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Budget crisis looms large for Gov. Brewer

PHOENIX — Elevated into higher office by Janet Napolitano’s departure for Washington, Jan Brewer will mark her 100th day as governor much as she started – with a budget crisis looming over state government and no clear picture of how the state will get out of it.

The Republican-led Legislature had welcomed the replacement of Democrat Napolitano by a fellow member of the GOP, hoping that a like-minded executive would work hand in hand with them on closing the massive shortfall in the next state budget.

Within days, lawmakers approved a package of midyear spending cuts and other steps to close a $1.6 billion shortfall in the then-$9.9 billion budget. They accepted $18 million in last-minute changes sought by Brewer to reduce spending cuts.

But their expectations that Brewer would join with them to expedite a fix for the budget year that begins on July 1 haven’t come to pass.

Instead she’s pushed for fewer cuts and a tax increase, something anathema to hard-line Republicans. And the budget has gone undone for months.

The 100-day mark is a frequently used mark for taking stock of a new administration’s start. Now, it can’t be ignored that Brewer and lawmakers aren’t all that far from the start of the next fiscal year.

Fellow Republicans nodded when Brewer said during her official swearing-in on Jan. 2 that she was entering office with the state facing an “overdue obligation” to live within its means.

But she jolted most GOP lawmakers March 4 by including a temporary tax increase to avoid crippling spending cuts. Her five-point outline also called for spending cuts and use of stimulus money as well as long-term tax cuts and changes in budget process.

As Republicans panned the tax increase idea and started considering borrowing and other alternatives previously on the no-go list, Democrats tried to change the subject.

They called on Brewer to spell out a plan for solving a crisis that has led to state employees layoffs, funding cuts for safety-net programs and thousands of school teachers put on notice they may lose their jobs.

The state faces a projected shortfall of roughly $3 billion in the next state budget. That’s based on spending of $11 billion, an amount sure to be reduced by funding cuts included in whatever budget is eventually approved.

Napolitano was still in office at the January deadline for the governor to submit a proposed budget. She submitted a low-pain document that was pronounced dead on arrival by many lawmakers.

Brewer at several points said she either intended to release a detailed budget plan or was close to deciding to do so, But her latest public comment was a willingness to keep working privately with lawmakers.

Republican lawmakers – who do nearly all of their own budget work behind closed doors – say they haven’t received a private wish-list from the GOP governor.

They said she also hasn’t shared her intentions on how she wants to spend $4.2 billion of federal stimulus money that the state expects.

The governor, not the Legislature, has authority to direct the flow of most stimulus money, which could be used to reduce or avoid crippling spending cuts that are being considered by lawmakers because of falling tax collections.

“That’s one of the particulars that we’d like to nail down,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray said of the stimulus money.

Legislative budget-writers can make assumptions on using the stimulus money to backfill potential cuts of state funding, but those could prove wrong, Gray said. “We really need to know that so we can make the proper assumptions.”

The five points that Brewer outlined on March 4 “don’t go very far,” the Mesa Republican added.

A request to interview Brewer for this story was not granted, but she said recently she felt “very positive with our deliberations at the Legislature that we’re coming to some kind of conclusion that we can all agree on shortly.”

On the other side of the political aisle, a Democratic legislative leader said Brewer seemed to be taking a different approach than Napolitano in her dealings with the Legislature.

“She appears to be much less hands-on and much less involved with the detail, particularly when it comes to the budget,” said Sen. Rebecca Rios of Apache Junction. “I think we could really benefit from some direction and some leadership in the governor’s office.”

Given the Legislature’s focus on the budget crisis, Brewer has not been handed hardly any non-budget legislation since taking office.

However, she has taken some unilateral steps that put a more conservative stamp on the executive branch and the policies it pushes.

She froze new state regulations and reversed a Napolitano decision by applying for federal funding for abstinence education. She also unsuccessfully pressed Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a state law on programs for students learning English.

The changeover in the governor’s office also meant many Napolitano appointees have left top administrative jobs, with Brewer installing her own picks.

Most of those, as well as senior members of her own staff, are veterans of state government, though Brewer picked Maricopa County’s budget director to be her top money adviser.

She went outside Arizona to find the state’s top environmental regulator, picking a a senior U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official from the Bush administration.

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