Arizona lawmakers pulled an all-nighter and worked well past sunrise Saturday morning to approve a $9.1 billion budget proposal after Republican leadership spent the day rounding up the votes to get it across the finish line.
The budget was hammered out between Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey behind closed doors, but received significant blowback when legislative leaders unveiled it to rank-and-file lawmakers earlier this week, many of whom threatened to vote against it unless there were serious changes made to the proposal’s deep cuts to higher education.
In the end, however, they only got slight reductions to the governor’s proposed cuts, along with a series of minor changes to policies and bottom lines in the 13-bill budget package.
The Senate and House each approved the budget by thin margins. In the Senate, five of the budget bills required the vote of a sole Democrat, Sen. Carlyle Begay, along with 15 Republicans, to send the measures to the governor’s desk.
In the House, only a few Republican lawmakers opposed the budget bills, although earlier in the day, more than a dozen GOP lawmakers had expressed concerns about the proposal. Republican Reps. Chris Ackerley of Sahuarita, Heather Carter of Cave Creek and Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix all voted against the main budget bill.
Democratic Rep. Mark Cardenas quipped that his colleagues across the aisle “folded like the French in WWII” under pressure from GOP leadership
Two House Democrats voted for a pair of the budget bills, but both later said they were too tired to think straight and the votes were accidental.
Voting didn’t begin until after 10 p.m., and continued until well after sunrise.
Begay, D-Ganado, drew the ire of his fellow Democrats for voting against the majority of his caucus. Begay negotiated several measures that will benefit tribal communities, including $1.2 million in infrastructure funds on the Navajo Nation, and a bill he sponsored that would waive tuition for high school students wishing to take classes at tribal colleges was approved earlier in the day.
Republican Sen. Jeff Dial of Chandler voted against five of the budget bills, including the K-12 spending plan. And Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, was absent for every budget vote.
Begay acknowledged that his vote may result in a backlash from some Democrats, but defended his decision.
“My goal here isn’t to worry about being reluctant. My goal is to do the job that’s in front of me today,” Begay told the Arizona Capitol Times. “And as small or big as those opportunities are, you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
But his House counterpart, Democratic Rep. Jennifer Benally, said she was “ashamed” that Begay traded his vote on the GOP budget that cuts education in order to get an amendment into the budget for a $1.2 million transportation appropriation for the Navajo Nation.
“If this was truly reflective of what the Navajo Nation needs, this amendment would not be offered. We would be looking at education… We don’t look at infrastructure before education for our children,” she said.
While Begay’s vote proved crucial on several budget bills, a deal could not have been struck were it not for two other senators compromising at the eleventh hour. Republican Sens. Adam Driggs and Bob Worsley, both holdouts for much of the week, voted for the budget bills after brokering a deal with the Governor’s Office that lessens cuts to universities.
Cuts to the university were only reduced by $5 million, from $104 million to $99 million. However, Ducey promised that the Board of Regents will have a seat at the table when the state renegotiates its gaming compact with the Indian tribes – a compact not due to expire until 2026. Negotiations on a compact can be opened before the expiration date.
Senate President Andy Biggs rebuked lawmakers who claimed the budget cuts funding for K-12 education, and blamed the opposition to the budget – which included protests by thousands of teachers, students and parents outside the Capitol Thursday evening – on “bad information” circulated by the press.
“We will be spending more than we have ever spent before on K-12 education, and I’m told that that’s a cut. That is really hard to understand,” said Biggs, R-Gilbert. “To me, that’s the spin zone.”
Other changes made to the budget to win Republican votes include changes to how cuts to vocational educational school districts will be implemented and allowing school districts some flexibility in how they make a required five-percent cut.
Democrats spent hours proposing futile amendments to the budget in efforts to restore funding to K-12 and the university system, and state aid to low-income families.
Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, called the budget “death by a thousand cuts” to those who are poor and can least afford to lose state aid.
And Democrats complained into the late night, then early morning hours, about the rushed process by which the budget was approved, and applauded groups of students who remained in the Senate gallery well into the night to rise in opposition to education spending cuts.
“We’ve been criticized for lamenting the process, and we’ve been told this is the way that it is,” said Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix. “This might be the way we’ve done it that past several years, but that doesn’t make it right.”
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