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Senate leader pans House budget changes

Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate President Andy Biggs said his chamber may not accept the changes to the budget made late Thursday by the House.

Biggs said the problem goes beyond the fact the House added nearly $54 million to the $9.18 billion spending plan the Senate decided was appropriate. He said there are details in how that money would be spent that could cause heartburn among the 17 Republicans who control the Senate.

And that, he said, portends the Senate further altering the now House-amended plan when it starts reviewing the package on Monday.

“What are the odds of it coming out clean? Probably not so hot would be my guess,” Biggs said. But he promised to work with House members and the governor’s office to see “what can we do to basically make this a consensus budget as we wrap it up this next week.”

But even as Biggs talked consensus, he was panning many of those House changes. That even includes language that has no price tag but simply commits the Legislature to “re-examine” the budget after a gubernatorial task force comes up with its plan to create a new Department of Child Safety and Family Services from the old Child Protective Services.

“I think that is ridiculous,” he said.

“We know that there’s probably going to be some more funding necessary,” Biggs said. And he said lawmakers have paid attention, adding $60 million in funding in the past year for additional caseworkers, investigators and support staff.

But he called the commitment, inserted as the insistence of Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, “an amorphous statement full of sound and fury but without any meaning.”

She responded by questioning why senators would want to remove the language if they believe it really has no force.

Brophy McGee said she thinks the real problem is that some of her Republican colleagues fear they are committing themselves to ending the cap that now exists on state-subsidized child care. But even if that is the case, she said their opposition makes no sense.

“I thought child-care subsidies were just the gist of Republicanism,” she said, making it possible for people to work even at low-income jobs.

Taking out Brophy McGee’s intent language, however, could create political problems for House Speaker Andy Tobin.

He had to negotiate a deal with holdouts from his own Republican Party to corral the necessary 31 votes for approval. And he doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver if the Senate makes changes: The spending plan was approved with just 33 votes.

To get that, Tobin also had to agree to another key change in the Senate plan. It provides $33 million to ensure continued extra funding for charter schools that are operated by public school districts, at least for this year.

Charter schools get an extra $1,000 per student in state aid. That’s designed to make up for the fact that these schools, which have traditionally been privately operated, do not have access to local tax dollars or borrowing.

Biggs said it’s unfair to let public schools get those extra dollars. So the Senate budget removes the funding; the House reinserted it.

But Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said the schools are using that extra money to promote “innovative” programs that cannot be financed with the aid the state is now providing to public schools. She said it would be unfair to undermine those programs now.

But Biggs said funding that $33 million, even for just one more year while the issue is studied, will be a hard sell. And some of that is purely politics: Many legislators do not have district-run charter schools in their area.

The House budget is slightly closer in funding to the $9.36 billion spending plan originally proposed in January by Gov. Jan Brewer. But press aide Andrew Wilder said his boss is not taking sides in the dispute between the House and Senate versions — and making no promises about either one.

“While the governor’s office is glad to see forward progress made on a budget by the Legislature, it remains too early to say whether or not it’s something the governor will ultimately sign,” Wilder said.

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