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Arizona Legislature gets down to work on bills for $11.8B state budget

(Flickr Photo/Gage Skidmore)

PHOENIX – Arizona legislative committees advanced an $11.8 billion budget Wednesday as several of the Republican holdouts whose opposition threatened to tank the deal said their concerns were being addressed.

House and Senate panels approved budget bills in daylong hearings, setting up final votes as soon as Thursday. But first, legislative leaders need to round up support for the plan they negotiated with Gov. Doug Ducey.

They made progress on that front Wednesday as Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita said she’s now willing to vote for the budget after winning a fight to repeal a $32 vehicle license fee in two years rather the five years that Ducey and lawmakers had proposed.

Republican Sen. Paul Boyer, who is holding out on the budget until the Legislature agrees to give more time for childhood sex assault victims to sue their assailants, said he is also close to a deal. He said Wednesday evening that under his legislation victims could sue until they turn 35, up from their 20th birthday now.

And importantly for Boyer, it would also open a one-year window for victims currently too old to file a lawsuit. Institutions where a perpetrator worked or volunteered could only be sued if they ignored or covered up a report of sex abuse, under the deal Boyer is promoting.

“It’s not everything I wanted. But it does move the football and it really will help victims,” Boyer said.

Still, in a sign that work remains, a spokesman for Speaker Rusty Bowers said no deal was in place. And there was no indication that other holdout Republicans have had their concerns addressed.

Details made public Tuesday night revealed a number of budget surprises not mentioned in earlier briefings and documents.

Those include $2.5 million in each of the next three years for a helpline that seeks to steer pregnant women away from abortions.

“This is modeled after a program from Texas that has been successful in reaching women to provide them with alternatives to abortion,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the anti-abortion group Center for Arizona Policy, a powerful lobbying group that pushed for the funding. “Arizona is a pro-life state. Women are bombarded with messages about whether or not to have an abortion. This is about providing life-saving alternatives to abortion for women who are interested.”

Earlier this year, Herrod convinced lawmakers not to reinstate funding for a 211 hotline that provides referrals to health and social services because a handful of callers sought information about abortion.

Jodi Liggett, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, called the provision an “extremist tactic” that interferes with the right to make private decisions about health care.

“This is an attempt to deny women and families nonjudgmental care,” Liggett said in a statement.

The GOP budget proposal also would allow the state to charge more to Flagstaff and any other city or county that raises its minimum wage higher than the state’s, ensuring the state doesn’t pay more for its workers’ higher wages.

Senate President Karen Fann said although she personally dislikes the higher Flagstaff wages, the provision was not meant to punish the city. Instead, it’s meant to ensure that all providers who receive higher state reimbursements because of rising wages get a fair amount of extra cash.

“A lot of the other municipalities are saying `why are they getting a larger proportionate share of this money just because they passed their own higher minimum wage?’ ” Fann said.

The GOP budget plan would boost Arizona’s rainy day fund to $1 billion, give raises to state law-enforcement and corrections officers, and deliver the next phase of teacher raises Ducey and lawmakers promised last year. It also would cut income taxes and fees by $386 million, to offset higher state revenue expected from a 2017 federal law, taxing online sales by out-of-state retailers and phasing out a new vehicle license fee.

Several GOP senators were concerned that the tax cuts in the bill are spread among all taxpayers and not just those hit with higher taxes because of the federal changes. Sen. Heather Carter said she was also concerned about putting in place what amounts to permanent tax policy on a guess, because various entities have different estimates about the effects of the changes.

Democrats objected to the tax provisions and tried unsuccessfully to attach some of their priorities, including more money for school districts, infrastructure, housing and child-care subsidies. All were rejected.

“I see it as an incredible missed opportunity” to consult Democrats and produce a bipartisan budget, said Democratic Rep. Aaron Lieberman, who noted that Democrats picked up seats in the Legislature and Congress in 2018.

Republican Rep. Bret Roberts said moving the pieces around at this stage would just lead to cuts elsewhere.

“I keep hearing this phrase `we can do more, we can do more,’ ” Roberts said. “But at the same time, every time we want to single out and do more for this section of the budget, that means we’re pulling away from another section of the budget.”

Republicans hold just a 31-29 majority in the House and a 17-13 majority in the Senate.

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