A $17.8 billion budget package cleared the Arizona Senate early Wednesday morning as lawmakers fast-track a fiscal year 2024 plan that would pour money into housing and education, while providing a one-time tax rebate and letting the state’s universal school voucher program continue to expand.
And after Democrats spent the morning complaining about the content of the deal and the negotiating process behind it, more than half of the Democratic members of the Senate supported the deal in a series of middle-of-the-night votes.
The vote on the principal spending bill came at about 4:30 a.m. and passed 25-5, with all Republicans and nine Democrats voting ‘Yes.’
“There’s a lot of good stuff in here,” said Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tucson, the Senate minority leader, who voted for the full budget package. But like others in her caucus, Epstein supported the deal grudgingly, criticizing both Republican lawmakers and Democrat Gov. Katie Hobbs for how they handled the budget process. Epstein also called the overall spending plan “irresponsible.”
Republicans were less vocal but sounded more satisfied by the outcome. Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, praised the process and the product of the budget deal.
“25 ‘ayes,’ five ‘nays.’ Bipartisan. Got our priorities in. That sounds like a success to me,” he said.
The package delivers major spending on issues important to Hobbs and Democrats, like $150 million for the state’s Housing Trust Fund and more than half a billion dollars for education and schools. It also includes provisions requested by GOP lawmakers, like a $260 million one-time tax rebate and a slew of smaller projects hand-picked by individual legislators.
On Wednesday morning lawmakers approved some minor amendments to the deal including adding about 13 jobs in the Attorney General’s office, but they didn’t dramatically alter the deal that was made public on Monday.
The vote came amid a whirlwind week at the capitol. Lawmakers introduced the budget package late Monday afternoon and used rule changes to speed up the approval process and limit public debate about the deal, which had been hammered out in advance behind closed doors.
The House was set to return to session at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, meaning the budget could be sent to the governor’s office for approval later the same day.
The bipartisan support for the budget on Wednesday morning came hours after Democrats in House and Senate appropriations committees opposed the proposals almost unanimously on Tuesday morning. They cited a negotiation process that didn’t give them a place at the table and concerns about the ballooning costs of the state’s universal school voucher program.
Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, initially criticized the proposal for failing to place a cap on voucher program costs, but ultimately voted yes on some of the measures in the budget package, including the education bill.
“I wanted a cap” on ESA spending, Marsh said on Wednesday. “But the reality is, there still was a lot of other good stuff in there and ultimately it came down to my deep-seated belief that the alternative was going to be worse – blowing up this budget was going to be worse.”
The budget package was split into 16 separate bills. Republicans were united in backing the full package, but some Democrats voted ‘Yes’ for some bills and ‘No’ on others.
Sens. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, and Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, opposed all the budget bills.
“This was not a budget built for all of Arizona,” Mendez said.
The budget deal was a surprise on a few fronts. For one, it came earlier than expected. Since the beginning of the year, state capitol observers have speculated that budget negotiations would drag into late June, given the publicly contentious relationship between Hobbs and Republicans in the legislature.
“What were all the pundits saying? ‘Oh, it’ll get done on June 30,’” Petersen said at one point. “They were wrong.”
It also represented an unusual kind of bipartisan compromise. Republican lawmakers hashed out the deal with Hobbs and Democratic lawmakers seemed to be blindsided by the proposal this week.
As Democrats vented their frustration with Hobbs’ budget on Tuesday, the governor took the day to leave the capitol and head to Tucson for a news conference on immigration policy.
On Tuesday morning, Christian Slater, a spokesman for Hobbs, didn’t directly say if the governor was willing to sign a budget that didn’t get any votes from Democrats, but he made it clear that the governor was happy with the package as it was introduced.
Then, early on Wednesday morning, Slater indicated the Hobbs had helped flip some of her fellow Democrats.
“The gov herself got those votes,” he said in a text message, as lawmakers voted on the first of the bills in the budget package.