Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing this year – the minority party in Arizona had a rare opportunity to have some say in the budget process, thanks to the initial resistance of some GOP lawmakers to a borrowing plan for public universities.
In the end, Gov. Doug Ducey got his $1 billion bonding capacity for higher education, and Democrats got what they routinely get: Left behind.
Republicans say Democrats overplayed their hand. Ducey and GOP leaders were willing to talk, but Democrats asked for too much and were too firmly entrenched in their request to make negotiating a reality.
Democrats charged that Republicans, like always in recent years, have no interest in ever working across the aisle, no matter the offer, even on issues that are obvious candidates for bipartisan support.
In this case, a plan to let Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University borrow up to $1 billion over the next 25 years was initially rebuffed by almost all Republican senators and representatives. They were wary of allowing the state to borrow that much money, and of a mechanism to divert sales taxes from state coffers to finance the borrowing plan.
Knowing the bonding plan, Ducey’s signature proposal, lacked enough Republican support in both the House and Senate to pass without Democratic votes, minority leadership in each chamber united their members. Democrats would unilaterally oppose the bonding plan, preventing Ducey from proclaiming a bipartisan victory when, as in past years, a single Democrat or two broke ranks and voted for a bill or budget.
“What you saw happen was the Democrats stuck together with a unified request,” said Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix. “If you asked every individual Democrat, they would’ve told you the same answer: Teacher raises and TANF.” TANF is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides short-term cash assistance to families.
The Democrats’ demands, in exchange for their vote on bonding, was in line with their policy priorities for the session. The minority party had blasted the governor for his initial proposal of a teacher pay raise – 2 percent phased in over five years – as wholly inadequate. And they had spent the better part of two years criticizing Ducey for signing into law cuts to TANF in 2015.
Hobbs acknowledged that their initial request was more than Republicans were willing to pay for. A 4 percent teacher raise, whether it was in one year or phased in over two, would have added more than $100 million in spending.
“So for them it was less expensive to buy off Republicans individually,” Hobbs said.
Longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons said the request was a part of what undercut Democrats’ efforts to be taken seriously in a negotiation.
“I don’t think the Democrats gave themselves enough opportunity to find some wins for themselves, and that’s because they limited their offer to some things that were non-starters to begin with,” Aarons said.
Experience might have something to do with it, Aarons said. Not since Rose Mofford occupied the Governor’s Office have Democrats been given a chance to take part in the budget, he said, with the exception of the passage of Medicaid expansion in 2013.
Republicans began the trend of passing Republican-only budget under former Gov. Fife Symington, who served from 1991 to 1997, according to Aarons.
“I think that is a result of years and years in the desert,” Aarons said. “Basically when it came to negotiating, I think they had not had the experience of going through a legitimate negotiation. Now whether it would’ve come to pass regardless, I don’t know.”
Several Democratic lawmakers said the teachers’ raise and TANF was just an offer, not a demand.
“If you’re going to meet someone to negotiate, you need a starting point. And it was simply a starting point,” said House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix. “That was my opening offer to the governor.“
Rios said it was “naive” for critics to say the minority party overplayed their hand when the governor never seriously considered working with Democrats. A meeting between Rios and Ducey was cordial, though brief, she said. Negotiating was never on the table, so there was never an opportunity to give Ducey room to counter, she added.
Rather than work across the aisle, Ducey ultimately mustered enough support from Republicans to get the bill through. To some Republicans, that was, as it often is, always the goal.
“I wanted desperately to deliver 16 Republican votes on the university bonding,” said Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler. Delivering 16 Republican votes on the university bonding was a very high priority for him personally, he said.
“And I obviously was extremely pleased when we were able to accomplish that,” Yarbrough said.
Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, said it’s understandable for Republicans to desire to work within their own party. What bothers Contreras is the lack of any consideration of ever working with Democrats.
“It comes down to the unwillingness of the governor to even think about wanting to work with us as Democrats as a whole,” Contreras said. “He chose to go around and make his deals like everyone knows with numerous Republicans before even talking with us about what we were asking.”
Aarons said “there is probably a better than even chance that . . . Republicans would have said screw it, we’re not going to do this with you,” no matter what Democrats had offered.
Daniel Scarpinato, a Ducey spokesman, did not dispute that the meeting wasn’t a negotiation of any sort, but he did dispute the reason why.
“I wouldn’t even characterize it as negotiations because they were not willing to negotiate. They provided some demands of what they would need, and were unwilling to move at all,” Scarpinato said. “And the problem with that is, what they wanted on TANF, there were not 16 and 31 for that under any circumstance. It was just really something that wasn’t even possible to achieve.”
As for the Democrats’ proposal to increase the teacher pay hike, “we certainly were open to ways to improve that, but certainly you need to be able to pay for these things,” Scarpinato said.
Yarbrough said a larger raise in the budget also would’ve made it more difficult to secure enough Republicans, along with 13 Democrats in the Senate, to approve a spending plan.
“It’s hard to see how that would’ve worked,” Yarbrough added. “The higher teacher raise, the challenge there is, show me the money… That’s a big number. What would we have done? How would we have paid for that. They never came to me, because that would have been my question.”
Scarpinato said Democrats overplayed their hand, and as the final votes made clear, weren’t negotiating in good faith because Democrats were negotiating against issues that they inherently supported. For example, when it became clear that the university bonding plan would pass with or without the help of Senate Democrats, eight of the 13 Democrats in the chamber voted for it.
Had Democrats simply signaled their support for a bill they liked all along, the university bonding could have been sent to the governor’s desk much sooner, and Ducey wouldn’t have had to make deals with individual Republicans – deals that Democrats aren’t happy about, Scarpinato noted.
“We could have passed bonding sooner, and there’s probably some stuff that ended up in the budget that Democrats don’t like that may not have ended up in there had they just supported bonding from the onset,” he said.
Perhaps if Democrats had offered more in exchange for their votes on bonding, Aarons said, the session would’ve played out differently. Decades ago, Republicans frequently approached Democrats to get their help to pass budgets. In the Senate, it was then-Minority Leader Alfredo Gutierrez’s role to barter with the GOP for votes.
Gutierrez would give Republicans a long list of demands, enough to “choke a horse,” Aarons said, but it gave Republicans ample room to trade with Democrats and approve a coalition budget.
This session, Democrats “didn’t put enough stuff on the table, so they didn’t have enough negotiating room,” Aarons said.
“When you’re negotiating for something you don’t come with one thing. You come with a whole pot full of stuff . . . You give the other side an opportunity to go along with you, and then you’re able to declare victory.”