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AZ Senate passes $17.8 B spending plan, heads to AZ House

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- State senators approved a $17.8 billion spending plan early Wednesday negotiated between Gov Katie Hobbs and Republican legislative leaders as some Democrats agreed to go along figuring it was the best -- and only -- deal they were likely to get.

The vote on the bills that make up the budget came less than 24 hours after every Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee refused to support the plan as unacceptable.

What happened in the interim is the governor herself started working the phones to bring several of her party members in line. And what Hobbs was telling them is that there are a lot of good things in the plan -- and that it wasn't going to get any better.

"We have worked really hard to make sure that we have funding for education, for this K-12 education, and housing, especially homelessness,'' said Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein. "And we have gotten this into the budget.''

The Tempe Democrat said party members remain "very unhappy'' with the fact that the deal negotiated by the Democratic governor leaves in place a universal voucher plan which allows any Arizona student to get tax dollars to attend private or parochial schools or even get funds for home schooling. She said the hundreds of millions of dollars that will eat up makes future spending prospects for anything else "look bleak.''

But Epstein said she was forced to vote for the package, saying that was the price Democrats had to pay to get their priorities included.

"I did not want and do not want to vote 'yes' on these budget bills,'' she said. "But in order to keep the funding for K-12 and to keep the funding for housing and to establish a homelessness fund, I had to vote 'yes.' ''

The governor, in a prepared statement, put her own spin on it.

"Today we showed Arizonans we can reach across the aisle, compromise and make government work,'' Hobbs said.

Epstein, however, suggested that the governor, with that praise for Democrats finally agreeing to the plan she negotiated with GOP leaders, was being less than sincere.

"We would have liked to been acknowledged for our dedication for our prudent budgeting,'' she said, and for trying to limit the unrestricted vouchers the governor agreed to be in the plan.

"But instead of being acknowledged for being practical leaders, we've been called 'bickering politicians' by the governor's communications director,'' Epstein said. That refers to comments by Chrstian Slater who, just a day earlier, took a swat at Democrats for trying to pull apart Hobbs' deal with the Republicans.

Epstein said that, theoretically speaking, Democrats could hold out for a few more weeks, as the new fiscal year that the budget will finance does not begin until July 1. And she said it might even result in a budget more to the liking of party members.

"But this is the budget we have before us today,'' Epstein said. "So we have to make a decision on this budget.''

The package now await House action later Wednesday.

But Epstein's contention of whether a better deal might be negotiated is speculative at best.

Senate President Pro-Tem T.J. Shope said it always was clear, what with the election of a Democratic governor in November, that Republicans would not get the budget that might otherwise be enacted with a Republican as the state's chief executive. And the Coolidge Republican said they were prepared to negotiate.

But he said GOP leaders also made it clear to the governor from the start that some issues were non negotiable. And that includes continuation of the universal vouchers that were enacted just last year.

That didn't stop legislative Democrats from making a last-ditch pitch to put in some restrictions.

Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, sought to cap the total number of universal vouchers at 69,000 students. She said that allows for a 25% increase from current about 56,000 students who qualify for the expanded program while keeping it from getting to a point where it could add nearly $500 million annually to the state budget within three years.

Republicans voted en masse against that idea.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, had no better luck with her proposal to require the fingerprinting of teachers and staff in schools that accept voucher payments.

"This is about making sure that anybody that has any type of criminal background whatsoever is not going to be allowed to teach in any of these private schools,'' she said. "That is already the case in public schools.''

But that drew derision from Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale. He pointed out that Democrats refused to support a proposal that would have required anyone who must register as a sex offender to provide notice to any school attended by that person's child.

"So now, we're hearing that they're concerned about the kids,'' Kern said. "I think this is a lot of politicizing.''

Despite both amendments going down to defeat, both Miranda and Marsh voted for the part of the budget that includes those unlimited universal vouchers.

Marsh said voting against it was not a realistic option. She said there was "some good stuff'' in the package -- even without a cap on vouchers.

And there's something else.

"The alternative was worse,'' said Marsh, meaning a budget that excluded things the Democrats wanted and got into the package.

One is reallocating $68 million now earmarked for only high-performing schools to instead be spread among all schools on a permanent basis. The approved plan also has a $300 million cash infusion for K-12 schools, albeit on a one-time basis.

And it also includes suspending, at least for the coming school year, the constitutional limit on K-12 spending. That ensures schools will get to use the money lawmakers are allocating without having to wait for last-minute legislative approval, as happened just this school year.

But Sen. Lela Alston, the longest-serving Democratic lawmaker -- she has been in and out of the Legislature since 1977 -- said she couldn't support any plan to provide an unlimited number of vouchers to students to attend private schools at state expense, saying it risks financial disaster.

Alston compared it to the "alt fuels'' crisis three decades ago when lawmakers agreed to provide generous tax credits to people who bought vehicles that could run on something other than gasoline or converted their existing gas-fueled cars and trucks to an alternative.

Lawmakers were sold the legislation on the promise that only perhaps 300 people would make requests, with a $10 million price tag. It eventually ballooned to more than $600 million before legislators repealed the credits.

"I was here for that,'' Alston said. "And I think that this has the same potential.''

Sen. Priya Sundareshan of Tucson who, like Alston, voted against each and every part of the budget, was particularly unhappy with a tax break that the conservative Arizona Freedom Caucus got inserted into the package that Hobbs approved. Only those who have paid some taxes in the past three years will be entitled to get a one-time $250 credit for each child, up to $750.

"That means that the most vulnerable, the most needy families will not actually receive the benefits of this tax rebate,'' Sundareshan said. She also said it denies relief to those who have no state income tax liability, possibly because they are getting tax credits for donating to other programs for the homeless or education.

But Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, one of the architects of the plan, defended it.

"Arizona families are being crushed right now,'' he said, with rising costs of food and fuel. "Our job is to do all we can to support Arizona families and Arizona citizens to the best of our ability.''

Hoffman also pointed out that the state enters the new budget year with a $2.4 billion surplus.

"It means you're taxing your citizenry too much,'' he said. "It means you're taking too much of their treasure, their hard-earned resources that they poured their blood, sweat and tears into being able to produce.''

But most of those dollars were allocated to various programs and projects to put together the package and get the votes -- the price for admission that Epstein decried.

That included not just the additional dollars for K-12 education but also a decision by GOP leaders to let each person who agreed to vote for the budget get an allocation of dollars for a favorite project.

For Hoffman and other area lawmakers that was $87.5 million for an extension of State Route 24, a new freeway being built to connect Loop 202 into Pinal County.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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