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Lawmakers say future of Arizona’s $9.8 billion state budget uncertain

(KTAR File Photo)

PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers on Wednesday began pushing a $9.8 billion state spending plan negotiated among Republican lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey, but its fate remained unclear after key Senate Republicans defected and Democrats demanded bigger teacher raises.

Support from Democrats is likely needed for the budget to be approved, but so far no concessions have been made to get them on board.

The Democrats are seeking bigger teacher raises than Republicans have proposed plus full restoration of welfare funding Ducey cut two years ago.

“I would concede that at the moment we do appear short of the necessary votes,” Republican Senate President Steve Yarbrough said. “We’ll have to see – maybe some Democrats will join us. I do not know the answer to that at the moment.”

Democratic Sen. Steve Farley said the spending plan won’t get support from Democrats without Republican concessions.

“We’re not asking for a whole lot — we’re not asking for more tax giveaways,” Farley said. “We’re asking for teen moms who are in crisis to get $92 a month for a few more months, just so they can be improving their lives. And we’re asking for 4 percent for teachers, which is still not enough.”

So far, Yarbrough said neither he nor Ducey are talking with Democrats.

“I’m not really considering their offer at this point and neither is the governor’s office,” Yarbrough said.

Ducey backed legislation in 2015 limiting lifetime welfare payments to one year, the shortest in the nation. He has proposed a partial restoration, but Democrats want it back at two years, still the lowest in the nation.

They also want double the 2 percent teacher raise over two years that Republicans agreed to provide.

Holding up the deal is opposition from some Republicans to a $1 billion construction and building maintenance loan package for the state’s public universities.

The budget would provide $27 million a year starting next year to allow the three universities to issue bonds to cover the program.

Arizona State University President Michael Crow testified Wednesday that the plan will pay back its investment many times over through increased economic activity from new research facilities.

“We are working as vigorously as we possibly can to lay the foundation for the economy of Arizona’s tomorrow,” Crow said. “This requires us to be able to advance in particular the development of research facilities that allow us to become more competitive.”

The appropriations and education committees in both chambers approved the 11-bill budget package after all-day meetings. Republicans mainly backed the bills, which garnered no Democratic support.

The goal for Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard is to debate and vote on the budget Thursday.

Mesnard and Ducey gained some House support early Wednesday when they agreed to a nearly $11 million income tax cut pushed by Republicans Reps. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale and Tony Rivero of Peoria. The proposal increases the personal income tax exemption by $100, to $2,200 a year.

“We fought for it because we believe in it,” Ugenti-Rita said. “I do, we really do, think its good policy and I think that taxpayers deserve to keep more of their hard earned income and this is a modest step in that direction.”

Ugenti-Rita said she now supports the whole budget proposal, but it remained unclear if there are enough votes without Democrats. Mesnard said late Tuesday that he was working to secure enough Republican support, but confirmed at midday that he remained short.

“In my experience the way the budget works is members are a no until they’re a yes,” he said. “And so we’re trying to get people to be a yes.”

Education proponents during Senate Education Committee hearings said a strong state university system needs well-funded public schools.

Despite increases in the past few years, state K-12 funding remains 20 percent below 2008 levels after adjusting for inflation and Arizona teachers are among the lowest-pain in the nation.

“Certainly we understand the importance of a strong university system to our economy and to our strong workforce in the future,” said David Lujan with the Children’s Action Alliance. “But a strong university system also requires a strong K-12 system.”

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