New legislators getting an ‘education’

I talked to four freshman legislators about their experiences the first couple weeks of the legislative session. This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 26, 2015.

PHOENIX — House Majority Whip David Livingston knocked and entered the third floor office of Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, to confirm her affirmation on the civics test requirement for Arizona students just hours before the floor vote.

Cobb ensured the Peoria Republican that she would vote for the bill – the first major piece of legislation from the Arizona Capitol that would cap off a hectic first week for freshman lawmakers like her. The major vote represented just one of many firsts for new legislators hailing from around the state.

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Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman

The Senate saw six new members join its ranks this session and the House welcomed 20 first-time legislators. Some have served in the Arizona legislature before, but for many an adjustment to Capitol life had to be made.

Four of those members – Rep. Chris Ackerley, R-Sahuarita; Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma; Rep. Jennifer Benally, D-Tuba City; and Cobb – agreed to share their experiences this session.

The first weeks have been a flurry of committee, floor sessions, luncheons and meetings with lobbyists, constituents, media and other legislators.

“It’s been an education,” said Benally, who is also serving in the Legislature for the time. “And it’s a lot of information to absorb.”

New legislators also needed to take the time to get to know their own assistants who would be working with them for the session.

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Rep. Chris Ackerley, R-Sahuarita

Ackerley said the adjustment to working in the Capitol is also causing him to change some of his work habits. A physics teacher back home, he said the biggest challenge is managing all the information that comes at lawmakers as they research, debate and vote on bills that range from the controversial to the banal.

“I discovered the chinks in my system,” he said. “So, moving on I’ll do a better job of that as we move through the session.”

***

Cobb, a dentist back in Kingman, said the pomp and circumstance of the opening day provided the first real break for her and others making the transition into elected office. Legislators brought family members into ceremony. State leaders said lawmakers and other officials should view their roles through the eyes of these incoming freshmen.

“These next few weeks we could all use the fresh outlook of newcomers, not trapped in the old ways of thinking,” said Gov. Doug Ducey.

Mark Killian, the current chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents and a former Speaker of the Arizona House, said this transition isn’t easy for any new lawmaker. He served for about 14 years in a time before voters limited Arizona legislators to a maximum of four terms.

“When I was in the House, there were people who had been there for 20 years,” Killian recalled. “You do have trouble finding the bathroom at first.”

Fernandez understood his story.

She came into her office for the first time and needed some guidance. “I walked out into the hall and I walked back in and said, ‘Where’s the bathroom?’” Fernandez said to the amusement of the staff inside.

***

While about half of the state’s legislative districts rest in greater Phoenix area, the other half of lawmakers have to find a place to stay near the Capitol during the work week. The Legislature meets for four days out of the week, Monday to Thursday.

Fernandez and Benally are both staying with family in the area during the week while the Legislature is in session. Benally fell ill and had to head back to her home in the Navajo Nation during the middle of the week.

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Rep. Jennifer Benally, D-Tuba City

For Cobb, the three-hour drive to her home in Kingman meant she had to find an apartment close to her legislative office.

Settling into the apartment proved another challenge for Cobb. “I felt like I was back in college again,” she said. The rush of the beginning of the session left her little time to decorate so she ended up putting her things on boxes around her new apartment.

Cobb’s days during the first couple of weeks lasted up to 12 hours, not leaving much time to buy amenities for her new place, let alone decorate her new workspace. A few pictures of her young grandchildren adorn the mostly bare walls of her office.

The pay isn’t extravagant. The salary for Arizona legislators is $24,000 a year. Voters soundly defeated a ballot initiative in November to raise lawmakers’ pay by about 50 percent to $35,000.

“You either have to be retired or wealthy,” Fernandez said, “and that makes it tough.”

***

The incoming legislators all had their reasons for running for office —education reform or improving infrastructure among others —and their committee assignments allow them to get into the issues they talked to voters about during the campaign season.

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Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma

Fernandez said fixing the roads are important to her district, which covers rural parts of Yuma, Pima and Maricopa counties, so she sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee.

Committees first met during the first couple weeks. Most of the opening meetings for of introductions, adoption of rules and presentations by people in the area the committees covered.

For example, the opening meeting for the House Transportation committee was conducted jointly with the Senate’s equivalent committee during the second week of the session. Fernandez and her fellow committee members heard speakers on the impact of traffic along Interstate 17, Tucson’s streetcar and preparations for the Super Bowl in Glendale.

Not all of these committee meetings were that routine. For Ackerley, who sits on the House Committee on Government and Higher Education, the opening meeting proved to be a lesson in Capitol politics.The civics test bill that raced through the Capitol was heard in this committee.

Ackerley, while supporting the spirit of the legislation, voted present in committee citing his concern over the speed and implementation of the bill, which was being pushed through by his own party.

After the bill passed through committee, a senior legislator told him that “half the stuff we do around here is fix what we did before.”

When it came to the floor, Ackerley voted aye.

***

Cobb sat in a committee meeting for the first time on the second day of the legislative session in her role as a vice chairman of the House Health Committee.

Cobb performed the rather mundane task of reading the motions for the committee as it voted on two bills — one continuing the Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners and the other continuing the Arizona Naturopathic Physicians Medical Board.

An intern rose to the podium to bring forward one of the bills before the members voted on it.

“No pressure, we’re really, really nice,” said Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, the committee chair, as the intern prepared to speak.

Cobb laughed, “It’s my first time, too.”

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