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The last bipartisan legislative session
We can learn a bit about how our new divided government could work by looking back to the mid-2000s.
The Democratic governor vetoed bills on abortion, guns, elections and immigration, sending a clear message to Republican legislative leaders that their priorities don’t align with her views for the state.
No, not that governor — Gov. Katie Hobbs has yet to veto any bills.
During the last split government, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano broke records for the number of vetoes she issued while contending with a Republican-led Legislature.
It’s been 14 years since the state has been in a similar position, and only a few of the lawmakers who served back then remain in office. Some staff and lobbyists are still around. But for many at the Capitol, and for many citizens keeping an eye on their lawmakers, a bipartisan government is new.
The signs of what’s to come can be found by digging through the vetoes and analyzing the last time Arizona had a split government, from 2003 to early 2009. Napolitano’s last legislative session was in 2008.
Napolitano left office just before the depths of the Great Recession and the rise of the Tea Party, and well before the Trump years and MAGA movement, all of which have made for a much different political atmosphere than the mid-late 2000s.
“Bipartisanship wasn't as frowned upon back then,” said Chad Campbell, a Democrat who served in the Legislature when Napolitano was in office.
Still, we can get some understanding of how the Hobbs administration could work with a Republican Legislature, which will differ in big ways from the last eight years under former Gov. Doug Ducey.
A new generation of lawmakers will either learn the quirks of working cooperatively or fight until gridlock grips the Capitol. More than likely, we’ll see a mix of both. And that means we’re probably in for a long legislative session full of more public disagreement.
“I'm not booking any summer vacations,” Republican Sen. John Kavanagh told us.
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How the budget could work
During the Ducey administration, Republicans worked privately among themselves and with the governor’s team to hash out the state budget. They only involved Democrats on one occasion1, after it became clear the GOP alone couldn’t get enough votes last year.
We’re already seeing much more public back-and-forth from the governor and Legislature than we did under Ducey, when most Republicans wouldn’t detail their budget problems to the press. On Thursday, House Republicans put out a call for an interim budget to hold the line on last year’s spending. And GOP lawmakers have been publicly saying they likely won’t vote for a Hobbs budget. All this before the new governor has even released her spending proposal.
When Napolitano was governor, the budget process sometimes involved a strategy that Republicans knew would initially fail, but would kickstart the negotiations: GOP lawmakers would pass their own budget, and Napolitano would inevitably veto it because it didn’t include any of the spending priorities included in the governor’s budget proposal.
Mike Haener, the former deputy chief of staff to Napolitano who also served on Hobbs’ transition team, said he expects similar dynamics to play out at the Capitol under Hobbs.
“Then you have to sit down and say, OK, you put out this budget, we put out this budget, where can we agree? And where can we then come to a compromise?” Haener said.
Republicans weren’t the only hurdle — Napolitano often disagreed with her own party while in office, though not as much as with Republicans.
A 2008 profile of Napolitano in the American Prospect detailed how Napolitano, once called a “a neutered Republican” by the Phoenix New Times, came to win over the progressives in her party simply by being better than the other options.
“Progressives had come to appreciate Napolitano's skill at achieving what was possible, while beating back the hardest right initiatives of the state legislature's Republican majority,” the American Prospect wrote.
If this year’s session follows a similar veto-then-negotiate budget process, the negotiations after a veto likely wouldn’t happen in public view. But seeing a full Republican proposal that could go to the governor would be much more than the public typically sees.
The budget is the Legislature’s only real job, and lawmakers must complete it by June 30, before the new fiscal year begins. If there aren’t enough votes to pass a full budget, as nearly happened last year when the deadline loomed, lawmakers could pass a baseline budget that keeps spending levels the same, with increases for inflation and growth.
It’s hard to see how a moderate coalition could form in today’s Legislature. Nearly all moderates are gone. Still, lawmakers in swing districts — like Sens. J.D. Mesnard and T.J. Shope and Reps. Justin Wilmeth and Steve Kaiser — are likely open to negotiating. Others known for dealmaking, like Sen. David Gowan and Rep. David Cook, will be in the mix. The two senators who were around under Napolitano, Kavanagh and Sen. Ken Bennett, may be more attuned to bipartisanship. Democrats also could see defectors from a Hobbs budget, which would provide a wrinkle in the process.
Kavanagh, a longtime budget hawk who serves as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a baseline budget may be the best Hobbs can do by the end of June, then add in additional funding on other issues by negotiating into the summer. While he’s one of few who served in the Legislature when Napolitano was governor, he doesn’t think he’ll be crossing the aisle for a Hobbs budget.
“I suspect I would not be able to vote for a budget that she would insist on. I could be wrong, but it's gonna be pretty difficult,” he said.
On Thursday, before Hobbs had even released her executive budget, House Republicans put out a press release saying they wanted to swiftly pass a “continuation” of last year’s budget as a “fiscally prudent, conservative approach for Arizona to safeguard essential governmental services.”
“We anticipate a legitimate and spirited debate with the Governor’s office on new spending, but that debate should not happen with a loaded weapon pointed at essential services,” House leadership said.
They can’t all just get along
Republicans had larger majorities under Napolitano than the hold one-vote margins in both chambers that they hold now. While that means Hobbs would only need to convince a few Republicans to support her on an issue, it’s still tougher than it was back then because of how few potential swing votes there are now.
And the leader of either chamber can singlehandedly halt any bill, giving them extraordinary power. Even if Hobbs were able to get all Democrats and a couple Republicans to support one of her priorities, a House speaker or Senate president rarely allows their chamber to vote on a bill that doesn’t have support from a majority of the majority.
Of course, there were far-right Republicans during those years: Ron Gould and Jack Harper, to name a few, served during Napolitano’s years, and were almost never willing to negotiate with Napolitano on her spending priorities. There were just more moderate aisle-crossers than there are now.
Already, some Republicans have refused to work with Hobbs, or really to even listen to her. A few Republicans walked out of her State of the State address, while others turned their back to her.
“I don't remember anyone walking out or turning their back when (Napolitano) gave a State of the State speech,” Haener said. “I do think that we are in a much more partisan time.”
While the politicians have moved farther toward their party’s flanks in the past 14 years, and especially with the rise of Trumpism, increasing partisanship isn’t the only problem. Social media, and its nonstop nature, wasn’t really around in the mid-2000s. Now, lawmakers face endless scrutiny on their work from the public online, and they also use social media as negotiating and publicity tools. It makes everything more complicated — and more vitriolic.
“We didn't have that power of social media that looms over everybody now and has given every single wacko nutjob out there a voice of their own to tout conspiracies and and bash elected officials for every little step they take,” Campbell said. “If you vote with the other side, they’re going to skewer you immediately.”
Non-budget bills will be tough
If Napolitano’s tenure serves as a roadmap, Hobbs will have a difficult time finding consensus on a host of big issues facing the state, not just the budget.
The 2008 legislative session, for instance, offers a sampling2 of the major areas where Democrats and Republicans still really struggle for common ground: She vetoed measures on guns, abortion, climate, elections and immigration.
“From a Republican standpoint, it was somewhat depressing because we couldn't get any of the bills that were very conservative through, and that's our bread and butter,” Kavanagh said of passing bills back then.
But most bills see bipartisan support in a typical session anyway, Kavanagh noted, because the “overwhelming majority of bills aren't controversial at all.”
The 2004 legislative session involved moderate House members, dubbed the “mushroom caucus,” working outside of their Republican leadership to get a budget deal, as the Arizona Mirror recently reported in a story about split government.
In total, Napolitano vetoed 180 bills during her six years as governor. She recently told 12News that vetoing bills can help create bipartisan consensus on issues. She advised Hobbs to make her veto letters specific by noting how the Legislature could align with her on the underlying issues in a bill.
“She’s going to have to warm up her veto pen,” Napolitano said of Hobbs on 12News.
The vetoes are sometimes an intentional political test for the governor. The GOP will for sure send up bills they know will be vetoed on arrival. They can still tell constituents they tried, and point to the governor as the reason their ideas failed.
“I think that happens in a divided government when you want to show that you’re doing things for your base,” Haener said.
Some issues will emerge as potential bipartisan ones, possibly water or housing this session. While both sides may agree on the importance of the topic, though, the details on how to address it likely will require lots of concessions to reach any kind of deal.
But beyond those few possible areas of agreement, there will be plenty of bills — like those on LGBTQ issues or diversity in education — that Hobbs will easily reject.
“I predict a record number of vetoes,” Campbell said.
There was one other time when a Democrat supported a Ducey budget, when then-Sen. Carlyle Begay lent a single Dem vote to pass the budget in 2015. We don’t count this as an example of a negotiated bipartisan budget. In a splashy video shortly after, Begay announced he was switching parties to become a Republican.