Republican leaders in the Arizona House and Senate are moving ahead with plans to draft their own budget proposal by the end of the year, reasserting legislative authority they say they lost during recent years.
By the time Gov. Doug Ducey tells the Legislature his plans for how to spend or save an estimated $170 million in ongoing funds and $475 million in one-time appropriations in mid-January, legislative leaders want him to know how the Legislature wants to use that money, Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray said.
“My hope is that by the end of the year we actually have a budget put together, that it will be in the governor’s hands and he’ll actually know what our House and Senate legislative body is looking at so we can be a little more cooperative,” the Sun City Republican said.
And House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she has met with 80% to 90% of her caucus and has reached out to agency heads about their budgetary priorities.
Cobb said she and her counterparts in the Senate will begin meeting in the coming weeks to start drafting a legislative budget proposal.
Although Cobb and other GOP leaders wouldn’t put it in such terms, long-time Capitol insiders say the plan harkens back to a time when the Legislature more readily wielded its appropriations power, going toe-to-toe with the Governor’s Office to fight for spending priorities that were fleshed out before the governor could go public with his or her plan. There were powerful appropriations subcommittees that grilled agency heads and full-fledged line-item budget proposals that had party support prior to the release of the governor’s own plan.
But over time, Arizona’s governors exerted increasing control over the appropriations process. Although there has been no shortage of recent budget fights between the Ninth Floor and the Legislature, lawmakers ceded some of their autonomy in the name of a more efficient — albeit less publicly transparent — process that puts the governor’s priorities front and center.
This old arrangement might not only pull back the blinds on the appropriations process, but also provide an opportunity for some of the state’s more beleaguered agencies and departments to work their connections in the Legislature and vie for greater funding than they might get otherwise.
And in theory, it could provide an opportunity for Democrats yearning to make their desires heard — though whether those desires manifest themselves has yet to be seen, as some key Democrats say they haven’t received an entree into the nascent budgeting process.
“I have felt that we should have done this a long time ago,” Cobb said. “Last year, we were way behind where we should have been. When that budget comes out from the governor, we shouldn’t have any surprises.”
A return to times past
The governor has been statutorily required to present a budget since the late 1960s, but lawmakers relying almost exclusively on the executive budget to frame debate is a relatively new phenomenon that has gained steam within the past two decades.
“There used to actually be budgeting committees,” said Chuck Coughlin, the president of HighGround Public Affairs Consultants and a political adviser to then-Gov. Jan Brewer. “You go back to those ancient times, what those processes all did was create ownership in the legislative body of ideas, instead of reacting to what the governor proposes.”
There aren’t many left in the Legislature who were around in those days — though some have been more vocal about wanting to restore legislative authority than others.
“At least since I’ve been in the Legislature, we’ve always waited until the end to get all the numbers,” Gray said. “I think that’s a little too reactionary.”
Gray is one of a handful of Republican legislators who have pushed for years to return to an earlier way of budgeting. They first started to make progress in 2017, when new House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, now a senator, created Appropriations subcommittees to develop an initial budget proposal that could be shopped around to Republican House members.
Long before most current members joined the Legislature, Appropriations subcommittees played a larger role in the budget process, holding hearings with agencies throughout the state in the fall before the session began. Subcommittees held ongoing hearings throughout the session as well, longtime Capitol lobbyist Don Isaacson said.
“They would actually work a budget from the ground up and then toward the end of that process reconcile their differences between the House and the Senate,” he said.
That institutional memory had faded so much by the time Brewer took office that the Ninth Floor had to take control just to get a budget written, Coughlin said.
When the economy tanked in the Great Recession, legislators “kind of punted” a lot of their budgeting authority to the governor because taking responsibility for necessary cuts can be painful, but it’s time to change that culture, Gray said.
“Just like with a business, you have a corporate culture that will set the pace on how things are done and the way things are done,” he said. “We have the same thing in the Legislature. It takes a little while to change that culture, and I think we’re really beginning to see that it becomes much more effective to have a deeper dive into the budget than we have before.”
The Governor’s Office also is further ahead on its budget this year than it has been in previous years and has been in regular communication with House and Senate leadership, Ducey Chief of Staff Daniel Scarpinato said.
“We’re all for more collaboration and discussion sooner,” Scarpinato said.
Perpetually underfunded areas of state government see some promise in lawmakers drafting their own budget proposal.
The state Housing Trust Fund, for instance, had been capped at $2.5 million annually for nearly a decade. Ducey’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal would not have increased that amount, but because lawmakers made the fund a sticking point in their budget negotiations, it received a one-time appropriation of $15 million this year.
The Arizona Housing Coalition has good relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle, spokesman Camaron Stevenson said. He’s “optimistically curious” about how the Legislature’s budget plans will proceed.
“It’s easier for us to work with them than it is for 20 different organizations to go to the governor,” he said.
One Republican lawmaker in the House, Scottsdale Rep. John Allen, has already scheduled a meeting with representatives of the developmental disability community to discuss their budget needs, said Jon Meyers, executive director of the disability advocacy group Arc of Arizona.
“It’s never a bad sign that they want to get started on the budgeting process early,” Meyers said. “It certainly gives stakeholders like us the opportunity to provide more input and work with those legislators over a longer period of time, rather than try to compete with all of the priorities that are on their desks during the legislative session.”
Sen. Lela Alston, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature taking a more active role in the budgeting process could embolden executive agencies, such as the Department of Corrections, to ask for the money they need.
“The agencies that might have needs have to take whatever the governor says because they work for him,” she said. “Sometimes the agencies have needs that they’re not able to put forth because of the restrictions placed on them by the Governor’s Office.”
Democrats in the dark
Beyond one-on-one conversations with Senate President Karen Fann about their priorities, Senate Democrats said they haven’t been involved in any discussions about an early budget.
Alston said she hasn’t yet had any conversations with her committee leadership, though she half-jokingly offered to serve as a “consultant” for them on better ways to work on the budget. She previously served in the Senate from 1977 to 1994.
Sen. Sean Bowie, a Tempe Democrat who serves on the Appropriations Committee, said one-on-one meetings are more than his caucus has had under previous Senate leaders.
The Legislature came close to reaching a bipartisan consensus last year, Bowie said, though all Democrats in both chambers ultimately voted against every budget bill. He said he’s hopeful that there will be a bipartisan budget agreement next year.
“We really want to make sure it’s a true bipartisan process and that Democrats are actually being included as we put together these proposals and put together these budgets,” Bowie said. “We’re not just handed something at the end and told, ‘Hey, come and vote for this.’”
Fann, R-Prescott, told the Arizona Capitol Times in June she still planned to meet individually with Democrats but wasn’t particularly inclined to include their priorities.
“After what we saw this year in the last part of the session, I am reluctant to put any of their asks in right up front,” Fann said at the time. “It didn’t do me any good to fight for them this year.”
In the House, Cobb said she’s met with a half-dozen Democrats. But several Democrats, including leaders, say that though they’ve heard of the budget plan, they have yet to be involved.
Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, the ranking member on appropriations, said he hasn’t heard anything from Cobb. Neither have Rep. Reginald Bolding, the ranking member on education, Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez or several other key Democrats, including moderates like Reps. Robert Meza and Cesar Chavez.
“It has been the typical way that we’ve seen the Legislature operate since forever, that the majority party is going behind closed doors and creating a budget they want,” Bolding said. “If there’s an opportunity to pick at the margins, they’ll reach out to Democrats. But there’s been no type of collaboration.”
While the Democratic caucus is supportive of the greater legislative control in theory, many in the minority said they’ll find more common ground with Ducey’s plan than whatever a GOP-controlled Legislature comes up with.
“I believe the governor should set the vision,” Friese said. “It’s not unreasonable to get a pulse, but not to get a jump on the governor.”