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Arizona Legislature a Step Closer to Enacting State Budget

Dan Sorensen Photography

The Arizona Legislature on Memorial Day broke an impasse that had prevented passage of a state budget for weeks.

The budget negotiated between majority Republican lawmakers and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey was hung up by some members wanting more cash for their priorities and a non-budget issue — a proposal giving childhood sexual assault victims more time to sue their alleged assailants.

Republican Sens. Paul Boyer and Heather Carter refused to back a budget deal without the child sexual assault statute change.

The measure passed Monday extends the statute of limitations for suing from age 20 to 30 and allows victims now barred from the courthouse to sue until December 2020. It also increases the standard of proof needed to sue in those older cases.

The proposal passed the Senate on a 29-0 vote and was immediately taken up by the House, which also passed it unanimously. Gov. Doug Ducey vowed to sign it.

The Senate immediately began debating the budget passed by the House early Saturday setting the stage for remaining legislation to be on Ducey's desk.

The budget for the year beginning July 1 is up 11%, and includes $386 million in tax and fee cuts meant to offset higher revenue the state expects to see from taxing more online sales and from a quirk in the 2017 federal tax overhaul. Republicans say the state shouldn't get a windfall. Democrats fought against the tax cuts, saying the state should use the money to pay for education, highways, housing and other priorities they say are neglected.

The budget makes a massive deposit in the state's main savings account, more than doubling the rainy day fund to $1 billion. That was a top priority for Ducey, who said he wants to avoid the draconian cuts Arizona was forced to make during the Great Recession.

It funds the second of a three-phase pay increase promised to teachers who walked out of classrooms last year and marched on the Capitol to demand better wages and school funding. It also restores some of the money schools get for textbooks, school buses, technology and other needs, which was cut during the economic downturn.

Corrections officers, including those in private prisons, will get pay raises, along with state troopers, law-enforcement officers in other state agencies, and child-welfare workers.

A $32 fee added last year to vehicle registrations to fund the state police will be phased out in two years. Lawmakers approved the fee to stop using highway funds to pay for the Department of Public Safety, but many Republicans were irate when Ducey's administration set it at $32 instead of the roughly $18 fee they expected.

Lawmakers tripled the per diem they get to cover their expenses during the legislative session, one of the few budget bills that drew strong bipartisan support.

Republicans approved $2.5 million for a program to promote childbirth over abortions, which Democrats said was a backdoor way to fund "crisis pregnancy centers" that steer women away from abortion.

The budget also allows the state to charge Flagstaff for some of the costs the state will bear because the city raised its minimum wage.

"Targeting these funds puts the entire city's budget at risk," Flagstaff officials said in a statement.

Republicans hold just a 31-29 majority in the House, so they need every GOP vote to pass a budget without Democratic support. The Senate has a 17-13 GOP majority and can only afford to lose one Republican vote.

During the Senate vote on the child sex abuse bill, Carter lamented what she called threats and intimidation she was subjected to for refusing to vote on a budget until the sex assault bill was taken up.

"I have been threatened personally and professionally. People say that all of my bills are day and many of them say that my political career is over," Carter told fellow senators. "But nothing that we have experienced the last two weeks come even remotely close to what a victim of childhood sexual abuse experiences - nothing."

Boyer's proposal to extend the time child sex assault victims could sue had been blocked by Senate President Karen Fann and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth. Democrats aligned with Boyer and Carter in insisting on more rights for sex abuse victims, and with Carter in seeking more funding for key priorities.

Farnsworth said none of the opponents were trying to protect abusers, and instead only wanted to ensure that innocent people weren't dragged into court decades after an alleged incident with minimal or no evidence.

"There is no one who wanted to protected predators, no one," Farnsworth said. "There is no one who wanted a watered down bill - no one."

Boyer was pushing for a much longer period of time, to age 30 or 35, plus a "window" that would allow current victims who had been barred from court to sue.

That "window" was the bone of contention for Fann and Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, a fellow Republican who controls the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said Saturday the limits on lawsuits prevent allegations against innocent people from being brought decades after an alleged incident, when they can't defend themselves. There is no limit on criminal charges for sexually assaulting a minor.

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