As hearings grow more combative, one committee stands out for its civility

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)

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.

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 that is by design. He compared chairing a committee to being the host of a late-night show.

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“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.”

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.

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“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.”

Reagan Priest Ray-gan Priest (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Reagan Priest expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Priest has also worked at The Copper Courier, The State Press, Cronkite News D.C., The Arizona Republic and Arizona PBS.