PHOENIX — The state House of Representatives held 382 floor votes during the 2009 regular session, which stretched into July as lawmakers struggled with the budget deficit. Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, didn’t participate in 254 of them, nearly two-thirds of the total.
The state Senate held 209 floor votes during the session. Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, didn’t participate in 153 of them, nearly three-quarters of the total.
While those were the most extreme cases, a Cronkite News Service review found that 21 of Arizona’s 90 state lawmakers missed more than 20 percent of floor votes. It was a marked increase from the 2008 session, when only four members missed more than 20 percent of those votes.
In interviews, many lawmakers on that list pointed to a schedule that dragged well beyond the 100 days the Arizona Constitution sets for a legislative session and had the House and Senate holding many floor votes in June. Ninety percent of the missed votes occurred during two weeks in late June.
Seventeen of those on the list were Democrats.
Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, who missed 21 percent of floor votes, said Senate President Bob Burns, who didn’t allow most bills to be heard until May, four months into the session, did a poor job of informing members when they should be present.
“Burns doesn’t know how to communicate,” Aboud said. “Two times it happened, we sat around and waited for 16 hours on a vote, with no communication. Lo and behold, at 3 a.m. they voted.”
David R. Berman, professor emeritus of political science at Arizona State University, said the volume of missed votes raises questions about the Legislature’s ability to adequately represent Arizonans and govern effectively.
“I don’t excuse those who miss 20 percent of the votes or more without a valid reason,” Berman said. “Poor voting records are difficult to defend politically in the absence of some highly excusable reason, such as illness or a medical emergency.”
Rep. Olivia Cajero-Bedford, D-Tucson, said she missed 40 percent of floor votes because her mother died in April and because she had unexpected surgery and attended an out-of-state conference in June. Rep. Lucy Mason, R-Prescott, who missed 29 percent of votes, said her husband was hospitalized in June and that she broke her foot two days before the voting blitz late that month.
But most legislators’ explanations centered largely around Burns’ decision to push back hearing bills until after the budget was finished and having to transition back to their regular jobs.
Cronkite News Service compiled and analyzed records maintained vote by vote on the Legislature’s Web site. The review focused on third readings, in which lawmakers vote on whether to approve bills and transmit them to the other chamber, and final votes in which lawmakers decide whether to approve bills amended by the other chamber and transmit them to the governor.
Most House members on the list pointed to a change pushed by the GOP leadership that waived a rule requiring public notice of meetings of conference committees, which work out differences when legislation is amended by one chamber and returned to the other. The upshot: Amended bills usually could be put to final floor votes almost right away rather than having to wait a minimum four business hours for a conference committee to meet.
Supporters of the rule change said it would prevent bills from piling up at the end of session and would add flexibility and efficiency in handling budget bills, which frequently bounce between chambers for amendment and approval.
Mason, who backed the change, said it turned out to be a mistake that put a burden on lawmakers who live outside the Valley and faced having to drive back on short notice for votes.
“It came up, and we voted for it because we wanted to support the leadership,” Mason said. “I said I was going to take a leap of faith. That’s not going to happen again.”
Rep. Matt Heinz, D-Tucson, a freshman lawmaker who missed 38 percent of floor votes, said the rule change and erratic pattern of voting put him in impossible situations as an emergency room physician once he began transitioning back to his regular job.
“I’m in the ER, in the trenches,” Heinz said. “I remember one time walking into surgery and getting a call about a vote in two hours.”
Cronkite News Service attempted for weeks to arrange in-person interviews with Burns and with House Speaker Kirk Adams, but representatives for each said it was impossible because of busy schedules. At one point, an aide left a voicemail offering an immediate phone interview with Adams that was no longer possible when a reporter returned the call two hours later.
Early in 2009, Burns explained his choice to finish a budget before hearing bills by saying it would prevent the vote-trading that normally happens in the Legislature. He has said he won’t push back considering non-budget bills in 2010.
Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club and a longtime lobbyist at the Legislature, said the problem of missed votes illustrates the challenges of having a part-time Legislature, particularly when lawmakers become enmeshed in a budget crisis.
“The idea with a citizen legislature is that you get a better cross-section,” Bahr said. “They’re not all lawyers and doctors. You get young professionals, farmers, retirees and business owners.”
A full-time legislature can remain dedicated to crafting laws at the risk of not being as closely tied to constituents as a citizen legislature, she said.
“What doesn’t work is to split the difference,” Bahr said.
Virtually all absences in the Senate and most in the House were excused by the GOP leadership. In general, a member who is going to miss a floor session sends a note to the chamber’s leadership, which decides whether or not to excuse the absence. Whether excused or not, lawmakers suffer no sanction for an absence.
McCune Davis, who works as program director of the Arizona Partnership for Immunization, missed 73 percent of the Senate’s floor votes for the entire session when she wasn’t present for votes held between June 22 and July 1. All of her absences were excused.
McCune Davis didn’t respond to several calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Crandall, a child-nutrition consultant who chairs the House Education Committee, said he told Adams in late 2008 that his firm had a contract beginning in mid-June that required Crandall be in New York. He said he promised to fly back for key votes if the session dragged on and wound up doing so twice.
“Was I there for the critical votes? You bet I was,” Crandall said. “Almost every education policy this session was part of the budget.”
Crandall said he doesn’t think missing the large number of floor votes violates what his constituents expect of him. Rather, Crandall said he represents his district to vote on a budget, education bills and other major legislation, not on small bills that don’t matter to his constituents.
“Was I there for the postcard votes? No. I hope not,” Crandall said. “Those are what slow us down anyway.”
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, the House assistant minority leader, said she’s not worried about having missed 36 percent of floor votes. She said it’s no surprise that almost all of those who missed more than 20 percent of floor votes are Democrats.
“It’s easy,” Sinema said, “Democrats weren’t told when votes were being held.”
Like Heinz, Sinema said the rule change on conference committee notices made it easy for the leadership to involve only Republicans in budget negotiations and the passage of legislation.
As for her own missed votes, Sinema noted that she was called out of town to work with the White House on reforming health care, an issue she said is vital to Arizonans.
“I know that my constituents understand that,” she said.
Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said out-of-state work as a graphic designer and public artist and a previously scheduled family vacation, both occurring in June, contributed to him missing 25 percent of floor votes. He pointed to his attendance record in 2008, when he missed nine floor votes out of hundreds.
Farley blamed Republicans for dragging out the budget process for months while they fought among themselves, and he accused the GOP leadership of trying to exclude Democrats from debate and voting on the budget.
“Part of this was intentional, putting these 3 a.m. votes through,” he said.
Sen. Ken Cheuvront, D-Phoenix, who isn’t seeking re-election in 2010, operates a real estate development and management firm as well as a restaurant. He accounted for missing 66 percent of the Senate’s floor votes by simply saying that he could only take so much time away from his businesses.
“I was available for only so long,” Cheuvront said. “We didn’t do anything for weeks upon weeks. That’s unfair to us and to the citizens of Arizona.”
Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Apache Junction, the Senate minority whip, said she missed 30 percent of floor votes in large part because of a trip she made to Washington, D.C., in late June to lobby for federal money to create jobs in her district.
The solution, Rios said, is letting lawmakers hear bills rather than putting off work for months.