Back in early May, someone close to the Governor’s Office told me that Gov. Brewer had worked up her own budget proposal and was simply waiting to release it until the Legislature had tied itself up in knots over the details of what everyone expected would be a fiscal 2010 spending plan that cuts services for Arizona’s low-income families, children and the elderly.
The source also said Brewer had a budget plan all along, details and everything, and was just waiting for the right moment to swoop in and end the stalemate among GOP lawmakers negotiating the budget. By offering a more moderate proposal, one that includes tax increases to cover part of the deficit, the governor was hoping to galvanize enough support among lawmakers and, if so, be seen as rescuing the state from an unpopular strategy that includes deep cuts to education, health care and a host of other programs designed to assist thousands of residents.
It made sense. After all, what kind of a governor would want to sit on the sidelines, as Brewer appeared to have been doing, while lawmakers work to solve the state’s most-pressing problem? Certainly, there are risks to crafting a budget that starts out with a $3 billion deficit. But anyone who assumes the position of governor must inherently believe that their own judgment is best and, therefore, would do the state a disservice by standing silent at a time of crisis.
After she released details, five months into the session, it became clear at least that Brewer has not been standing by idly. With the release of her full budget plan, though, she has put herself in direct conflict with legislative leaders who have different thoughts on how the state should manage its finances.
Until the end of May, though, Brewer and her staff had done a fairly effective job of keeping details within their inner circle. Asking for Brewer’s thoughts on the budget had been a monumental waste of time for reporters at the Capitol. Spokespeople said nothing. And Brewer stuck to generalities while regurgitating her five-point plan in front of various groups of stakeholders.
Even the minutia was useless and, at times, just plain confusing. Reporters who cover the governor typically develop a sort of sixth-sense that helps them determine what message the governor is trying to convey even though it might not be said overtly. For instance, a governor who normally signs bills immediately after they reach their desk might be sending a signal of displeasure if they say they will need to take some time to study the merits or legalities of a particular piece of legislation that has been passed.
But these types of signals from Brewer were difficult to distinguish. For instance, when asked early on whether the temporary tax she proposed would be a necessary element to getting her signature on a budget, she said it was only a last resort in case all other budget-balancing options were to fail. But only days later, she answered the same question by saying it is, indeed, necessary to raise taxes and that lawmakers will have to come to that conclusion eventually.
That sort of back-and-forth also occurred when Brewer announced in February that she would release a full budget proposal “in the near future,” and then said weeks later that she had decided to leave the details to lawmakers.
Since then, however, leaders in the House and Senate have failed to craft a budget that would carry the support of rank-and-file members. Senate President Bob Burns and House Speaker Kirk Adams have been in a holding pattern after passing budget measures through committee, both saying they don’t have the votes to pass a budget on the floor of either chamber. And for much of that time, they said they would like to hear from the governor, so they could craft a budget that she might support.
Brewer’s people must have thought releasing the budget late would bring more lawmakers to the table, perhaps in desperation as the deadline approaches. But it also sets up a winner-take-all situation for Brewer and the Legislature, which means at least one side has to lose.
If the idea was to allow Brewer to jump into the budget fray and save the day, then any street cred to be gained by Brewer would be contingent on her ability to sell her plan to lawmakers and to satisfy at least some of her goals in its eventual passing. If she fails to do so, then she will appear to have lost a major battle waged between her office and members of her own party.
If this wasn’t the strategy all along, then circumstances set in motion what could be a huge political victory – or embarrassment – for the Brewer administration going into an election year.
Either way, there’s a lot at stake.