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State lawmakers plot early session push on budget

Arizona House and Senate leaders plan to place embargoes of varying intensity on most non-budget legislation early in their 2009 session to help lawmakers focus on the state's fiscal crisis right from the start.

Also, the session's first week will include a program of briefings and presentations intended to put the severity of the budget issue and its possible solutions front and center before lawmakers, the leaders told The Associated Press in separate interviews.

The incoming House and Senate leaders said the emphasis is needed because of the gravity of the state's budget crisis. The state faces a projected $1.2 billion shortfall in its current $9.9 billion budget, and legislative budget analysts have said the next year's shortfall could range between $2.2 billion and $3 billion, depending on what carry-over changes are made to keep the current budget in the black.

"We want to turn up the intensity on the things that we need to do," said Senate President-designate Bob Burns, a Peoria Republican. "We're in serious trouble."

As described Dec. 22 by the leaders, the Senate's planned hold on non-budget bills appears harder than the House version.

Burns said he plans to implement a previously disclosed intention to generally not allow committees to formally consider non-budget legislation until the new budget is approved. In the interim, the committees will help with budget work by reviewing programs.

Meanwhile, the House will allow its committees to consider non-budget bills while budget work is ongoing but most non-budget bills legislation will then be paused before it is considered by the full House, said the incoming House speaker, Rep. Kirk Adams, R-Mesa.

There will be sentiment to adjourn the session once the budget is completed, and that's one reason why the House wants to at least start work on other bills, Adams said. "We're going to walk and chew gum at the same time."

Adams, Burns and other incoming leaders of chambers' Republican majorities met Dec. 20 to plot strategy for the upcoming session.

Lawmakers had contemplated a mid-December special session to try to erase part of the current budget's shortfall, but departing legislative leaders recently dropped the idea in a surprise move that drew criticism from Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.

The early budget push planned for the next session recalls a smaller-scale effort made in January 2008 when Burns, then the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, began hearings the week before the session started.

That effort produced no visible results.

After months of start-and-stop budget negotiations as work on non-budget legislation continued, the Legislature ultimately approved a Napolitano-backed budget on June 26, just days before the last fiscal ended on June 30. Most majority Republicans were opposed.

The Senate's incoming minority leader, Democratic Sen. Jorge Garcia of Tucson, said he welcomed the front-loading of budget work.

"That's the best idea – get it done, get it done before it's too late," Garcia said. "It's going to be hard."

It doesn't particularly matter if there's no time for other bills, Garcia said. "They can wait for another legislative session."

Burns referred to the 2009 first week's still-developing program of briefings and presentations as a "budget summit," while Adams called it a "budget boot camp."

Part of that effort will be to "solicit some input from off-campus – private sector, city (and) county government folks, whatever," Burns said.

Though the two chambers' plans to delay considering non-budget bills will be different, "there's a lot of agreement between the House and the Senate on when we should get those things done," Adams said. "So we're going to be working very fast."

Those agreements include a target of completing action on the budget within 100 days – roughly by the end of April – and using the formal processes of House and Senate Appropriations processes to try to pound out a budget, Adams said.

Recent years have seen a process of major budget disputes being resolved in closed-door leadership meetings, either with Napolitano or her legislative proxies in the room.

Napolitano is expected to leave office by late January once the U.S. Senate confirms her appointment as U.S. homeland security secretary. Republican Secretary of State Jan Brewer would replace her as governor.

In explaining the different approaches, Adams cited the fact that 20 of the House's 60 members will be freshmen. In contrast, only two of the Senate's 30 members will lack prior legislative experience.

"So there's no single way for both bodies to operate and that's why you're going to see just a few differences," he said.

Burns said it doesn't matter if the two legislative chambers use different processes. "We have the same goal," he said.

Though rank-and-file members in the past have complained when the two chambers have gotten out of sync in their processing of bills, Burns said fixing the budget problem has to determine the process.

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