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KNAU and Arizona News

Arizona legislature approves $18 billion bipartisan budget

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Taylor Arrazola
/

Arizona’s legislature has approved a bipartisan $18 billion spending plan making substantial investments in public schools and new highways.

The budget passed early Thursday also pays down long-term debts and includes no major tax cuts.

Republican leaders tried for months to craft a much more limited plan without Democratic support before looking across the aisle for votes.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate ended a months-long impasse, working through the night to approve the budget shortly before sunrise.

Only a handful of dissenters from each party voted against the package of bills, and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was expected to approve it. “This is what our state, where voters are nearly evenly divided by party affiliation, has long asked of us — to work together,” said Rep. Reginald Bolding of Laveen, the top Democrat in the House.

The improbable bipartisanship was enabled by an unprecedented surplus topping $5 billion, allowing for a broad array of new spending and savings.

That includes $544 million for border security, roughly half of it for a wall, and $1 billion for highway construction, including widening Interstate 10 north of Casa Grande. State employees will get a raise, many for the first time in a decade. Hundreds of millions are set aside for water infrastructure as the state faces prolonged drought.

The budget also makes a $1.1 billion deposit into the pension fund for public safety and corrections officers, paying off the state’s unfunded liability for future retirement benefits. And it puts another $425 million in the rainy day fund to help the state weather a potential recession.

It also eliminates the state equalization tax, a property tax for education, and backfills it with $330 million from the general fund.

The package of budget bills passed with overwhelming support, highly unusual in the modern era.

Republican leaders had struggled for months to craft a spending plan that could find unanimous support in the fractious GOP caucuses without relying on Democrats. Tiny majorities in both chambers meant opposition from a single Republican lawmaker was enough to sink the budget if Democrats were united in opposition.

Ironically, it was the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers who forced the hands of GOP leaders when they balked at initial, smaller spending proposals. After losing support on the right, House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann had to look elsewhere for votes, and they found them across the aisle.

GOP leaders “decided to just take the easy road out, the path of least resistance and give up and just spend,” said Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Scottsdale Republican who voted against the budget. “The budget is not sound and its not reflective of my conservative values,” Ugenti-Rita said.

Nobody loves a budget once all the compromises are made, said Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray, R-Sun City. “Every single budget’s bad,” Gray said. “But for me, it’s encouraging that we have actually come together.”

The plan includes a handful of small, targeted tax cuts for farm machines and private planes but no large scale reductions. Republicans last year cut $1.7 billion in income taxes.