SLOUCHING toward adjournment, the 40th Arizona Legislature is a dispirited beast. Many of the 90 men and women sitting in yet another marathon session hate their jobs, and it shows.

Republicans war among themselves, and a Republican House clashes with a Democratic Senate. Both chambers have given up hope that the governor can lead them anywhere. The state budget, mother of all bills, is stalled, and little has been done about prison overcrowding, education reform or protection for the state's few remaining free-flowing streams and rivers.

This is a terrible session," says Senator David Bartlett, ten-year legislator from Tucson and Senate Majority Whip. It's difficult to see what substantial is coming out of it."

Whatever else may come out of it, many believe the session marks a low point in state governance, and its legacy will probably be the greatest legislative turnover in history.

Unable to lead and lacking anyone to follow, a record number of state legislators are deciding to get out of the way.

Already almost 30 senators and representatives have said they will step down at the end of this term. Some are pursuing other offices, but most want out of the game altogether.

Add to that the probable defeat of some incumbents in this fall's elections, and it is likely that the next legislature will include about 40 new faces-the highest turnover ever.

With dozens of years of experience walking out the door, lawmakers and political observers fear, the already chaotic legislature is about to become amateur hour.

You're losing a lot of good people that are very knowledgeable on both sides of the aisle," says 14-year veteran Republican Senator Bob Denny, who is stepping down. A certain amount of turnover is good, but you're losing the wrong people."

Poised to capitalize on the vacuum that will be created by the exodus, many believe, are the political players who never seem to leave-hundreds of lobbyists, some of them former lawmakers themselves, who will know the legislative process better than almost half of those serving in the two chambers.

The institutional memory is gone and the lobbyists stay forever," says outgoing Representative Karen Mills. The lobbyists don't come and go...and it will take new people years to figure out what is going on. People don't understand how big our government is, and how many things are hidden."

After recent fitful efforts to break free from the grip of special interests, the legislature is at a turning point, insiders say. Perhaps an infusion of new blood will end the dominance of paid lobbyists over the two chambers once and for all.

More likely, the insiders fear, is the prospect that a fractured, inexperienced legislature will be even easier work for the lobbyists than past sessions have been. We give them chaos, and they will work in chaos," says first-term Phoenix Representative Lisa Graham. It's fine with them."

COME SUMMER'S HEAT, lawmakers are supposed to be gone from the capitol. The legislature is designed to meet for 100 days at the beginning of each year, finish its business and go home. Of course, it has been a while since it actually worked that way.

For the past six years, the elected bodies have been in a downward spiral. Scarce times have transformed the crafting of a state budget from political art to alley fight. Three successive weak governors-Evan Mecham, Rose Mofford and J. Fife Symington III-have done little to make the process move along.

Last year AzScam threw lawmakers for a loop and caused seven lawmakers to leave the legislature. With the appointments that followed AzScam, the 40th Legislature already had a large freshman classÏ14 of 30 senators and 19 of 60 representatives.

For many years now, the federal government's retreat from programs has dropped more into state legislative laps, leaving the legislators to grapple with an increased role in issues such as healthcare, the environment and prisons.

As a result, each year's legislative session threatens to be longer than the last. If this year's regular session ends by July 1, as many hope, it will be almost two months overdue and still won't match the record of 172 days set in 1990.

We are a weary bunch," says Senator Alan Stephens, who is leaving the legislature and plans to run for Congress. We've been in session for most of the year, either in special or regular session. We have problems that seem to be almost irresolvable. We've got a lot of legislators who are just plain tired. We're a tuckered-out bunch."

But Arizona, like many states, still embraces the concept of a citizen legislature. Lawmakers are paid only $15,000 a year, plus a per diem for the time spent in session. Many say it is no longer worth it.

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David Pasztor