Nov 7, 2012 4:05 PM by Associated Press

Ariz. lawmakers to start filling leadership slots

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona legislators on Wednesday begin holding closed-door meetings to pick leaders for the next two years, starting with Republicans whose big majorities shrank after Tuesday's general election.

House and Senate Republicans scheduled afternoon postelection caucuses for returning and newly elected lawmakers to pick leaders. Democrats, who added seats in Tuesday's election but who remain in the minority in both chambers, scheduled caucuses Thursday.

The selection of top legislative leaders is important because those leaders assign bills to committees, pick committee chairmen and schedule legislation for floor action. That means the leaders can influence what bills are approved or never see the light of day.

Senate President Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, faces a challenge from current Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert.

In the House, Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, faces a possible challenge for the top leadership post from Steve Smith, a state senator who won a House seat Tuesday.

Both Pierce and Biggs are conservatives, but Biggs is regarded as more of a hardliner on issues such as state spending. For example, he suggested a year ago that the state drop out of the federal Medicaid program because of fiscal concerns.

Biggs narrowly lost a midterm contest for the Senate presidency to Pierce a year ago. That vote occurred after then-President Russell Pearce lost a recall election and had to be replaced in the chamber's top leadership post.

Smith, a conservative who sponsored unsuccessful legislation against illegal immigration in 2011, did not immediately return calls for comment, while Tobin said Tuesday he believed he'd be re-elected House speaker and that his critics were "selective purists" who were giving short shrift to his own conservative credentials.

Republican Party activists in a handful of counties have urged rank-and-file GOP lawmakers to replace Pierce and Tobin with Biggs and Smith, respectively.

The activists have criticized the Legislature's failure to pass measures targeting public employee unions and other concerns of conservatives.

"It now falls upon our newly elected officials to stand with the party's grassroots, stand firm on our platform and principles and deliver the legislative leadership change they desire," Pinal County Chairman Stephen Kohut said.

Democrats won four additional Senate seats, narrowing the GOP's edge to 17-13. Republicans had picked up four Senate seats in 2010, providing them with a 21-9 supermajority that made it relatively easy to pass abortion restrictions and other legislation favored by conservatives.

Several races remained to be decided in the House, but Democrats gained at least three additional seats, which is enough to deprive Republicans of their two-thirds majority. Republicans entered the election with a 40-19 edge.

Republicans had expected to lose seats in the Legislature as a result of redistricting. That once-a-decade process uses constitutionally mandated criteria that include fostering competition between the two major parties.

"Overall not a bad night for the Democrats - kind of what we expected year ago when we saw these district lines," said Mike Gardner, a Republican lobbyist and former legislator.

Gardner said tea party conservatives will still dominate the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate. "But there's a working group of moderates that can come together and block anything," he added.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, said it's likely that Republicans will now work with Democrats. With the GOP's current supermajority, "Democrats are pretty much sitting on the sidelines watching. I think that's going to change," she said.

Sen. John McComish, a Phoenix Republican who fended off a union-backed challenge by Democrat Janie Hydrick, said Republicans' 17-13 Senate majority is "really back to more business as usual"

With the smaller GOP majority, "I think there will be a little bit more working across the aisle ... I think there will be fewer bills passed and more moderation," he added.

In other key Senate races, Democratic former Rep. David Bradley beat Republican Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, while Rep. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, beat Sen. Jerry Lewis, R-Mesa. Lewis beat Pearce in the 2011 recall election.


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