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GOP leaders: Budget negotiations going well

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Legislative leaders said they are making strides in their talks with the governor over a budget proposal that would solve more than $540 million in deficit this year and another $1.2 billion in the next fiscal year.

The tone of the negotiation has been very positive, and they’re now down to discussing the “nitty-gritty details,” they said.

The intense talks came on the heels of the Senate’s decision to unilaterally adopt a budget plan this month.

The Senate proposal trims more than $1.3 billion from the budget, drastically reduced funding for the state’s Medicaid program and shifted some of the state’s costs to local governments. The cuts are about $600 million more than Gov. Jan Brewer proposed in January.

Among the worst hit are K-12 schools, higher education, health care and social services.

Today, House Speaker Kirk Adams said the House was close to a compromise with the Senate and the governor, and he was “cautiously optimistic” that, after one last meeting tonight, they would have a final budget plan.

Republican leaders have met with Gov. Jan Brewer and her staff in the last two days.

“It’s moving very smoothly. I am real pleased with the progress we are making,” said Sen. Andy Biggs, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and also the Senate Majority Leader.

Legislators won’t delve into specific points of contention. Biggs said he wouldn’t even characterize them as sticking points because “everybody has been so cooperative in trying to get to a meeting place.”

But just like in any major piece of legislation, the final proof of a compromise between the three sides would be a final budget plan.

And any report of policymakers making progress behind closed doors would be put up against how quickly they can come up with a final compromise.

“We’re getting into the nitty-gritty details now,” Adams said.

And though it’s just a few more details to hammer out, Adams acknowledged that sometimes it’s those details that bring discussions to a stalemate.

Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, echoed those concerns about the last few “small” details.

“We could be very close, or we could be weeks away,” he said.

Adams and House Majority Leader Andy Tobin both said the discussions, so far, have been very civil. They declined to say what areas of disagreement remained.

They said that all parties have the same goal: Balance the budget with no gimmicks or borrowing.

Prior to the budget talks this week, there were serious disagreements between the Legislature and the governor in their approaches to solving the budget deficits and crafting a spending plan for the upcoming year.

Brewer was unhappy with the Senate proposal, which she very publicly criticized in an editorial in The Arizona Republic.

However, following her scolding of the Senate budget plan, the governor said she would be open to deeper cuts than the ones she proposed, but legislative leadership would have to convince her of their need.

While she is open to deeper cuts, Brewer said she didn’t want those cuts to come from K-12 schools. She opposed the $235 million cut the Senate budget made to the Arizona Department of Education.

In her editorial, Brewer also opposed a provision in the Senate budget that would take $150 million from the counties, which the governor said could cause tax increases at the local level.

“I think that it’s unfair to balance the state budget by just pushing those tax increases, if you will, down to local government. They have tried to be our friends. They have tried to help us in every manner that they could. And I would think that that would be something that we need to talk about,” Brewer said. “I believe that we ought not to do that.”

In an earlier interview, Biggs, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he would be willing to scale back the proposed K-12 cuts, but only if the governor agreed to deeper cuts elsewhere.

The goal, he said, is to pass a structurally balanced budget that doesn’t rely on “gimmicks,” such as a $245 million rollover for K-12 schools or a $330 million loan from the Early Childhood Development and Health Fund, also known as First Things First, that Brewer included in her budget.

“You’ve got to have a budget that is structurally balanced, which means you don’t spend more than your revenue is. You don’t do it with accounting gimmicks. You don’t do it with short-term overnight loans and tell people you have it balanced,” Biggs said.

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