Conservative GOP leaders expected to attempt to take control of political agenda from Napolitano

Sharp right turn
East Valley Tribune
Saturday, January 1, 2005
Le Templar

Conservative Republicans will start flexing their newly found political muscles when the regular state legislative session begins Monday.

Republican lawmakers, bolstered by surprising success in the 2004 elections, are crafting a conservative strategy that conflicts with Gov. Janet Napolitano’s victories from the first half of her four-year term.

That means gay marriage, abortion and business tax relief will get even greater attention in the next 100 days, while funding for higher education and welfare will come under greater scrutiny. Republican leaders talk openly about taking control of the political agenda from Napolitano.

"She’s going to be challenged more, not in a negative way," said Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, who is moving into a leadership position this year.

"She’s going to be challenged more because she’s not going to have, at least over here, some Republicans doing a little of her work that the governor typically does. Stuff is not going to get to her as filtered as it was in the past. She’s going to have to work with Republicans and with the Republican caucus more than she has in the past," he said.

Napolitano, looking ahead to her 2006 re-election campaign, has received the message and is working to position herself further to the right on some issues such as business taxes. She also is seeking to claim new ground in areas viewed as nonpartisan such as water planning.

But Napolitano is ready to fight to protect key accomplishments including initial state funding for voluntary full-day kindergarten and more spending for the state’s child welfare agency. As long as Democratic lawmakers remain united behind Napolitano, Republicans will have to compromise because they won’t be able to override any gubernatorial vetoes.

"I am approaching issues with the idea, from my view, of what is best for Arizona, what issues do Arizonans care about," Napolitano said. "A lot of that is finishing what we started. A lot of it is not going back, but continuing to move Arizona forward."

Redistricting after the 2000 census has guaranteed that Republicans will hold the majority of legislative seats during Napolitano’s first term. There were plenty of predictions when Napolitano took office in 2003 that she would deadlock with Republicans over state spending and social policy.

Instead, Republicans fought more among themselves as moderates frequently broke party lines to vote with Democratic lawmakers, passing out budgets that mirrored Napolitano’s requests and blocking key conservative bills on issues such as a federal gay marriage amendment and school vouchers.

Republicans and Democrats agree the atmosphere will be different this year. Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, now can count on a solid majority of all 18 Republicans for support; there are 12 Democratic senators. Influence of moderates in the House has been diluted somewhat after six incumbents were defeated by conservative newcomers, while Republicans still hold 38 of 60 seats.

The immediate impact of the new alignment will be on what could be a furious debate over the state budget. Napolitano wants to expand the number of schools receiving state funds for voluntary full-day kindergarten. But the governor isn’t likely to get that money; Republican leaders believe rising tax revenue still isn’t covering mandated increases in spending, creating a gap of more than $200 million.

Republicans also want to stop bonding $250 million for new school construction and to end a brief delay in school aid payments that saves $190 million a year. But paying for those changes could mean cutting into other state agencies, when Napolitano will ask for more funding to cope with the state’s population growth.

Democratic leaders are preparing for their role as a true minority party for the first time since at least 2001. Sen. Harry Mitchell of Tempe will be the Senate’s second ranking Democrat this year. Mitchell said he’s urging his colleagues to be constructive in their opposition to Republican plans.

"We could fall on our sword on every issue that we think is important to us that we know is not going to pass," Mitchell said. "That’s not going to accomplish anything. Or we could be cooperative, and try to offer creative ideas and solutions."

Meanwhile, Republicans want to avoid at least some of the battles that deeply split their party for the past two years. Conservative leaders have offered some olive branches to moderates, especially in the House. Reps. Pete Hershberger, R-Tucson, and Tom O’Halleran, R-Sedona, will again head committees after being stripped of their posts late in the 2003 session for directing a coalition of moderates that publicly challenged GOP leadership. Rep. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, will head the House Commerce Committee even though she also was part of that coalition and voted with Democrats to support a budget opposed by conservatives.

"You can’t start with a punishment as the very first order of business," said incoming House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix. "We’re not going to worry about the past."

Leaders also have been urging rank-and-file Republicans to limit the number of bills on "wedge" issues or "litmus tests." Democrats expect to see plenty of bills intended to invite vetoes from Napolitano that make her appear more liberal. Republican leaders fear passing a series of such bills could backfire if the public sees the Legislature as playing games instead of taking care of the state’s business.

"We have our principles, but we should be at the Capitol to enact good policy instead of simply trying to embarrass someone," said Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa., the incoming House Republican whip.

Despite the talk of Republican unity, disagreements already are emerging even before the regular session gets underway.

Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, wants to repeal a state requirement that high school students pass the AIMS test to graduate, something that state schools superintendent Tom Horne and some other Republicans opposed.

Rep. Russell Pearce, RMesa, believes the Legislature should consider voter approval of Proposition 200 last year as a public mandate to enact additional laws blocking access of illegal immigrants to government services. But Republican leaders ignored that issue in their list of priorities released last week, promising only to support tougher criminal sanctions against human smugglers.

Meanwhile, many Republicans and lobbyists say they’ve learned not to underestimate Napolitano’s savvy maneuvers, nor the strength of her hold over Democratic lawmakers.

For example, anti-abortion advocates won passage last year of a proposed 24-hour waiting period to get the procedure with the support of a handful of Democrats. Napolitano immediately vetoed the bill in keeping with a 2002 campaign promise.

Supporters could pass the same bill this year with even more votes. But they know sympathetic Democrats wouldn’t risk hurting Napolitano by joining in a veto override. So proponents are considering alternatives they hope might fit into Napolitano’s efforts to burnish her image for the 2006 election.

"We would like to work with the governor on informed consent language and try to find some common ground," said Cathi Herrod, lobbyist for the Center for Arizona Policy. "We’re just trying to see if we can meet the concerns raised in the governor’s veto in a different way."