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Dems stockpiling political ammunition for 2010

Democrats have tried nearly every conceivable strategy in the past four months and have, at times, sounded like a broken record as they seek an invitation from Republicans to negotiate the fiscal 2010 budget.

Yet their loss could turn out to be their biggest weapon when the party tries once again to seize control of the Legislature and to re-take the Governor’s Office in the 2010 election.

In addition to holding press briefings and making floor speeches, Democrats have gone out of their way to stage town-hall style meetings on the budget in about two-dozen venues across the state, to invite informal testimony from average people affected by the first round of budget reductions, and to offer alternatives to erase a $3 billion budget deficit.

Republicans, though, blame Democrats, particularly former Gov. Janet Napolitano, for overspending in previous years, which they say has led to the state’s largest-ever budget deficit in fiscal 2010. And they say it’s up to the GOP to make the tough decisions necessary to rescue the state from the brink of financial disaster.

For the most part, Democrats have been shrugged off by the GOP. And Republicans have argued that the media war being waged by the minority party represents an attempt to sway public opinion without offering a practical path through the budget impasse.

Minority leaders admit that their primary target is the public and, by extension, the Republican governor. Democrats hope that the public will put pressure on their representatives to consider the budget alternatives the minority is proposing and that Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, will listen.

Senate Minority Leader Jorge Luis Garcia said Republican lawmakers are too entrenched in their own values to be swayed by their colleagues.

“I am not going to convince the majority of the Republicans to the virtue of our ways,” he said.

So, Garcia said, minority members are “playing to our constituencies.”

The prevailing view at the Capitol is that Democrats are gearing up for the 2010 elections, though minority leaders say that’s not the case. They are expected to exploit the cuts made to agencies’ budgets to rally support behind Democratic candidates and to argue that Republicans have gutted the budgets of programs people need most in hard economic times.

Senior Democrats insisted the main goal is to be invited to negotiations, however late in the game, to restore or protect funding for everything from public schools and universities to KidsCare to Child Protective Services caseworkers and Department of Revenue personnel, to mention a few.

Democrats’ wish lists are long, and they admit their solutions — borrowing, putting off monthly payments, suspending tax credits — are less than ideal.

Still, they say their jobs would have been much easier if they had chosen to sit back, let the Republicans take the blame and wait for the “day of reckoning” at the polls.

“We make decisions based on what we think is best for Arizona and what we think meets our duties as representatives of the state,” said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the House assistant minority leader. “It is not about an election. It is about real people and real Arizonans.”

During the first four months of session, Democrats have sought to portray their party as the conscience of the Legislature.

They have tried to humanize cuts to programs and agencies that have been proposed by Republicans. They sift through line-item cuts and seek out Arizona residents who would be impacted by funding reductions in an effort to illustrate that behind the numbers are thousands of children, the elderly and low-income families that rely on the state for help.

It has become almost a daily ritual for Democrats to use the opening minutes of floor session, when lawmakers normally introduce guests, to remind their colleagues that the Republican budget cuts will impact thousands of Arizonans enrolled in government health care and welfare programs, as well as students at all levels of the public school system.

While their strategies coalesce, House Democrats have employed different tactics than their Senate counterparts.

Generally, House Democrats have geared their message toward the media, working most publicly from the Capitol where they hold weekly press briefings.

Democrats from both chambers have organized town-hall meetings across Arizona to brief the public about the budget options proposed by Republican lawmakers and to drum up support for their counter-proposals.

House Democrats, though, have floated a more detailed budget plan than what Senate Democrats have released so far.

The House minority party’s budget plan for fiscal year 2010 would cut about $40 million from state agencies and would restore almost $615 million of cuts that were made in January when the Legislature addressed a $1.6 billion deficit in fiscal year 2009.

House Democrats proposed a total of $433 million in spending reductions: $293 million in targeted cuts, $100 million of fund sweeps and $39.7 million in lump-sum cuts to state agencies. Additionally, $142 million in payments to AHCCCS and the Department of Economic Security would be deferred until the following fiscal year. Also, $75 million of university funding due at the end of fiscal 2010 would not be paid until the beginning of fiscal 2011.

The House Democrats’ plan would increase revenue by suspending some tax credits, allowing vehicle owners to register their cars for five years, freezing the rate of property tax paid toward school funding and applying a one-tenth-of-a-cent tax per kilowatt hour for all energy generated with fossil fuels.The House Democrats’ budget also would reinstate a property tax that was suspended in 2006, which would add an estimated $250 million in revenue.

Senate Democrats, on the other hand, have offered general outlines of budget alternatives and figures.

Their options list, which was released in February, relied heavily on federal stimulus aid and included securitizing the state’s lottery proceeds, sweeping agency funds, continuing the state equalization tax, and deferring some payments to companies contracted to provide services to state agencies.

The plan would continue some $580 million in spending cuts approved during the first round of adjustments earlier this year.

To raise revenue, the Senate Democrats also proposed temporarily suspending individual and corporate income tax credits.

Democratic lawmakers’ calls to be included in the budget talks or to restore funding for certain programs have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears.

But on some occasions their requests have helped push the Republican-controlled Legislature to act. In January, the Legislature had reduced the Department of Economic Security’s budget by $90 million. The department, in turn, cut funding for child care by $25 million.

The drumbeat to restore funding for child care steadily increased soon after the reduction was announced, reaching a crescendo when families started receiving a form letter from DES telling them that their child care subsidy was going to be cut.

In March, Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor and other Democrats held a press conference to urge Brewer to call a special session to allow lawmakers to pass legislation appropriating federal stimulus dollars for child care subsidy.

The opposition grew until after the Legislature restored the funds on March 12.

“Just putting a reality on why it was so important — I think that’s where we came in to be helpful with that,” Landrum Taylor said.

Republicans have argued back that the magnitude of the deficit calls for hard decisions. They also said budget reductions to certain areas — education, for one — has been grossly exaggerated in the media and that they are fully aware of the pain that their decisions may create in the future.

Many Republicans also point out that Democrats negotiated last year’s budget with a handful of Republicans, which occurred after the GOP majority failed to muster support for their plan. That budget was built on overly optimistic revenue projections and locked the state into overspending, they said.

Sen. John Huppenthal, a Chandler Republican, said the minority’s “grand strategy” this session has been to leave it to Republicans to deal with the budget crisis. He added that the budget-balancing options Democrats offered were just coy and too “unattractive” to be seriously considered.

“What they are doing is playing a political game. They are not putting themselves in position to make a difference. They are putting themselves in a position to politically benefit,” he said.

Sen. Ron Gould said all the Democrats have done is “political spin.”

Gould said Democrats won’t vote for what the Republicans would come up with — no matter what the budget ultimately looks like — because minority members don’t want their fingerprints on it.

So far, Republicans have failed to gather the votes needed to pass their budget proposal through the House or the Senate. With the June 30 deadline looming, Democrats say they are confident Republicans will relent and ask for their support.

“We are willing to get our hands dirty, too,” Senate Assistant Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said.

Sen. Linda Lopez, the minority whip, said she has thought long and hard about what to do this session and has promised to engage in negotiations when asked by the other party.

“I could just let the Republicans go out there and do what they want, and I will just vote ‘no,’ and then they can face the consequences of the polls in 2010,” she said. “(But) I can’t in good conscience stand by.”

Three months after Brewer announced a five-point budget plan that included very little detail and a broad call for a $1 billion in temporary tax increase, Republican legislative leaders still have not bought into her plan. Instead, they have stressed the need to keep taxes low during a recession to avoid further harm to businesses and individuals.

The call for a temporary tax increase remains the single most divisive issue between the Republican governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature. Meanwhile, the legislative leaders have yet to produce a budget draft that has the support of a majority in either chamber. Plus, House and Senate Republicans don’t totally agree with each other on all points.

“We don’t have the exact same level of agreement,” Senate President Bob Burns said recently. “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.”

No matter what happens with the budget, Democrats are stockpiling political ammunition for use in the 2010 elections.

Already, Democrats have decried the first round of cuts to education and social welfare programs, and have achieved small victories in both arenas. They have been more successful in framing the debate in the public this year than in years when both the Legislature and the Governor’s Office were controlled by the GOP.

They also have put the Republicans on the defensive. Republicans have had to react by arguing that the education cuts were minimal compared to what other agencies have had to endure, especially if one took into account the fact that education expenditure comprises about 40 percent of the budget.

Farrell Quinlan, chairman of the GOP in Legislative District 20, said it remains to be seen whether Brewer’s clash with Republican legislative leaders on her proposal to temporarily raise taxes would help the minority party in the election in 2010.

Quinlan said no one remembers what happens before a budget is passed.

“If the scoreboard is a balanced budget and if a tax increase can be avoided, the Republican majority will have a very proud accomplishment to crow about,” he said.

In a growing economy, criticisms against cuts to programs may prove effective, but Quinlan said the electorate in 2010 would have gone through a few years of belt-tightening at home. In a shrinking economy, voters might have lost jobs and might have to cut back on spending. Voters will view the budget cuts in this context, he said.

“A percentage cut in somebody’s budget will look a whole lot better than a 100 percent cut, which a lot of the voters will experience when it comes to their jobs or even their home situation,” he said.

Brewer, if she seeks a full term as governor in 2010, is generally considered to be more exposed to the fallout from an unpopular budget than lawmakers seeking reelection. Many of the lawmakers are in relatively safe districts, whether they are Democratic- or Republican-leaning areas, because of sizable voter registration advantages.

Not so for Brewer, who will have to court voters across the state, including moderates and independents who may be swayed by her decisions during her two-year stint on the Ninth Floor.

The bulk of the Arizona Democratic Party’s press statements in the past few months have focused on the new governor’s performance. One statement from Democratic headquarters tagged Brewer as “No Plan Jan.”

Democratic Party spokesperson Jeff Stapleton said leadership starts at the top and they are not seeing it right now from Brewer.

Still, Garcia downplayed criticism that Democrats were engaging in political gamesmanship, and he pointed out that the budget debate is being framed two different ways: Democratic candidates criticize Republicans for the harm the cuts are doing, while Republican candidates blast Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals.

“You can throw all the barbs you want,” he said. “The reality is it depends on how many folks you get out to vote.”

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