- Associated Press - Monday, April 7, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Legislature approved a state budget Monday night that set spending at $9.2 billion for the coming budget year after negotiating a compromise on several issues that had hung up a final deal for weeks.

A committee composed of three senators and three representatives approved a deal struck between Republican leaders of the House and Senate earlier in the day after three weeks of back-and-forth that led to a stalemate last week.

Republicans who control both chambers supported the plan, even though for many it spent too much money - more than $426 million above last year’s $8.8 billion plan.

Minority Democrats in both chambers voted against the plan, with one exception, Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, saying it spent too little on schools and higher education and did not fund child welfare priorities such as preventive services and child care subsidies they argued would help poor parents care for their children while they work and avoid neglect situations.

Landrum Taylor, the Legislature’s only black member, managed to get $125,000 for the Arizona Commission on African-American Affairs.

The deal that broke a weekslong logjam resolved the contentious sticking points that have kept the two chambers and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s office from reaching a deal. The approved plan keeps district charter schools running for another year by funding them with $24.5 million, or 80 percent of the current level. The Senate’s original budget would have completely defunded the schools retroactive to last July 1, while the House one gave them $33 million.

The new deal also shed new funding for emergency dental, chiropractic and podiatry services provided by the state’s Medicaid insurance program for the poor but left in funding for insulin pumps. Other parts of the deal include more funding for a technical career high school program.

“I like you guys, I respect you guys, but I gotta tell you, this budget is lousy,” said Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson. “It’s all about the choices you make, and we made some lousy choices.”

Republicans disagreed, calling the plan not a perfect one, but one that puts the state on the proper fiscal footing, funds child welfare programs and schools at a proper level.

“There are good things in this budget,” Speaker Andy Tobin said, ticking off a list of items including new child welfare workers, $9.2 million for a new veterans home in Yuma and $1 million to help the city of Prescott deal with soaring state retirement fund assessments due to the deaths of 19 firefighters last summer. “It’s not perfect. But it’s better for Arizona, it puts us on the right track, puts us in a place where can continue to move forward.”

The bill now goes to Brewer’s desk for action. Her spokesman, Andrew Wilder, said the governor’s staff has worked closely with the Legislature on the budget.

“And looking at it, we’re pleased with what appears to be a promising budget proposal,” Wilder said. “Gov. Brewer will take her time to fully review the proposal before deciding if it is something that she will sign.”

Senate President Andy Biggs and Tobin got together behind closed doors Monday morning, and Brewer’s chief of staff, Scott Smith, also was engaged in the talks.

The differences in the competing $9.2 billion spending plans for the budget year that starts July 1 were relatively tiny at less than $30 million, so a final deal came quickly but not without angst.

“I always believe that $20 million, if it was your and my money and we wanted to throw it away that’s one thing,” Biggs said. “But if its taxpayers’ money, $20 million is really money to me.”

The Senate and House had also disagreed on funding for the state’s child welfare system. Brewer ordered the Child Protective Services pulled from its parent agency in January and created a Cabinet-level post to oversee it after more than 6,500 uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were revealed in November.

A group of lawmakers and others are working with Brewer’s staff to write legislation to make that executive order permanent and expect to release it by May 1.

The House and Senate budgets were actually the same, but the House adopted legislative intent language that would commit lawmakers to take another look at the new agency’s funding when that report came out. Biggs rewrote it to commit to a review once the agency was up and running - an unknown time frame.

The two sides agreed to a compromise that committed lawmakers to considering additional funding at the same time as the new legislation is considered.

The Senate passed a budget three weeks ago that set state spending for the coming budget year at $9.18 billion. It included a retroactive ban on school district charter-school conversions and shorted Brewer’s planned child welfare overhaul plan.

The House countered with a plan upping spending to $9.24 billion and including $33 million to continue the district charters for another year.

The Legislature’s budget spends about $133 million less than Brewer requested and does not make the $50 million deposit she wanted into the state’s rainy-day fund.


Follow Bob Christie on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APChristie

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