In a move that potentially sets the stage for a showdown with Gov. Jan Brewer, the Senate late Wednesday passed a budget proposal that cuts more than what the governor called for in January and rejects many of her accounting maneuvers to erase the fiscal deficit.
Most of the votes expectedly hewed along party lines, 21-to-9; Democrats, who criticized the budget plan as unconscionable and unconstitutional, opposed it while Republicans, who said it is painful but necessary, backed it.
Two Republicans, Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, and Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, dissented on some bills. Gray voted against the measure containing policy changes to K-12 education, while McComish voted against the higher education budget bill.
Despite Wednesday’s action, the state still has a long way to go before it has a final spending plan that resolves the current year’s $543 million shortfall and fixes next year’s $1.2 billion deficit.
Brewer has said she’d rather that the Senate holds off on a budget until she and Republican legislators have reached an agreement. On Monday, the governor said she’s committed to her budget plan, which cuts the K-12 budget about $200 million less than what the Senate called for.
What the Senate budget plan’s passage means is that legislators will now go back to the negotiating room. But this time, the talks will likely include House leaders and the governor.
“We’ll work it with the House,” Senate President Russell Pearce said, adding there might be modest changes to the Senate plan but the two chambers are “together in spirit.”
Pearce also said legislators and the governor have been hunkering down to try and find agreement on the budget.
During the relatively quick debate, Democrats dug in to battle the budget package’s passage.
But lacking in number, their efforts were ultimately and expectedly unsuccessful.
If they succeeded, it was in getting their message across.
Members of the minority party offered amendments to try and restore funding to programs that were cut in the budget bills.
But it was perhaps Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, who offered the most pointed criticism of the budget plan.
In protest of cuts to AHCCCS, the state’s public health care system, Gallardo tried to amend the main budget bill to prohibit the use of state money to pay for lawmakers’ and state-level elected officials’ health and dental insurance.
“If we have the morality to cut the health care of 280,000 people, we should have the morality to cut our health care first,” Gallardo said, calling the state subsidy of legislators’ health insurance “government-paid health care.”
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said defunding the state-run system for the poor violates the voter-protection provision of the state Constitution. In 2000, voters approved a ballot measure expanding AHCCCS.
Democrats also zeroed in on a budget provision that bars Pima County from receiving funding from the Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission. Under this budget plan, GITTEM money must be used mostly to enforce immigration laws.
Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson, said it’s beneath the dignity of the Legislature to purposely punish a county because its sheriff offered an opinion that differed from that of the Republicans who control the Legislature.
But Pearce defended the provision, arguing that Pima County’s sheriff has said he won’t enforce SB1070.
“If he’s not going to keep his oath of office to enforce the law, he’s not going to get GIITEM money,” Pearce told reporters after the voting was finished.
In defending the budget package, Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said other states are facing the same difficulties that Arizona finds itself in. The spending cuts are painful, but they’re necessary and the sad consequence of overspending, she said.
“It’s what everybody is being forced to do,” Allen said. “The entire country is cutting back because we are in a terrible financial situation.”
Arguing that unchecked spending caused the state’s fiscal woes, Senate Republicans like Allen advanced the package of bills that aim to cut $1.3 billion from the budget, drastically reduce funding for state programs and shifting some of the costs of government operation to local governments.
Some critics characterized the proposal as a declaration of war on the poor. Others called it severely shortsighted and unconstitutional.
“We’ve got trouble with revenues, but to attack the poor as a scapegoat for all of these is just outrageous,” said Tim Schmaltz of the Protecting Arizona Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, one of the groups lobbying to fend off steep cuts to health and welfare services.
But the bill’s backers pressed one point: The state is broke, and it cannot sustain its current levels of spending.
They argued it is unwise to increase taxes in a struggling economy. It is one thing to say a program shouldn’t be cut, they said, but then the question becomes: Where would critics want the Legislature to cut?
The choice, really, boils down to cutting spending or increasing taxes, according to Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa.
Earlier in day, when the Appropriations Committee was considering the bills, Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said he watched government spending explode in the last few years. State spending increased from $6.5 billion in 2004 to a high of $10 billion in 2009.
“Had we controlled spending when the economy is good, we wouldn’t be in this position today,” he said, adding that he also takes responsibility for failing to persuade his colleagues against increasing spending.
“I am not happy to play the stern parent today, but I have to do that,” Gould said.
All told, the Senate plan contains less new spending and cuts at least $364 million more than the governor’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2012.
It also removes nearly $264 million in spending increases in some areas of the budget that Brewer proposed.
The breakdown is as follows:
• Additional cuts to K-12 – $172 million
• Additional cuts to the Department of Economic Security – $48 million
• Additional cuts to Department of Health Services – $20 million
• Additional cuts to universities – $65 million.
• A statewide lump reduction – $12 million
The Senate plan also contains about $34 million more in funds transfers than Brewer’s budget. It also proposes $55 million in “local contribution.”
Finally, the plan calls for paying off $71 million in debt.