By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — A $13 billion dollar budget, sold by Republican lawmakers as a continuation of last year’s budget while the legislature debates how to spend its current $5.3 billion dollar surplus, was promptly shot down in its first hearing in a House Appropriations Committee.
Two Republican lawmakers joined the panel’s Democrats to vote against the so-called “skinny budget” plan, which Chairwoman Regina Cobb said was a response to what she saw as a lack of movement on creating a budget.
She framed the rejected proposal as an attempt to keep spending stable for agencies and programs already operating with government funds. But panel members criticized it as falling short of meeting the needs of Arizonans.
“There are so many needs within our state, and with $5.3 billion (in surplus), there’s a lot we can do,” Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said. “I think that we have a responsibility to do more than pass a continuation budget.”
Udall was joined by fellow Republican Rep. Jake Hoffman in voting down the package of budget bills, all of which failed on 6-7 votes.
Cobb chastised Hoffman, Udall and Democrats for not being able to move past their “egos” and stymying the budget process.
“Because you didn’t get what you wanted, you voted this way,” she said as the hearing ended. “That’s ego. And that’s what kept us from moving forward.”
Udall, who is seeking nomination for Superintendent of Public Instruction, told the Arizona Mirror after the hearing that a future budget lobbying for her vote should include increased spending in special education, special education transportation, and student improvement.
“School improvement is my top priority, trying to make sure that we improve academic outcomes for our students,” she said.
Hoffman opposed the spending plan for the opposite reason: The “skinny budget” spent too much. He said he was skeptical that no new bills with extra spending would be passed later, and said his vote was contingent on a commitment that wouldn’t happen, which he didn’t receive.
“Government is spending like crazy. We have a $5.3 billion dollar surplus. That doesn’t mean that we’re doing a great job. That means that we’re overtaxing the people that we represent,” he said.
The bulk of the state’s tax revenues come from sales taxes, and legislative budget analysts have said for months that the surplus is largely being fueled by unexpected growth in consumer sales as Arizonans make purchases that were delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Huge problems, but no solutions
The vote to reject the budget bills came after lawmakers heard testimony that the spending proposal failed to meet the needs of the state.
Brenden Foland, a lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, noted that refusing to increase school funding when there are surplus dollars available is a missed opportunity to address real issues in classrooms. Arizona is consistently ranked at or near the bottom in per-pupil spending, and Foland said that funding is needed for a host of issues, including increasing teacher salaries to alleviate a growing shortage, mental health resources for students and opportunity weight funding for schools with high percentages of low-income populations.
“This money could be used to make a real difference for our students,” he said.
Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, expressed concern over Arizona Department of Education budget cuts the bill could introduce. It not only makes a new cut of $21.9 million, but because it continues last year’s funding formula that was based on pandemic enrollment numbers, schools would also be unable to recoup the $266 million lost last year.
“Are you suggesting that we fund ghost students?” Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, asked sharply.
Students are returning, Butler replied, but the new budget doesn’t acknowledge that — and schools will be left scrambling.
Cobb said that would be resolved in future budget years, once enrollment rises.
Likewise, maintaining existing spending on environmental programs was inadequate, said Sandy Barr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. She said the proposed budget doesn’t support the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality or state efforts on climate change or water quality and monitoring. Most worryingly, Barr said ADEQ’s funding request to resolve deficiencies found by a recent audit, which include arsenic and uranium standards in water, wasn’t included in the proposal.
“This is really no way to care for our state or the kind of legacy to leave for future generations,” she said.
Bowers: GOP may need to seek Dem support
Leadership in the House said that ironing out a budget proposal that will earn approval from legislators is a daunting task, especially where bipartisan support is concerned.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said Democrats are ready to negotiate, but that putting together a barebones effort isn’t on the table.
“The $5 billion dollars needs to be invested in Arizona,” he said.
The housing crisis and infrastructure needs are paramount, and the surplus dollars can be spent helping alleviate rising homelessness and repair aging roads, Bolding said.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers told reporters after the vote that his party’s priorities include water, border security and changes to last year’s tax cut package. A special session might be on the horizon, depending on how well the rest of this session accommodates those priorities, he said.
Bowers said the “skinny budget” was an attempt by members who were interested in passing budget cuts to gain approval for a slimmed down version, and that its failure meant a new iteration would only get more expensive and likely require bipartisan support.
“My job is to get a budget. We can either do it with (just) Republicans — but I don’t have any to spare,” he said. “That’s the preferred way just so that we can try to keep costs down.”
Republicans hold one-vote majorities in both the House and the Senate, and GOP leaders in the Senate are facing similar challenges in passing a budget that relies solely on Republican votes.
The House’s attempt to pass a “skinny budget” was prompted by Republican Sen. Paul Boyer’s demand that lawmakers add $900 million to K-12 funding. Only by doing so, he said, would he support a GOP effort to repeal-and-replace last year’s massive income tax cuts, which would negate a planned referendum on the tax cuts in November.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.