Senate President Karen Fann is pursuing what a fellow Republican lawmaker calls “the impossible dream” – a truly bipartisan budget with spending priorities that reflect Republican and Democratic priorities.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley is still waiting for an invitation to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Gov. Doug Ducey wishes everybody would just shut up.
Such is the state of budget negotiations as Arizona lawmakers near the 100th day of session. They will meet that milestone on April 23, a benchmark that historically signals that their work is coming to a close. It can also serve as a reminder to hustle up and pass a budget, the only responsibility that’s constitutionally required of senators and representatives.
But with big-ticket items dealing with taxes and controversial fees still up for debate, leadership in both chambers say they have yet to settle on an agreed estimate of state revenues – meaning they don’t yet know how much they’ll have to spend in Fiscal Year 2020.
Some lawmakers close to the budget negotiations predict a long summer spent at the Capitol.
So does Ducey, if that’s what it takes.
“From our standpoint, we in the governor’s office don’t sine die. We always say that we’re here all year round, and we think that members understand the budget is the most important thing we do all year,” said Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak.
For now, Ducey would at least be satisfied if lawmakers stopped chatting with reporters. Their airing of budget grievances in the Yellow Sheet Report, a sister publication of the Arizona Capitol Times, has drawn the governor’s ire.
“Reading the Yellow Sheet every day, it sure does seem like there are some who are wanting to negotiate the budget through the media, and we prefer not to do that,” Ptak said. “We want to be respectful of the process, and of members and of legislative leadership.”
That didn’t stop Ptak from disputing claims by some legislative Republicans that the governor has backtracked from apparent consensus in negotiations. Rep. Regina Cobb, the House appropriations chairwoman, said negotiations took “one step forward, two steps back” thanks to the governor’s shifting positions.
Ptak said that’s not accurate, and that both the Legislature and the governor have provided wiggle room in negotiations.
But Cobb’s comments echo complaints from Senate Republicans, who have bemoaned since January that Ducey’s budget proposal found ways to spend or save all of a roughly $1 billion surplus in state revenues. Fann, a Prescott Republican, said that’s part of the reason why she’s pushing for the Senate to propose its own spending plan.
“If you look at the governor’s budget, most of that money was all eaten up, and both the House and Senate members are saying, ‘What about us?’” Fann said. “So we’re just taking this opportunity — all of the senators, Rs and Ds over here — that we’re going to say, ‘We’re just going to start putting together our own budget here, so we can start plugging in some of our priorities.’”
Fann’s effort at bipartisanship drew praise from colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Sen. David Farnsworth, a Mesa Republican, said he is excited at the prospect of the Senate working on its own proposal with Democratic input.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but I think the best legislation that goes out of here is bipartisan legislation,” he said. “It’s challenging, but we certainly should be working in that direction.”
As an eight-year veteran at the Legislature, Sen. Martin Quezada knows that budgets are typically Republican-only affairs, and the Glendale Democrat noted that Fann has spent more time on outreach to Democrats than previous Senate presidents.
Quezada remains open-minded, but skeptical of the new approach.
“A lot of it really could just be posturing to spur the discussions amongst the Republican caucuses and the governor’s office. I think that would be a good way to get those conversations moving – is to threaten that ‘I’m going to put out a budget with Democrats,’ especially if it’s something that could possibly get done,” he said.
Bradley, D-Tucson, said he, too, is encouraged by Fann’s remarks, but is waiting for meaningful follow through. Fann promised that’s coming soon.
“Although we are not yet at the table, we welcomed President Fann’s recent comments about her desire to work with Democrats to craft a budget and we are ready to work with Gov. Ducey and Republican leadership if asked,” Bradley said.
But Rep. John Kavanagh said that’s politically impossible.
Even when Republicans promise individual Democrats to include some of their big wishes, they rarely vote for the budget or for more than one portion of the spending plan, said Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills.
“Chances are you will lose more Republicans by granting that one or two rogue Dems their wish,” Kavanagh said. “And in the end, they’re not there to help you anyway. Philosophically, we’re too divided to have that kind of agreement.”
The increased budget chatter is a sign of the times in more ways than one.
Lawmakers aren’t just racing against the clock, feeling the pressure of hitting the 100-day mark. They’re also dealing with the makeup of the House and Senate. Republicans still hold majorities in both chambers by one and two votes, respectively.
That’s enough to pass a budget without help from Democrats, as is usually the case, but with no room for error in the House.
Ptak acknowledged that the narrower-than-usual partisan divide plays a role in how Ducey is approaching this year’s budget, and why the governor has been in contact with everyone.
“(Given that) this is a new Legislature and makeup and a very different fiscal situation that the governor has had for a budget, we have worked to involve members of both parties really from the beginning,” Ptak said.
That approach doesn’t mean the governor’s priorities are dictated by the narrow party divide, Ptak added: “I wouldn’t characterize it as putting forward priorities for the sake of them being bipartisan … We want to make sure we’re making the right decisions and being fiscally conservative and responsible, and we feel that that represents bipartisan priorities that everyone can get behind.”
For Ducey, that may mean sticking to his January proposal to boost the state’s rainy-day fund to $1 billion, which would mean saving more than $500 million in funds this year. In principle, Republicans and Democrats alike support saving, but they have balked at saving that much.
Ptak indicated the governor is willing to wait them out.
That would be bad news for lawmakers with other plans in May or June. Some, like Rep. Travis Grantham, have unavoidable obligations. The Gilbert Republican, a major in the Arizona National Guard, is scheduled to deploy this summer. His absence during session would spell doom for any House budget bills that doesn’t have bipartisan support.
Would Ducey wait that long?
“If it means getting it right, then yes,” Ptak said. “We want to make sure we get this right, and we’re willing to be here as long as it takes to do that.”