Senate passes Arizona budget package; House to reconvene Thursday
PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Senate passed a $12.8 billion budget for the coming fiscal year early Wednesday that contains massive income tax cuts after a marathon session where majority Republicans packed the package with a conservative policy wish list.
Republicans in last year’s election just barely held onto legislative majorities that have been eroding for a decade, and they are using them to advance a grab bag of priorities new and old.
The GOP package includes the tax cut and a big expansion for Arizona’s private school voucher program, both of which go against ballot measures backed by voters in the last two elections. The package also includes a ban on teaching critical race theory and prohibitions on vaccine or mask mandates. And it strips power from the state’s most prominent elected Democrats.
The Senate finished voting on the 11 bills that make up the budget package about 2:30 a.m., about 16 hours after starting debate. The House had also planned to vote Tuesday, but minority Democrats boycotted the session, leaving Republicans fuming because they lacked a quorum to conduct business.
The House is expected to make another attempt on Thursday, when all 31 Republicans are expected to be in the Capitol, preventing Democrats from blocking votes for a second time. Majority Leader Rep. Ben Toma said there may be some changes to what the Senate enacted.
Here’s a look at some of the conservative priorities in the Senate-approved budget:
Last-minute amendments revived a stalled bill expanding private school vouchers. The measure adds about 600,000 low-income students to those who qualify to get public money to attend private schools. Just three years ago, Arizona voters rejected a universal school voucher plan passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey by a 2-1 margin.
“This will take money directly from your public school classrooms,” Democratic Sen. Lisa Otondo of Yuma said. “This is a slap in the face.”
The state Department of Education says about 250,000 students are now eligible, but only about 9,800 students are currently getting vouchers and half are disabled children attending specialized schools. Technically called Empowerment Scholarship Account, they cost the state about $145 million a year. Parents get 90% of the state funds that would otherwise go to their local public school to use for private school tuition and other education costs. Disabled students can receive up to $40,000 for specialized therapy.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY
Senate Republicans also barred the teaching of critical race theory, a hot-button topic for the GOP base. The measure blocks any instruction that infers that one race is inherently racist, should be discriminated against or feel guilty because of their race. Teachers could lose their credentials and schools fined if they allow such instruction.
It also allows the attorney general to seek civil penalties against teachers who use work time to advocate for a strike, directly targeting a repeat of a 2018 statewide teacher’s strike over low teacher pay and underfunded schools.
The budget was packed with a host of items targeting enforcement of coronavirus restrictions. It now bans school districts and universities from requiring face masks or vaccines. Mandatory testing would also be outlawed, except in cases of outbreaks in dormitories and only with approval from Ducey’s administration. That was prompted by Arizona State University rules issued last week that said unvaccinated students must be regularly tested and wear face masks that Ducey blocked by executive order.
The plan also will limit a future governor’s ability to issue extended emergency declarations without the Legislature’s approval, and preempts cities, towns and counties from issuing their own public health mandates, such as business closures. The governor will lose authority to mandate vaccines in the future.
State and local governments can’t require so-called “vaccine passports” or mandate that businesses check their customers’ vaccination records. And cities and counties will be preempted from issuing any of their own COVID protection orders, including mask mandates, capacity limits or closures.
Republicans embraced the unfounded theory that former President Donald Trump lost in Arizona because of voter fraud, creating a $12 million election integrity fund to pay for election security updates and future hand recounts. Their bill lays out a series of security features for ballot paper, such as watermarks or holograms, though it stops short of explicitly requiring they be used. County election officials implored lawmakers to reverse course, fearing lawmakers will mandate security standards that would be unworkable.
It also created a joint task force with the attorney general to investigate whether Facebook and Twitter’s bans on former President Donald Trump’s accounts constitutes an illegal in-kind political donation to his opponents. The task force also would investigate whether social media company algorithms favor or disfavor certain candidates. Both measures are a response to Trump supporters’ conviction that he’s treated unfairly by social media giants.
The Senate is currently overseeing an unprecedented “audit” of the November election results in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, and where Trump lost in the formerly red-leaning state.
Democrats vehemently oppose a $1.9 billion-per-year tax cut in the budget negotiated by Ducey and top leaders of the House and Senate, all Republicans. When fully phased in, the plan would lower tax rates for most taxpayers to 2.5%, down from a range of 2.59% to 4.5%. Wealthy taxpayers would, in effect, be spared from a 3.5% tax hike approved by voters last year to pay for schools.
Ducey hailed the passage of the budget plan, issuing a statement at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday praising the tax cuts and saying he will sign it once the House enacts the plan.
“This balanced and fiscally responsible plan is a win for all Arizonans — it delivers unprecedented tax relief to working families and small businesses, it pays down state debt, and it continues to invest in our schools and infrastructure so we can keep Arizona competitive,” Ducey said.