ARIZONA NEWS

Civility in state government is rare but Arizona’s House Commerce Committee stands out

Mar 10, 2024, 7:15 AM

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, testifies to the House Judiciary Committee during an emotional –...

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, testifies to the House Judiciary Committee during an emotional – but generally civil – hearing in January on a child “grooming” bill. Longtime observers say hearings have grown more tense at the Capitol, but that the Commerce Committee stands out for its civility. (File photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

(File photo by Martin Dreyfuss/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Sandy Bahr has testified before committees at the Arizona Legislature since the 1990s and says that, like all lobbyists, she is used to butting heads with lawmakers during hearings.

But Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said the disagreements have become more frequent and more heated, with what she calls disrespectful treatment from lawmakers toward lobbyists, experts and citizens on the rise.

“The Legislature has not been a particularly friendly place for environmental protection, but it has gotten much worse in the last several years,” Bahr said.

Interruptions by lawmakers, removal of witnesses and tensions have plagued hearings this session, with at least three people removed from hearings since January, including a private citizen, a journalist and the director of a nonprofit. Other speakers have had their comments interrupted or cut short by committee chairs.

But not all committees are the same.

What Arizona House committee is different?

Visitors to the House Commerce Committee are more likely to hear laughter than lashing out by lawmakers. Political observers and committee members credit the chairman, Rep. Justin Wilmeth.

The Phoenix Republican is known for cracking jokes and keeping the mood light during hearings and said in an email that it is by design. He compared chairing a committee to being the host of a late-night show.

“It’s my main job to keep the show going from guest to guest but have some fun along the way,” Wilmeth said in his email.

That doesn’t mean he is a pushover. Rep. Analise Ortiz, D-Phoenix, a member of the committee, was present at a Feb. 13 hearing when Wilmeth removed a member of the public who refused to answer questions from lawmakers.

Ortiz called the incident “disappointing,” but noted that it was out of character for Wilmeth, who opened that day’s hearing by saying, “Welcome to the Thunderdome.”

Wilmeth acknowledged that removing a speaker was out of character, but that he stands by it because the woman was “disrespectful to the process of the committee.” He also said he sees how some committee chairs could be daunting to members of the public.

“The super-strict authoritarian-type chairs could absolutely deter folks from wanting to come in and testify,” Wilmeth’s email said. “Speaking for myself, I think the more speakers the better – members, lobbyists or the public.”

What are the residual affects of combative committee leaders?

Bahr said she worries that hostility from committee leaders could prevent members of the public from testifying at hearings.

“Having an experience where someone is aggressively antagonistic with them can discourage people from participating in the process and that’s unconscionable,” she said. “They should do everything they can to accommodate them speaking, not try to shut them down.”

Bahr also said chairs are “inconsistent” in the number of public witnesses they allow and the time allotted for their testimony, depending on the committee. Ortiz said she is also frustrated with chairs who limit comments from the public.

“Some committees limit testimony more than others, and I do wish that that was not a norm around here,” Ortiz said. “I understand we have very strict time constraints to get things done, however, when you have people who traveled from all over the state to come here and testify I do think that their voices should be heard.”

Allen Skillicorn, a Republican on the Fountain Hills Town Council, frequently testifies on his own behalf at hearings and agrees that some committee chairs can be more “authoritative.” However, he said he thinks most chairs, all of whom are Republicans, are fine with debate in their committees as long as it’s respectful.

“There was someone that was a criminal defense lawyer, and she had some comments on a couple of bills, and it was good to hear that she was against them,” Skillicorn said of a recent hearing.

“I think the majority of the committee voted for the bill against her advice … but also there was a healthy debate, where she challenged some of the thoughts in the committee, some of the legislators and I actually think it makes for a better legislative process,” he said.

Wilmeth said that keeping things light during debates on controversial bills can help make the process easier for all those involved.

“We deal with heavy, important and emotional topics here – a little levity on the journey goes a long way,” Wilmeth’s email said. “I find that keeping the atmosphere light and fun helps that process – it sets the expectation that my committee will be respectful and orderly, so even when there is disagreement it doesn’t become toxic or troublesome.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

A two-year-old girl nearly drowned on Saturday in Chandler. (Pexels photo)...

KTAR.com

2-year-old ‘breathing and alert’ after nearly drowning in Chandler

Fire personnel were called to a near-drowning incident in Chandler involving a two-year-old girl on Saturday.

8 hours ago

Exzavion Williams is in jail more than 15 months after a deadly shooting in Phoenix. (MCSO mugshot)...

KTAR.com

Arrest made from February 2023 shooting that killed Phoenix teen

Detectives arrested a man for murder and armed robbery in a homicide case from last year, authorities said Saturday.

8 hours ago

dual-branded hotel groundbreaking...

Damon Allred

Dual-branded hotel coming to Phoenix in 2025 breaks ground

Mayor Kate Gallego was among those present for the groundbreaking on Tuesday of a new dual-branded hotel coming soon to Phoenix.

9 hours ago

Two brothers were arrested weeks after a dead body was removed from a car that was on fire in a can...

KTAR.com

Pair of brothers arrested weeks after a dead body was found in Phoenix canal

Detectives arrested a pair of brothers after a dead body was found in a car on fire last month in west Phoenix.

10 hours ago

A bear was killed by Arizona game officials after it injured a teenager in northern Arizona. (AZ Ga...

Associated Press

Bear shot dead by Arizona game officers after swipe attack on teen in mountain cabin

A black bear was shot and killed by Arizona fish and game officers after it entered a home through an open door and injured a teenager.

11 hours ago

Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria will open a new location in Surprise this fall. (Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria)...

KTAR.com

Chicago pizza chain Lou Malnati’s announces new Surprise location

Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria will open its ninth Valley location this fall. The popular chain plans to open a new location in Surprise.

13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

Civility in state government is rare but Arizona’s House Commerce Committee stands out