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Lawmakers approve $9.23 billion budget

(From left) Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, and House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, watch as the Arizona House of Representatives votes on the state budget late Thursday night. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

(From left) Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, and House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, watch as the Arizona House of Representatives votes on the state budget March 27. Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Three weeks after the Senate surprised the Capitol community by unilaterally moving forward with a bare bones budget proposal, Republicans in the House and Senate came to an agreement on a spending plan they hope the governor will accept.

The House and Senate approved the $9.23 billion budget for fiscal year 2015 on Monday evening. The vote was mostly along party lines in both chambers, with most bills clearing the floor 36-19 in the House and 17-12 in the Senate.

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, cast a yes vote for HB2703 after securing an amendment to provide $125,000 for the Arizona Commission on African-American Affairs.

Though much of the budget remained the same as the original plan put forward by the Senate, several hard-fought battles over line item appropriations – especially for K-12 education, universities and child welfare – ended with a compromise that increased spending from what the Senate proposed, but was still lower than the budget proposed by the House.

Andrew Wilder, the spokesman for Gov. Jan Brewer, said the budget deal was “promising,” but wouldn’t comment on whether she’d sign it. Wilder said the governor would “take time to fully review the final product before she ultimately decides if it’s something she’ll sign.”

“The Governor’s Office is pleased with what appears to be a promising budget proposal,” Wilder said prior to the Legislature’s passage of the budget deal. “We’ve worked closely with the House and Senate throughout the process to craft something addresses the state’s priorities and the governor’s priorities, but still being realistic and mindful of the limited resources available to the state.”

However, Brewer is widely expected to sign the budget, as her office joined the House in crafting the compromise proposal, which was presented to the Senate April 3.

Republican Rep. John Kavanagh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, admitted the budget wasn’t ideal, but said it was the best they could do, given the state’s revenues and the political realities in the Legislature.

“Is this a perfect budget? No, but these are imperfect times. Does this budget have any areas that may need more money? Absolutely. Does this budget have areas that should have less spending? Absolutely. But, as you look at the numbers, the most important numbers are a series called 16-31-1,” he said referring to the number of votes necessary to approve a budget in the Senate, House and with the governor.

But House Minority Whip Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said a compromise among Republicans isn’t much of a compromise.

“We were never consulted once about what should be in that budget, what’s important to us,” he said.

The main points of contention were over relatively small dollar amounts, and the chasm between the House and Senate budget – which took three weeks, several false starts, a lot of legislative back-and-forth and, eventually, a conference committee to sort out – was less than $30 million.

The Senate proposal increased spending over last year by $27.75 million, while the House approved a budget that increased spending $56 million. The approved budget split the difference, and added an additional $41.5 million.

Lawmakers settled on $24.5 million in funding for district charter schools after going back and forth on how to proceed with a program that Republicans claim has ballooned out of control in the last fiscal year and threatened to blow a hole in future  budgets if it wasn’t reigned in. Senate President Andy Biggs fought to reduce the funding for those schools to $16 million, but lawmakers in conference committee settled on the higher figure. The final spending level is still less than the $33 million the Department of Education estimates those schools will need.

The compromise budget gives funding for districts that converted schools to charters in fiscal year 2014. Beginning in fiscal 2016, schools will no longer be funded to operate as district-sponsored charters.

Additional university funding was to $4.5 million, slightly less than the $5.5 million the House sought, after being slashed to zero in the Senate. The University of Arizona and Arizona State University will each receive $2 million in additional funding, while Northern Arizona University will get $500,000.

And funding for the new Department of Child Safety and Family Services – the agency under construction to replace the now-defunct Child Protective Services – will be revisited when legislation is ready to create it. Intent language included in the budget more closely resembles language initially approved by the House, stating that funding will be reexamined “in conjunction with the legislation that will create a successor agency, in order to meet the needs of that successor agency.”

Wilder said it’s important that the Legislature commit to funding the new child welfare agency once its needs are more fully known. Brewer, who has said a special session will be needed to flesh out the details and funding for the new agency, will not sign a budget that doesn’t allow lawmakers to revisit the agency’s funding at that point, Wilder said.

“When it comes to overhauling and funding the child protection system, that’s been the governor’s number one priority,” he said.

Other additional spending includes $230,000 for the Court of Appeals, $500,000 for mental health grants within the Department of Health Services, and the reinstatement of $1 million for Prescott to help cover costs under the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System incurred due to the Yarnell Hill Fire.

But the increased spending wasn’t enough for Democrats, who argued that the budget was short-sighted in providing funding for low-income child care subsidies and transportation infrastructure.

Sen. Barbara McGuire, D-Kearny, said the Senate had not taken enough time to consider the budget in a bipartisan manner and called the compromise “a premature birth” that would likely need resuscitation.

Even early Monday morning, lawmakers signaled progress on a compromise but, anxious after three grueling weeks of back-and-forth budget negotiations, were reluctant to declare the budget a done deal.

Some lawmakers expressed frustration that Republicans in the two chambers couldn’t reach an agreement sooner, and said much of the disagreement came down to personalities and very small differences.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said the $30 million fight between Republicans in the House and Senate is just a drop in the budget of the $9.2 billion budget.

“We’ve been fighting over nickels and dimes,” he said.

And Biggs, R-Gilbert, said early Monday that, despite the seemingly minor differences between the House and Senate adopted budgets, those dollars were worth fighting over.

“I always believe, $20 million, if it was your money and my money and we wanted to throw it away, that’d be one thing,” Biggs told reporters. “But if its taxpayers money, $20 million is real money to me.”

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