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Arizona Senate delays budget debate; House moves slowly

Arizona capitol
Posted at 3:18 PM, May 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-23 21:25:08-04

PHOENIX — The Arizona Senate abandoned budget work for the day late Thursday afternoon after Republicans who control the chamber failed to lasso the needed 16 votes.

Senate President Karen Fann knew earlier in the day that she had problems in her caucus gathering support for the $11.8 billion spending plan.

After a day of fits and starts, she adjourned the chamber after telling members they would return Friday, work through Saturday if needed, take Sunday off and come back on Memorial Day if no deal was in place.

Fann said "we are continuing to make progress as best we can" but told lawmakers they could leave the Capitol.

The House had planned to debate a dozen bills making up the $11.8 billion spending plan, but had taken up just one by late in the day due to infighting in the Senate.

Majority Republican members gave preliminary approval to a bill allocating $2.5 million for a program to discourage women from having an abortion.

The measure is backed by the powerful anti-abortion group Center for Arizona Policy over objections from Democrats, who said the money could be better spent supporting existing programs for young parents.

The House scaled it back from a three-year, $7.5 million plan to just one year.

House members also debated and gave initial approval to a bipartisan plan that would allow a handful of children from the Navajo Nation to continue using school vouchers at a Christian school in New Mexico for another year. That measure was not part of the budget package. Both still require formal votes.

Republican Speaker Rusty Bowers said the Senate remained a stumbling block with several majority GOP members refusing to vote for the budget for various reasons.

"Obviously we have some challenges vis-a-vis positions taken by senators," Bowers said Thursday morning. "We need to see if there's a resolution to those."

Opposition in the Senate eased somewhat Wednesday as one holdout lawmaker, Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, said her concerns were addressed by a faster phase-out of a new fee to register cars and trucks.

A second, Sen. Paul Boyer, said he thought his concerns about getting a longer period of time for child sex assault victims to sue may be satisfied, although that remained unclear Thursday.

That left unbending opposition to the deal from Sen. J.D. Mesnard, a movable "no" from Sen. Tyler Pace and a "squishy" opinion of the spending plan from Sen. David Farnsworth.

"I did not say I was a yes," Farnsworth said.

Republicans hold 17 of the 30 seats in the state Senate and can afford to lose just one GOP vote if -- as expected -- all 13 Democrats vote against the deal as negotiated with Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.

Democrats oppose the budget deal and object particularly to $325 million in tax cuts they say starve the state of revenue needed for schools, infrastructure, housing and other needs.

Republicans say those tax cuts simply offset higher revenue from changes to the federal tax code and from collecting taxes on out-of-state internet sales allowed under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The 2017 federal tax overhaul eliminated many deductions taken by higher earners, and led to higher state taxes for some people.

The tax cuts negotiated with the governor and GOP legislative leaders are spread across all taxpayers, leading Mesnard to strongly object and demand the cuts go to those who are actually paying more.

"I think there was some skepticism about my position, but I've tried to put that to bed. I'm not bluffing," Mesnard said Thursday. "It's very simple to me, it's very mechanical, it's very black and white. It's the wrong thing to do and I'm not going to go along with it."

Fann was running from horse-trade meeting to horse-trade meeting trying to get the 16 needed votes in her chamber.

"We are trying to work on getting everybody," Fann said. "We're just keeping the ball rolling and see if we can get it down the hill or up the hill or whatever it may take."