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House, Senate leaders agree on budget

Plan likely up for vote next week, but details aren’t yet in writing

PHOENIX – After months of work, state House and Senate leaders said Thursday that they’ve agreed in principle on a bipartisan budget proposal to submit for action by the full Legislature early next week.

Approval of a budget for state government for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would resolve the Legislature’s chief constitutional duty for the annual session that began Jan. 8 and set the stage for likely adjournment within a few days.

The talks between House and Senate leaders – whose chambers approved competing $10.6 billion budget proposals last month – ended late Wednesday evening.

“We have a budget. We do have it,” said Senate Minority Leader Marsha Arzberger, D-Willcox. “I’m grateful that it’s done.”

Other top legislative leaders were more cautious in their statements, saying that details still need to be put into writing before rank-and-file lawmakers can be briefed Monday, with formal action anticipated the same day.

“I believe we have a general consensus on the majority of the items, but, obviously, until language is finalized, we can’t announce that the agreement is done,” said Senate President Tim Bee, R-Tucson. “But once that language is done, then I believe we’re there.”

House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, told fellow representatives during a floor session that he and other legislative leaders were “very, very close” to agreement, with only a few details needing to be settled and the new provisions written up.

The leaders declined to discuss elements of the proposal before it is presented to fellow lawmakers on Monday.

“No details at this point,” said House Minority Leader Phil Lopes, D-Tucson. “When those details are available, we will share those with the caucus.”

“It’s been very effective in the past when we meet with the members prior to . . . (them) finding out what the details are in the press,” Bee said. “The members represent the public, and the members will have input on what’s contained in the package.”

However, Bee and Arzberger confirmed that the proposal does include tax cuts, and Bee also said it reflects lawmakers’ unwillingness to adopt Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano’s early proposal to use debt financing to pay for school construction.

A Republican budget approved by the House had sought $64 million in new tax cuts, including $7 million sought by the Senate in that chamber’s bipartisan proposal.

Gov. Napolitano’s top budget advisers were stationed in a nearby office in the House basement while the House and Senate negotiators met Wednesday night, with Democratic lawmakers periodically consulting Napolitano aides.

Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer confirmed that Napolitano aides were “working closely” throughout the House-Senate talks and said Napolitano was encouraged by the negotiations.

Along with the budget, other major measures awaiting action include bills to impose sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, raise the cap on workers’ compensation benefits and reduce particulate pollution in the Phoenix area’s air.

In an effort to prod the budget negotiations, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s chairman had scheduled a committee meeting for Thursday for action on the House-passed budget bills so they could be amended to reflect any agreements reached so far and to fill in any blanks to match the Senate’s version.

However, that meeting was canceled, and the committee is expected to consider the new House-Senate bipartisan proposal on Monday.

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