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Lawmakers’ budget wrangling holds up bills in Legislature

PHOENIX – A logjam of bills on topics ranging from abortion to transportation has built up as the Arizona Legislature slogs through one of its most unusual sessions.

And there could be splinters aplenty when the logjam eventually breaks – whenever that is.

Trying to solve a state budget crisis has had lawmakers tied up in knots for months, and that work is incomplete.

The focus on that paramount problem has been both natural – the size of Arizona’s $3 billion shortfall is one of the biggest in the nation proportionally to the overall size of the state budget – and forced.

Insisting that lawmakers approve the budget first, Senate President Bob Burns placed an embargo on formal consideration of nonbudget bills when the session started in January. That has placed roughly 500 Senate bills in limbo, not even being assigned to committees, let alone being considered by committees or the full Senate.

Burns, R-Peoria, has said the Senate can start considering bills once the Legislature passes the budget.

Meanwhile, the House has been considering nonbudget bills throughout the session, but at an unmistakably slower place than usual.

While hundreds of bills cleared committees, it wasn’t until Wednesday that the House took the first formal votes on nonbudget bills other than a sweeping abortion measure approved earlier this spring.

Bills that went to the Senate on Wednesday – to sit for now, with no action expected for weeks – included measures on health insurance, students’ religious liberties and concealed weapons permits.

That was one day after the House Appropriations Committee endorsed a Republican budget-balancing plan.

“We think the time has come to start moving Arizona’s business forward and that’s what we’re going to do,” said House Majority Whip Andy Tobin, R-Paulden.

But now the House Republicans’ budget proposal and those of others are the subject of negotiations between legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. It’s not known when they’ll bear fruit, but the effective deadline is June 30, the last day of the current fiscal year.

So what will happen when the budget is approved?

“I don’t know,” because it largely depends on timing, said Sen. John Huppenthal, a Chandler Republican who has served in the Legislature since 1993. “We could get this thing moving in a week or we could be here until July.”

However, he and other lawmakers say there will have to be a dramatic winnowing of the number of bills once they can be considered.

Some measures likely to make the cut will be those that could implement goals set by the “majority program” that each chamber’s Republican majority set for the session.

Those topics include property taxes, speed cameras, abortion, school choice, regulatory reform, government privatization, health coverage, selection of judges, toll roads and the initiative process.

Other bills moving through the process deal with such high-profile topics as foreclosures, day laborers and fireworks.

However, seemingly humdrum housekeeping bills intended to keep the state government going shouldn’t be ignored, according to several Senate committee chairmen contacted by The Associated Press.

Sen. John Nelson, R-Litchfield Park, said he’s assembling a transportation bill “that has to go because it’s conforming legislation.” For example, one provision would change Arizona law to track federal requirements on commercial driver licenses, Nelson said.

Without it, “everybody that’s driving a commercial vehicle – you can’t get a license,” he said.

Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, said she’ll be pushing a bill to bring the state into compliance with a federal law on foster and adoptive parents.

“Unless we get an extended waiver it would cost the state $148 million if we don’t approve,” the Glendale Republican said in an e-mail.

There could be only a few weeks – instead of months normally – to consider nonbudget bills.

Therefore, supporters of legislation better have it polished and ready to go, said Huppenthal, the Senate’s education committee chairman.

Huppenthal said he has met weekly all session with “stakeholder” groups to wrap numerous proposals into one sweeping education bill that all the groups can support.

“They’ve ground them down and . . . each one of them has things in there that they support,” Huppenthal said.

“I’m not so sure that the (other) members have been polishing their bills.”

Once the logjam breaks, there easily could be unrealistic expectations, tit-for-tat gamesmanship and House vs. Senate misunderstandings if there’s a mad rush to push bills through amid the necessity to prioritize them, said Nelson, a legislator since 2001.

“Leadership is going to have to pull out the important bills that have to go regardless as to whose they are, so that’s going to set up some frustration and then we start saying we’re playing favorites and that kind of stuff,” Nelson said.

“We get down to the first- or second-grade level.”


Will legislators still be around in June?

There’s no legal barrier to prevent lawmakers from continuing other legislative work once they’ve approved a new state budget before the fiscal year starts July 1.

But practicalities could be a problem for the part-time Legislature.

There’s always a falloff in legislative attendance as sessions slip into June, with lawmakers coming and going for other jobs, family commitments, and even previously planned vacations and conferences.

If enough House and Senate members aren’t on hand, that could make it impossible to pass legislation. That’s because bills must be passed by majorities of each chamber, not just of those lawmakers on hand for a vote.

The Arizona Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights group lobbying for passage of several bills, recently urged its supporters to implore lawmakers to stick around even after a budget is passed. “All it takes is a few legislators to leave and the session is effectively over.”

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