Democratic representatives took their budget pitch public on Wednesday morning in an effort to appeal to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, while state senators in the minority party are keeping their plans close to the vest.
Their differing strategies reflect the political realities in the state Senate, where GOP leaders have pledged to work across the aisle on a roughly $11 billion spending plan, and the House of Representatives, where Republicans made no qualms about keeping Democrats out of the loop.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said she’s tried and failed to engage with her Republican colleagues in budget talks, so instead, she took her case directly to the governor. Her sales pitch comes a week after leaked budget documents prepared by Senate Republicans showed a spending plan that vastly deviated from Ducey’s desires to invest in education and infrastructure, while also saving hundreds of millions of dollars for a rainy day.
Fernandez offered Ducey an alternative path. The House minority leader’s budget proposal accomplishes much of what the governor asked for in January by investing in KidsCare, Arizona’s health insurance program for children; funding a teacher’s academy at public universities; providing state employees a pay raise; and investing in new school construction, among many other areas of agreement.
All told, Democrats seek to spend roughly $200 million more than Ducey proposed, and save roughly $80 million less in the state’s rainy-day fund. With a little “leadership” from Ducey, perhaps House Republicans can be swayed to use those figures as a starting point to negotiate with Democrats, she said.
“They’re not talking to us,” Fernandez said of House GOP leadership.
That’s been the standard at the Arizona Legislature, where Republicans control the governor’s office, the House and the Senate, and historically use that advantage to pass budgets without meaningful input from Democrats. The process inevitably results in budgets that are approved mostly along party lines, save for a rare instance where one or two Democratic lawmakers vote for individual pieces of a spending plan.
“We’ve asked the governor’s staff to bring them to the table with us,” Fernandez said. “That’s the governor’s job – to talk to them and say this budget is good for Arizona and for us.”
As for the Senate, Democrats have been silent when it comes to their own priorities. That, too, is by design, said Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, as they’re trying to cooperate with Republicans to build a bipartisan budget.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” Bradley said. “Over here, we’re still trying to work it out.”
Bradley said Republicans were caught unaware when an early version of their budget draft leaked last week, and he expects Republicans to share an updated version with Democrats soon. Like their House colleagues, Senate Democrats supported most of the governor’s budget, which contains a lot of “Democratic priorities from bygone days,” he said.
Senate Democrats still differ from Republicans on some significant issues, including funding for KidsCare and universities, he said. But as long as Fann keeps those conversations going, Democrats have promised Senate Republican leadership not to broadcast their own budget priorities.
Unlike in the House, “we haven’t been cut out,” Bradley said.
That’s in line with Senate President Karen Fann’s ongoing vow to pursue what one GOP lawmaker called the “impossible dream,” a budget agreement that Republicans and Democrats alike will vote for.
In the opposite chamber, Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, was unapologetic about the Republican’s approach.
“Fernandez and their leadership team, including the real minority leader, Rep. [Isela] Blanc, are the last folks I would reach out to on a budget or any other bill,” Shope said via text. “Doesn’t mean I won’t reach out to other members who are reasonable.”
The House Democrats’ olive branch to Ducey isn’t inclusive of their Republican colleagues either, Shope said. The Democrats crafted their proposal behind closed doors without input from the majority caucus, and in any case, he’s not taking their proposal seriously.
“I don’t pay much attention to desperate acts for attention,” Shope said.
Reps. Regina Cobb, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Warren Petersen, the House majority leader, were similarly left in the dark about the Democrat’s spending priorities, they said, though Petersen took no issue with them announcing their budget plan.
“They’re free to release their own proposal. That’s what they got elected to do, to try to get things done and make things happen down here,” the Gilbert Republican said.
House Republicans are working with Ducey on their own proposal, which they’ll release “as soon as possible,” he said. But if it’s anything like the budget documents that leaked from the Senate, Fernandez said Ducey would do better to engage with Democrats.
“Is he willing to accept a budget that thumbs its nose at most of his stated priorities? Or does he want a budget that moves Arizona forward? His budget, for the most part, will require the votes of both Republicans and Democrats to pass,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez heaped praise on Ducey for introducing a budget in January that was “pretty good” and highlighted the areas in which Ducey’s priorities align with those of House Democrats.
And she appealed to the governor’s sense of expediency.
“With just some minor adjustments to his plan, and some leadership, the governor could lift us out of this stalemate this week,” Fernandez said.
CORRECTION: This article previously identified Tucson Democrat David Bradley as the majority leader in the Senate. He is the minority leader.