PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers are pushing to approve changes to the current state budget to eliminate a big shortfall without waiting to see what money may be coming from a planned federal economic stimulus package.
The federal stimulus package is expected to contain money to directly help the states, chiefly by increasing the federal government’s partial reimbursements to states for costs of health care for the poor.
But Republican legislators said Arizona can’t afford to wait for congressional action anticipated by mid-February because Arizona’s budget is hemorrhaging red ink and some planned savings from proposed spending cuts would be lost as agencies, school districts and universities continue spending state money in the meantime.
There’s also a concern that the federal dollars might have undesirable strings attached, said Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria. “We have to be very careful about what the federal government has to offer.”
Democrats said the push by Republicans to have budget changes approved by this weekend — before Feb. 1 — is premature and risks damage to important public services if lawmakers make budget cuts that ultimately aren’t needed.
“Why are we putting political ideology first, ahead of providing desperately needed services to children, families and the elderly during this economic crisis,” said Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson. “We should wait and see what sort of helping hand our federal government is going to extend to us, and then we should move forward judiciously.”
The U.S. House was expected to vote Wednesday in Washington on a plan drafted by majority Democrats and supported by President Barack Obama. U.S. Senate committees are working on a separate version, and congressional leaders have promised Obama they would send him a measure by mid-February.
With the U.S. House legislation serving as a starting point in Congress’ work, what ultimately will be approved by the full Congress is a “moving target” for the state,” legislative budget director Richard Stavneak told legislators during a recent briefing.
However, he said the federal package apparently will be a two-year funding commitment that wouldn’t close Arizona’s long-term imbalance between spending and revenue.
An initial package of state budget-balancing “options” presented by the Appropriations Committee chairmen of the Arizona House and Senate included $400 million in federal money for increased Medicaid reimbursements, which would free up some of the state’s own funding for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
A revised proposal outlined Tuesday by the House panel’s chairman raised that figure to $500 million.