- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Senate began action Wednesday on a $9.58 billion budget package, but a final agreement among Republicans in the House remains elusive.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the package of 14 bills during a lengthy session that lasted into the evening, most with support only from Republicans. The next step is debate in the full Senate.

The House finally introduced its versions of the bills late Wednesday and has set its appropriations committee hearing - and debate - for Thursday.

Despite the House schedule, opposition remains from some Republican members who balked at the K-12 schools funding negotiated by GOP leaders in the House and Senate and Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Our stance all along has been to hold K-12 harmless,” said Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott. She’s among a group of Republican members who have vowed to protect schools from cuts passed in earlier years.

The House members’ concerns revolve around three issues - extra cash for smaller schools, a delay in cutting funds to district-sponsored charter schools and keeping funding stable for schools with declining enrollment.

That “hold harmless” provision for schools that lose students is funded with a $16 million patch in the budget proposal. But that money doesn’t go just to those schools, but to all K-12 districts statewide through a payment into a special account. Protecting the declining enrollment schools will cost about $31 million in all.

The overall budget was received in the Senate mostly with praise, considering it reflects a reversal of years of cuts to agencies and social service agencies. But Democrats said majority Republicans were holding the purse-string too tight, given that they’re spending cash on fixing previous budget gimmicks but adding little to restore cuts.

“When you look at the cash and structural forecast … by fiscal ‘19, three years from now, we will have a half-billion surplus and a $300 million structural balance,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “So the fact that we’re saying we just can’t afford these things rings a little false in my ear. We can say we just can’t do it, but I think we can and we’re choosing not to.”

That earned some pushback from the appropriations chair, Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who said lawmakers can’t yet afford to open the coffers because a small error in revenue projections can blow a big hole in the budget.

“That means we have to be 100 percent, not 99, or a half-billion dollars goes away,” Shooter said. “I’m not justifying, I’m only explaining and we do have to prioritize.”

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