GOP leaders cut budget deal with Gov. Doug Ducey
PHOENIX — Republican legislative leaders say they’ve reached a deal on a spending plan with Gov. Doug Ducey.
But they still have to sell it to rank-and-file members of the GOP whose votes they need to get the plan approved. And they won’t get a look at it until today.
And there already are indications that it’s going to be difficult to get all the Republicans in line, something that’s crucial since it appears the majority party has not bothered to seek Democrat votes.
What’s causing the problem this year is, quite frankly, too much money.
Arizona went from a $1 billion deficit five years ago to a situation where anticipated revenues for this coming fiscal year are running about $1 billion ahead of what it would take just to keep state services at current levels. And that doesn’t count another $155 million the state is getting in a windfall due to changes in federal tax laws.
That has provoked a sharp debate within elements of the GOP.
The more fiscally conservative elements are angling for a tax cut. One plan already on the table would boost the standard deduction that Arizonans can take on their income taxes and provide additional tax credits for dependents.
Ducey, for his part, has been pushing to put as much as possible into the state’s rainy-day fund.
It’s currently at less that $500 million, just 4 percent of the anticipated $11.5 billion budget. The governor wants to take that up to an even $1 billion.
Just this past week, even as he boasted of the health of the Arizona economy, Ducey said that a downturn is “inevitable.” And he wants the money in the bank to avoid having to make future spending cuts.
But even within the GOP there are lawmakers who question the wisdom of squirreling away the extra cash when the state has yet to restore all the cuts it made during the Great Recession.
One of those is in “district additional assistance,” funds given to schools for things ranging from books and computers to school buses.
That line in the budget was zeroed out in Ducey’s first year in office.
Since that time the state has restored $68 million with a promise of an additional $100 million this year. But that still leaves schools $200 million short of what is called for in the funding formula.
Also at issue has been a series of cuts in state aid to higher education,
At one time taxpayers provided about 75 percent of the cost of tuition for Arizona residents. It now is just half that much.
And aid to community colleges also has been slashed, with no state dollars at all going to the Pima and Maricopa systems.
Other issues remain, like increasing the funds for organizations that provide care for those with special needs.
At least part of that is due to the increase in the minimum wage approved by voters in 2016, taking it from $8.05 an hour to $11 now, with a mandatory increase to $12 at the end of this year. But several lawmakers say the reimbursement rate by the state has not kept pace.
There are complicating factors.
First is that Republicans have just a 31-29 edge in the House. That means the objections of a single lawmaker can doom the plan.
And time is not on the side of GOP leadership: Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, is going to be deployed for National Guard duty next month.
The situation is only slightly better in the Senate where Republicans hold 17 of the 30 seats.
But three GOP lawmakers already have taken a vow not to support the budget unless they get other things they want.
For Sens. Paul Boyer of Phoenix and Heather Carter of Cave Creek, that’s legislation giving child victims of sex assault and abuse seven years after they realize what happened to them to file civil suits against both their assailants and those who covered up similar practices. Current law gives them only to age 20.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers has offered to expand that to age 30. But Boyer said that’s not a real answer as the average victim does not tell health professionals about what happened to them until they are in their 40s.
And Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, has threatened to withhold her vote until lawmakers repeal a law that gave John Halikowski, the director of the state Department of Transportation, unlimited authority to impose a vehicle registration fee to fund the Highway Patrol.
Lawmakers were told that fee was going to be about $18 a year; Halikowski announced in December it actually would be $32.