AZ budget clears Senate with reluctant support from ‘dejected’ Dems
A budget deal brokered between Republican leadership and Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs made its way out of the Arizona Senate in the early morning hours Wednesday.
The $18 billion budget has been an on-going point of contention between Hobbs and her own caucus and public school advocates who claim it falls short of earlier promises made by the governor to reign in the expansion of the universal expansion of the school voucher program championed by her predecessor, Doug Ducey.
Hobbs praised the budget vote for its historic investment in housing and its increased spending in education, infrastructure and children’s health insurance.
“Today we showed Arizonans we can reach across the aisle, compromise and make government work,” she said in a written statement.
Despite earlier party line votes by Senate Democrats in the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier Tuesday on the budget bills, the bills largely passed with more than 25 votes with between 5 to 8 Democrats dissenting on each bill. The Senate consists of 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats.
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However, attempts by Democratic lawmakers to amend any of the bills failed and Democratic lawmakers continued to accuse Republicans of attempting to speed through the budgeting process late Tuesday and into Wednesday morning.
“It is so important in a democracy that everybody has the time they need to figure out how they are voting,” Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, quipped at Senate President Warren Petersen when he said he would invoke a Senate rule to make those who did not respond to his second request to vote on a bill to verbally explain their vote instead.
Petersen responded to Epstein by saying that lawmakers were given “several hours” to look at the bills and “some a day,” invoking laughter from those in the Senate gallery.
Most of the budget bills passed without amendments or any debate, though the K-12 education bill featured amendments that took aim directly at the school voucher issues that had been a major sticking point for Democratic lawmakers.
One amendment proposed by Sen. Catherine Miranda, D-Laveen, would have capped the program at 69,000 students. Another amendment by Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, would require anyone who works at a school that has at least one ESA student get fingerprint clearance.
Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu, labeled both amendments as “hostile” and urged his caucus to vote against the amendments; both amendments were rejected.
“This is a hostile amendment and it should have been brought forth at an earlier time,” Borrelli said on the floor.
“It is not like we had a whole lot of time to get these submitted to the majority party in any sort of timely fashion,” Marsh said in reply to Borrelli.
Democratic members offered similar amendments for other bills related to education, such as an amendment to lift a spending cap for community colleges that similarly failed.
It wasn’t until almost 5 a.m. when the Senate passed the main budget bill, along with legislation to circumvent a school spending cap in 2024, something that Democratic lawmakers have called for.
Epstein also responded directly to criticism aimed at legislators from Hobbs’ spokesperson, who said in a statement to the Arizona Republic on Tuesday that “Arizonans want elected officials to be practical leaders, not bickering politicians.”
“I leave this floor feeling dejected,” Epstein said, adding that she felt she “had” to vote yes on the budget bills in order to ensure priorities of the Democratic caucus such as funding for the housing trust fund and other investments were not “amended out.”
“It will take a great deal of work to repair the wounds that were struck tonight,” Epstein said.
Petersen shot back at Democratic members, saying that the minority caucus was given ample time to negotiate with Republicans on a budget but did not communicate with Republicans.
Petersen said that the original intention was for Republicans and Democrats to split surplus funding to projects that were not “too toxic” to each other’s caucuses in an acknowledgement of the split government they were working under, but Democratic lawmakers did not bring their budget requests to the table in a timely or appropriate manner.
“It is a very bizarre thing to say that ‘I hate this budget but I’m voting yes,’” Petersen said of his Democratic colleagues, adding that he is proud of the budget and his caucus.
While the passage in the Senate does not fully guarantee the passage of the budget, it sets the stage for the House of Representatives to take up the spending plan later Wednesday. The budget has not just upset Democratic lawmakers but also high-profile Democrats, including Attorney General Kris Mayes.
Mayes panned the budget, with Mayes threatening to sue Hobbs and legislature over cuts to her office that Republican lawmakers argued was not entirely true, as the funds Mayes is upset about are to be directed and distributed by the Legislature.
But Republican lawmakers have been touting the budget as a win for Arizonans, citing tax rebates, investments in education and historic investments in the Arizona Department of Housing.