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Budget deadlines become a moving target

A lawmaker half-jokingly predicted several weeks ago that this year’s legislative session might turn out to be the session that never ends.

For now at least, it is shaping up to be the session of cancelled budget hearings.

During the last two weeks of April, the Senate scheduled a budget hearing twice, only to cancel both.  On April 28, legislative leaders also canceled a joint Appropriations committee meeting that had been called earlier in the week to flesh out a budget-balancing option to sweep $210 million of cities’ impact fees.

House and Senate leaders were also supposed to hold a joint press briefing early in the last week of April to update the public on the budget work both chambers have accomplished so far. That, too, was shelved.

These cancellations highlight the difficulty that legislative leaders face in producing a final product that can needs the support of 16 Republicans in the Senate and 31 Republicans in the House.

GOP leaders have emphasized that the most recent budget document is just a draft proposal, which only reinforces the view that the work is far from complete.

It’s notable that the Legislature — particularly the Senate — has focused primarily on solving the $3 billion deficit, while trying to establish how much money Arizona will receive from the federal government as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Now, there’s another Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the horizon, set for May 5, but already there are concerns of another cancellation.

Sen. Russell Pearce, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said things are tentative. “We set the date in hopes that we can get a budget out of here. I think every week that we don’t get a budget out, it is harmful,” he said.

Negotiating a budget can be particularly tricky. If the minority caucuses of the two chambers and the Governor’s Office are included, there would be at least five parties in the negotiating room.

This year, the minority party in the House and the Senate has so far not been invited to participate in the negotiations, which results in a smaller pool of lawmakers from which approvals can be drawn.

While House and Senate leaders work to get the support of members in their respective caucuses, they also have to iron out the differences between the two chambers’ draft proposals.

Once they get past that, leaders will have to convince Gov. Jan Brewer to sign the budget bills.

Legislative leaders have taken the heat from the minority members for failing to come up with a final budget at this point of the session and for conducting their budget meetings behind closed doors. They said agencies, particularly the education community, need to know now how their budgets would be reduced so they could prepare and adjust accordingly.

When the GOP did release a budget draft, the majority was criticized that the proposal was “incomplete.” And some of the criticism was levied by Republicans.

At least a few rank-and-file Republicans have complained privately that legislative leaders have yet to sit down with Gov. Jan Brewer to negotiate a budget, which they said would also take weeks to complete. They argued that unless Brewer weighs in and gives her green light, any budget proposal remains precisely that — just a proposal.

But a cursory review of where budget negotiators were at this time last year showed they did not appear to be any further ahead in passing a final budget.

Last year, the budget meetings were also conducted behind closed doors. Virtually nothing was known about the specifics of the negotiations or the key components of proposals. But leaked details would dribble out of the negotiating rooms and show up on news pages.

Last year, lawmakers had to fix the fiscal 2008 budget before they crafted the fiscal year 2009 budget. Similarly, this year lawmakers have had to fix the fiscal year 2009 budget before they could begin work to complete the fiscal year 2010 budget.

But there were major differences between then and now.

Last year, Gov. Janet Napolitano, the Democrats and the majority party were negotiating the budget, discussing items line-by-line, making for a more inclusive process. Republicans would later try for several weeks to get a budget agreement among themselves. They would fail. In the end, a handful of Republicans would join the minority in passing the fiscal year 2009 budget.

This year, no structured meetings are taking place between Brewer and legislative leaders on the budget. That is, Brewer, lawmakers and staff are not sitting down in the same room to go through details of the budget.

Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia said he thinks the frustration by minority members stems from the fact that the process is out of their control.

“Last year, there was some safeguard — the Ninth Floor,” Garcia said.

“I would even tell you that the fact that they (Republicans) released those budget drafts is great,” Garcia said, adding that previous year’s negotiators, who included Democrats, never released a second or third draft proposal.

Marsha Arzberger, a retired lawmaker and a former minority leader, said there two ways to go about it: The majority can either involve the minority, or just negotiate behind closed doors among themselves.

Arzberger said it makes for a “smoother negotiation” and a “better conclusion” when both parties were involved.

But in any case, “A 90-member committee does not make for very good work,” said Arzberger, a Democrat.

Crafting the budget through careful deliberations in executive session has its benefits, she said.

“Now if everything is public and everybody is involved, it becomes something where people are only talking to the press. The purpose of having a closed door is so you can be frank. You can actually work out things without having to posture,” she said.

A few weeks back, Senate leaders planned to gauge support for a draft budget among Senate Republicans. It was shelved, in large part because the plan then was still $500 million short of eliminating the state’s deficit. The most recent draft proposal addressed that shortfall.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, pointed out at the time, “No one is going to promise their vote until they see how we are going to close that hole. I wouldn’t.”

After the floor session on April 28, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray said, “I can tell you that we don’t have the package completely put-together to get the votes. And so to say there’s not the votes — there is not — because there is not a package that has been presented in whole or in total.”

On April 27, Burns said after the floor session that leaders from the House and Senate planned to hold a press conference that afternoon. The purpose of the press briefing was to announce “where we are at and (to discuss) a couple of the items that we want to work on here in the immediate future.”

That’s the press conference that never happened.

One Republican lawmaker, speaking on background, said the press conference was shelved because there were still considerable “hot-button” differences between the House and the Senate proposals.

Gould, one of the most conservative lawmakers, made a cryptic remark on the floor that tended to support the view that the bridge between the House and the Senate was still considerable.

Gould said he has picked June 30 at 11:59 p.m. in the pool for sine die because he is “not willing to let liberals in the House Republican caucus push me around, or push my fellow conservatives around.”

Burns admitted much work still needs to be done to reconcile differences between the House and Senate.

“We don’t have the exact same level of agreement. There are items that the House wants to do that the Senate is not ready to do yet and vice versa, and so we are going to work those out,” Burns said. “Those are going to have to be debated and negotiated, and we are going to have to clean that up.”

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