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Legislature on verge of missing session adjournment goal

Senate President Steve Pierce acknowledges that lawmakers want to get a budget finalized and end the legislative session sooner rather than later. (Photo by Evan Wyoge/Arizona Capitol TImes)

A year ago, the Arizona Legislature was just days away from adjournment of its annual legislative session, having already approved a state budget that included painful cuts to state services.

But while lawmakers missed their self-imposed 2011 adjournment target of 100 days by just five hours, there’s little chance the Legislature will come near as close this year.

The current session’s 100th day falls on Tuesday, but leaders of the Republican-led Legislature have yet to close a budget deal with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer though the economy and the state’s fiscal situation have both improved.

Until that happens, other priorities for both Brewer and GOP lawmakers are on hold.

Brewer’s budget director, John Arnold, said Thursday the sides are “really close” to agreement on a compromise on a budget that must reconcile Brewer’s push to increase spending for some state services with calls by legislative fiscal hardliners for restraint.

Meanwhile, Senate President Steve Pierce says Brewer has some leverage because “she can sit there as long as she wants” while lawmakers get increasingly antsy to adjourn and go home, partly because many face re-election campaigns in newly redrawn districts.

“Yeah, I think people would like to get out of here. The other side of it is that they don’t want to spend too much money and they’re cautious. But I think eventually the longer it goes on the more apt they are to say we want out of here,” the Prescott Republican said.

The Legislature has finished work on most of the bills it will enact, sending about 300 to Brewer so far while either defeating or ignoring hundreds more. In the Senate, only dozens of bills still await action.

Legislation still pending includes such hot-button topics as business tax cuts, contraception coverage and public employee unions. And there are final culls to be made on possible ballot measures. Referendum candidates include measures on limiting property taxes, trading state trust land, setting new criteria for the state’s rainy day fund and declaring state sovereignty over natural resources.

Also awaiting final action is a Brewer priority — her sweeping proposal to partially dismantle the civil service system to give her administration new leeway to fire state workers deemed to be poor-performers.

It’s poised for consideration by both chambers after clearing House and Senate committees, but its not-quite-done status could give lawmakers some leverage in their dealings with Brewer on the budget.

“I guess you could say that,” Pierce said. “But it’s just that we would like to get the budget done first.”

Brewer said Wednesday she was “very much encouraged” by recent budget talks.

“I think we all are going to have to compromise a little bit to get to a point where we can send them all home. It’s give and take. I, of course, am continuing to fight for education and public safety and the most vulnerable,” she said.

But the task of getting a budget deal might have been made more difficult, at least short term, by legislative budget advisers’ new projection that state revenue growth won’t be quite as robust as they’d forecast back in January.

Some fiscal hardliners appeared to be digging in their heels after the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s staff revised its revenue projections Thursday.

“We must be even more fiscally conservative now than we were yesterday because we’ve had more revenue slippage,” said House Appropriations Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.

However, Arnold said the sides’ revenue estimates “are not horribly different,” especially in the context that economists who advise the legislative budget staff are generally optimistic about the economic recovery.

“In fact, I think there’s an upside risk more than a downside risk at this point,” Arnold said.

Last year, Republicans were faced with a big budget shortfall that they closed mostly with spending cuts to health care, education and other services. They signed, sealed and delivered that budget by the beginning of April.

In contrast, this year’s budget work centers on spending increases, not cuts.

Differences between Brewer’s budget proposal and the legislative version included the governor’s proposals for more state spending on foster care, reading instruction, school equipment and construction, prison staff and construction, and services for the seriously mentally ill.

The Republican legislators’ budget proposal generally eschews spending increases in favor of stashing away surplus dollars. They cite the 2013 end of the state’s temporary sales tax increase and the possibility that the state will face higher Medicaid costs and other burdens imposed by the federal government.

“If we make the wrong calls and spend money we don’t have, Arizonans will be paying for those mistakes for years to come,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said.

Sen. Paula Aboud, a Tucson Democrat who participated in budget talks when Democrat Janet Napolitano was governor, said the Republicans’ inability so far to reach an agreement with a governor of their own party is telling.

“We didn’t fight Napolitano. We worked it out with her,” Aboud said, adding later, “The Republicans like to bicker.”

Pierce said the session will end soon once a budget agreement is in hand.

“I’d like the governor to sit down and hear from my leadership and the House leadership regarding the budget so … everybody knows what both sides are thinking and finalize things and shut it down,” he said.

But what about Tuesday’s 100th target?

“We’ll see,” Pierce said.

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