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Lawmakers adjourn sine die; questions loom

Rep Warde Nichols leaves the Capitol after the House and Senate adjourned the special session sine die on Aug. 25. (Photo by Josh Coddington)

Rep. Warde Nichols leaves the Capitol after the House and Senate adjourned the special session sine die on Aug. 25. (Photo by Josh Coddington)

The Arizona Legislature ended its special legislative session at 1:42 p.m. Aug. 25, although it may be a short-lived break from the Capitol.

“Well, I’ll see you next week,” Rep. Warde Nichols, a Gilbert Republican, said as he prepared to leave the House of Representatives.

The special session, which began July 6 at the behest of Gov. Jan Brewer, was brought to a close primarily to give the governor and lawmakers more time to negotiate a definitive budget for fiscal 2010. It was the third special session this year, and it lasted 56 days.

The break also gives Brewer more time to consider what to do to a set of budget bills that are remarkably similar to a package that was vetoed nearly two months ago. Under the state Constitution, the governor has 10 days, not counting Sundays, to act on the bills.

The adjournment of the special session will give Brewer until Sept. 5 to veto the budget, sign the bills into law, allow them to become law without her signature or, as she has done before, sign some and veto others.

“I think everyone knows she is adamant about getting her referral,” Senate President Bob Burns said. “This gives her some more time to work on that referral, along with us. We are working trying to get that done.”

Not everyone was happy about the decision to end the special session.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Republican from Lake Havasu City, objected to the motion to sine die.

“I don’t want to give her 10 days,” he said. “We just gave her 10 more days to work up a new deal with somebody else.”

That somebody else is the minority party.

Five-way talks between legislative leaders of both parties and the governor began Aug. 21. They resumed Aug. 25, when Democrats submitted a budget proposal to the governor.

The Democratic plan proposes to restore about $300 million in cuts that are in the Republican plan, primarily using money from the state equalization tax, according to a minority leader.

Under the Republican-budget, the equalization tax would be repealed. The tax raises an estimated $250 million each year.

Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios called the Democrat’s proposal a “very realistic, reasonable approach.”

“It basically reinstates the equalization tax, as opposed to giving away that tax cut, and uses those funds to lessen the devastating cuts that are currently in the budget to education, DES, DHS and AHCCCS,” she said.

“We recognize we can’t increase spending. We recognize the revenue isn’t there. I think we took the approach that we should not be giving away a tax cut. We should be using those funds to offset the devastating cuts that are in the current budget,” she added.

A breakdown of funding restorations requested by Democrats, Rios said, is as follows:

* $140 million for K-12 education
* $22 million for the Department of Economic Security
* $20 million for the Department of Health Services

Democrats also want to offset budget reductions by allocating additional federal stimulus money for road projects, Rios said.

Some Republicans oppose opening up the entire budget for negotiations with the minority. They said Brewer should sign the budget bills and only negotiate with Democrats on the sales tax referral.

Sen. Russell Pearce, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the state can’t afford to do what Democrats have requested.

“If they would come on with some policy changes, I suppose we could entertain some of those. But I will not entertain additional spending,” Pearce said. “This budget is going to be almost impossible to fix as it is in (fiscal) 2011.”

Burns said once an agreement is reached, lawmakers would go back into special session any day, even tomorrow.

Burns, who was reluctant to negotiate with the minority party, reiterated his position to not “redo the budget because that is basically done.”

But if some minor changes to the budget could be worked out in exchange for votes on the sales tax referral, that’s the direction they would take, he said.

Even as Brewer, the minority party, and the majority party negotiate the fiscal 2010 budget, it remains to be seen where the negotiations would lead.

There is pressure from conservative Republican members to resist spending more than what’s already in the GOP-backed budget. Meanwhile, Democrats want to see the equalization tax come back on the books, a proposal to which many Republicans are diametrically opposed.

Democrats have told the governor they would negotiate the tax issue only if the entire budget was in play.

-Reporter Jim Small contributed to this story.

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