By Wes Frank
Vector Marketing/Cutco Cutlery
Have you ever felt left out of the political process? Frustrated that neither of the two major political parties fully represent the way you see the world? I know I have. That’s why Scottsdale Leadership Class 32’s State Government Day was such a great experience. For the first time (for many of us), the political process began to feel a bit more tangible. We met with speakers from both sides of the aisle that gave the entire process a more personal feel, whether we agreed with them on the issues they spoke about or not.
Our day began in the State Capitol Museum where we met our day chairs. Our first speaker, Mike Braun, walked us through the makeup of the 90 member Arizona legislature. There are 60 members in the House and 30 members in the Senate representing the 30 districts throughout the state. In a typical year, these members introduce over 1200 different bills, of which around 350 make it through the process and go to the governor to either sign or veto.
We then heard from Stefan Shephard, the Deputy Director of the Joint Legislature Budget Committee (JLBC). Their job is to estimate the costs of potential bills, provide briefing materials, and reviewing the budgets of over 100 state agencies. They also provide revenue estimates from sales and income taxes.
Next up was one of the most energetic and passionate speakers of the day. Chris Herstam spoke to us about the political reality in Arizona today. Chris used to be a Republican for many years, even serving as the majority whip. He found himself leaning more left on social issues and eventually switched parties. He bluntly showed us statistics that took many of us by surprise.
Here come the Millennials… The percentage of voters registered as independents in Arizona has doubled from 17% to 34% since the year 2000. In 10 years, it’s projected that 45% of Arizona will consider themselves to be independent voters, however Chris walked through all of the reasons why he thinks they still won’t have representation in our state government. In order for an independent candidate to get their name on the ballot, they would need 35,000 signatures (compared to around 5000 signatures for Democrats and Republican candidates). Chris projects that our state will turn from a red state into a purple state in the next 5 years, and transitioning into a blue state (like New Mexico did) over the next 10 years.
Another topic Chris touched on had to do with our economy. Arizona is ranked 9th in % of residents under 18 years old. We are ranked 13th in our percentage of residents over age 65. However, when it comes to residents between 18-64 (the working years to contribute income taxes to the state’s revenue), we are ranked 49th.
When pressed for a possible solution to the current state of government in Arizona, Chris advised us to support the push for cleaner elections and the elimination of “dark money” from political influence groups funding campaigns in exchange for favors once they got elected.
After that, our group had the privilege of sitting in on a live bill debate on the senate floor. The bill was SB1393, which focused on the rights of the parents in the case of a separation regarding the use of their frozen embryos with a different partner. It was interesting to watch from the gallery as two senate members passionately pleaded their views.
Next up we met with Ryan Anderson, Communications Director for Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Ryan apologized in advance for having his phone out while speaking to us. It was a busy day for their office. About 25 minutes before our session, his office had filed a lawsuit against Scottsdale Unified School District for alleged improprieties in their handling of bids for construction projects. He walked us through the role of the AG’s office and gave us some examples of the types of cases they spend the most time with.
Christina Corieri, Senior Policy Advisor for Governor Doug Ducey, was our next guest speaker. She meets with him every morning and has his ear for giving her take on key policy decisions. In Christina’s role, she has to be very detail oriented and verse herself in the issues so that she can effectively give her opinion to the Governor. She gave us an example that by examining a 10-year old statute, she was able to get ONE word changed (replacing LESS THAN to GREATER THAN), and this change has resulted in an extra 96 Million dollars for the state.
Stan Barnes, President of the lobbying firm Copper State Consulting, gave us a vastly different take on Arizona politics as his friend and colleague Chris Herstam did earlier in the day. Stan told personal stories of him being an underdog candidate that got elected as a young man before he really knew what he was doing. He talked about the pressures of office and how he once reluctantly was the deciding vote on a bill he didn’t fully support and the ramifications of that vote. The overarching theme of his message was that most of the politicians he’s known are not beholden to special interest groups and that in his experience, “nobody is fully in charge”.
Our final speaker of the day was Arizona Supreme Court Justice Scott Bales. He walked us through how the judicial branch works in the state. The Supreme Court hears over 1000 cases a year in Arizona. The Municipal Court has 138 judges that hears over 1.1 million cases each year. Scottsdale’s is the 4th busiest with over 100,000 cases/yr. He was very generous with his time, patiently answering all of our questions and helping us understand the process. One of the questions he answered from our group was about how to know whether a judge is doing a good job or not when it comes time to retain their position in the elections. He directed us to the Judicial Performance Review website at http://azjudges.info.
Overall, this was one of my favorite days of the Scottsdale Leadership program. We learned a lot about the political process in our home state and got to hear from people who are working on a daily basis in this arena. Over the course of one class day, my emotions spanned from being hopeful to frustrated to inspired again, but in the end, I most certainly became a more educated voter and constituent.