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House prepares to rip Senate budget apart, rebuild it from scratch

Building a budget that can gain support from the majority of lawmakers in both legislative chambers and get it signed by the governor takes a delicate balance.

Throw in Medicaid expansion, the biggest, most contentious issue in years, and that balancing act gets even more difficult.

The Senate approved an $8.8 billion spending plan with 13 Democrats and six Republicans in favor on May 16, and the budget is now being picked apart, discussed and analyzed by lawmakers in the House.

While some Senate Democrats say their main priority now is to keep the budget pretty much as is, House Democrats are less optimistic they can pass the budget with no changes, thus bypassing the need to send it back to the Senate for another concurring vote.

And Republican leaders in the House are fighting to make sure they get their fingerprints on the budget as well.

“We’re talking about a budget that we saw hijacked, I believe, in the Senate, and what we need to do is bring it back on course over here in the House,” said House Majority Leader David Gowan of Sierra Vista.

Gowan is not alone in thinking that the Senate budget is a “Democratic spend-fest.” Although the staunchly conservative Senate President Andy Biggs drafted the original proposal, Democrats, with the help of a few Republicans, added $77 million in amendments covering three years — an increase of less than 1 percent — mostly for education and Child Protective Services.

After attending small group briefings on the Senate budget proposal, Republican Rep. Warren Petersen of Gilbert said the budget is way out of line and he thinks the Legislature needs to just “start over.”

Republican Rep. David Livingston of Peoria had a similar reaction, and chided the entire House on the floor for the lavish spending the Senate proposed and the House is considering.

“I need to sound the alarm. This budget is out of control,” he said.

Democrats in both the House and Senate are hopeful that their amendments don’t get stripped off the budget, but expect that any Democratic additions to the budget will be in danger as it heads through the conservative House Appropriations Committee.

Democratic Sen. Anna Tovar of Tolleson said she has been meeting with House Democratic leadership to coordinate a way to ensure safe passage of the budget proposal through the lower chamber, but she’s not sure that is possible.

“We all kind of are expecting things to be stripped off because they just don’t have the numbers in the House as they do in the Senate… At this point everything is vulnerable. Just seeing the reactions from different House members that were there on the floor, right now I think everything is probably in jeopardy of trying to be stripped off,” Tovar said, noting that Medicaid expansion is the top priority and anything else is icing on the cake.

Jeopardizing chances in the Senate

Senate Democrats would likely be supportive of any amendments House Democrats seek to add to the budget. But Democratic Sen. Linda Lopez of Tucson said she’s concerned the six Republican senators who broke ranks to vote for Medicaid expansion and pass the budget would take issue with some of the House amendments — and that could jeopardize the budget’s chances of passing the Senate once more after the House has made its mark on the budget.

Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix said the Senate didn’t give too much money to Child Protective Services, considering that almost everyone agrees that CPS needs some help. But he’s still not sure the addition will make it through the House.

“Is it the level of funding (Republicans) are going to object to? I don’t know,” he said.

If House Republicans do strip off the Democratic Senate amendments as the budget makes its way through the process, House Democrats are ready to try to add the amendments back on during floor debate on the budget, and maybe add some of their own priorities as well.

House Assistant Democratic Leader Ruben Gallego of Phoenix said that caucus members are talking among themselves to figure out what priorities Democratic representatives have for the budget, and trying to find a way to add them in as amendments.

But Democrats can’t do it alone, and any House amendments would have to have the support of at least seven House Republicans as well.

Unlike in the Senate, however, House Republicans aren’t discussing siding with the Democrats to approve the entire budget package, and the deal to team up so far only applies to Medicaid expansion.

Setting their own priorities

But some of the House Republicans voting for Medicaid expansion have their own priorities they would like to see included in the budget.

Republican Rep. Ethan Orr of Tucson, a supporter of Medicaid expansion, said he will seek a $500,000 appropriation for a mental health first aid program, and maybe a few million for competitive education grants.

Rep. TJ Shope, R-Coolidge, who is expected to vote for expansion, said he would like to see more funding for adult education and community colleges, which have both received large cuts during the fiscal crisis of recent years.

“I’ve seen some of the messages out there in the Facebook and Twitter world about earmarks for this and that. But we’re putting back funding that used to be there… We can’t make up for the two or three years [the money] wasn’t there, but if we can at least put some money back into some areas like adult education, GED courses and community colleges and things like that, that would be a good thing,” Shope said.

Gallego said if Republican leadership wants to keep Democrats off the rest of the budget package, they will probably try to add something like large business tax cuts that Democrats usually oppose. At the end of the day, House Democrats will probably see any budget that includes Medicaid expansion as a victory, though they may oppose the rest of the budget.

“Look, we’re adults here, if they want to keep us off the budget, as long as they pass (Medicaid expansion) in a manner that actually works, we’ll fight our fight, but we’ll do what’s best for Arizona,” Gallego said.

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