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Arizona budget efforts fail due to two Republicans in state House of Representatives

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Efforts to adopt at least a basic budget for the coming fiscal year ran aground Wednesday as two Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee refused to go along, leaving it short of votes.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, sided with the Democrats on the committee in concluding there was no reason for the state, with what could be a $5-plus billion surplus, to leave all that money sitting around while priorities are not being funded.
"This is not paying attention to the revenues, not paying attention to what the needs of this state are,'' she said.
"There are a lot of things missing from this budget that are vital to our state in the coming year: water, border security and immigration, some education matters,'' Udall said. Also left out, she said, are smaller priorities like an operating shortfall at the Arizona State Hospital.
Udall's defection by itself would not have killed the plan. That still left seven Republicans on the 15-member panel.
But Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, also refused to go along, albeit for vastly different reasons. He derided the claim that the $13 billion plan to simply continue existing state programs is somehow a "skinny budget.''
"We have a $5.3 billion surplus,'' Hoffman said.
"That doesn't mean we're doing a great job,'' he continued. "That means that we're overtaxing the people that we represent.''
And Hoffman said he was afraid that the $13 billion plan would not be the last word.
"I don't want a 'shadow budget' where we pretend like we're passing a 'skinny budget,' doing our constitutional obligation, then we come through (later) and we pass a bunch of garbage spending bills,'' he said, inflating that skinny budget to something much larger. And without a commitment not to do that, Hoffman said he was unwilling to approve even this baseline.
But Hoffman, by holding out his vote -- and preventing the measure from advancing to the full House -- may have effectively dealt himself out of future negotiations.
"We offered an opportunity for the cheapest budget we can get,'' House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, told Capitol Media Services after the Wednesday vote. "And so, we'll just have to go by ear now and see what we can come up with.''
Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said doing nothing is not an option. She pointed out that the Arizona Constitution gives the legislature just one mandatory duty: adopt a spending plan for the next fiscal year.
More to the point, this isn't like Congress where a voice vote can approve a "continuing resolution'' to keep government operating. If there is not a final budget approved by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey by July 1, state agencies shut down.
Cobb said Wednesday's vote game her some "insight'' into what has to happen next.
What that means, she told Capitol Media Services, is starting again with what was in that baseline budget "and put in what we need to put in.''
There are only 31 Republicans in the 60-member House.
So without Hoffman -- and potentially other Republicans -- her only choice is to seek Democratic support to come up with a majority. And Democrats on the panel made it clear Wednesday they have things they need added to the spending plan to get their votes.
"I would call it a woefully inadequate budget,'' said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley. And with some $5 billion in excess funds, she said keeping spending at current levels is "austerity being continued absolutely needlessly.''
She cited for example, funding needs for the developmentally disabled, those needing long-term care. And Butler said it adds no money to the Department of Environmental Quality despite a finding last year by the state Auditor General's Office that the agency has filed to perform many requires tasks in monitoring groundwater for pollution -- in some cases, for 29 years.
It's not just the Democrats and some Republican lawmakers who want more spending. The governor himself made it clear Wednesday he was not interested in signing a spending plan in his last year in office that simply keeps things the way they are.
"Nobody's talked to me about a skinny budget,'' he told Capitol Media Services.
"We have a $5.2 billion surplus,'' Ducey said. "And we have real needs right now, including our border, wildfires that are happening across the state, and the Arizona state water commission.''
The creation of what would be called the Arizona Water Authority has been a top priority of the governor as the state, in the middle of a historic drought, looks for ways to supplement its water supply and not be forced to curtail growth. It would have the unique right to obtain and even own water, with the possibility of desalinating water from the Gulf of California.
It also would need $1 billion to get off the ground -- money that was not in the proposed skinny budget. And that, he said, made it veto bait.
"I presented the budget that I wanted the week after the State of the State,'' he said. "And I still want that budget.''
Hoffman for his part, defended torpedoing the skinny budget plan. He told Capitol Media Services that Wednesday's vote was "little more than a ruse to strip transparency out of the budget process,'' saying it appears it was always the intent to later add "billions in wasteful spending.''
"Leadership and Cobb have known for weeks that unless they committed to not doing a 'shadow budget' many Republican members would not be on board,'' Hoffman said. "Unfortunately, they refused to make that commitment.''
Cobb said the goal now likely becomes finding that middle ground that adds enough to the spending plan to pull in the necessary votes from Democrats without losing more Republicans.
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On Twitter: @azcapmedia