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Observers say decorum in the Arizona Legislature is getting worse

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, February 27, 2024 - 11:46am
Updated: Tuesday, February 27, 2024 - 12:30pm

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Arizona Capitol
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
The Arizona Capitol

The Arizona Legislature has long been a place where fierce policy debates could be had, as well as the occasional personal insult. But some observers say decorum at the Capitol has recently been getting worse.

Disrespectful behavior has been displayed by lawmakers and members of the public — generally in committee hearings, when anyone can sign up and testify in favor of or against a bill.

To get a sense of the state of decorum at the Capitol, The Show spoke with a longtime observer of the state Legislature: Kevin DeMenna of DeMenna Public Affairs.

Full interview

Kevin, you've been involved in this process for a while. Now, how would you describe the way people behave and treat each other now, relative to maybe what you've seen in the past?

KEVIN DEMENNA: I would say that like any workplace, starting at roughly the time we turned the internet on, fundamental change. And so much of lawmaking is a personal business. It just simply requires, it excels when there's personal engagement, but it's a sea change and it was a wonderful time. It's still wonderful at times, but not so much now.

So do you find that people are just like, not as polite to each other? Are they are they meaner to each other, like less, just less good decorum?

DEMENNA: Generally, it's an interesting thing about becoming an elected official at any station. I, I've noticed that often people expect that they're going to change, that they're somehow going to transform now that the word honorable is affixed in front of their name, and it's not that. It simply amplifies the person you are. And if you were rude before you came to the Capitol, that's coming with you. If you were kind and a sort of outreach, kind of person, that's going to come with you as well and probably serve you better. What governs the day, the business at the legislature is "Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure." And there's a provision in there that explains at the outset in the chapter on decorum, that all members are created equal the president of the Senate, the speaker of the House and the chairman of pages and interns, the newest member. And, and that's fundamental because the decorum that, that inspires should be self-evident.

So let's talk about a few different aspects of this. You have members not treating members all that nicely, and you have members not treating members of the public all that nicely. Let's start with, with sort of members, you know, saying rude things or being mean to other members. Like what's what's behind that?

DEMENNA: So you walk on the floor of the Senate, when I went to high school, I think there were about 30 kids in the room, the floor of the Senate, there's 30 members. The interpersonal dynamics of addressing confrontational issues that you just can't avoid the topics on a regular basis you'd think would inspire the type of decorum that comity, the conversational, the transactional aspect of this. But lately it hasn't. I have a couple of different observations as to why, but the member to member relations are more polarized than they've ever been. At member to member, the turnover does not lead to the depth of relations that Alfredo Gutierrez had with Burton Barr and with Bruce Babbitt, governor at the time. It simply doesn't build 20 year careers and the knowledge and the relationships that come with that.

So we've also seen, and we've seen this over the years. But it seems as though recently there's been more of it, especially during committee meetings or committee hearings, because that's when members of the public can come in and testify on bills, that there have been elected lawmakers who aren't just frankly, aren't that nice to people who are coming to testify, like members of the public, their constituents. They say things that are kind of snarky or mean, they're a little dismissive. Are we really seeing more of this kind of behavior or is it just maybe always been there? It's just more amplified now?

DEMENNA: Oh, it's, it's definitely on the uptick. Every time a new app is developed, it seems to ratchet up, TikTok, Twitter. There's an audience that many are playing to in the policymaking world. More attention to drafting legislation, studying and meeting on legislation and less with the public profile, the retail side of it would be best. The ability to become notorious in a moment didn't always exist on the floor of the Legislature. We've impeached governors, we've indicted seven members ... but none of it matches the intensity of a single issue in a session these days.

Do you see a difference between lawmakers? Maybe not having to quorum toward each other versus people who've maybe driven a few hours for two minutes to testify in front of them in a committee.

DEMENNA: So it's important to acknowledge it's a two-way street, lawmakers to the public. It's terrifying standing at that podium. It's terrifying if you spent a week writing your remarks on your phone, which many do these days and then your phone goes dead. We're really there to listen to them. Most of these committees have a two minute rule, and it's terrifying. And if you drove down from Snowflake, the ratio just seems out of whack. So realistically, the Legislature isn't as good at listening as it used to be.

So, what's the way out of this? Like, it seems naïve just to tell people, hey, be nice to each other, treat everybody with respect. But is there a way to bring back the decorum that we've had in the past?

DEMENNA: I am certain that it's going to return. I think it's the natural angle of repose the body, the House and the Senate are the most productive when people are working together. Turning your back on the governor generates clicks. But it isn't a step down the policy path to generate law.

And it's a designed system simply for the purpose of human interaction to create a superior product. The seriousness of this should not go unnoted, everything from methods of execution to speed limits to child-care assistance. It's serious business down there. So what out of necessity will happen is that people are learning from these experiences.

But the decorum, we can't let TikTok take over and, and how we get there is just by being, being true. A reverence for the process, because when it's allowed to work, and when you show respect for it, it produces better law.

I was gonna ask you about that because I'm obviously like, you know, people can get rankled and feathers ruffled and you know, members of the public can walk away thinking, boy, that guy's a real jerk, if you know, if somebody says something to them at a committee hearing or doesn't listen to them. But in terms of the actual lawmaking, you mentioned how relationships matter, what kind of impact does this seeming lack of decorum have on the kinds of, of bills that are worked on and ultimately go through the process?

DEMENNA: So if you were to order a fine watch, a car, and they said we'll have it here Saturday. You know, you'd be pleased but it may not be the custom piece and the detail and the workmanship you're looking for. Lawmaking is no different. This shouldn't be done quickly. It should be done right. And the slow pace is based upon a relationship. You're spending a lot of time in solitary confinement in the conference room in the basement and you're not done until you come out with that product. I miss that.

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