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Arizona governor holds cards close on stimulus plans

PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer gets to decide how the state will spend about $1 billion of federal stimulus money, but so far she isn’t showing her hand.

That’s to the frustration of lawmakers who are struggling to craft politically dicey budget-balancing plans designed to close big projected shortfalls in three straight state budgets.

Various factions in the GOP-led Legislature have been pressing the Republican governor for months to spell out where so-called “stabilization” money and other discretional federal cash will be plugged into the budget.

With few exceptions, Brewer has only offered broad strokes, saying she wants to spread stimulus money over budgets for the current fiscal year, the one starting on July 1 and the one after that. And she said recently that some money would be used to backfill recent cuts in university funding.

Projections for each year’s budget shortfalls reach into the billions of dollars, so use of stimulus money is regarded by lawmakers and Brewer alike — not to mention educators and other program advocates — as crucial to helping reduce spending cuts.

Also in play is that most lawmakers are at odds with Brewer over her call for a temporary tax increase to accompany spending cuts and use of stimulus money.

Brewer has yet to submit an application with the federal government that would let legislators know how she’ll use the money. With few exceptions, the stimulus law gives states’ governors, not legislators, the power to direct stimulus spending.

For much of March and April, Brewer and her aides said the stimulus program approved by Congress in February was a complex, moving target difficult to understand, with federal agencies still interpreting provisions on how the money can be used.

But now, Brewer is biding her time as she waits for the nitty-gritty of negotiations with lawmakers, Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said Wednesday.

“She felt it better to utilize it in the negotiations,” Senseman said. “If you file the application and reveal precisely to the dime where you’re going to utilize the funds, then the flexibility is more limited.”

Brewer could wait to file the application until there’s a negotiated agreement and formal action by the Legislature on an overall budget plan or she could make her intentions known sooner, Senseman said.

“We’ll see how discussions go and then she’ll be making a decision when she’s comfortable.”

The $4.2 billion in stimulus cash targeted for Arizona includes two big pots of money that afford the state leeway on how to spend it. There’s roughly $1.6 billion in increased Medicaid funding that can be used to free up state funds for other purposes. And there’s roughly $1 billion of stabilization money, most of which has to go to education.

Tired of waiting for Brewer, House Republicans this week began taking formal action on a 2009-2010 budget proposal that includes assumptions on where stimulus would be used.

Those assumptions include spending nearly $1 billion of stabilization and Medicaid money in the next budget.

It’s not known whether they track Brewer’s desires, acknowledged House Majority Whip Andy Tobin, R-Paulden.

“We’re not going to wait here forever for the governor to decide where she’s going to put things,” Tobin said. “So we had to make some assumptions, and we’re happy to do so. … when the governor is ready to give us her numbers, we’ll be happy to take them and move forward.”

Back in late January, with the then-new governor’s acquiescence, the Legislature decided to spend $500 million of stimulus aid to help close a $1.6 billion shortfall in the current budget.

The new House Republican proposal formally unveiled this week anticipates spending an additional $570 million of stabilization money on K-12 schools and universities to help close a new, growing shortfall in the same budget.

Is Brewer willing to use that much additional stimulus money or even more to keep the current budget in the black?

“That is part of the negotiations obviously,” replied Senseman.

Senseman said there are other options for keeping the current budget balanced, but he declined to identify them during an interview.

“I’m not prepared to discuss those with you,” he told The Associated Press.

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