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Ariz. lawmakers slow work as big 3 issues remain

The Arizona Legislature has gone from the fast track to stuck in the mud as lawmakers have become bogged down by the three key issues: Medicaid, sales taxes and the state budget.

The stalemate has moved the public work of the Legislature behind closed doors as leaders try to hash out deals with Gov. Jan Brewer.

Brewer, a Republican, wants to expand Medicaid, a decision that split the GOP majority and led to the stalemate. Conservative Republicans, including Senate President Andy Biggs, worry her plan will vastly expand the federal deficit and drag state finances down with it.

She also has urged a sales tax overhaul that would create a unified statewide sales tax reporting and audit system. The plan also envisions changes to how new construction is taxed, which has run into opposition from cities and towns worried it would cut their revenue. Negotiations on dealing with the cities’ concerns are ongoing.

The budget, which accounts for spending on schools, public safety, roads and all other state services, is generally the last thing lawmakers work on before adjourning. It can’t be addressed, however, until Medicaid and the sales tax overhaul are settled.

Leaders in both chambers have now cut Mondays from their their normal four-day legislative work week. And they are moving at a fraction of their previous pace.

The first few months of the year saw regular committee meetings and a flurry of floor activity on all sorts of proposals. Now, floor sessions generally see action on only a handful of bills and committee meetings are mainly complete.

Until Medicaid expansion “is resolved we’re just going to be sitting here, I guess, and doing two bills a day,” said Republican Sen. Don Shooter on Tuesday.

Along with the reduced pace, legislators will see a reduction in pay over coming weeks. Legislators from Maricopa County get $35 a day and those from other counties receive $60 per day. That will drop to $10 a day for Maricopa County lawmakers and $20 a day for others after May 13.

Aside from that, the grind is frustrating for lawmakers.

“It seems to me,” said Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez, “the governor needs to really start throwing around her weight in order to get folks off the stick here.”

The governor’s plan to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 300,000 poor Arizonans under provisions of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul has unified Democratic support but has split the Republican caucus. It is clear, however, that the proposal has enough votes to pass the Senate.

The House is a tighter matter, and Speaker Andy Tobin said he’s still not ready to support the bill.

“I’ve told everyone from the beginning that that language is unacceptable,” Tobin said.

“This is a $10 billion issue over the next several years,” he added.

Tobin wants to see additions to Brewer’s proposal that include guarantees that hospitals won’t pass on an assessment designed to pay the state’s costs on to insurers, and he has the clout to keep it from advancing.

The Medicaid decision is important for the budget because the hospital assessment Brewer has proposed adds about $62 million in revenue the first year, helping balance her $8.9 billion spending proposal.

The tax overhaul figures to have a big effect as well. Projections show the changes could cut up to $72 million from state revenue.

Budget negotiators are working on contingency plans and a deal could be reached soon, said Shooter, who chairs the powerful appropriations committee, but the Medicaid expansion is the sticking point.

“How that’s going to be resolved? I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t know.”

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