Bitter Budget Battle

House adopts $8.8 billion plan despite Republican outrage

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A bipartisan coalition of nine Republicans and 24 Democrats adopted Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget in an all-night session on Wednesday, infuriating the bulk of the Republicans in the House by resolutely refusing to debate the provisions of the $8.8 billion spending plan.

Both of Rim Country’s representatives in the House — Brenda Barton (R-Payson) and Robert Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) — voted against the budget, which included a $250 million tax on hospitals to cover state costs for a federally funded expansion of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment system (AHCCCS) by as many as 400,000 people.

Rep. Barton spent Thursday on the floor in the aftermath of the chaotic and contentious all-nighter. However, by e-mail she said, “I do want the folks in my district to fully understand how they too were rolled last night. Every safeguard amendment we proposed to protect the citizens regarding the Medicaid expansion was refuted and denied. We knew it was going to pass, but we wanted to amend into it some protections and safeguards.”

The budget was adopted after supporters rejected 44 amendments.

Gov. Brewer put out a statement that said, “as an elected official of more than 30 years, I know that this process was not easy or without political risk. By joining me in extending health coverage to hundreds of thousands of Arizonans, legislators of my own party have come under sharp criticism in some quarters. Some have

have had threats made not just against their political future, but also their personal livelihood.”

However, she concluded that the great majority of Arizonans favor the AHCCCS expansion, much of which voters have approved twice in the past. The federal government would cover almost all of the initial costs of adding the new populations, which include impoverished, childless adults and women with children making less than 133 percent of a poverty-level wage.

The expansion will bring an estimated $1.6 billion in federal funds into the state and generate an estimated 20,000 jobs. Gov. Brewer’s proposal would drop the newly added groups if the federal share of the cost for those groups falls below 80 percent.

Senate Democratic leader Leah Landrum Taylor said, “This budget is a result of bipartisan collaboration and represents a delicate balance between the needs of Arizonans and the resources available to the state. It reflects priorities that will encourage our economy’s improvement, protect vulnerable adults and children and help our schools to begin recovering from the $2.9 billion in cuts they’ve seen over the past few years.”

But Arizona Republican Party Chairman Robert Graham said, “I cannot overstate how disappointed I am with the parliamentary maneuvers that have played out over the past few days.”

House Speaker Andy Tobin strongly opposed the AHCCCS expansion, part of federal health care reforms. Opponents argue the expansion will balloon the cost of the already fast-growing program and leave the state stuck with the bill when the federal government runs out of money to fulfill its promises. He refused to hold hearings on the budget based mostly on that issue.

The Senate several weeks ago finally acted on its own budget plan, which includes the AHCCCS expansion but trims other programs proposed by the governor.

Tobin finally agreed this week to allow hearings on the budget and the House budget panel approved a version without the AHCCCS expansion.

Gov. Brewer then called the Legislature into special session, which suspends many of the normal rules opponents can use to block or delay legislation.

The result was a bitter, all-night session, during which the nine Republicans and solid front of Democrats steadfastly refused to debate the budget or even answer questions they said represented grandstanding rather than serious requests for information.

The tactic forced action on the massive spending plan in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. However, it outraged many Republican lawmakers, who accused the governor of throwing a “temper tantrum” and bitterly criticized the breakaway Republicans.

Ironically, the Democrats in both the House and Senate have complained for years that the solid Republican majorities hammer out a budget in closed-door sessions without Democratic input and without considering amendments or allowing debate.

The AHCCCS expansion provoked three-quarters of the proposed amendments and most of the discussion. But the budget plan includes thousands of pages of detail that affect the universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, prisons and a host of other state functions. Few of those proposals got any discussion.

Rep. Barton said she’s still trying to sort out whether several items affecting Rim Country made it into the budget.

“We have no real idea how today will proceed because all rules were suspended by this Democrat-led coalition that included nine Republicans. Quite literally no one discussed, debated or had an analysis of the budget bills that were passed last night on a vote of 33 to 27. What I do know is that the funds I had in the budget to be released on Thursday (yesterday) included items for Gila County AND the new budget contains $400,000 for the Gila County state fair — a 700 percent increase from previous funding levels — and ZERO funding for Arizona's forests!! I am furious about this.”

The $8.8 billion spending plan relies on about $300 million in reserves socked away this year from a $1 billion, temporary sales tax surcharge the voters approved for education. Arizona cut education funding more deeply than any other state during the recession, according to national studies.

In an article on the session by Capitol Media Service for the East Valley Tribune, Rep. Bob Thorpe sharply criticized the governor. “Just like Bill Clinton, she’s coming up with ways of defining what ‘is’ is,” a reference to President Clinton’s misleading denial he’d had sex with a White House intern.

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