The Arizona Legislature's first day in regular session normally is devoted more to pomp and tradition, with at least a temporary nod to bipartisan civility, than to the business of writing laws.
Much of that was present Monday for the start of the 2006 session with broad smiles, hardy handshakes and generous applause by lawmakers and high-profile elected officials from around the state.
As the state Senate got under way, President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, offered the first opportunity to introduce guests to the minority leader, Sen. Harry Mitchell, D-Tempe. In the House, Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, warmly greeted former Democratic governors Raul Castro and Rose Mofford.
But there was an underlying tension to the day's activities as well. It's an election year for lawmakers and top state officials, with many Republicans eager to use their control of the Legislature to set an agenda that benefits party candidates and tips the scales against Gov. Janet Napolitano's bid for a second term.
That's means a package of bills to cut personal income taxes, to further restrict state spending authority and to gain more oversight of parts of the budget solely under Napolitano's control. Republicans rightly will also push Napolitano to honor last year's deal to support private school tuition tax credits for corporations, after lawmakers have resolved her concerns with the bill she vetoed.
Napolitano faced the Republican challenge head-on Monday by outlining her most ambitious agenda yet in her fourth State of the State address. She called for the immediate statewide implementation of voluntary all-day kindergarten instead of phasing in it over two more years. She called on lawmakers to guarantee every school teacher a starting salary of at least $30,000, and to promise every victim of domestic violence a place to find shelter.
Napolitano also wants to spend $100 million on border security matters. She said is even willing to send the Arizona National Guard "to help enforce the rule of law at the border," if the Pentagon will pay for it.
While Napolitano spoke to lawmakers, a large and loud crowd of immigrant rights activists had gathered outside, calling on state officials to show more compassion for those who cross the border illegally.
Many at the Capitol ruminated on the tough issues confronting lawmakers, even with the dramatic turnaround in the state's fiscal picture that could lead to an $850 million surplus in this year's budget.
"It isn't going to be fun," said former Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, who resigned shortly before the session to run for Congress. "It isn't going to be any fun at all."
But voters didn't elect the Legislature to have a joyous time. We sent these lawmakers to the Capitol to make the hard decisions that, in Napolitano's words, will support "a safe, strong and prosperous Arizona for all."