Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republican lawmakers took some small steps toward negotiation this week, sending invitations and promising to meet to talk about putting together a state budget – the main task that will require cooperation between the opposing parties this year.
On Feb. 28, GOP leaders in the House and Senate sent Hobbs a letter seeking a meeting and reiterating the “obvious” need for compromise – something both sides have acknowledged but haven’t really acted on so far.
“Obviously, we need some level of agreement to pass a budget. We believe we can achieve most of our priorities and include yours that are reasonable,” Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, and House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, wrote in the letter.
Hobbs, a Democrat, said later that day that she’ll accept the invitation to meet with the two Republicans.
“I’m encouraged that we can move forward on a process of negotiating a budget that we can all agree on,” the governor told reporters.
And on the morning of March 1, the governor’s staff reached out to Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, seeking to meet to talk about “agency nominations and budget priorities.” Shope is generally viewed as a more moderate Republican than Toma and Petersen, the leaders of the two chambers.
Chad Campbell, a Democratic strategist, said, “I don’t think we’re going to break the logjam here in the next few weeks – we’re going to be down there for a while, but these are the signs that I think people are starting to focus on reality, knowing they’re going to have to eventually start working together in some capacity.”
Toma and Petersen’s letter also mentioned some specific areas of potential compromise. The two said there are GOP lawmakers who support adding funding for school facilities projects, transportation projects and the Division of Developmental Disabilities.
Hobbs said she “absolutely” views those as initial concessions offered by the Republicans and that she has compromises she’s willing to make as well.
Still, the apparent icebreaker came couched in partisan politics.
Toma and Petersen’s letter accused Hobbs of sending “contrary messaging” from the Ninth Floor, citing her recent commitment to spend $500,000 to flip the Legislature while also seeking to “discuss priorities and identify differences to avoid a government shutdown.” (That was apparently a reference to the worst-case scenario if the two sides can’t agree on a budget before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.)
And the governor and lawmakers couldn’t even seem to agree on who was inviting who to begin talks.
Both Toma and Petersen said that they never got an invitation to talk to the Governor’s Office following Hobbs’ veto of the Republican-backed “skinny budget” two weeks ago – so this week’s overture represented a first step.
Hobbs contradicted that on Feb. 28.
“We did reach out, so I take their letter as response to us reaching out,” she said.
When she vetoed the skinny budget, Hobbs indicated she wanted to start some kind of dialogue. “Now that this partisan exercise is over, I am asking the Legislature to genuinely and seriously work with me on a budget that puts people, not politics first,” she said in the Feb. 16 announcement.
This week, lawmakers continued to butt heads. Republicans in the House reportedly told Democrats they needed support from a majority of Republicans for their bills to get a floor vote. Democrats protested the ploy by voting “no” on every bill put up for a vote on Feb. 28 and March 1.
And the bills that have managed to move through the Legislature in recent days, like a food tax cut, might get the veto treatment when they get to Hobbs’ desk.
“I continue to be concerned about the impact on cities and especially public safety budgets,” Hobbs said on Feb. 28 about the food tax bill. “I think there’s a lot of other things we can be doing to make things affordable.”
Another notable element of this week’s tentative steps toward budget negotiations is the indication that executive nominations could play a part in the bargain. The governor’s interest in talking to Shope about both items suggests that the two could be linked. So far, Hobbs’ nominees to several key agencies have faced fierce resistance in a Senate confirmation committee that the governor has described as a “circus.”
Daniel Scarpinato, who served as chief of staff under Hobbs’ predecessor, former Gov. Doug Ducey, said that Senate confirmations were a part of negotiations between the governor and Legislature during Ducey’s tenure.
“It was a piece of leverage that the Senate had,” Scarpinato said.