Arizona Legislature Begins Work on Budget Bills

May 22, 2019

The state budget proposal negotiated by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and top Republican lawmakers would charge Flagstaff for raising its minimum wage higher than the state's and create an anti-abortion hotline.

Credit Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records

Those are among hundreds of items in the $11.8 billion budget that lawmakers began debating publicly Wednesday ahead of votes that could come later this week.

But even as legislative committees began daylong hearings to discuss and likely advance the spending plan, Senate leaders struggled for another day to build support. Five GOP senators told The Associated Press this week that they will not vote for the budget plan as it was negotiated for various reasons.

One of those senators agreed to support the budget on Wednesday afternoon. Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita announced in an appropriations committee hearing that she had a deal with the governor and GOP legislative leaders to repeal a new $32 vehicle license fee in two years instead of five. That fee was designed to fund the highway patrol and end a budget gimmick that took road maintenance funding to pay for highway policing.

It was sold to lawmakers last year as an $18 fee but ended up being $32 when it was finalized by the Department of Transportation. That incensed many lawmakers.

Details made available Tuesday night revealed a number of budget surprises not mentioned in earlier briefings.

Those include $2.5 million in each of the next three years for a helpline that seeks to steer pregnant women away from abortions.

Cathi Herrod, president of the anti-abortion group Center for Arizona Policy, said the help line is designed to reach pregnant women to inform them about available services.

"This is modeled after a program from Texas that has been successful in reaching women to provide them with alternatives to abortion," Herrod said. "Arizona is a pro-life state. Women are bombarded with messages about whether or not to have an abortion. This is about providing life-saving alternatives to abortion for women who are interested."

Earlier this year, Herrod convinced lawmakers not to reinstate funding for a 211 hotline that provides referrals to health and social services because a handful of callers sought information about abortion.

Jodi Liggett, director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, called the provision an "extremist tactic" that interferes with the right to make private decisions about health care.

"This is an attempt to deny women and families nonjudgmental care," Liggett said in a statement.

The GOP budget proposal also would allow the state to charge more to Flagstaff and any other city or county that raises its minimum wage higher than the state's, ensuring the state doesn't pay more for its workers' higher wages.

Ken Strobeck, head of the Arizona League of Cities, said he expects lawmakers will limit the impact only to developmental disability providers. It was not immediately clear what the provision could cost Flagstaff.

Senate President Karen Fann said although she personally dislikes the higher Flagstaff wages, the provision was not meant to punish the city. Instead, it's meant to ensure that all providers who receive higher state reimbursements because of rising wages get a fair amount of extra cash.

"A lot of the other municipalities are saying 'why are they getting a larger proportionate share of this money just because they passed their own higher minimum wage?' " Fann said.

The GOP budget plan would boost Arizona's rainy day fund to $1 billion, give raises to state law-enforcement and corrections officers, and deliver the next phase of teacher raises Ducey and lawmakers promised last year. It also would cut income taxes and fees by $386 million, to offset higher state revenue expected from a 2017 federal law, taxing online sales by out-of-state retailers and phasing out a new vehicle license fee.

As the House Appropriations Committee debated the budget, Democrats objected to the tax provisions and tried unsuccessfully to attach some of their priorities, including more money for school districts and highway construction.

"I see it as an incredible missed opportunity" to consult Democrats and produce a bipartisan budget, said Democratic Rep. Aaron Lieberman, who noted that Democrats picked up seats in the Legislature and Congress in 2018. "Look at what the voters told us last election."

Democrats pushed an additional $100 million for infrastructure projects, $233 million to fully restore cuts to a specific K-12 school, $84 million for child care subsidies and $20 million for a housing fund that increases low-income homebuilding. All were rejected.

None of the Democratic proposals were adopted, as is common with budget deals. Republican Rep. Bret Roberts said moving the pieces around at this stage will just lead to cuts elsewhere.

"I keep hearing this phrase 'we can do more, we can do more,' " Roberts said. "But at the same time, every time we want to single out and do more for this section of the budget that means we're pulling away from another section of the budget. We need to take that into consideration."

Republicans hold just a 31-29 majority in the House, and a 17-13 majority in the Senate.