Brewer special session: Arizona Legislature starts final budget debates

PHOENIX - Republican Gov. Jan Brewer flexed her executive muscle Tuesday and demanded that lawmakers return to work and finish the state budget, signaling that her patience with the Legislature's extended battle over her proposed Medicaid expansion had run out.

Irate Republican leaders opposed to the health care overhaul begrudgingly filed back to the House and Senate hours after the Legislature had ended for the day upon Brewer's last-minute proclamation calling for a special session focused on the budget.

Brewer acted after House Speaker Andy Tobin announced early Tuesday that lawmakers would wait until Thursday to take up the budget bills. The Senate approved a budget that included the Medicaid expansion last month.

Brewer's power play further wounded her relationships with her fellow conservative Republicans after months of delayed budget negotiations that saw both sides resort to name calling and legislative maneuvering. But it will likely result in her finally getting her way.

Under the special session, Democrats and some moderate Republicans could pass a state budget and vote for a formal end to the legislative year as soon as Thursday.

"This is the desire of the majority of members of the House and the Senate," said Matt Benson, Brewer's spokesman. "We've been waiting five months to complete work on Medicaid and the budget and it's time to move forward. No more game playing, no more stall tactics, no more gimmicks."

Although special sessions normally begin with identical bills in both chambers, Tobin said late Thursday that was not the case, complicating the road forward.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Leah Landrum Taylor said the Senate would take up the $8.8 billion budget it approved last month and tweak it slightly to cut a small amount of spending. If all goes as planned, it will be a significant victory for Brewer and minority Democrats who usually have little influence in the Legislature.

"It definitely feels goods to win on this issue," said Democratic Rep. Martin Quezada, of Phoenix.

The special session came as a surprise to most Republicans. Brewer's staff secretly met throughout the day with Democratic lawmakers to discuss strategy and ensure they would still be available to force a vote late Tuesday before Brewer issued the proclamation. Republican leaders were given little notice and many said they were already home with their families when the call to return came in.

"In my experience, never has the governor called us into special session in this fashion, in such a disrespectful way," said Republican Rep. Carl Seel, of Phoenix. "Most of my colleagues feel the same way I do, quite offended that she did this."

Seel said he was making his sons' dinner and had changed into casual clothes when he started getting text messages from other members about the special session.

"It was like, `What the heck is going on?"' Seel said. "I expect more from my governor."

Republican Rep. Adam Kwasman admonished Brewer on the House floor for refusing to "wait two more days to pass Obamacare."

"Shame on the members of this House and shame on the governor for calling this session," said Kwasman, of Oro Valley. "We will not stand for unnecessary special sessions."

A handful of conservative Republican House members refused to so much as take their seats on the floor. They sat in the visitors' gallery instead in protest.

Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, said the Legislature plans to debate the bills Wednesday and do a final vote Thursday. Under the state Constitution, bills must be "read" on three consecutive days, so that's the quickest the process can move.

He said a critical reason Brewer and her allies decided they must act Tuesday was Tobin's decision to adjourn until Thursday and the Senate's decision to take Thursday off. That would have pushed the budget deal out at least a week if not two weeks, he said.

"Votes in the month of June just start to scatter," Robson said.

At one point, Democrats debated whether to replace Tobin and Senate President Andy Biggs with lawmakers who backed the Medicaid expansion, but decided against it after Biggs and Tobin indicated they would not block the special session. Still, the debate underscored the shifting power dynamics in the Legislature under Brewer's maneuvering.

"This is a building of 60 people, there's a lot of people here who can be speaker of the House," said Tobin, of Paulden. "I have no intention of resigning, but if I ever felt, whether it was tonight or another night, that it was in the best interest of the state, I wouldn't hesitate to leave."

After adjournment Tuesday, Biggs and Tobin released an angry statement ripe with insults toward Brewer: "We are frustrated and bewildered by her overt hostility and disregard for the budgetary process which was already well under way."

Rep. Jeff Dial, a Chandler Republican who supports the Medicaid expansion, said the new budget will be more fiscally sound than the one previously passed by the Senate.

"The governor provided the leadership to get this done," he said.

Brewer shocked many by announcing she was embracing a signature part of the Affordable Care Act in January. She has support from the business community, hospitals, health care workers and patients, but tea party groups that once rallied behind Brewer's candidacy have since labeled her a traitor.

The plan would cover people making between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level and restore coverage to more than 100,000 childless adults who lost Medicaid coverage because of a state budget crunch. About 1.3 million Arizonans already are covered by the state's plan, called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

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