Arizona House, Senate stuck on budget, must confer

PHOENIX - The Arizona House and Senate don't like each other's budget plans, and a rare conference committee could be called to work out a compromise.

On the sidelines -- but apparently cheering on the House version -- is Gov. Jan Brewer.

The Senate passed a version of the budget two weeks ago that set state spending for the coming budget year at $9.18 billion and included a retroactive ban on school district charter-school conversions. It also shorted Brewer's planned child welfare overhaul plan.

The House made changes last week that boosted spending by about $54 million. It extended charter-school funding for another year, added money for universities and child welfare and included a promise to do more when a Child Protective Services overhaul plan is released in the coming weeks.

The Senate stripped out most of those changes Tuesday, the House refused to go along and Brewer's staff said a veto of the Senate plan was in the cards.

That left members Wednesday trying to decide if a committee made up of members from both chambers should be assembled to try to work out the difference.

"The House gets to drive this for a little while and see what they want to do," Senate President Andy Biggs said. "And then they come to us and say this is what we want to do and we get to say `hurray' or (thumbs down)."

Speaker Andy Tobin said the votes weren't there for the House to go along with the Senate cuts. Speaker Pro-Tem J.D. Mesnard said it may take some time to figure out how to handle the split.

"Right now, we're digesting what the Senate did and trying to figure out how to bring everybody together on a legislative budget, as opposed to the back-and-forth House-Senate budgets," Mesnard said.

Making changes to get enough votes in both chambers may be difficult, said Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"We're at a stalemate. The way the budget is now, we lose a few members in the House and we don't have 31" votes to pass a budget, he said. "By the same token, if too much is put on to get 31 here then the Senate loses 16 (votes to pass a budget). So we're in a situation of playing traffic cop at an intersection in gridlock."

The final plan that came out of the Senate sets spending for the budget year beginning July 1 at $9.21 billion, below the House-passed $9.24 billion plan and well off Brewer's $9.36 billion wish-list.

Brewer said Wednesday a veto is "always a possibility with any governor."

"We have indicated to them exactly what it is that we feel is the appropriate thing to do for the state of Arizona, and it's back in the House," she said. "They're going to go into conference committee and hopefully they will be listening to my staff and to me to come together with a consensus budget. I would like to believe that they are (listening to me). They certainly have heard me."

Brewer is primarily concerned with the charter school and university funding and with money for her new child welfare agency.

Brewer ordered the Child Protective Services pulled from its parent agency in January and created a Cabinet-level post to oversee it after more than 6,500 uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were revealed in November. A group of lawmakers and others are working with Brewer's staff to write legislation to make that executive order permanent and expect to release it by May 1.

Funding for the new agency has been a sticking point for conservative Republicans in both chambers, who said they didn't want to write a blank check. So Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who serves on the governor's committee, inserted language committing the Legislature to reviewing spending once a plan was released.

Biggs watered that down substantially on Tuesday, raising the ire of the governor.

If a conference committee is called, Senate Majority Leader John McComish said it will be the first for a budget in at least 10 years.

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