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Arizona Senate approves Hobbs' $17.8B budget deal with Republican leaders

Arizona state senators approved a $17.8 billion spending plan early Wednesday negotiated between Gov. Katie Hobbs and Republican legislative leaders.

Most, but not all, Senate Democrats agreed to go along, figuring it was the best — and only — deal they were likely to get.

The vote on the bills that make up the budget came less than 24 hours after every Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee refused to support the plan, calling it unacceptable.

→  Budget deal includes new accountability measures for Arizona's school voucher program

In the interim, the governor herself started working the phones to bring several of her party members in line. Hobbs told them there were a lot of good things in the budget, and that it wasn’t going to get any better.

“We have worked really hard to make sure that we have funding for education, for this K-12 education, and housing, especially homelessness,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein. “And we have gotten this into the budget.”

But the Tempe Democrat said party members remain "very unhappy'' with the fact that the deal negotiated by the Democratic governor leaves in place a universal voucher plan, which allows any Arizona student to get tax dollars to attend private or parochial schools or even get funds for homeschooling. 

Epstein said the hundreds of millions of dollars that will eat up makes future spending prospects for anything else "look bleak.''

But Epstein said she was forced to vote for the package, saying that was the price Democrats had to pay to get their priorities included.

“I did not want and do not want to vote 'yes' on these budget bills,” she said. “But in order to keep the funding for K-12 and to keep the funding for housing and to establish a homelessness fund, I had to vote ‘yes.’”

The governor, in a prepared statement, said the budget was a sign that Arizonans can reach across the aisle and compromise. Epstein, however, suggested that the governor, with that praise for Democrats finally agreeing to the plan she negotiated with GOP leaders, was being less than sincere.

“Instead of being acknowledged for being practical leaders, we've been called 'bickering politicians' by the governor's communications director,'' Epstein said.

That refers to comments by Hobbs Spokesman Christian Slater, who, just a day earlier, took a swat at Democrats for trying to pull apart Hobbs' deal with the Republicans.

Epstein said that, theoretically speaking, Democrats could hold out for a few more weeks, as the new fiscal year that the budget will finance does not begin until July 1. And she said it might even result in a budget more to the liking of party members.

"But this is the budget we have before us today,'' Epstein said. "So we have to make a decision on this budget.''

The package now await House action later Wednesday.

But Epstein's contention of whether a better deal might be negotiated is speculative at best. Sen. T.J. Shope said it always was clear, with the election of a Democratic governor in November, that Republicans would not get the budget that might otherwise be enacted with a Republican as the state's chief executive. And the Coolidge Republican said they were prepared to negotiate.

Shope said GOP leaders also made it clear to the governor from the start that some issues were non-negotiable. And that includes continuation of the universal vouchers that were enacted just last year.

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