The most remarkable thing about Republican leaders’ decision to explore a budget compromise with the minority party this year is that it happened at all — much less that the two sides came within a hair’s breadth of striking what would have been a rare bargain.
On paper, the bipartisan talks shouldn’t have been part of the equation at all since the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Office are firmly under Republican control.
But in Arizona politics, such strange alliances have happened in the past.
A confluence of events opened up the possibility of a bipartisan budget proposal. Fiscally conservative supermajorities in the House and Senate had no appetite to increase spending, while Gov. Jan Brewer was predicting the state’s economy would rebound quickly and calling for more spending in a handful of state programs.
Then House Democrats seized on the Republican stalemate, offering a detailed budget plan that proposed spending levels between those called for by Brewer and the legislative majority and promised a more fiscally sound budget outlook several years down the road.
So when some Republicans thought the talks with Brewer had deadlocked at one point, the minority’s budget plan became a tantalizing alternative.
The original difference in spending between the two proposals was $229 million in fiscal year 2013. Democrats also assumed the same revenue growth that Republicans wanted to adopt — a 5 percent increase. For many Republicans who were wary of the governor’s more optimistic revenue projections, that made the minority’s offer palatable.
Meanwhile, the gulf in spending between Republican lawmakers’ budget and the governor’s plan was a gaping $507 million.
Senate Majority Whip Frank Antenori was one of the biggest advocates of working with the Democrats instead of a governor, who had proven herself in the past to be intractable, even though some of the Democratic spending priorities were for social programs that Republicans had frozen or eliminated.
“The overall revenue number wasn’t bad, and the overall spending number wasn’t bad,” Antenori said, who suggested the idea of working with Democrats to fellow leaders.
“I even said they want KidsCare… I said give it to them,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira and House Minority Leader Chad Campbell soon found themselves sitting opposite Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs and House Majority Leader Steve Court, trying to establish a common ground on the budget.
Republicans haven’t negotiated a budget with the minority party since 2008, the last year Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor.
Campbell said during the vote on the budget deal that the Republicans ultimately struck with Brewer that the two sides were only $40 million apart when the bipartisan talks broke down.
That the two sides ever came so close in agreeing on an $8.6 billion budget is something that surprised virtually everyone at the Capitol.
Those who were involved in the talks said the two sides were earnestly looking for a compromise, and Republicans weren’t using the minority to pressure Brewer into acquiescing with their demands.
Antenori said he thought the lawmakers could have wrapped it up if they had another week or so to negotiate.
But the majority whip said Republican leaders were summoned to the Governor’s Office, where they learned she had agreed to adopt their more cautious revenue estimates and to a much smaller spending increase compared to her original proposal.
The governor gave them an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the talks with the Democrats halted.
Antenori surmised that what tipped the balance in their favor was the report of a group of economists, who predicted a
5.6 percent average growth between fiscal years 2012 and 2015. He said he didn’t think the bipartisan talks were the reason Brewer changed her mind.
When asked how serious she thought the bipartisan budget talks were, Brewer said she never expected such a deal to get done.
“Of course they’re going to talk to them. They’re in the body together,” she said. “But how serious those conversations were, they probably were more or less more embellished than what we read about.”
Democrats learned that a deal had been reached between the governor and her fellow Republicans in the same way many did.
“We heard about it from you guys,” Rep. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat told reporters.