Defusing the Acrimony: Restoring public confidence in a battered public institution
Mark W. Killian
Speaker, Arizona House of Representatives
Voters in nearly every state seem to hold their elected officials in low esteem, but nowhere were they held in less regard than in Arizona during the early 1990s. There, just prior to Mark Killian's 1993 ascension to the position of speaker of the House, one poll found that 71 percent of respondents believed that lawmakers would take a bribe if they thought they could get away with it.
Those jaded citizens had reason to believe the worst. In 1988, their governor, Evan Mecham, had been impeached and ousted from office for attempting to impede the investigation of an alleged death threat and for misusing funds. Three years later, in an even more devastating blow to the public trust, seven legislators and 11 lobbyists and party officials were indicted in the AzScam bribery scandal. With several members captured accepting bribes on videotape--and the images replayed endlessly on local newscasts--the episode confirmed voters' worst fears about political corruption.
Confronted with a chamber that had neither the respect of the public nor of its own members, Killian set a course to restore institutional credibility. Before taking the gavel, as speaker-elect, he issued a 16-page plan detailing his vision for House reform. Some were purely procedural: He moved to reduce the number of duplicate House and Senate bills, and proposed that all committee meetings and floor action begin on time. Committee chairmen also received more decision-making authority, yet at the same time it became easier to dislodge a stalled bill from committee. Killian also dispatched standing committees to rural communities for public hearings and presided over the initial House foray onto the Internet. "The legislature as an institution had lost confidence in its ability to perform," explains Killian. "We had to make believers out of people."
But first, the Republican speaker had to make believers out of his own fractious colleagues, some of whom were still licking wounds dating back to the Mecham impeachment. To that end, Killian insisted on reforming the budget process, an always rancorous ordeal that usually dragged sessions well beyond the 100-day limit called for by legislative rules. He set a target of 65 days in which to agree on a budget and 100 days for the entire session. "By getting the budget done first, all the other legislation was passed on its merit, not on its relationship to the budget," says Killian, who was first elected in 1982. "By doing so, it got us out of the business of horsetrading on bills."
It also sent members back to their constituents having kept a promise to finish on time. The year before Killian took control, legislators met for 171 days. Under Killian's stewardship, the House was out in 97 days in 1993. The latest departure from the Capitol in his two terms as speaker came this year, when the session lasted 104 days.
For all his efforts to restore public confidence to a battered institution, it may be that Killian achieved the most notice for something he chose not to do. Last year, amidst debate over a preemption bill favored by the tobacco industry, he received an unexpected phone call at home from the national party chairman urging him to bring the bill to a floor vote. His refusal then, and again this year, won him the attention of the national media.
But in Arizona, where Killian has announced he will not seek reelection to the House, it is likely his tenure will be remembered for something else entirely. "Over time, he was able to defuse the acrimony," says former Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, a Democrat who now works as a political consultant. "Ultimately his legacy will be bringing calm to the waters."
— Charles Mahtesian
Photo by Reed Rahn