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Courting Democrats – one at a time

Running out of time and options, Republican leadership in the Senate has turned its attention to a handful of Democrats to cajole their support for a ballot referral on a sales tax increase.

But the efforts have so far not yielded a “yes” vote.

A minority leader said he doesn’t think any Democratic members could be persuaded to support the Republican’s budget, but that hasn’t stopped the Senate GOP leadership from trying.

Recently, Republican lawmakers asked Sen. Manny Alvarez, a Democrat from Elfrida, to meet with them.

Alvarez said he was open to that. But he said he would negotiate on behalf of his caucus.

“If they get one, they got to get all,” Alvarez said. “I will make sure that my caucus is aware that I am meeting with them, and we all negotiate the same thing.”

Senate President Bob Burns has ruled out negotiating with the minority as a block, preferring instead to court individual members.

He has mentioned at least two reasons: one is that it will take less time to convince a single Democrat to vote for the budget than it would to get the whole caucus on board – and time is something the state doesn’t have.

Burns also wants to limit changes to the budget that Republicans leaders have worked out with the governor. Big changes could mean losing the votes of Republicans who now support the budget plan.

In addition, the process all along has been to gather support one vote at a time, Burns said.

“Why wouldn’t a Democrat member be willing to work with the majority as a member of the body to support a budget if there are certain items changed in that? Why do they have to all be involved? Why does it have to be a caucus position?” he said.

But Senate Assistant Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said it would be possible to arrange a budget plan within a week if both sides were committed to compromise.

On Aug. 18, Senate Minority Leader Jorge Luis Garcia reiterated calls for bipartisan talks for a definitive solution to the fiscal 2010 deficit.

“We have been following the majority’s plan for the last three weeks, and we are stuck,” Garcia said.

The situation appears to be a disjointed diptych: The first panel is the Republican leadership’s unwillingness to negotiate with the minority as a caucus even though it can’t rally 16 votes among majority members.

The second panel is the governor’s insistence that the Legislature approve her proposal for a sales tax referral, even though its passage has been iffy from the moment it was proposed. The measure has been rejected on the Senate floor twice already.

Meanwhile, the Treasurer’s Office has warned that the state will be insolvent two months from now unless a deal is in place.

Republicans have approached Sen. Albert Hale, a Democrat from Window Rock, and Sen. Richard Miranda, a Democrat from Tolleson, in an effort to get the necessary number of votes for the sales tax referral.

Yet even if the majority leadership successfully persuaded a Democrat to support it, it’s unclear if that would be enough to pass the sales tax proposal. Three Republicans had voted against one version of it, and one GOP member has been absent for weeks because of health concerns. There is an 18-12 partisan split in the Senate.

Miranda is supportive of the sales tax referral, but he has asked that the suspension of voter-protection, a key component of the budget proposal, be removed. The other was a guarantee that the revenue generated from the sales tax hike, assuming voters approve it at the ballot, would not be used to backfill tax or spending cuts.

Hale said Republicans asked what he wanted, and he told them what it is.

“It’s probably too much for them, or they found somebody else,” Hale said.

Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican from Surprise, doesn’t think the entire budget should be open for negotiation with Democrats.

“What we have here, with the Democratic Party trying to not only negotiate the tax issues but also open up the entire budget, equates to the tyranny of a select few,” Harper said.

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, a Democrat from Phoenix, said Harper is “describing a sandbox, and he wants to be the only guy in the sandbox.”

The majority has been brokering deals in backrooms, McCune Davis added.

“You can’t tell me what any member has in the budget that drew their vote into the ‘aye’ column,” she said.

McCune Davis summed up the dilemma: “My problem is this. I go back to the days when we took on big issues — whether it was water, whether it was state lands, whether it was urban lands — (and) it was always done by bringing the interests to the table and seeking a solution that everyone could live with. This budget does not accomplish that, and there hasn’t been an effort to accomplish that.”

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