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Dem leader says bipartisan budget talks will be ‘painful’

Legislative leaders (from L to R) Sens. Jorge Luis Garcia, Chuck Gray, Bob Burns and House Speaker Kirk Adams work on the budget on July 6. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Legislative leaders (from L to R) Sens. Jorge Luis Garcia, Chuck Gray, Bob Burns and House Speaker Kirk Adams work on the budget on July 6. (Photo by Bill Coates)

The overwhelming display of bipartisanship that kicked off the special legislative session when it convened July 6 may be a precursor of how lawmakers will work to patch the $2.5 billion hole in the budget, but to what extent Republicans and Democrats work together likely won’t be known until later this month.

Essentially, Republican lawmakers who control the Legislature have a choice: Restart negotiations with Gov. Jan Brewer on the budget, or compromise with Democrat lawmakers. And it seems, for now anyway, they are choosing the latter.

Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Republican from Tucson, said the “Kumbaya moment” was a result of frustration on all sides – Republicans upset about the dysfunctional relationship with Brewer, Democrats indignant after being marginalized for six months.

“I think the one thing that unified everyone was a uniform feeling of frustration. I think everyone finally just said, ‘What is it that we need to do?’ Everyone wanted to go home, I think,” Paton said.

For much of the regular session, legislative leaders planned to work with Brewer to find a budget compromise, while still retaining enough support among rank-and-file Republicans to get the bills through both chambers.

Those plans haven’t worked out, though, and the first day of the special session was marked by unanimous support for four budget bills that were sponsored by members of both parties. Legislative leaders, meanwhile, have shut out the governor from budget talks.

The bad blood between Brewer and the Legislature reached a high point earlier this month after a deal between Republicans and Brewer fell apart and the Legislature failed to approve a measure to refer a sales tax increase to the ballot this fall. Only hours after lawmakers approved the budget package on July 1, Brewer vetoed most of the plan.

That angered House and Senate Republicans and galvanized the majority caucuses against the governor. Senate President Bob Burns responded by issuing a statement saying Brewer’s vetoes and subsequent call for a special session appear to be “vindictive retaliation” for the Legislature’s refusal to rubber-stamp her plan for a ballot referendum on a temporary one-cent sales tax increase. Burns’ frustration with Brewer appeared to predate the session-ending budget fiasco, as he took aim at her conduct throughout the legislative session.

“These past few months I have witnessed behavior that is incomprehensible to me. The governor has surrounded herself with a team of outstanding staff, most of whom I have known for years and respect very much. However, decisions and demands coming from her office have been unbelievable and in some cases unachievable,” Burns wrote. “It appears the governor is having problems managing the level of responsibility to which she has been elevated.”

When Brewer called for a special session to repair the budget, majority Republicans turned to Democrats and hammered out a strategy: approve emergency bills to provide funding for public education and make the necessary policy changes to ensure Arizona will receive more than $2 billion in federal stimulus aid.

That compromise resulted in the passage of H2001, which restores $3.2 billion that was allocated as part of the Legislature’s original budget package, plus approximately $400 million.

Lawmakers also passed H2002, H2003 and H2004, which include changes to education policy, changes to public health care and limits on legislator subsistence pay during this special session to only days when the Legislature is in session. Generally, lawmakers receive a per diem every day during a session, regardless of whether the House and Senate convene.

But lawmakers considered the budget bills that passed July 6 as only a temporary solution; the state budget stands at about $10 billion, while revenue is pegged at about $7.4 billion.

Burns said he is open to allowing voters to decide whether a sales tax increase is necessary to close the budget gap. If voters pass the referral, it would mean some additional money in state coffers, but Burns said it wouldn’t be enough to cover the entire budget deficit.

If voters reject a sales tax increase, it would send a “clear message that it is time for us to get our budget

in balance without counting on revenue,” he said.

Brewer, for her part, took credit for the new-found cooperation among lawmakers from both parties. She said her vetoes forced them to work together, and she claimed victory for the restoration of education funding in the follow-up budget bills.

“I am certainly grateful they responded to my top priorities,” Brewer said.

Part and parcel with the decision to act in a unified manner on that first day of special session was a commitment that Republican and Democratic leaders in both chambers would begin negotiating a budget. Those talks began July 8 and will resume July 15.

In the meantime, Republican and Democrat staff will meet to establish the common ground between the two sides in the first steps toward solving a $2.5 billion shortfall.

The Legislature isn’t planning to schedule any budget hearings until an agreement can be reached among lawmakers. Democratic support could help Republicans overcome any veto by Brewer.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do, obviously,” Burns said.

House Assistant Minority Leader Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat, said getting a seat at the negotiating table is a bittersweet thing.

“I’m glad that we’re all working together, but I’m not giddy with optimism. I’m sobered by the daunting task in front of us,” she said.

The reality is that the show of force on June 6 was little more than a temporary fix. The actual work will take place during upcoming negotiations, a process that many expect will be grueling.

Sen. John Nelson, a Republican from Litchfield Park, said a bipartisan “family solution” is the right course of action for addressing the problem, but said there are too many “what-ifs” regarding spending cuts and tax increases to say if the talks will result in a viable budget plan.

“I think it has to be a partnership. If it’s my home, my wife and I jointly make the decisions as to where we’re going to go,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s some realistic expectations on both sides.”

For Paton, crafting a budget that gets the most votes in the most efficient manner is more important than focusing solely on provisions designed to capture votes only from Republicans. He said the majority should have been reaching out to Democratic lawmakers much earlier in an effort to get their support in the same way professional sports teams sign free agent players.

“I don’t think we, as Republicans, or the Democrats are taking advantage of that,” he said.

And the mounting dissatisfaction with how the year has played out – the protracted budget work, the flood of bills lawmakers considered in the final month of the session, the inability to work with Brewer, the continued budget work in July – may enable that to happen more easily now than if negotiations had begun in the spring, Paton said.

“I think the sheer frustration, except for the outliers on either side, I think it makes most people say, ‘Enough, already!’” he said.

Sinema said coming to any kind of consensus will be “next to impossible,” but said both sides are committed to making it happen.

“It’s going to be horrible. It’s going to be painful. If it weren’t for the fact that we have to do it, I don’t think that we could,” she said. “We have to raise taxes and make deep cuts. How do you get people to vote for that?”

Democrats have been calling for bipartisan budget negotiations since before the recently completed regular session began, saying the scope of the problem – a deficit that ultimately grew to about $3.5 billion – was too large and complex to handle in a partisan manner.

Now, Sinema said, the fatigue of the long session and immediate special session may make negotiations with Republican leaders easier because both sides want a speedy solution. But rank-and-file lawmakers are getting a break from the legislative grind while those talks take place, which may make convincing them to support a negotiated plan more difficult than crafting the plan itself, she said.

That plan will have to draw its support from the middle of the political spectrum at the Legislature, but what could be considered as “the middle” is composed of a variety of disparate political views and ideologies. Finding the sweet spot will be the toughest part, Sinema said.

“If we get an agreement, we’re going to lose the edges. The question is, how much of the edge can we afford to lose?” she said.

Last week, Rep. Sam Crump underscored the problem Republican leadership might have if too many concessions are made to bring Democrats on board.

“Bipartisanship is always great, until you have to compromise your core values,” said Crump, an Anthem Republican who has been outspoken against raising taxes

while advocating for large spending cuts.

It’s likely that Republican leadership will try to corral votes from as many members of their party as possible, while bringing in enough votes from Democrats to keep the budget process under legislative control. Yet House Majority Leader John McComish said it’s “too early in the process to really worry about that right now.”

“We’re just formulating where we agree,” he said. “In a perfect world, we’d end up with a vote like we had (July 6). But it’s all too often not a perfect world.”

- Reporter Jeremy Duda contributed to this story.

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