- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Democratic leaders weighed in on how to spend the state’s surplus funding as an alternative to a tight-fisted proposal from Gov. Doug Ducey in the State of the State address.

House minority leader Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said Tuesday that Democrats will push to restore last year’s funding cuts to education, welfare and infrastructure now that budget analysts say there is an additional $218 million in ongoing revenue and $555 million in general-funding surplus. Their proposals stand in contrast to statements Ducey made during the address, though he is not set to lay out a specific budget proposal until Friday.

“Someone needs to be the voice of sobriety. So when they bring out the punch bowl, I will be here to say once again, not on our watch,” Ducey said Monday. “On Friday, I will release my budget, and the big spenders and special interests aren’t going to like it.”

With a minority of seats in both houses and a Republican governor, Arizona’s Democratic Party is fighting an uphill battle.

Democrats said they plan to restore funding for high school technical programs such as Joint Technical Education Districts and career and technical education funding and introduce legislation to restore part of the $99 million cut from state universities.

“We have extra dollars, and what we have heard for the last seven years that I have been here is that checkbooks have been empty and we can’t invest in our schoolbooks and in our children. The hope is that will change this session,” Meyer said.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said there is still room for legislators on both sides of the aisle to come together on issues such as on Proposition 123, a plan to boost K-12 funding by using money from the state land trust.

“We get along with and agree on a lot more than people realize,” Mesnard said. “I think they care about education. I know we care about education. The question is what that is going to look like.”

Republicans have introduced legislation repealing cuts to Joint Technical Education District programs set to begin in July, a measure that could see bipartisan support in the upcoming session, although Meyer said Democrats would never have cut the funding in the first place.

Last year the Legislature passed only three of 299 Democratic bills introduced during the session. Democrats were also largely left out of last year’s budget debate, with only one legislator breaking ranks to vote for the plan. That legislator, Sen. Carlyle Begay, R-Ganado, switched his party affiliation before this year’s session began.

“I think we would not have the budget surplus we do if their version of the budget passed last year,” Begay said. “Their mentality right now is we have a bunch of money in the bank to spend, and I understand that, but I don’t want to return to what happened in 2009 with the recession.”

Meyer responded that Democrat’s budget proposal doesn’t use the state’s $460 million rainy day fund, doesn’t raise taxes and will use less than half of the state’s general funding surplus.

Democrats also plan to introduce legislation to restore welfare term limits to two years after the governor signed a bill last year limiting recipients to just one year of benefits, the shortest in the nation.

They will also seek to reduce a raid on the Highway User Revenue Fund, which helps pay for infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, and is an important source of revenue for rural counties and cities.

“It’s our job to bring up the wrong direction that the governor is taking our state. We’ll see how much success we have in this session,” Meyer said.

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