Arizona Senate begins debating $8.8B budget

PHOENIX - Democrats are jostling for millions of dollars for education and social service funding during what will likely be a long struggle Thursday as the Arizona Senate began debating an $8.8 billion state budget proposal drafted by majority Republicans.

Democrats were able to get a handful of Republicans to join them to add $9 million to the Child Protective Services budget. They also scored thousands for Native American education, parks and arts.

In all, nearly $70 million in additional spending is included in floor amendments being offered by Republicans alone in the 10 budget bills scheduled for debate Thursday.

"The thoughtfully crafted AZ Republican budget is quickly becoming a Democrat SPENDFEST," GOP Sen. Kelli Ward tweeted during the debate.

The biggest amendment is one that expands access to Medicaid for an additional 300,000 low-income Arizonans. Debate over Gov. Jan Brewer's Medicaid expansion and how it will impact the state budget has overshadowed the months-long legislative session, but Senate President Andy Biggs didn't offer legislation to move the fight forward until Tuesday. The House has declined to take up the budget battle because House Speaker Andy Tobin opposes the expansion.

Boiling tensions among Republican leaders on opposing sides of the Medicaid debate were apparent Thursday morning before the Senate floor session, when Biggs threatened to throw the budget proposal out and start over next week if some lawmakers continued to insist on costly amendments.

"We can talk about pathways to victory, but there is no pathway to victory for everybody sitting around this table," Biggs said during the majority caucus.

Republican Sen. Don Shooter said the Legislature must pursue the "least politically damaging" solution and urged rival lawmakers to compromise. Starting over could have lawmakers still debating bills in December, Shooter said. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

"My hope is that we will try to work our way through these issues and be constructive," he said.

Meanwhile, House members from both parties crowded the Senate floor hoping to catch an early glimpse of the dozens of amendments expected to be debated Thursday.

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