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Budget advances at Arizona Capitol amid heavy opposition

Arizona Capitol dome
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
The Arizona Capitol building

Arizona lawmakers advanced a $16.1 billion state spending plan over the objections of legislative Democrats and a handful of far-right Republicans.

A package of 16 bills cleared votes in Appropriations Committees in the state House and Senate Thursday afternoon. Collectively, those bills aim to resolve a $1.4 billion budget deficit by cutting previously-approved projects and scaling back funding for most state agencies.

All told, the budget would shrink by more than $1 billion, down from $17.2 billion in the current fiscal year.

Amendments to the budget are still being negotiated, but some lawmakers hope to strike a deal and pass the new spending plan Friday.

Water infrastructure and transportation projects bear the brunt of some cuts, but so does funding for K-12 public schools and higher education — a point not lost on Democrats, who noted that the plan leaves Arizona’s costly school voucher program largely untouched.

Gov. Katie Hobbs proposed clawing back some funding from the voucher program in her budget proposal in January, but the GOP-controlled majorities in the state Legislature have rebuffed Democratic efforts at reducing eligibility for vouchers, thereby shrinking the cost of the program.

“What we’re seeing here is a choice, again, made not to really reign in the voucher program that is responsible for half the budget deficit, and with only inclusion of a veneer of potential accountability measures,” Sen. Priya Sundareshan (D-Tucson) said during the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing

The budget proposal does include some new guardrails on the voucher program, including fingerprinting requirements for teachers, increased auditing.

Another proposed rule is designed to prevent students from “double-dipping” by getting extra state dollars by attending a private school and public school in the same year.

House Appropriations Chair Rep. David Livingston (R-Peoria) said the ESA changes are “common sense,” but warned that Democrats will fail to further restrict the program in the new state spending plan.

Cuts to K-12 schools include eliminating ongoing appropriations for poverty weight funding — a program that provides the schools with additional dollars for students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. The budget creates a one-time expense for those dollars in the next fiscal year, but Democrats like Rep. Judy Schweibert warned that lawmakers next year may not continue what she called a vital appropriation.

“When they come to school they need tutoring in reading and math, they need meal help, they need tutoring after school and unless a school has funds to provide that, that puts those children at even greater risk,” Schweibert said.

In the House, there was little time given to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to voice further concerns.

Livingston altered the committee’s traditional procedures to limit public testimony and bar lawmakers from explaining their votes on the budget package. Every Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee voted no, as did two far-right Republicans – Rep. Barbara Parker (R-Mesa) and Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale), though it’s unclear why they oppose the spending plan.

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez (D-Tucson) said she was angered by Livingston’s rulings.

“Taking away the ability for members to explain our votes is wrong. Each of us here represents communities, and our voices were not heard,” Gutierrez said.

She argued the budget is being rushed, and said she’d remain opposed unless the spending plan is renegotiated.

“It literally impacts everyone in our state. There are serious issues that we have raised that merit further discussion and negotiation,” she added.

Livingston said his rules streamlined the process and prevented distractions.

He also addressed accusations that, as a key negotiator of the budget, he’s giving special attention to members who voted in favor of the spending plan, while pushing aside the concerns of lawmakers who voted against it.

“I don’t think it was that way, but obviously the members that are voting ‘yes’ I will maybe weigh it a little heavier?” Livingston said. “If somebody is a ‘maybe,’ I will talk to them … but if you’re a ‘hell no,’ then, OK. I’m not going to break your arm, you’re just going to be in the no column.”

There was bipartisan opposition to the budget in the Senate as well.

Sen. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale) joined Democrats to vote down part of the budget package on a 5-5 tie early Thursday afternoon.

Republican leaders in the Senate added another GOP senator to the committee roster, ensuring the budget bills could advance despite Kern’s objections.

Beyond the Capitol, Democratic Attorney General Kris Mayes raised concerns about how the budget proposal allocates $75 million the state was awarded as part of a settlement with drug manufacturers and pharmacies who contributed to the opioid crisis.

The budget plans to divert some of those dollars to cover costs at the Arizona Department of Corrections. But Mayes warned lawmakers the settlement funds can only be used for specific expenses, not among the corrections expenses.

Camryn Sanchez is a field correspondent at KJZZ covering everything to do with state politics.
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