The fate of Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposal to boost public universities’ bonding capacity by $1 billion – and perhaps of the state’s budget – rests in the hands of Democrats, according to GOP legislative leaders.
Senate President Steve Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard confirmed that they lack enough Republican votes to approve the borrowing plan for Arizona’s public universities without help from members of the minority party.
“I would concede at the moment we do appear short of the necessary votes, and we’ll have to see,” Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said this morning. “Maybe some Democrats will join us. I do not know the answer to that at the moment.”
Mesnard, R-Chandler, said Tuesday that “the fate of the bonding bill may rest in the hands of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle. And if they’re going to play a game of chicken with us, or negotiate more than we can take, the outcome should make the universities nervous.”
House and Senate Democrats are withholding their “yes” votes in hopes of making two amendments to the $9.8 billion budget deal reached by Republican leadership and the governor: A higher pay raise for K-12 public school teachers and a clean restoration of cash assistance eligibility for poor Arizona families.
Democrats want a 4 percent pay raise for teachers over two years, as opposed to the 2 percent raise pushed by Republicans. And they want to restore lifetime limits on benefits through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to 24 months, but without the strings attached in a bill back by Ducey and sponsored by Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler. Lawmakers had limited TANF eligibility last year to 12 months, the lowest in the nation.
In a joint news release, House and Senate Democratic leaders claimed Ducey’s bonding plan will fail if he does not concede to their demands.
“Rather than work with Democrats in true bipartisanship, Gov. Ducey and Republican legislative leaders have decided they would rather risk university bonding than make a humane gesture to poor Arizona families and give our teachers a truly meaningful raise,” they said. “Until they are willing to put ugly partisan politics aside and work with us, they will lose that gamble.”
It’s unclear how many House Republicans oppose the bonding plan for public universities, which would provide Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona the capacity to borrow up to $1 billion for new construction and building maintenance.
More than half of the chamber’s 35-member GOP caucus support the bonding plan. But Republican leaders say they’re still shy of the 31 votes needed to pass it out of the chamber.
In the Senate, five Republicans are opposed to boosting university bonding, according to several GOP senators, leaving Republicans four votes shy of the 16 needed to pass a bill.
Sen. Steve Montenegro of Litchfield Park and Sen. Steve Smith of Maricopa had signaled their opposition to the plan by skipping a Senate Education Committee hearing on SB1532, the bonding bill, this morning. Despite their absence, the bill cleared the committee by a 3-2 party line vote. Republican Sens. Sylvia Allen, Kate Brophy McGee and Kimberly Yee cast the deciding “yes” votes in favor of the plan.
Democratic Sens. David Bradley and Catherine Miranda voted against the plan, though they made clear it wasn’t a vote against universities, but against a budget they view as not doing enough for education. Miranda, D-Phoenix, said the state’s entire education system must thrive in order for universities to succeed, and voting “yes” would have been a “symbolic” gesture that does no good for education.
Bradley, D-Tucson, highlighted the need to take care of Arizona’s poor and to better fund K-12 public schools as budget priorities that can’t be ignored, even if it meant voting against more money for universities.
“If the state fails these people, they fail (universities),” Bradley said.
Yarbrough said Senate leadership and the governor aren’t entertaining the Democrats’ offer. Eliminating other spending priorities in the budget in order to finance the minority party’s demands could put the entire budget at risk, Yarbrough said.
“I’m not really considering their offer at this point and neither is the governor’s office,” he said. “I guess (Ducey) feels strongly about the TANF in the format that it is, and I’m not sure where we would find the money for a more significant teacher raise because we’re going all in to try to do the largest raise we can possibly do.”
Mesnard said he doesn’t know what it would mean for the budget deal struck with the governor if the bonding proposal fails. That is, whether Ducey will give up on the idea and sign the budget without university bonding, or veto the spending package and tell lawmakers to start over.
“I guess we’re all a little bit scratching our heads that the Democrats are going to try to leverage something that I think most of them want (in order) to get something more,” Mesnard said, noting he doesn’t blame them for trying but adding that the bonding measure hasn’t been a big priority for Republicans, either, yet they’re rounding up votes for it as part of the budget deal.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s biggest teacher union, pushed back against the characterization that Democrats are holding universities hostage to get money for teacher raises.
Leveraging the bonding package for teacher pay is fair game and a sound political strategy, he said.
“I think you have certain opportunities where they have to hear you. And right now, the governor needs votes for the university bonding, and I think the governor will find those votes if he can straighten out education funding on the K-12 side,” Thomas said.
Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s spokesman, said the governor’s office is still in the process of talking to lawmakers “about the merits of the proposal.”
But Ducey believes that “this is a proposal that can garner lots of support within the Legislature,” Scarpinato said.