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Updated Apr 1, 2014 - 4:48 pm

Senate passes skinnier budget amid veto threat

PHOENIX — The Arizona Senate on Tuesday sliced spending for universities
and charter schools from a House-passed state budget plan despite a veto threat
from Gov. Jan Brewer, who also is stepping up the pressure on lawmakers by
refusing to act on any other bills that reach her desk.

Senate President Andy Biggs also pushed through changes to a legislative intent
document adopted by the House watering down a commitment to review Child
Protective Services funding once an overhaul committee finishes its work in the
coming weeks.

All three major changes got the attention of the governor’s office.

Brewer’s spokesman, Andrew Wilder, said she has other concerns with the budget
as well.

“There continue to be issues or concerns that would leave reason to doubt that
this budget would be signed by the governor,” he said Tuesday. “The reductions
in these areas and the other concerns we have … make it difficult for this
budget to get over the finish line.”

Wilder didn’t confirm the explicit veto threat, but House Speaker Andy Tobin
and Senate Majority Leader John McComish confirmed it was issued early in the
day. But that didn’t stop Biggs from making changes to the budget package and
calling votes. The budget passed mainly on party-line votes, with majority
Republicans in support.

Biggs said the Senate was doing the right thing by passing the budget despite
Brewer’s threat. He said he would not negotiate in public when he had had
private talks with the governor and her staff.

“But I just refer you to one thing, and that is the executive budget when it
came out did not address any of those three issues,” Biggs said. “And we have,
and we’ve worked at it, and we’ve addressed the charter-conversion stuff, we’ve
addressed the CPS funding stuff. And not only did we give funding university
funding above the baseline, but we also gave (community) colleges money “

The House refused to agree to the changes to its budget package, now at $9.21
billion, which sets up a rare conference committee on the budget.

The House had added more than $54 million in overall spending to the previous
$9.18 billion Senate plan, adding money for child welfare programs, $33 million
to allow school district-sponsored charter school to run for another year and
$5.5 million for universities.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday deleted some of the extra
spending, and more cuts were adopted during Tuesday’s Senate floor debate. Biggs
pushed 50-percent cuts to charter-school funding and the university money.

He also rewrote the language added in the House that committed the Legislature
to reviewing child-welfare spending in the coming

The cuts to the House plan take out much of the funding added last week to
address the concerns of a group of six House Republicans who had held up
approval of the budget.

Those members also managed to restore Medicaid coverage for insulin pumps,
podiatry and emergency dental visits that were cut during the Great Recession.
That provision was stripped out in the Senate committee meeting Monday, restored
Tuesday by the full chamber through an amendment from Sen. Steve Pierce,
R-Prescott, and then stripped it out again by the full Senate.

Pierce failed in an effort to restore money to help Prescott pay for extra
pension costs for the crew of firefighters killed in the Yarnell Hill fire last
year.

Biggs had cut all spending for district charter schools in the Senate budget
approved two weeks ago, but the House restored it for one year. Half that money
was cut Tuesday.

Converting public schools to charters has been a key part of the debate between
the House and Senate and between conservatives and moderates. Charter schools
get more money per student, but rollback backers argue that charter schools also
can tap voter-approved bond money and overrides and end up with even more funds.
Supporters of charter conversions say the extra money lets districts focus on
innovative education and improve student performance.

Biggs has been pushing for district charter schools to be shut out of extra
funding, saying the state could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of
dollars in additional spending if they continue. He included a provision in the
budget rescinding any conversions since mid-2013, but that was stripped out by
the House.

Minority Democrats in the Senate failed Tuesday to get added spending for
child-care subsidies, stipends for grandparents caring for their grandchildren
and other spending. Those amendments were being routinely rejected by majority
Republicans, with Biggs saying they would blow a big hole in the budget as the
state recovers from the recession.

“We are still not out of the woods yet, and we still have a $400 million
structural deficit,” said Biggs, R-Gilbert. “And if we take these floor
amendments … we will have the chance to double that deficit by next week.”

One Democratic amendment was added during floor debate, a $125,000
appropriation to the Arizona Commission for African-American Affairs sponsored
by Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix.

The governor has also put in place a moratorium on bill-signings until she sees
a budget package, a tactic she used last year during a standoff over Medicaid
expansion.

“The budget is the state’s immediate priority,” Wilder said. “Accordingly
the governor doesn’t want any other bills coming to her desk until that is
accomplished.”

___

Follow Bob Christie at http://twitter.com/APChristie

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