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Updated Mar 25, 2014 - 8:52 pm

Arizona House again fails to reach budget deal

PHOENIX — An effort by the Arizona House of Representatives to reach a
budget agreement fell short of a final deal for the second day in a row Tuesday
despite hours of closed-door meetings between Republican leaders and a group
pushing for more education and child-welfare spending.

The House adjourned Tuesday evening without leaders reporting progress on
changes to the $9.2 billion state budget passed by the Senate last week needed
to get a handful of Republicans to sign on to the deal.

Republican Speaker Andy Tobin was leading the discussions.

“I think it’s safe to say the House members are all communicating. They’re all
talking,” Tobin said during a mid-afternoon break. “There are big differences
and big gaps as we all know. But everyone’s still at the table — and I think
that’s what’s important.”

The members who blocked the vote were most concerned about two issues: Funding
for a new child welfare agency and a provision retroactively stopping school
districts from converting schools to charters. Several other issues also were on
the table, including additional money for the University of Arizona and for K-12
education.

That group of lawmakers sidetracked a vote Monday night after it became clear
they could block passage. After meeting with GOP House leaders Monday night and
for hours Tuesday, group meetings with members were set for Wednesday.

“We’ve wasted two days. Hopefully we’ll get something going tomorrow,” said
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, the minority leader. “We’re not in the room, but
I feel confident the changes being discussed will eventually be better for the
Democratic outlook then what they were two days ago.”

The budget the Senate adopted last week included only part of the $74 million
Gov. Jan Brewer wanted to set up a new child welfare agency and hire more than
400 new Child Protective Services workers, investigators and support staff.

The Republicans who broke with Tobin are pushing for funding closer to Brewer’s
initial request.

“I want to be a Republican that solves that issue,” said Rep. Bob Robson,
R-Chandler, who noted that not only money but setting up a new agency Brewer
wants is a priority. “We made promises to the people of the state of Arizona
that we would protect the children, and that’s something that we should be
doing. It’s not a blank check, but things should be reasonably placed so that
they can perform their jobs.”

Brewer ordered 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, although
it could come earlier.

House Appropriations Committee chairman John Kavanagh said Tuesday that Child
Protective Services hadn’t been left out of the Senate budget.

“It was understood they were getting a lot of money, and we weren’t sure they
could spend all that money, hire all those people in that time,” Kavanagh said
Tuesday. “And if after they expended that money they still had additional
needs, there was still next year. They had plenty of money to do what they
needed to do.”

The charter-school conversion issue involved a provision in the Senate-passed
version that would have blocked any conversions that happened after 2013.
Charter schools get more money per student, but backers of the rollback argue
they also can tap voter-approved bond money and overrides and end up with more
money.

Senate President Andy Biggs put the provision in the budget. He was pushing an
alternative plan in a separate Senate bill Tuesday to discourage charter-school
conversion when it appeared likely the House would strip out the provision.

“You’re looking at a really disparate funding issue — that’s the first part of
it,” Biggs said. “No. 2, we simply don’t have the funds that would be
available.”

A developing House proposal would allow school districts to continue to convert
schools to charters, but place limits on the number.

Biggs had problems with that proposal as well. “It doesn’t solve the
problem,” he said.

Biggs described the House budget process as out of control.

“It’s almost chaotic. There’s a lot of interests conflicting with each other
over there,” Biggs said. “Certainly I understand that there’s always going to
be issues on a budget. We were told the House needed certain things, and those
made it into our budget.”

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