- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Majority Republicans in the Arizona House on Tuesday voted to change the body’s rules and allow the closing of party caucuses to lobbyists, reporters and other members of the public.

The rule change passed on a 36-23 party-line vote and received no support from Democrats, who called the move a blow to transparency and the public’s right to know.

House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, pushed the change. He said some members are concerned that holding all discussions in public means the news media would find out when some caucus members have concerns about proposed legislation. The Litchfield Park Republican also has said there’s concern about grandstanding by some legislators when caucuses are open.

He told members that closing caucus meetings is allowed under the state constitution and open meetings laws. Changing the House rules makes sense and won’t keep the public from knowing what the Legislature is doing, he argued.

Most meetings will remain open, he said.

“We want to be transparent and open, and that is what we’re trying to do here to clarify,” Montenegro said. “There may be times that sensitive matters arise in which the caucus needs to meet and discuss issues.”

Democrats and Republicans meet in separate caucuses weekly to discuss legislation, and most of the time they are uneventful. But sometimes a split arises and erupts into the open for all to see. Those intra-party rifts are what Republicans want to shield.

“It’s just a family discussion on the way we want to take a certain piece of legislation,” said Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale. “At times when you have to have a family discussion, it pays to have it in private. You should not have your family discussions in restaurants.”

Democrats called the push to allow closed caucuses a move away from open government.

“I think it harms the democratic process,” said assistant minority leader Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson. “I think it creates cynicism with our public as to how elected officials conduct businesses.”

Another Democrat, Rebecca Rios of Phoenix, called the concerns about being in the public eye overblown.

“We’re all big kids, and I would argue that any of us that have run for office have thick skin, and if we’re afraid of the media maybe this isn’t the place to be,” Rios said.

She also shot down the concerns about some lawmakers’ tendencies to pontificate.

“We grandstand all the time,” she said to laughter from other members.

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