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House leader calls budget ‘best deal possible’

More than a week after the governor and legislative leaders announced a new budget deal, the state was still without a complete budget and time was running out to call a special election in early November.

Things have ground to a halt in the Senate, where Republican leaders have been unable to secure the 16 GOP votes needed to approve the budget.

At least four Republican senators oppose the budget package in whole or in part: Carolyn Allen, Pamela Gorman, Ron Gould, and Jay Tibshraeny.

Gould has been resolute in his opposition to the budget deal, which includes a component that would allow voters to decide whether to temporarily increase the sales tax to cope with steep declines in revenues.

Gorman was the primary focus of lobbying efforts July 30 and 31, as the House of Representatives approved the spending plan and it became clear the Senate was one vote short of passing it. As the Senate debated the bulk of the budget bills on the floor, Republican leaders and fiscally conservative lawmakers approached Gorman one by one, but none was able to persuade her.

House Speaker Kirk Adams was among those who lobbied the Anthem lawmaker. Adams said he told Gorman the package “represented the best deal possible to close out this budget” and pointed out that it included major reforms that are important to Republicans. Gorman said Adams told her if she did not vote for the tax referral, then Republicans would have to negotiate with Democrats.

That would likely result in fewer spending cuts and losing some of the ground gained by conservatives in the budget deal that Gov. Jan Brewer and legislative leaders had worked out.

Brewer also met with Gorman for about 90 minutes in the early morning hours of July 31. But the governor was unable to persuade the senator to change her mind.

Gorman is unlikely to ever vote for the budget that’s currently on the table. On Aug. 4, she resigned as majority whip over her budget disagreement with Burns and other members of Republican leadership.

The Legislature was set to meet on Aug. 7 in another push to pass the budget agreement, but at press time, it was unknown if there would be enough votes to pass the bills.

Complicating matters is the absence of a handful of Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray, who was on a Caribbean cruise with his family.

Aug. 10 is the deadline for lawmakers to refer the sales tax hike to the ballot in order for the election to take place on November 3, the date Brewer favors.

The budget package is substantially similar to the one that the Legislature approved July 1 but rejected by Brewer later that day because it did not include the ballot referral. In order to entice Republican votes on that component, $400 million in individual and corporate income tax cuts were included, as was a cap on state spending.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Glendale, said her vote to send the tax increase to voters reflects the reality of the situation, even though it’s against her beliefs. Brewer has demonstrated she will not accept a budget that does not include a tax increase, and it appears there is not enough support for deeper spending cuts.

“It’s either take this deal, settle on a worse deal or run out of money and leave schools and everyone else in the lurch, and I just can’t do that,” Lesko said.

The sales tax increase will not be the only question put to voters this fall if the Senate follows the House’s lead. Another component of the budget plan would ask voters to temporarily suspend a constitutional provision that prevents the Legislature from changing voter-approved programs and spending.

But it makes no sense to amend the Constitution for only three years, said Rep. Andy Biggs, a Gilbert Republican.

“How absurd is that? We might as well be more like the French and adopt new constitutions willy-nilly,” he said.

The budget was approved mostly along party lines in the House, with Democrats voting against all 10 bills. Minority Leader David Lujan called the proposal “a recipe for economic disaster,” in part because of tax cuts that will lead to even less revenue during a time when the state has seen its tax collections plummet.

“I am ashamed that this is the best that we could come up with after seven months,” he said.

Another provision of the budget requires all state agencies to reduce the number of full-time employees by 5 percent.

With Gould and Gorman unlikely to change their minds, the focus will be on Allen and Tibshraeny.

Tibshraeny, a Chandler Republican, has said he would support the tax referral. But he said he still had concerns regarding two of the budget measures, including the education policy bill.

Allen, a Republican from Scottsdale, has been absent for several days because of a knee injury that may require surgery and has left her immobilized. She also appears willing to put up a fight on the budget, saying she opposes the permanent tax cuts now included in the package.

“If I were to come – and that is the big if – I would only vote to put the tax on the ballot,” she said. “I refuse to vote for the bad deal that this governor has bought into.”

She said that lowering taxes only adds to the deficit.

“How they justify that in their pee wee brains, I do not know,” she said.

-Reporter Jim Small contributed to this story.

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