Arizona Senate takes up $9.1B spending plan

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Arizona Senate on Thursday gave initial approval to a $9.1 billion spending plan for the coming budget year, and Senate President Andy Biggs said he believes changes adopted by the Senate will get Gov. Jan Brewer and the House of Representatives on board.

A final Senate vote is set for Thursday evening, which would send the budget proposal to the House for action next week.

Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder, however, said no deal had been finalized. And it remained unclear if the House of Representatives was on board.

But Biggs said not only had he added all the items requested by House leaders but that he also made changes to get Brewer to sign off.

"The amendments you saw on the Republican side, many of them were to facilitate the governor feeling comfortable with the budget," Biggs said. "I don't want to speak for her, but we negotiated this out and I am very, very, very, very, very, very optimistic that she's going to sign this."

The Senate budget Biggs rolled out early this week had more than $200 million less spending than Brewer wanted and left out some of her core priorities. Those included money for a new school assessment test, school broadband infrastructure and full funding for overhauling the state's child welfare system.

But Biggs, R-Gilbert, sponsored amendments adopted Thursday allowing an extra $15 million for creating a new child welfare agency, bringing the total to $20 million, just $5 million less than the governor wanted. He's also adding $8 million for the new assessment test opposed by conservatives who don't like the state's new Common Core standards, although $3 million of that will go to maintain the old test.

A host of other smaller changes were also proposed, including more money for adult protective services, community college technical education and state and university building repairs.

Republicans who control the Senate rebuffed numerous amendments proposed by minority Democrats, including more money for the state's child welfare system and implementing the Common Core education standards.

Brewer is seeking $9.36 billion in spending, and Biggs' plan remains about $200 million lower.

But it does restore some funding for county roadbuilding that was cut during a budget crisis five years ago, a key issue for many rural House members. Counties wanted about $100 million a year, but will get $30 million under the proposal.

The Senate budget includes a retroactive ban on public school districts converting schools to charter schools. Districts get more per-student funding for charters. Other changes to school funding include cutting money for Brewer's planned school broadband plan, but Biggs now is including more cash for her school performance funding plan and the student assessment test. That assessment test is designed to replace the old AIMS test and measures how students are learning under new standards known as Common Core.

Democrats said the plan shortchanged children and education.

House Democrats said the budget proposal spent too much in the wrong places. They rolled out a competing proposal Thursday that stood no chance of being adopted.

If a budget is adopted and signed in the next couple of weeks, the Legislature could adjourn by early next month.

The one major outstanding issue is the legal creation of a stand-alone child welfare agency.

Brewer ordered CPS pulled from its parent agency in January and created a Cabinet-level post to oversee it after more than 6,500 uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were revealed in November. A group of lawmakers and others are working with Brewer's staff to write legislation to make that executive order permanent and expect to release it by May 1, although it could come earlier.

Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin said this week that they could adjourn and come back for a special session to pass legislation creating the new department if needed to avoid unnecessarily dragging out the regular session.

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