Arizona House Republicans agree to $9.24 billion budget deal

2014-03-28T00:00:00Z Arizona House Republicans agree to $9.24 billion budget dealBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX — House Republicans gave preliminary approval late Thursday to a new budget that adds some — but only part — of what dissidents sought for their needed votes.

The deal adds money for district-run charter schools but leaves open the question of more cash for child welfare.

The package hammered out after days of closed-door negotiations sets spending for the coming year at $9.24 billion. That is about $58 million more than the Republican-controlled Senate approved last week.

The new funding was added after six Republicans said they would not vote for that plan unless the package included more cash. That left House Speaker Andy Tobin without the 31 votes he needed for approval, because all 24 Democrats were opposed.

The amended plan is slated to be sent back to the Senate today.

There was no immediate word from Gov. Jan Brewer, whose original budget request was at least $100 million higher than this, on what she will do.

The big victory for the dissidents is that the state will provide $33 million to charter schools operated by school districts — at least for this coming year.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said these schools are double dipping, getting extra funds to charter schools as well as local tax revenues.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, complained it’s not fair to pull the rug out from under school districts that are using the extra funds to provide innovative programs.

This deal provides $33 million, but only for one year. Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that year will allow time to craft a plan to halt the extra funding.

By contrast, the dissidents got virtually no new dollars for the Division of Child Welfare beyond what already was approved by the Senate. That division is replacing the troubled Child Protective Services.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said the Legislature is not ignoring the agency. She said the Senate-approved plan boosts spending, including funding 242 new caseworkers and support staff.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, one of the holdouts, did get her colleagues to add language saying it is the “intent of the Legislature” that the budget for the new division will be re-examined next month after release of a report studying problems at the child-welfare agency.

Brophy McGee acknowledged that falls short of an actual commitment of new dollars. But she said the findings in the report should provide ammunition — and public pressure — to demand funds for additional staffing.

She also said she believes that report will help eliminate a cap now in place on subsidies for child care for the working poor, a cap that has created a waiting list of 6,600 families. Brophy McGee said there’s a direct link between inadequate funding for child care and the number of reports of child abuse and neglect.

Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, another of the holdouts, was philosophical about the deal.

“I think everybody feels like they’ve given up something,” he said. “Nobody gets everything you want.”

Among the things added was an extra $2.5 million for the University of Arizona to help it start a new veterinary school.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, acknowledged that falls short of the $4.2 million sought to establish the school. He said that smaller amount, added to the university’s base budget, should meet the minimum requirements to start the accreditation process.

Shope said rural lawmakers who want the school had to fight urban legislators who pointed out that the privately run Midwestern University already has such a school in Maricopa County. He said that’s irrelevant.

“There’s a shortage of vets, there’s a shortage of veterinary schools, especially in the western U.S.,” Shope said. “Both of these schools are going to be at capacity. Both of these will have waiting lists.”

The additional funding added to the budget to gain the votes of the dissidents annoyed several GOP lawmakers who preferred the original Senate spending plan. But Rep. Adam Kwasman, R-Oro Valley, said he had no choice but to support the package because it brought enough additional Republican votes on board to get it approved.

“We tried to make sure we spent as little as humanly possible while getting a majority,” he said. “The alternative is the Democrats and liberal Republicans build a budget that’s $200 million more.”

That’s also the assessment of Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City.

“I’m holding my nose,” he said in voting for the package. Borrelli said, though, that if a deal were not struck soon the price tag for lining up votes would increase and the state could end up $500 million in the hole.

Some of the new spending actually involves using more cash than GOP leaders had said was available. That brings them a bit closer to Brewer’s revenue projections .

There’s also a financing maneuver of sorts. The state will take an extra $23.9 million out of a fund designed to finance employee health insurance.

Kavanagh said that won’t be a problem, saying there is enough left in the account to deal with all anticipated expenses.

With the Republican dissidents now supporting the plan, that left the minority Democrats out in the cold, unable to add any of their funding priorities ranging from more child-abuse investigators to providing funds to train teachers to use the new Common Core standards.

The package also includes something not sought by the holdouts: An extra $900,000 to put inmates in private prisons.

Kavanagh said that’s not what it seems. He said one of the firms that takes the state’s overload agreed several years ago to charge the state just $24 a day, a figure he said is far below what Arizona would otherwise pay. Kavanagh said that $900,000 for the coming year is still less than the full bill charge of $8 million.

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said any funds for private prisons is a bad deal for taxpayers given lack of oversight of their operations.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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