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Bill to cap state debt advances to House floor

A measure that would change the state’s borrowing habits cleared a House panel today, but its future remains uncertain as the legislative session nears its final days.

SCR1060, sponsored by Senate President Bob Burns, was approved by an 8-5 vote in the House Appropriations Committee. However, several Republicans said they voted for it merely to advance it through the legislative process, even though they had concerns about the effect it would have on future state budgets.

Burns’ proposal, SCR1060, would raise the constitutional debt limit to 5 percent of the net assessed valuation of all property in the state, and it would require all future borrowing to be approved by voters or two-thirds of the Legislature. In fiscal 2011, the debt limit would be set at about $3.9 billion.

The state’s debt limit now is $350,000, a figure that was written into the state Constitution in 1912 and that is often ignored by lawmakers. The state’s books now show $4.3 billion in debt – even though the state actually owes much more than that – thanks to a legal determinations that not all forms of borrowing are subject to the existing debt limit.

Lawmakers have borrowed heavily in the past two years to help bridge massive budget deficits, using such techniques as borrowing against future revenue from the Arizona Lottery and the sale-leaseback of state buildings.

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee said it’s a bad idea to set rules that would limit the ability of lawmakers to balance the budget when state revenue falls short.

“I think it’s irresponsible for us to tie the hands of future Legislatures,” said Rep. David Schapira, a Tempe Democrat.

Republican Rep. Russ Jones, from Yuma, voted for the measure even though it addressed only one aspect of the state’s budget problems. Any solution also needs to change the voter-protection restrictions on some state spending and a constitutional provision that any tax increases be done with a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate.

“This is like a fix to immigration without securing our borders (first),” he said.

After a constitutional check in the Rules Committee, SCR1060 can move to the House floor for debate and a vote.

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