Senate chief hopes to avoid same mistakes

The Arizona Republic
Friday, September 18, 2009
Mary Jo Pitzl

The Senate was the emblem of dysfunctional state government during the Legislature's drawn-out and unsuccessful struggle to pass a balanced budget. In the end, after more than 200 days in session, the chamber couldn't pass a plan that Gov. Jan Brewer would accept. And Bob Burns, as Senate president, bore the brunt of the blame.

The House delivered, giving Brewer the sales-tax referral that she wanted, but only after the budget debate dragged into a special session and by sugar-coating the tax hike with $400 million in income-tax cuts.

It was a different picture in the Senate. The GOP majority was deeply divided over the sales-tax hike. Burns couldn't put the puzzle pieces together. He didn't communicate well. He didn't involve the other side of the aisle. He didn't compromise until late in the game to produce a budget without a tax increase. He won't take the same approach again.

"When you've got the ball, you want to score a touchdown, not a field goal," Burns said. And when the game plan only nets 3 points, you substitute and change your approach, he added.

He already has sketched out several changes: Next time around, he wants to work with Democrats; he is depending on his restructured leadership team to improve communication and deliver votes; and he is considering a modified approach to his much-disputed bill blockade.

A bipartisan approach

Burns, in his first year as president, worked for months to pass a budget with GOP votes only. He accomplished that, but the governor rejected the plan because it lacked the sales-tax referral and sent lawmakers back to work in an overtime session. GOP Sens. Ron Gould and Pamela Gorman refused to budge in their opposition to the sales-tax referral.

Without their support, Burns couldn't find a plan that would win the needed 16 votes to pass a budget.

When Burns finally approached the Democrats in support of Brewer's plan, they held strong. The minority party insisted any sales-tax revenue must boost spending on education and social services, not backfill cuts - a non-starter with Republicans.

Now, he has broached the idea of Republicans and Democrats meeting in the "small groups" that sound out lawmakers' positions on the budget.

Sen. Rebecca Rios, assistant minority leader, said it's worth a try.

"Perhaps it aids Burns," said Rios, D-Apache Junction. "If his members are hearing Democrats, maybe they see things from another side."

Burns, a 17-year legislative veteran, said the past months have shown him the futility of trying to move people who are philosophically dug in.

If people don't want to be moved, they can't be moved, he concluded. "We don't have a waterboard around here," he said.

Shifting positions

Burns had plenty of hurdles, among them his initial opposition to a sales-tax increase.

The first obstacle was Brewer, a former legislative colleague who insisted on the temporary increase.

Like most Republicans, he opposed the sales-tax hike. After she vetoed the budget on July 2, demanding the tax referral, he came around, but not before issuing a news release belittling Brewer's management skillsand hoping for a return to "the reliable and reasonable person I used to know."

He has since calmed the waters with the governor and said he realizes the value of a statewide vote on the tax. "I came to believe we need a message from the voters in order to advise our caucus," he said.

Although Burns drew fire for the budget impasse, defenders say, the veteran lawmaker worked hard to cooperate with Brewer.

"Burns bent over backwards," said Tim Lawless, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the National Association of Business and Property Owners, which lobbied for a property-tax repeal. "I think it's been a herculean effort."

Kevin McCarthy of the Arizona Tax Research Association agreed. "People have a tendency to characterize him as a strident partisan," McCarthy said. Although staunchly conservative, Burns has a pragmatic streak, the longtime Capitol lobbyist said.

Internal troubles

Burns struggled with internal divisions as members of his leadership team took positions that undermined his course.

He won't comment on his relations with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray, who at one point urged senators to vote against the budget that Burns was negotiating, or Gorman, who resigned as majority whip, citing philosophical objections to the sales-tax vote.

Observers say Burns planted the seeds of budget distress by naming the Senate's most conservative members to the Appropriations Committee last fall. He tapped Sen. Russell Pearce, a fierce proponent of smaller government, to lead it.

Burns wanted the budget shaped by strong conservative principles. But the committee turned into a choke point when a compromise budget couldn't get through - so the work was moved to the Education Committee. Burns later temporarily replaced Gorman on the Appropriations Committee.

"Still thinking about it," Burns said, when asked about further changes.

In another internal rift, he removed Sen. Thayer Verschoor as president pro tem, citing communications issues.

Opening up

Communications, or the lack of it, defined many of Burns' struggles.

Verschoor, R-Gilbert, said that there was scant information to work with and that leadership meetings were non-existent after a few months.

Sen. Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, said fellow senators often wondered, "How come the president doesn't talk to us?"

Allen added, "I've watched him a lot of years, and he's not a people person. It's just his personality, and that's a detriment as president."

But Sen. Jim Waring said communications run both ways: He got all the information he wanted when he sought it. "I'm very pushy," said Waring, R-Phoenix. "I'll call two times, three times a day to find out what's going on."

Burns acknowledges the problem, but he sees brighter days ahead with Steve Pierce as the new majority whip.

"Steve Pierce is very up on communications with members," he said. "He's very strong in that area."

The bill blockade

Although Burns said his strategy of holding bills until the budget was done "worked out OK," he won't repeat it. It created a logjam at the end of the session, an outcome he hadn't anticipated because he had calculated the budget would have been completed sooner.

Instead, he is toying with letting bills proceed to a certain point in the process, or maybe just allowing "critical" bills to be aired before the budget is done.

The changes have sparked hope that 2010 will be an improvement over this year, although many of those contacted for this story learned of them through a reporter.

"Bob had a challenging year, to say the least," said Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler. "Hopefully, he has learned from this experience and will use that to lead a more productive Senate session in 2010."