GOP lawmakers approve $8.6B spending plan (updated)

GOP lawmakers approve $8.6B spending plan (updated)

Republican leaders quickly consolidated support behind an $8.6 billion budget plan and gave it final approval today, less than a week after finally reaching a deal with Gov. Jan Brewer.

The spending plan is a product of a session-long negotiation between Brewer and legislative leaders, and the give-and-take between the two sides is palpable throughout the budget document.

The budget anticipates modest increases in revenues over the next few years, adopting a cautious average growth rate of 5.75 percent through 2015.

Brewer was more optimistic that the economy would produce the funds to support her original spending proposal, but she ultimately relented and agreed with lawmakers’ more modest revenue projections.

In return, the governor got money for her spending initiatives, notably in education, public safety and prisons.

She also successfully persuaded lawmakers to earmark millions of dollars for the Department of Economic Security to backfill lost federal funds.

But one of the biggest items in the budget is money that is being stashed away in anticipation of future fiscal woes. A total of $450 million is proposed to be deposited into the state’s “rainy day fund,” which would be withdrawn to balance the budget in fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

Republican legislators, many of whom were veterans of the painful budget slashing that began in 2008, were adamant about setting aside a sizable sum to prepare for future woes.

“We’re moving ahead, getting a balanced budget done for this year, yet we’re cognizant of what could be happening down the road and cautiously optimistic,” said Senate President Steve Pierce.

Sen. Don Shooter, the rookie chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, echoed the sentiment.

“We not only did the things that are immediately important for Arizona but also tried to think about next year’s budget and the year after that,” Shooter said. “We’re not going to leave a mess.”

But Democrats said the budget reflected Republicans’ misplaced priorities.

Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said the budget still doesn’t fund or set aside enough for some of the state’s most pressing needs.

“When you don’t fund KidsCare, when you don’t fund soft capital — books and computers for students, when you don’t adequately fund building renewal for our crumbling school system, when you steal $50 million that’s supposed to go towards helping homeowners, when you do all those things and then you spend as much as this budget spends on private prisons, I think it’s pretty clear that your priorities are out of whack,” he said.

Democrats tried, but failed, to add spending for a variety of government programs, including adult education, state parks and public schools.

“The fact that this budget spends more money incarcerating adults than in educating them says a lot about this state,” House Minority Leader Chad Campbell said.

In the Senate, some Republicans tried to fast-track a 2 percent increase in the reimbursement rate to service providers of the developmentally disabled. The increase would have taken place in July, instead of April 2013.

The idea initially won approval when enough senators from both parties backed it.

But it didn’t have the buy-in of Republican leaders and it threatened to complicate the budget’s passage.

Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, who offered the change, later agreed to exclude it from the main budget measure.

Gray said she’ll continue working on her proposal, telling colleagues she believes money can be found to provide the reimbursement rate increase immediately.

Elsewhere, criticism of the budget is mostly muted.

Dana Naimark of the Children’s Action Alliance isn’t fawning over the spending plan, but she said it is better than the Legislature’s original proposal. And for that, she’s relieved and thankful to Brewer’s insistence to set aside funding for children’s issues.

Naimark was referring to the $42 million for the Department of Economic Security to backfill lost federal dollars.

“It really would have been a huge crisis if that wasn’t in there. It would have been taking us so far backwards on child protective services,” Naimark said, adding she’s also happy to see that lawmakers are setting aside $40 million for K-3 reading.

All told, the budget is still a “mixed bag,” she said.

“It just keeps us where we are,” Naimark said, adding the spending plan is still not farsighted enough.