PHOENIX — Rolling handily over most Republicans, the state House voted early today for an $8.8 billion spending plan, including an extensive expansion of the state's Medicaid program.
The Senate, which had given preliminary approval earlier Wednesday, was set for its final roll call vote later today.
This morning's action came as nine Republicans united with 24 Democrats to provide the margin of victory in the 60-member House.
It also came as supporters of the package, knowing they had the votes — and the support of Gov. Jan Brewer — refused during more than eight hours of floor session to debate the specifics or answer questions. That left those opposed sputtering in objection.
"I have never seen this,'' complained Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, first elected to the Legislature in 2000 and one of the more senior members. "I've never seen a circumstance where a governor has rolled over her own party because she was throwing a temper tantrum.''
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, lashed out at GOP colleagues for both joining this "new majority'' — mainly composed of Democrats — and for refusing to answer questions during floor debate.
"How are you not embarrassed for yourselves?'' he asked on the floor. "Is anyone going to stand up and defend the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars?''
And Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa said the Republicans who support Brewer's Medicaid expansion are not able to answer questions about what's in the rest of the budget because they really don't know.
"It's being pushed through by those who hold the puppet strings,'' she said.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson acknowledged the role his boss played in working with the coalition to craft the plan and get the votes for her Medicaid expansion. And he said there is nothing in the budget that was not negotiated.
"We know everything that's in there,'' he said. Benson also said questions by foes are not to elicit information but to try to embarrass supporters.
He also sniffed at Farnsworth's claim that Brewer was throwing a "temper tantrum.''
"This is what the democratic process looks like,'' Benson said, saying the governor worked with lawmakers, regardless of party affiliation, to craft a spending plan acceptable to a majority. "Anyone who finds that process abhorrent is in the wrong place.''
In many ways it is Brewer who is driving the process.
It was the governor, frustrated with what she saw as lack of final approval of her Medicaid expansion, who called the special legislative session. That enabled the coalition to suspend all the rules, introduce the bills and bring them directly to the floor without the usual committee hearings.
The leaders of the bipartisan coalition also worked directly with the governor to come up with the spending plan. More to the point, they agreed that this would be the final plan and that they would not accept any amendments beyond those they wanted themselves.
And to expedite the process — and meet Brewer's goal of final action today — those in the coalition refused to answer questions from foes.
That refusal is not unique. In prior years, members of the Republican majority, having lined up its votes, have turned away questions from Democrats. But spurning questions from members of their own party is unique.
But Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, a member of the coalition, suggested there was little need, particularly as key elements of the plan had previously been debated and approved by the Senate.
That's not entirely true.
For example, one new addition allows the Arizona Commerce Authority to make a $2 million loan to attract or retaining business. The language, however, restricts the funding solely to a county with a population between 100,000 and 120,000.
Rep. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, whose name is on that amendment, would not respond to a query from Farnsworth about who that is designed to benefit. But Benson said the provision is designed to help the town of Snowflake in Navajo County.
Benson said the paper mill there closed. But the town wants to purchase the rail line between the mill and Interstate 40 to lure a new potash mine.
Pratt also would not explain why $2 million for capital projects for community colleges specifically excluded giving any to Pima or Maricopa county system.
House Speaker Andy Tobin complained about all the new funding for the state universities while he said community colleges are being given a "pittance.'' And Tobin said those additional state dollars for the universities are not merited, especially in the wake of the latest tuition hikes which he said will generate about $100 million a year on the backs of students.
On a broader perspective, several legislators objected to the size of the spending plan.
Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, pointed out that the budget is, strictly speaking, "structurally unbalanced.''
That's because the $8.8 billion spending plan is backed by less than $8.5 billion in anticipated revenues. The difference is being made up with funds anticipated to be left over when this fiscal year ends June 30.
Much of that from the proceeds of the now-expired temporary one-cent sales tax surcharge that Brewer pushed voters to approve to help deal with the $3 billion budget deficit she inherited from Janet Napolitano, her predecessor.
"It's simple math: You spend more than you earn and you're in debt,'' Petersen said. And now with that temporary tax gone, along with its nearly $1 million a year, he said spending needs to be brought into line.
Benson acknowledged the gap between current revenues and expenses. But he said Brewer's plan gets rid of that structural deficit by 2016.
But much of the debate was focused on the Medicaid expansion.
Brewer contends it won't cost Arizona taxpayers a cent, with the state's $240 million share picked up by what amounts to a tax on hospitals. And, for the time being, the federal government will pick up virtually the entire cost of raising the coverage from 100 percent of the federal poverty level — about $19,530 a year for a family of three — to an adjusted figure of 138 percent.
But Senate President Andy Biggs pointed out that the legislation keeps the expansion in place even if federal funding drops as low as 80 percent of the cost. He said that could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The coalition, however, defeated a proposal to have expansion self-destruct if federal funding drops below 95 percent.
There's also a lawsuit looming.
The Arizona Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate for any move that results in an increase in state revenues. Medicaid expansion is backed by not much more than a bare majority.
Brewer, however, said the measure simply authorizes the AHCCCS director to raise the funds needed. She said it is an assessment and requires only a simple majority.
That argument did not convince Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff.
"Just like Bill Clinton, she's coming up with ways of defining what 'is' is,'' he said, referring to the former president's denial of having "sex'' with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
And Rep. Carl Seel, R-Phoenix, said he is confident someone will sue.
The coalition also defeated
Rep. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City said her opposition is more philosophical.
"Medicaid expansion is Obamacare,'' she said. And Ward, who is a physician, called claims that it will improve health care "offensive.''
"All it's going to do is decrease the care that people get,'' she said, saying that the care provided under AHCCCS is not of the same quality as provided to those with private insurance or paying their own bills.
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