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Arizona House approves university bonding, Senate up next

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The Arizona House approved the most contentious part of a $9.8 billion state budget package this evening, clearing the way for approval of the spending plan in that chamber.

The focus immediately returned to the Senate, where deal-cutting to gain support from conservative Republicans for the $1 billion university bonding program is yet to be tested with a vote.

But it was clear the Legislature was moving closer to passing the budget, and the loan package that will allow the state’s three public universities to borrow for new research buildings and maintenance was gaining support.

The House passed the university bonding package on a 33-26 vote, losing just two Republicans after days of worry that GOP leaders might not have the support of many in their caucus. No Democrats voted for the measure.

A criminal justice funding bill passed the House on a 35-24 party-line vote after an hour of debate focused on the proposal to strip $1.6 million from Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, and allocate the money to other counties and to process rape kits. The vote count is expected to be repeated on the rest of the budget package in the House.

The main focus for most of the day was on getting enough Senate Republican votes for the bonding plan. Early in the day, Senate President Steve Yarbrough was unsure how to get the needed 16 votes. There are 17 Republicans in the Senate, so losing only two would doom the bill barring Democratic support.

“I do not have 16 Republican votes on the bonding package as we stand here right now” Yarbrough said this morning.

As the day wore on, the horse-trading got heated.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said three new provisions were added to the budget deal to help ease the way to passage without support from Democrats.

The proposals include at least $1 million in new money for “freedom school” programs at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona that have received millions in funding from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation. The programs got $5 million in ongoing spending in last year’s budget and the new cash would be on top of that, although it’s a one-time appropriation.

Other proposals include a ban on universities using general fund money for lobbyists and a requirement that cities place tax-raising measures only on even-year general election ballots.

Both chambers plan to push through the budget package no matter how long it takes, even if they go well into Friday morning.

Democrats are opposed to the budget and the bonding because it includes only a 2 percent teacher raise over two years and doesn’t include a clean restoration of welfare cuts Ducey pushed through in 2015.

“They actually have to justify $1 billion in bonding for universities when we’re being sued for not ensuring that K-12 schools aren’t falling apart,” House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said. “Teacher pay is 50th in the nation. In terms of priorities, university bonding falls well below No. 1 and 2, and that’s teacher pay and ensuring that the classrooms our kids are in aren’t falling apart.”

House leaders worked throughout Wednesday to overcome opposition from members to the bonding proposal, even adding an $11 million per year income tax cut to sweeten the deal. The additional deals on top of that tax cut were added Thursday.

The first House bill garnered votes from all 35 Republicans, a good sign for GOP legislative leaders and a bad one for Democrats.

The opposition among some Republicans to the proposal to let the university issue 25-year construction bonds falls into several categories. Some believe the universities are overfunded now or have raised tuition too much. Others believe there’s not enough legislative oversight in the package, although language about project review was added to the budget deal.

“The main concern I have with the bonding package is it’s hard to understand what the money will be used for,” Gilbert Republican Rep. Travis Grantham said. “Yeah, there’s some checks and balances in place that the House should have some oversight. But you’ve got to remember the House turns over; every couple of years there are 20 or so new members.”

The spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1 includes teacher pay raises and about $114 million in new K-12 spending overall. The deal also allocates $37 million in extra cash for high-performing schools, new money to expand all-day kindergarten or early literacy programs and other initiatives pushed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

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