Arizona lawmakers move closer to passing $11.8 billion no-growth budget

Arizona lawmakers move closer to passing $11.8 billion no-growth budget

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 665 cases in Arizona, COVID-19 deaths in Pima County rise to 4 series

The Arizona House of Representatives building in Phoenix.

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PHOENIX — State lawmakers were moving late Thursday to adopt a no-growth budget to ensure Arizona government keeps operating no matter what happens with COVID-19.

The package of bills is designed to provide all state agencies with the amount of money they have now, with adjustments for inflation and population growth. Passage will allow state lawmakers and their staffs to stay away from the Capitol as the virus spreads.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said the $11.8 billion spending plan does not have to be the last word.

He said lawmakers can return before the new fiscal year begins July 1 to analyze what effect the pandemic has had on the economy and on anticipated state revenues. At that point, Bowers said, lawmakers can decide what additional dollars are available for new programs as well as for tax cuts.

But Senate Republicans were forced to agree to Democrats’ demands for some additional funding to take care of what they said were the immediate effects of the virus.

Most notably, that includes establishing a Crisis Contingency and Safety Net Fund to be administered by the governor for economic assistance during an emergency.

That includes housing assistance, such as payments to prevent eviction or foreclosure, funds for services for the homeless, cash for food bank operations, and economic assistance to health-care providers, nonprofit organizations and businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

It puts $50 million of tax dollars into the account and allows the governor to seek funds from other public or private sources.

Another bill eliminates the two-year lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families as well as a requirement for adults getting these benefits to seek work.

Also, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program, can increase what it pays to those who provide services to the elderly and disabled, to ensure that they can meet the demand during the emergency.

Less clear, however, was whether House Republicans whose votes are needed would go along.

There, Democratic lawmakers were getting no traction from the GOP majority for proposals to specifically fund rental and mortgage assistance payments and additional cash for food banks.

House Democrats objected to the fact that a bill to continue state aid to education restores only half of the $128 million that is owed to schools in “district additional assistance.”

Lawmakers eliminated the more than $300 million that schools had been getting for needs ranging from books and computers to buses. Some of the dollars were restored in prior years; Gov. Doug Ducey in January promised to restore all the funding this coming fiscal year.

The GOP budget puts off the last payment until the 2021-2022 school year.

Democrats argued that schools, shorted for years, need the money now. They contend there is enough in current revenues to give them the cash, even if there is a downturn in the economy.

There was more consensus on legislation to maintain state aid to public schools if they remain closed past March 30, as long as they continue providing education to students.

The measure envisions online learning where available. But low-tech options are available, including using school buses to deliver lessons to students in rural areas.

Rep. Arlando Teller, D-Chinle, said that’s not really a solution in rural areas, including on reservations. “The bus routes are only as good as the weather,” he said, noting it is still snowing in some areas of the state.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, conceded that the solution is not perfect. But he said the problem, created by the viral pandemic and the order of Ducey and Kathy Hoffman, the state schools chief, to shutter schools through at least March 28, provides no easy answers.

“It is a Band-Aid,” he said. “It is something to tide us over during this emergency that we’re in, this pandemic threat that we’re facing.”

Less clear is when lawmakers will return to the Capitol after finishing the baseline budget.

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