Could this be the year? Is this the kind of year where some of those sort of weighty issues could be dealt with?

DEMENNA: You know, we always have what I think of as moments an intersection where Gail Griffin, the chairman of the committee that oversees water in the House, comes to terms with the governor's office, and things march forward. It's hard to do in a compressed period of time, and it's hard to do with the rate of turnover, to build trusting relationships, these things take time, and that's not a bad thing. Anytime we rush through legislation and I mean, rush it always, we call them trailer bills, it's cleanup, end of the parade. So I, as a professional, don't see session as something that actually ends. It's the beginning of the next one that starts with the end of the previous. For most of the successful policymakers, they treat it as a year-round endeavor. You don't think these things up in January when the session starts, hopefully there's a prelude, there's been drafting and stakeholder meetings. Again with the turnover, some of this has fallen away. Better law takes time. 

BRODIE: Well, when you talk about the turnover 2024 of course, also an election year, which typically is an incentive for lawmakers to end their session earlier. Do you think that's gonna be the case this year?

DEMENNA: The speaker of the House is running for Congress. The president of the Senate has every interest in shortening the session as well. Those are the Republican leaders, they're the ones barely but in control. So the idea of getting done quickly revolves around the state budget. And the governor's budget, the legislative product, there's a lot of daylight between the two. But this is something that the folks at the Capitol, if there's one thing they're used to doing, it's producing budgets. 

BRODIE: I want to ask you about the budget because you and I had this kind of conversation last year, and we talked about what the budget might look like in order to get a Republican majority in the Legislature and a Democratic governor on board with it. And a lot of folks are saying that, you know, part of the reason we're in the financial situation we are in right now is because of the way that the budget was done. So I'm wondering if you see the process that they will have to take on this year as maybe what they could and perhaps should have done last year. 

DEMENNA: More deliberative, for sure. The professionalism will lead to a better product. But the priorities ESAs, other issues, there's a lot of room to compromise because the polls are pretty far apart for the moment. The reality is that they need to get in a room, they need to do what they do best. Last year was a watershed moment. Never experienced anything like this. The three leaders went away, came back with a product and in effect skipped the public hearings. So a more deliberative, deeper dive approach, I don't see that happening, but maybe that's what it takes to get us done.

BRODIE: Do you think given the fact that we are no longer dealing with a surplus situation, but rather a shortfall situation, does that lead to a more deliberative process?

DEMENNA: It should because 1% or 2% across all state agencies is just kicking the can down the road. It takes time to prioritize between children's services and roads projects. In an election year with the pace that this Legislature is used to moving, I don't see that deeper dive happening. You know, it's been done before, get the budget done, come back in special sessions on water, other items. Fundraising becomes an issue with the primaries looming, and you're able to raise funds after the router session concludes even if special sessions have been called. 

BRODIE: Well, so you mentioned primaries and I'm curious what kind of impact those might have on another word you mentioned, which is compromise. I mean, you mentioned House Speaker Ben Toma running for Congress in what is currently Debbie Lesko district in a very competitive primary. I don't want to call him out specifically because it's not just him, but four candidates on both sides of the aisle running in competitive primaries. Does that disincentivize them from compromising with the other side?

DEMENNA: Well, yes, though, I don't know that there's much in the way of compromising going on these days, the Arizona Legislature anyway, but the notion of primary challengers, this is the most intense election cycle I've experienced. And it's not for, it's not because of the money. It's not because of Trump's shadow. There's an intensity, and the candidates feel it. Their legislative district meetings certainly reflected, and they can be unpleasant and that intensity gets translated down to the Capitol in so many ways.

BRODIE: And you've touched on some of them last year was such an anomalous session. I'm wondering if you think this year's will be sort of more, let's call it typical, even though the same players by and large are in the same places.

DEMENNA: There is this remarkable angle of repose. The Legislature always finds its natural state. For the longest time, it's been around 1,500 bills introduced every year sessions are longer. And I think the more we ignore that trend, it's to our disadvantage. We need to pay legislators more, so that they can dedicate the time and simply produce the product we want. So, the trend, I think irresistibly as our state grows, policies become more complicated, is toward more legislation, longer sessions and hopefully better product along the way. By and large, if you think about it, 200 bills produced last time signed by the governor, the normal average is about 318 per year. There's good product in there. Those 202 laws, and of the other 100 or so vetoed, they'll be back. That's the weird thing about this process. It isn't just a single session issues, persist over the years. And if they're done properly, if the committee process is adhered to, it actually improves it.

BRODIE: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Kevin DeMenna, longtime Capitol observer. Kevin, thank you for coming in. I appreciate it.

DEMENNA: Always a pleasure to be on KJZZ.

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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.