It was, without question, a strange set of circumstances that led to the unanimous approval of four budget bills on July 6. Four months of infighting among Republicans. A legal challenge of the original GOP-authored state budget. Sweeping vetoes by a Republican governor. A last-minute effort to involve Democrats. And Bob Burns letting lose a tirade of criticism for whom many people expected to be the Republicans’ next best hope for retaining the Ninth Floor.
Yet, somehow, 70 or more lawmakers were able to agree on the four budget bills. And nobody in the House or the Senate opposed them.
So, it’s notable anytime the Arizona Legislature votes unanimously for anything of substance; lawmakers do find themselves in accord, perhaps a dozen or more times each year, but usually on minor, technical changes. Yet the newfound camaraderie between Republican and Democratic lawmakers exhibited on the first day of the special session seems to send a strong signal to the Gov. Jan Brewer that the Legislature intends to assert control over the rest of the budget process – whether Brewer likes the final package or not.
After all, it would be very difficult, if not completely impractical, for the governor to reject a budget that has solid bipartisan support, even if it doesn’t include her proposal for a sales tax increase. Forty representatives and 20 senators can override her veto.
That doesn’t mean Brewer won’t get what she wants; legislative leadership plans to meet tomorrow to discuss other budget issues that have yet to be resolved, and lawmakers still need to come up with the revenue to plug a deficit of at least $2 billion. A tax increase may be used to raise revenue, more cuts may be enacted, the state may sell additional assets or even borrow into the future.
That will be decided sometime after lawmakers restart the special session on July 13, which, by the way, is Brewer’s deadline to sign or reject the 180 or so non-budget bills that were passed in the final weeks of the regular session. The weeklong delay, intentionally or not, removes any possibility that Brewer could hold hostage any non-budget bills while trying to negotiate a positive resolution to her sales tax proposal.
Meanwhile, Brewer has given all appearances that she’s thrilled by the Legislature’s swift action. She told Capitol Times reporter Jeremy Duda that the additional $400 million for education included in H2001 shows that lawmakers have responded to her calls to protect public schools’ funding and that they intend to come up with some way to raise the revenue necessary for a balanced budget.
That seems logical to a point; Brewer has indeed been pushing for shallower cuts to education, and her vetoes made possible the second round of budget bills. But then she went on to say it wouldn’t surprise her if lawmakers passed a sales tax increase on their own. In other words, no referendum.
Hmmm. Not sure what to make of that, considering it was not possible to rally a simple majority to approve a ballot measure that would allow voters to decide for themselves whether to raise sales taxes. So, rounding up a legislative supermajority to support a measure that would raise taxes without asking voters seems like wishful thinking. Politically – and for some, ideologically – that scenario is completely unpalatable.
Even after Brewer convinced Senate President Bob Burns to prop up her sales tax referral in the final days of the regular session, it’s highly unlikely he would vote for legislation that increases taxes without allowing voters to weigh in. Add to that list Sens. Russell Pearce, Jack Harper, Ron Gould, Thayer Verschoor, Jim Waring, Steve Pierce, Chuck Gray, Pamela Gorman, Sylvia Allen and others – and that’s just in the Senate.
Many Republicans in the House also have warned Brewer to count them out. And Democrats in both chambers have withheld support for raising the state sales tax.
So, to me, the unanimous vote on the four budget bills carries a much different message than Brewer seems to have received. One way of looking at it is that lawmakers are saying she can veto all she wants, but to no avail. And that wouldn’t bode well for her tax plan.
With 2010 around the corner, Democrats wouldn’t be too upset if Brewer emerges from this chaos looking as though she lacks the political muscle to push her agenda. And, judging by Burns’ recent comments about Brewer’s leadership abilities, it might not disappoint him too much either.
In this case, unanimity among lawmakers, many of whom weren’t involved in serious budget talks until last week, should be somewhat unsettling to Brewer, even if she did get part of what she had requested.