By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
Gilbert state Rep. Warren Petersen last week was chosen majority leader of the State House by his colleagues, and he and newly elected House Speaker Rusty Bowers will have their hands full next session.
They inherit a chamber where he can’t afford to alienate any of them – if current but incomplete election results hold once the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office finishes counting an estimated 345,000 ballots as of Friday.
Bowers and Petersen – chosen Wednesday by fellow Republicans to run the House for the next two years – find the edge of the majority party clipped from 35-25 for the last two years to just 31-29 after Tuesday’s election, as Democrats may have picked up four seats. And what makes that significant is it takes 31 votes for final approval of any measure.
Whether Democrats actually have those four seats is not a given since the uncounted ballots have created cliffhangers – including in LD17, which covers a part of western Gilbert.
There, Democrat Jennifer Pawlik holds a 1,760-vote lead over Nora Ellen that could be impacted once all ballots are finally counted – something that may not occur until this week.
Ellen, a former Chandler City Council member, also is the mother of former House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, who won his bid for the LD 17 Senate seat vacated by retired Sen. Steve Yarbrough. Mesnard was termed out of the House.
As things stand now without a final vote count, Bowers said, any individual Republican has the ability to hold out their vote on priorities of the GOP leadership until the measure is altered to address his or her concerns.
Bowers, a Mesa resident, said the reverse also holds true for the Democrats, who could find someone defecting to support a Republican bill if he or she gets something in return.
“Every member of either caucus has a great amount of authority and power,’’ said Bowers, who has 10 years of legislative experience, including two as Senate majority leader.
“It makes leadership more sensitive to each member’s needs and wants,’’ he said. “And those we’ll just have to work through.’’
And that presents challenges for House GOP leaders who also include Warren Petersen of Gilbert as majority leader and Becky Nutt of Clifton as majority whip.
“It’s going to be a wild ride just keeping the herd going,’’ Bowers said.
Karen Fann of Prescott, chosen Wednesday by her Republican colleagues as Senate president, doesn’t have quite the same problem. If the vote tallies hold, she will have 17 Republicans in the 30-member chamber when the new session convenes in January – the same as last year.
But Fann, first elected to the House in 2010 before moving to the Senate in 2016, said that little bit of extra GOP edge does not mean Republicans can get through anything they want – or that Democrats can or should be ignored.
“The bottom line is we need to have respect for each other,’’ she said.
“Remember: We were all elected equally by our constituents,’’ Fann said. And she said many of the districts, while represented by a lawmaker from one party, include a substantial number of voters from the other side of the political aisle whose views and needs also need to be taken into consideration.
Her leadership team includes Rick Gray of Sun City as majority leader and Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City as majority whip.
One area that could get more attention is transportation funding.
Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, has been pushing for new sources of revenues to both fix existing roads and bridges as well as build new ones.
The situation is complicated by the fact that Arizona’s 18-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax has not been hiked since 1991, when 18 cents was worth more than now. And then there’s the fact that new vehicles are more fuel efficient, meaning that gas tax revenues are not increasing as fast as the miles driven.
With Campbell now a four-year veteran and the need for the GOP to hang on to every vote, the lawmakers who want new dollars – particularly those from rural areas – have additional political muscle.
“I know that more money is needed for transportation because I drive on it and you drive on it,’’ said Bowers. And he said that this can’t simply be seen as a rural problem.
Fann agreed. “We all use our highways,’’ she said. “And I-17 and I-10, they’re nightmares right now.’’