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McComish becomes key player in Medicaid expansion drama

Sen. John McComish (File photo)

Senators are prepped for a lengthy floor debate on the GOP-led budget plan and a wildly anticipated fight to add Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid expansion proposal to the mix against the objection of most Senate Republicans.

Ten budget bills cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee, many by 6-3 party line votes, and the Rules Committee on Wednesday afternoon. That paves the way for lawmakers to take a final round of votes on the $8.89 billion spending plan Thursday.

Senators will caucus at 9 a.m. Thursday morning before heading to the floor for votes in Committee of the Whole and on Third Read.

When that last vote in the Senate takes place is anyone’s guess. Senate President Andy Biggs has promised a fierce battle to prevent an amendment to add Brewer’s Medicaid expansion plan to SB1492, the health and welfare budget reconciliation bill. Lawmakers are expecting a long day and perhaps night to finish voting on the budget package.

The Senate president typically sponsors all budget-related bills, but Biggs stepped aside to allow Senate Majority Leader John McComish to sponsor the legislation, a move that political observers say is a concession that the Biggs defeat in a debate over Medicaid is all but certain.

McComish, R-Phoenix, has agreed to sponsor an amendment on behalf of the governor, and the amendment is expected to have at least the 16 votes needed to approve the measure. And Biggs, R-Gilbert, will be free to vote against the health and welfare budget bill.

The appropriations committee also approved Wednesday an election omnibus bill that includes measures to purge voters from the Permanent Early Voting List, change rules for initiative petitions and consolidate election dates – measures that were all sponsored in separate bills this session, but have stalled in the House and Senate.

SB1493 includes language from four bills sponsored by Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale, that have drawn the ire of Democrats at the Capitol and Latino voting groups that claim Reagan’s bills will disenfranchise minority voters.

But the bill won’t be heard tomorrow, as Senators buckle down to focus on the package of 10 budget bills.

Several controversial amendments drew strong opposition from the three Democrats serving on the appropriations committee, including an amendment to SB1490 that provides the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office an additional $1.5 million from the Department of Public Safety’s budget to spend on safety equipment for police officers.

Sen. Anna Tovar, D-Phoenix, said it was wrong for the Legislature to pick winners and losers when it comes to the state’s sheriff’s departments, and particularly troubling that lawmakers would allocate funds to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Tovar suggested the funds may be misused for purposes other than those prescribed in the bill.

Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, said the Senate budget plan “grossly underfunded” the department of Child Protective Services. While Biggs provided Brewer with her requested funding to hire 150 new CPS case workers, the budget includes just $5 million for the CPS caseload. Brewer requested $9.6 million to help manage the approximately 26,700 cases the department is handling.

Democrats also expressed disappointment in only minor increases of state funding for education given the steady cuts to education funding the Legislature has made for the past five years. Tovar argued that lawmakers need to restore the cuts, not simply increase the year-to-year funding.
Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, countered that education funding comes from a variety of sources, not just the state’s coffers, and that looking only at state funding gives “a skewed view of what our funding for education really is.”

The committee also approved an amendment requiring health care providers to identify the direct pay prices of common services, a measure vetoed by Brewer earlier this session. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, had sponsored the bill that Brewer struck down, and has since tried reviving the measure by attaching it to a House bill.

In votes on all but one bill, Democrats resoundingly voted no against the budget bills, but their tune will likely change Thursday if McComish’s Medicaid expansion amendment is approved on the Senate floor.

The strong 6-3 GOP majority in the appropriations committee allowed the minority party to vote no on the budget bills and voice their displeasure with Biggs’ spending plan without impeding the budget process. And once Medicaid expansion is approved, Senate Democrats said they’ll vote for the spending plan to move a budget complete with AHCCCS expansion language to the House.

“It’s not as bad of a budget as I would have expected from this leadership. And I think it will get better with amendments,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “I wouldn’t call this a Tea Party budget. It’s a workable item with other stuff. It’s clear that the president has been listening to voices less strident than his own, and it’s telling that he’s not the sponsor of the health bill and the education bill.”

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