Arizona lawmakers reach $9.23B budget compromise

2014-04-08T00:00:00Z 2014-08-05T14:51:47Z Arizona lawmakers reach $9.23B budget compromiseBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX – State lawmakers approved a $9.23 billion budget for the coming fiscal year Monday as Senate Republicans agreed on a spending plan higher than they had originally wanted but still less than sought by Gov. Jan Brewer and even their House GOP counterparts.

The final deal was approved with only one Democrat in support: Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor of Phoenix voted with the Republicans on the main spending bill after $125,000 was added to create the Arizona Commission of African-American Affairs.

It gives an extra $2 million to the University of Arizona over current funding and an identical amount to Arizona State University. That’s $500,000 less for each than the House plan but still more than the $1.3 million for each the Senate had been offering. Northern Arizona University will get $500,000.

The deal actually is better for the UA than the zero net increase Brewer had offered. ASU and NAU, however, will also get some of an extra $12.2 million in the package to bring their per-student aid up to what the UA has been getting.

Diabetics enrolled in the state Medicaid program will get access to insulin pumps. But the House could not persuade senators to extend coverage to also include chiropractors and podiatrists.

The negotiations produced no additional cash beyond the $58.7 million that was in both the original House and Senate plan for the new Department of Child Welfare and Family Services. That is less than the more than $80 million requested by Brewer for the agency that will replace Child Protective Services.

Instead, lawmakers postponed that fight for another day.

The final version of the budget includes a commitment of sorts to revisit the budget for the new agency when it is created “and provide resources to meet these needs.” Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said that language will give legislators a chance to review a report, due next month, on exactly how the new agency should function.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, had resisted the commitment, saying it amounted to a blank check for the new agency to demand what the governor says it needs. But by Monday, Biggs agreed to go along, saying the promise actually can be overridden later if a majority of lawmakers agree.

Brophy McGee acknowledged the tenuous nature of the commitment. But the two-term legislator said she is counting on public pressure and the desire of lawmakers to see the new agency succeed.

But Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said there are needs that should not wait, like the lack of new money for state-subsidized child care for the working poor.

She said the biggest growth in caseload has been in reports not of abuse but of neglect. Alston said there is a direct correlation between that and the lack of child care.

“What do you do if you’re a working mom and you don’t have a place to leave your child?” she asked. “You leave them home alone; you leave them in a car; you leave them with a boyfriend; you leave them in unsafe places where they can be damaged, where they can be unsafe, where they can be mauled by dogs.”

Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, said she also believes the lack of funding for child welfare is “shortsighted.” But Goodale agreed to vote for the spending plan based on the commitment to revisit the issue after there is a report about setting up the new state agency.

That’s also the assessment of Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, who specifically backs more funding for subsidized child care but is willing to wait for the new report in May.

“These are programs that put people to work,” he said. “These are programs that are one of the best ways of getting people off of the welfare dole and into a competitive job.”

Even at lower funding than Brewer requested, House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said it’s still a big improvement. He said that, with this budget, the state will have added 533 new child-welfare staffers over a three-year period.

But Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson, focused instead on what is not in the budget.

She said now, with the state coming out of recession, is the time to invest in things that will produce more revenue in the future, like education. And she said Pima County is being “shafted” in the plan, citing inadequate funding for the UA, community colleges and public schools.

Other elements of the final package include:

  • Providing $24.5 million for at least this year in additional state aid to operate charter schools that have been established by school districts. Biggs had sought to eliminate the extra funds entirely as unfair; the House had sought to keep full funding at $33 million.
  • Providing $1 million to the city of Prescott to compensate for its increased assessment by the retirement fund, which also pays death benefits, in the wake of the deaths of 19 firefighters last year in the Yarnell Hill blaze.
  • Funding Joint Technological Education Districts — essentially trade-school programs — in large school districts at 95.5 percent of full funding, less than what rural districts get but more than the 91 percent originally offered.
  • Reducing by $30 million the amount of gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees that has been diverted to balance the state budget instead of being given to local communities for road construction and repair.

House and Senate leaders said they expect the package to gain Brewer’s approval. But gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder was noncommittal, saying that she is “pleased with what appears to be a promising budget proposal.”

The final plan is less than her $9.36 billion spending proposal. But Wilder said Brewer is aware of the state’s financial situation and wants to “take time to fully review the final proposal before ultimately deciding if it’s something she will sign.”

Funding for child welfare is only one place the Republican-controlled Legislature decided to short what Brewer wanted.

She specifically sought $13.5 million to implement testing for the new Common Core standards. While efforts by some legislators to kill the standards outright failed, the final budget provides just $8 million.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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