In a rare coup, lawmakers from the same Southern Arizona district have been chosen to head three key committees in a Legislature in which more than half of its members were replaced in the last election.
Sen. Toni Hellon has been chosen chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Rep. Steve Huffman has been chosen House Ways and Means Committee chairman and Rep. Pete Hershberger has been picked to head the House Human Services Committee.
The three represent Dist. 26, reshaped from the old Dist. 12 by the redistricting that was effective for the 2002 elections. A portion of the former Dist. 13 also was included in Dist. 26, but most of this district became Dist. 30.
"For our area this is pretty special," said Hellon, the only Southern Arizona senator on the Education Co-mmittee for the past two years.
"This is a huge coup for the district and gives us a tremendous amount of clout" in reviewing proposed bills and deciding which are to be heard and which ones aren't, she said, adding that the selections also reflect peer respect for the abilities of the three legislators.
Hellon, who has also served on the Senate's Health, Appropriations and Family Services committees, said this may be the first time three legislators from the same district have risen to chairmanship positions.
Hellon said a top priority for her will be to hold the line on education funding, noting that through four previous budget cuts she has stood firm against cuts in K-12 classroom supply funds and teacher pay.
Hellon cautioned that progress in keeping budget cuts may be slow going at first because her committee will be working with a new governor in Janet Napolitano as well as a new superintendent of education in Tom Horne.
"It's an opportunity to see if we can come up with some new ideas," Hellon said. "We already know what others had to offer."
The chairmanships won't produce any guarantees, said Hershberger, but it will give the three legislators a greater voice as to what bills will be heard and to some extent the shaping of policy, again especially in delivering their message that cuts aren't to come out of the classroom.
"We don't have the power of the Speaker of the House or the President of the Senate, but the chairmanships do give us greater influence and a seat at the decision-making table," he said.
According to the Arizona Republic, a special lame-duck session of the Legislature, including departing Gov. Jane Hull, outgoing House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Dist. 16, who will be shifting to the Senate, and departing Senate President Randall Gnant, who is being replaced by Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 25 to discuss a tentative agreement that would eliminate $240 million of the $500 million deficit in this year's budget. Most of the reductions could be carried forward until next year, when the new Legislature will be facing a potential $1 billion deficit, the paper reported.
With 21 of the 39 Republicans in the 60-member House new and 12 of the 17 Republicans in the 30-member Senate either new or coming over from the House because of term limits, government is being run more and more by either lobbyists or staff because of a lack of legislators' experience, Hershberger said.
Hershberger said he hopes he and Hellon, who are entering their second term, and Huffman, who is entering his third term, can help reverse that trend.