David Gowan

Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, speaks with reporters after being elected as the new Arizona House speaker.

Democrats and Republicans say House Speaker David Gowan, a Sierra Vista Republican, treats them fairly and with respect.

So how come Gowan can’t get no respect?

As we enter the first official week of the legislative session, one big open question is whether this rare creature, a House speaker from Southern Arizona, will be more than a figurehead in the state’s big decisions.

Gov. Doug Ducey and Senate President Andy Biggs are the real powers, Assistant. Minority Leader Bruce Wheeler told me Friday. He was echoing a broadly held opinion.

But it could be that Gowan is OK with that, content to go along for the ride while enjoying the perks of his powerful position.

A report in the Arizona Capitol Times on Friday gave some evidence of this. Hank Stephenson, who writes about the House for the Phoenix-based publication, analyzed a database of the use of the state vehicle fleet over the last few years.

He found that the rental of cars from that fleet by House members and staff skyrocketed when Gowan took over, going from 674 total miles driven in 2014 to more than 24,000 in 2015, his first year in the top job.

While these are formally “rentals,” it’s the House itself (funded by taxpayers, of course) that pays the Department of Administration for the rentals. As speaker, Gowan controls the House budget.

The vehicles are “for official use only,” as it says on the side of each car, but Stephenson showed that Gowan, who is running for the U.S. House in the First Congressional District, appeared to use a state vehicle for campaign events in Northern Arizona in October. He was driven by the House sergeant-at-arms, Gowan’s friend Billy Cloud.

Gowan also took out a state car, at House expense, to drive to the American Legislative Exchange Council conference in San Diego in July, Stephenson reported. ALEC is a conservative group funded largely by corporate interests that provides model laws to legislators around the country. Not exactly “official.”

Although the conference lasted three days, Gowan put 2,349 miles on the car over 12 days, the Times reported. Being generous, if Gowan had driven from Phoenix to Sierra Vista to San Diego and then back through both cities, that still would only account for about 1,400 miles.

Gowan’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, says the speaker has simply been fulfilling his pledge to be a “speaker for the whole state” and that each trip he took with a fleet car was for official purposes. After the ALEC trip, she told Stephenson, Gowan used the car for official purposes in Arizona. Even when he took a fleet car on trips that included campaign events, he at times used a separate car for these events, she said.

“The (Times) story was filled with loosely drawn conclusions,” she said.

Maybe there were some — Stephenson had to fight through heavily redacted calendars of the speaker and others to make sense of where these public officials were and what they were doing while renting the vehicles. But the problem is, it’s just the latest sign suggesting Gowan enjoys the perks of his position too much.

Last year, he ordered plans for a remodel of the House basement that would cost more than $1 million, a plan that was roundly protested in April by Republican members who thought it looked bad in a period of tight budgets.

A month later, in May, the speaker took not one, not two, but three of his own personal vehicles to be repaired — for free — by professionally supervised students at a car-repair program in the Vail School District. I wrote about it in June, noting that he did this after slashing the budget in the just-finished session. While anyone can take their cars in for such free repairs, Gowan saved between $700 and $1,000 by doing so.

Then there’s the fact that Gowan hired Cloud, a longtime Sierra Vista friend, as sergeant-at-arms after assuming the speakership in November 2014. Gowan increased the duties of the position and paid him $80,000 per year, twice what the previous sergeant-at-arms made.

In addition, a November report by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting supported a claim often made about Gowan — that he frequently accepts meals from lobbyists. The report found that in the first nine months of 2015, the speaker was taken out by lobbyists for food or drink at least 27 times.

The number could well be higher, but lobbyists did not report the individual member whom they spent money on 86 percent of the time.

As Stephenson noted, Gowan is also known for traveling with entourages. In March, when he traveled to Washington, D.C., to watch the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments over Arizona’s redistricting case, he brought along four House staffers. All five of them had their expenses covered by the state.

Biggs, on the other hand, traveled to D.C. alone and paid his own way. Oh, and by the way, no members of the Senate have taken cars from the state fleet over the last two years, the Times reported.

So here, too, it seems Biggs has outfoxed Gowan. Biggs infamously ended the Senate’s session early on the morning of Good Friday last year, without notifying Gowan, throwing the House into chaos until Gowan, too, recessed his chamber.

“Personally, I was treated well by Gowan,” said Wheeler, the Tucson Democrat. “But institutionally, everyone saw the debacle of the last night of the legislative session. That’s something that was total chaos. Obviously there was animosity, at least on Biggs’ part against Gowan.”

None of that would matter much — not the excessive perks, nor the previous political losses — if Gowan would do two things this session: Bring some benefits of his speakership back to Southern Arizona and manage the House in a way that allows its biggest decision, the budget, to be considered deliberately, not in a panicked rush.

Last year, Gowan, Biggs and Ducey announced they had a budget deal on March 4. With a lot of arm-twisting and late nights of floor discussion, it was passed March 7. That was no way to pass a budget.

In the chaos, a new funding mechanism for the JTED vocational program passed that unintentionally will lead to the demise of the program if it’s not changed. This year, Rep. Chris Ackerley, a Tucson Republican, has introduced a bill to reverse that mistake, which was made because of the hurried budget process.

“I wish that wasn’t the way the process worked,” Ackerley told me Friday. “The unintended consequences aren’t caught because there aren’t enough eyes on it.”

But he said he expected it will go the same way this year.

A speaker interested in leaving his mark might use his power to put an end to that budget madness. But I’m not sure that is Gowan’s primary interest.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.