What was billed as a mid-session legislative update took a turn toward being an on-stage impromptu political debate.
But that was fine by Rick Murrya, the new CEO of the Arizona Small Business Association (ASBA), which put on the event at the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa, the first of what he hopes will be an annual event.
The idea is to give members of ASBA a chance to hear lawmakers report on what’s happening in the fast-paced session. Murray said the fact that it turned into a debate with Senate President Steve Pierce, R-Prescott; Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson; and Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, all on stage at the same time answering questions gave the audience insight to what goes on at the state Capitol.
“It was a great discourse in regards to the different opinions on how small business should be treated in Arizona,” Murray said. “Our members want to hear what those legislators in Southern Arizona want for the businesses in Southern Arizona, and I think we got to hear that on several different levels.”
The event began with time to mingle and then a formal lunch. After the plates of chicken and asparagus on a bed of mashed sweet potato were cleared from the table, Farley, the House Assistant Democratic Leader, took the stage.
Farley, an artist who owns his own business, spent his time at the mic blasting the GOP majority for not hearing business-friendly bills that were introduced by Democrats including one he had introduced, in favor of measures introduced by Republicans. He also took shots at the lack of cooperation between members of the two political parties in the Legislature.
“The conservative Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb recently praised (the House Democrats’) budget as the best one out there and urged Republican leadership to work with us to pass a bipartisan budget,” Farley said. “So how about it, Senator Pierce?”
Pierce chuckeled at his seat. Later, during his turn at the mic, he responded to some of Farley’s accusations.
“There are 90 members in the Legislature, you have to realize, and any one of them can introduce any bill that they want — even if it’s wanting to change the color of the sky,” Pierce said. “And we don’t have any bill killed.”
Pierce went on to talk about the importance local control in government and the troubles faced by rural Arizonans. He then opened a question and answer session with the audience – inviting Melvin on stage to help field the questions.
Farley, seizing his opportunity, hopped up on stage with the two Republicans provoking a debate with the senators on subjects including the benefits of prison labor and funding for the University of Arizona.
After about 10 minutes, Pierce excused himself from the stage, saying he had an appointment to keep in Phoenix. On the way out, within earshot of a reporter, Pierce said to his traveling entourage, “That Farley is a piece of s--- for getting up on the stage like that.”
Afterward, Farley said he was surprised at Pierce’s reaction – the two had always worked well together in the past, and Farley didn’t think he said anything offensive. Though he admitted he was goading Pierce.
“Maybe he’s angry that I listed some of the worst bills that he says are just coming from factions, but in fact are some of the central tenets of some of his most powerful members,” Farley said.
Murray hadn’t heard Pierce’s comment but said he thought the senate leader had a good time. He said he hoped there were no hard feelings between the lawmakers, and that the debate made the event a success for ASBA members.
“It was fun, it made for a nice, open exchange and really gave us an idea as kind of a microcosm of what happens at the legislature,” he said.