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Lawmakers return to Capitol amid major changes

Expect more of the same substance from the Arizona Legislature during lawmakers’ regular session this year — but maybe not as much sound and fury.

High-profile policy issues such as illegal immigration and gun-owners’ rights will be back, but how legislators tackle those headline-grabbers will evolve from last year.

The result may be less drama after a recall election loss led to the departure of former Senate president and noted illegal immigration foe Russell Pearce. Also, other legislators face election-year political sensitivities of their own because of redistricting.

“I think we’re going to see a more moderated Legislature,” said Mike Gardner, a lobbyist and Republican ex-legislator.

And while the Republican-led Legislature is expected to again take a tight-fisted approach on the big must-do chore of writing a new budget, the work likely won’t be as controversial because the state’s finances have improved after three years crisis.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Republican lawmakers made big spending cuts last year to education, health care and other services to close the state’s shortfall.

Conservative legislators seem set to maintain the approach to keep the budget from creeping back into a deficit as the state’s financial picture improves but remains weak, offering only a smattering of proposals for new or restored spending. Ideas for new revenue focus on paying off debt incurred to balance past budgets.

“We have a plan. And if we can hold the line, our plan will be completed and we can again have a balanced budget, and we can start paying back debt,” Brewer said during an interview, adding later, “The worst is behind us.”

Legislative Republicans likely will model their budget approach after Brewer’s proposal for the second year in a row, which lets her largely frame the discussion, said Jaime Molera, who served as lobbyist for Republican former Gov. Jane Hull.

“I would have loved that,” Molera said.

Some education groups and others want Brewer’s three-year temporary sales tax increase to be extended to avoid new spending cuts when the voter-approved measure expires in 2013.

But Brewer said she’s not proposing any new revenue source, and it’d be up to legislators or others to champion a replacement.

“I’m looking at new revenue by bringing in new businesses and changing this economy,” she said. “That’s my new revenue, and that’s been working.”

Brewer doesn’t reveal her formal budget proposal until Friday, but she’ll put some elements of that and other policy proposals on the table Monday when she delivers her third State of the State address to the joint session of the Legislature.

Illegal immigration was a contentious issue for Arizona lawmakers — and Brewer — in recent years, with the state breaking ground nationally by the 2010 passage of an enforcement law known as SB1070. The law would have required police in the course of enforcing other laws to use “reasonable suspicion” as a basis for checking a person’s immigration status.

A federal judge blocked implementation of that and other key provisions, and the state’s appeal is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

States such as Alabama and Georgia have approved crackdown laws of their own that resemble SB1070, but Arizona legislators in 2011 shocked many by rejecting a handful of new illegal immigration bills amid concerns voiced by employers and business groups.

Sponsors of several of the bills rejected in 2011 have said they still want to act on illegal immigration. But one, Republican Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City, said his first step will be to gage whether fellow lawmakers would be more receptive.

Pearce’s departure means “the principal catalyst for that type of legislation is not there, so I don’t think it will advance as it has in the past,” said George Cunningham, a Democratic former legislator and senior gubernatorial aide who now heads the Grand Canyon Institute, a centrist think tank.

Asked whether legislators should spend time and energy on new illegal immigration laws, Brewer said she’s looking forward to the Supreme Court ruling on SB1070.

“We need to get the borders secure, and we need to get the federal government to do their job. How we do that with new legislation, I don’t know. But I think that (SB)1070 will be the answer to a prayer if and when we get that favorable result in April,” she said.

But a Supreme Court ruling likely would not come before Arizona lawmakers adjourn the session, which likely will happen by late April. Arguments are expected to be scheduled in late April, with a ruling expected by late June.

As for gun laws, Gould said he’ll offer a revised version of a 2011 high-profile bill vetoed by Brewer — one of 29 bills she vetoed last year — to allow firearms on state university and community college campuses.

Brewer’s veto letter said the 2011 legislation was confusingly vague, and Gould said recently she may have been right because that bill was changed as it went through the Legislature. The new version should be clearer and narrower, only applying to holders of concealed-weapons permits, he said.

Leaders from both parties cited economic development and related tax changes as priorities for the new session, with Republicans saying they favor lower business taxes and regulation.

Democrats say building for the future must include restoring education funding.

The election-year session begins amid political turmoil from redistricting that creates uncertainty and new challenges for state senators and representatives.

As a result, many will be anxious to end the session as soon as possible so they can intensify their fundraising and, in many cases, campaign in territory not included in their current districts.

That means the session could begin on rocky territory with legislators seeking to find new political footing as new rivalries surface with redrawn districts, said Gardner. “Instead of voting for each other’s bills, they’ll be voting against each other so they can differentiate themselves.”

And the Senate will see Prescott Republican Steve Pierce replacing Pearce as president, after challenger Jerry Lewis defeated Pearce in a Nov. 8 recall election.

“If you listen to the words of Sen. Steve Pierce, my sense is he will want to steer clear of things that will be really fractious for that caucus,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of the business-backed Arizona Tax Research Institute. “He’s got a challenge on his hands after what’s occurred.”

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Associated Press reporter Bob Christie contributed.

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