Arizona lawmakers OK contingency budget including $50 million COVID-19 fund for governor

Arizona lawmakers OK contingency budget including $50 million COVID-19 fund for governor

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series

Gov. Doug Ducey addressed the Legislature in this January file photo, with House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Bowers in the background.

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PHOENIX — Lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a $11.8 billion contingency state budget.

The action came after House Republicans caved to senators' demands to provide up to $50 million for the governor to use, at his discretion, on programs designed to help Arizonans economically affected by COVID-19. That ranges from cash to prevent evictions or foreclosures and services for the homeless, to cash for food bank operations, and economic assistance to health-care providers, nonprofit organizations and businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

UPDATES: Tucson area coronavirus developments, March 31: Here's what we know

But House Republicans blocked a proposal to provide additional cash benefits to those who have been fired, laid off, furloughed or otherwise cannot go to work because of the virus.

And they used procedural maneuvers to preclude the Democrats from even being able to offer other proposals.

The plan is not expected to be the last word on spending and tax cuts for the coming fiscal year. Instead, it is designed to have something in place to ensure continued operation of state government beyond June 30 if for some reason the Legislature cannot convene again before then due to the pandemic.

It also includes contingency plans to ensure continued public education in the face of schools that are going to remain closed at least through April 17.

Republicans rejected demands by Democrats for more.

Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, sought to enact what would be Arizona's first law against price gouging.

"It is very hard to fathom that people would engage in price gouging, attempting to profit from a crisis by increasing the prices of essential goods and services,'' she said. "This profiting from other people's misery is abhorrent.''

It would have given the attorney general authority to go after anyone in the supply chain who raised prices by more than 25 percent over pre-emergency levels on "items that are necessary to health, safety and welfare.''

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, derided her effort to tack that on to the budget, saying it fits into the philosophy that "no crisis should be wasted.''

Bowers said it's not necessary and that the system is working the way it should. He praised businesses that have changed the production lines and revamped their employees' roles to deal with the needs created by the pandemic.

"That's extremely commendable and it shows that they believe not just in capitalism but in free enterprises,'' he said.

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, had no better luck getting a vote on her proposal to suspend all foreclosures, evictions, car repossessions and utility shutoffs during an emergency like the one Gov. Doug Ducey declared last week.

"People are terrified,'' she said.

"They cannot go to work through no fault of their own,'' Engel said, whether because they have been laid off or their health conditions preclude them. "We cannot throw those people out on the street, make them homeless during a health crisis.''

Bowers said there is no need for state action, citing direction by the Federal Housing Finance Administration that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy up mortgages, forego evictions for at least 50 days. He also said most utilities have voluntarily agreed not to turn off power or water and that Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said no one will be evicted from city-owned homes there.

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Related to this story

Gov. Doug Ducey said Sunday he is allocating $2 million from the Department of Economic Security for the state to contract with the Crisis Response Center to run a 2-1-1 service to provide information on COVID-19.

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