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It’s ‘Christmas tree’ time in June

The budget approved last week by lawmakers was stuffed with dozens of policy changes that have little, if anything at all, to do with solving the state’s massive deficit.

Some of the changes are relatively minor, such as requiring state agencies to re-bid some services, transferring enforcement of the tobacco tax from the Department of Revenue to the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control and requiring banks to send foreclosure notices to tenants of rental properties, not just to the property’s owner.

But others are raising the hackles of Democratic lawmakers, who say major policy shifts were hidden in the budget, thereby circumventing public debate and the vetting that typically happens in the legislative process.

“I think it’s very poor public policymaking. We’re trying to cram policy decisions into a budget document,” said House Minority Whip Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat.

At a June 8 press conference, House Democratic leaders said one such provision that was included in the budget could jeopardize billions of dollars in federal stimulus aid Arizona expects to receive for health care.

Part of the budget package included a permanent change to the law that would require everyone to provide proof of legal residency in the United States before receiving public benefits. The new law would provide 11 acceptable forms of identification, including birth certificates, passports and naturalization papers.

But that list is far shorter than the more than 40 documents allowed under federal law. Assistant Minority Leader Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat, said several billion dollars of funding could be at risk because the law applies to federal programs administered by the state and because the federal stimulus aid is contingent on states following federal guidelines.

And it could lead to other unintended consequences, said House Minority Leader David Lujan.

“One of the dangers when you’re putting policy into budget bills…is you don’t have a chance to properly vet it in committee and see what the issues are if it is implemented,” he said.

The proviso, like all others, was included in a budget reconciliation bill, commonly referred to as BRBs and pronounced “burbs,” which are designed to enact policy changes necessary for the budget.

For example, if lawmakers want to increase funding for a program, it may require a statutory change to adjust a funding formula. Likewise, if they want to direct spending in an agency to a particular program or create a new program, they do so in a BRB.

Budget bills can be a place to hide an issue that may be sensitive politically, and they can be used to include something that may not get enough votes to pass if it were to stand on its own. Adding language to a budget package, where it is merely one small piece of the puzzle, can mean the difference between success and failure.

Policy unrelated to the budget has always managed to creep into the BRBs, said St. Johns Democrat Rep. Jack Brown, who is in his 35th year at the Legislature. But in recent years, he said, it seems to have gotten more prevalent.

“I think we all just kind of let it happen. We talk like we’re not going to do it, but then we get down to the wire, and think, ‘Oh, we’ve got to have that. Let’s put it in a BRB.’ I think we just got careless in our administration,” he said.

One of the chief reasons it happens is because leaders in the majority — in this case, the Republicans — are trying to round up enough votes for the budget and use policy issues important to specific lawmakers as carrots to entice them to support the entire package.

“A lot of it is just negotiations. You get members’ votes with those things,” said Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican.

Crandall, who chairs the House Education Committee, was instrumental in adding dozens of policy changes to the K-12 Education BRB through negotiations with Senate Republican leaders.

Those various changes — allowing the expansion of Internet instruction, increasing the size of budget overrides school districts can ask voters to approve, permitting bonds to be issued for different expense categories — all resulted in House Republican votes on the budget, he said.

In essence, the BRBs often become what are known as “Christmas tree” bills, where a variety of provisions are tacked onto them like ornaments on the yuletide decoration. That ultimately leads to laws being changed and programs being created, expanded or ended without any public input.

“I think we’re doing an injustice…and it really undermines accountability and transparency in the process,” Campbell said.

But House Speaker Pro Tem Steve Yarbrough said many of the non-budget items that end up in BRBs have gone through the process as separate bills. For instance, the BRB for state revenues included a change to state law that makes a program allowing tax credits for corporations that give money for private school scholarships permanent instead of ending in 2011.

Yarbrough sponsored a separate bill, H2288, which did that. It was approved by a committee in January and by the entire House, by a 33-23 vote, in March.

“We wanted to, frankly, drive it home in this context,” he said of its inclusion in the budget package.

Other measures are included because there is a consensus among Republicans or the provision is one of the majority party’s priorities. An example of that would be the repeal of the state equalization tax, a statewide property tax that was suspended for three years in 2006. Republicans in both the House and Senate have made ending the tax permanently a goal this year.

Yarbrough acknowledged, however, that some of the BRB provisions were never introduced as separate bills and weren’t debated extensively in the committee process.

“It’s a valid point to discuss. The BRBs still went through Appropriations, but some of them were a stretch and were even added on the floor,” he said.

Several dozen BRB provisions were added to the budget between May 26, when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted on the legislation, and June 4, when both the Senate and the House approved the bills. Included were provisions requiring state-approved identification for public benefits, a requirement that the Department of Corrections seek a new contract on food service, various changes to AHCCCS operations and a host of changes to the laws governing school districts.

Additionally, many of the BRB items added in the Senate committee were never discussed when the House Appropriations Committee tackled that chamber’s budget bills earlier in May.

Brown said Arizonans could be in for more of the same later this month if Republican leaders and Gov. Jan Brewer are able to agree on a budget. Because the Senate delayed all non-budget legislation until this month in favor of focusing on the budget, lawmakers are now facing a torrent of bills, many of which won’t get heard given the time constraints.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of those going in now because we’ve got a lot of bills to try to handle in less than three weeks. We’re in a heck of a mess,” he said.

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