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

Phoenix was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. (Valley Metro Pho...

Phoenix receives $1.2 million grant to help with transportation development projects

Phoenix has received a $1.2 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration intended for projects that boost transportation options and access in the city.

4 hours ago

A anti-abortion supporter stands outside the House chamber, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, at the Capit...

Associated Press

Democrats clear path to bring proposed repeal of Arizona’s near-total abortion ban to a vote

Democrats in the Arizona Senate cleared a path to bring a proposed repeal of the state’s near-total ban on abortions to a vote.

5 hours ago

Mesa woman was arrested after beating bus driver, police say...

Mesa woman accused of assaulting 64-year-old substitute bus driver

A Mesa woman was arrested on Wednesday afternoon after assaulting a 64-year-old substitute bus driver last week, police said.

5 hours ago

Troye Sivan and Charli XCX announced a Phoenix stop on their joint "Sweat" tour. (Photos provided b...

SuElen Rivera

Charli XCX, Troye Sivan to bring co-headlining tour to Phoenix in October

International musicians Charli XCX and Troye Sivan announced a Phoenix stop in October during their upcoming "Sweat" tour.

6 hours ago

Apartment fire in Mesa caused by electric scooter, authorities say...

Mesa Fire Department says an electric scooter started an apartment fire

An electric scooter caused an apartment fire in Mesa on Wednesday afternoon at around 1 p.m., according to authorities.

7 hours ago

Tempe homicide victim found dead on March 12, police need help...

Tempe police ask public to share information about homicide victim

Authorities asked the public to share information about a Tempe homicide victim named Joseph Lemons on Wednesday.

7 hours ago

Sponsored Articles



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.


Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

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