Succeeding by failing: ‘Virtue signaling’ runs high in the Legislature

Photo by Ellen O’Brien | Cronkite News

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

When Republican lawmakers pushed a bill that would rewrite state law to include “only two sexes” and specifically rejected “gender identity,” Gov. Katie Hobbs told them she would veto the bill if it passed, just like she vetoed a similar measure last year.

They passed it. She vetoed it, just one of 52 bills vetoed by the governor so far this year.

Bills addressing immigrationabortion, and diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI programs, are among the many that have passed with almost no chance of becoming law, part of the regular “political theater” aimed less at legislating and more at getting media attention and appealing to constituents.

Steve R. Johnson, a law professor at Florida State University, said that’s because the negatives of “wasting people’s time” are often outweighed by the benefits such theater brings to lawmakers.

“The introducing legislator often makes it known they are not serious about this. You introduce it, you make the constituent happy,” said Johnson, author of an Iowa Law Review article on “The Dangers of Symbolic Legislation.” So, Johnson said, legislators say to themselves, “All that happens is I have wasted people’s time, but I have wasted people’s time to get favor with these constituents.

“This is unspoken, you do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor,” he said of the tradeoff between lawmakers and advocates.

But the threat of a veto, or a long shot to passage, is no reason not to pursue an issue that a lawmaker or his constituents believe in, said Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler. Even if a bill is destined to fail, he said, using that as a reason not to file “as an excuse is just a lazy work ethic.”

“There is no way to know unless you’ve tried,” Mesnard said. “There are a lot of new ideas and all you can do is try, and for my constituents, I can point to this and say, ‘I’ve tried.’”

And in this year’s Legislature, there seemed to be a lot of that long-shot trying.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, listens on Feb. 21 as Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, blasts SB 1231 – an immigration bill all but guaranteed to draw a veto. It passed; it was vetoed. Photo by Sam Ballesteros | Cronkite News

GOP lawmakers pushed bills to address “the invasion” at the border that included proposals to make illegal border crossing a state crime and to require that local governments use E-Verify to confirm the citizenship status of anyone seeking public benefits – despite Hobbs’ statement that the bills are only meant “to score cheap political points” and would draw vetoes.

Another bill, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, would prohibit public funding “to promote, advocate or plan for, or become a member of an association or organization that promotes advocates or plans for” reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, plane travel, global temperature, car usage, or the dairy and meat industry; or the promotion of “Marxist ideology” or limits on the amount of clothing people can own.

Kern called it “a good bill, a good pro-freedom bill. It disallows government entities from using taxpayer money to promote Marxist ideology.” But Sandy Bahr, the director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said it would open local officials like Tucson Mayor Regina Romero to legal action for that city’s climate action plan.

“We are concerned by the messages the Legislature is trying to send,” Bahr said. “This is a culture-war manifesto.”

It’s not just Republicans. A total of 23 Democrats in the House and 14 in the Senate this year signed on to “right to contraception” bills, which Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, derided as a proposal that addresses a “controversy that does not exist … nobody has any kind of plan to deny any kind of contraceptives.”

The bills did not get a hearing or a vote in either chamber, despite Democratic attempts to force a floor vote – putting Republicans on record. That allowed Democrats to frame GOP lawmakers as opposed to contraceptive access.

James Strickland, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said the use of such “symbolic” legislation is normal behavior, often used as means to get re-elected.

“Legislators typically seek to get re-elected, and symbolic laws often help them to receive earned press coverage and take a public stance,” Strickland said in an emailed statement.

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who has been in the Legislature since 2012, said he thinks lawmakers have taken a step back from years past.

“I don’t feel like we have been working on policy like we used to,” said Mendez, who accused Republicans of proposing bills that are not in good faith.

“They are in search of a problem, they are not putting together real legislation. They aren’t really coming at this with measured, researched proposals,” he said.

Johnson said this political theater does not “diminish legislative outputs” in the short term, but he warned that lawmakers should be aware of the potential long-term damage to their reputation in the eyes of voters.

“Most of us wish that it didn’t happen, but I think it is hard to say these activities have a directly correlated impact on legislative outputs,” Johnson said. “Folks on both sides of the political aisle do not view their political legislators with tremendous amounts of approval … Political theater is an entirely fair characterization.”

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