Arizona Senate passes $9.2 billion spending plan

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Arizona Senate gave final approval to a $9.2 billion spending plan for the coming budget year late Thursday, potentially setting the stage for an early close to the Legislature's 2014 session.

Senate President Andy Biggs said he believes the changes adopted by the Senate will get Gov. Jan Brewer and the House of Representatives on board. Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said, however, that no deal had been finalized.

Brewer's chief of staff, Scott Smith, said there was still one major sticking point and several smaller ones keeping her from fully supporting the plan.

"I think what they have put together reflects the vast majority of our priorities," Smith said. "However, there are still some outstanding and we are working to get them addressed."

"But we're very, very close," he added.

Smith declined to detail the governor's concerns. But budgets contain not only spending details but some policy law as well, so the sticking points may not be financial.

It also remained unclear if leaders in the House of Representatives fully supported the plan.

But Biggs said not only had he added all the items requested by House leaders, but 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 budget was written by Republicans who control the Senate, without Democratic input.

"Unfortunately this budget falls way, way short of what the state can do to help families to help kids," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix.

The package of nine bills passed on 16-13 party line votes and now heads to the House, which could begin action on the plan Monday.

Biggs, R-Gilbert, sponsored amendments adopted Thursday allowing an extra $15 million to create a new child welfare agency, bringing the total to $20 million - just $5 million less than the governor wanted. He also added $8 million for a new student 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.

Democrats tried to add more than $30 million in additional child care subsidies for low-income Arizonans so someone can take care of their children while they're at work, and for in-home preventative services. They also wanted full funding for new child-welfare workers that Brewer requested, but Biggs said his plan provided more than 200 new workers.

"We do not give the support needed for single-mom families, for single-dad families, to do what they need," said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. "If we can spend money to keep a kid safe, we will not be spending money in the future."

But Biggs pushed back on the amendments by Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, saying there's no proof child care subsidies prevent neglect.

"This discounts the case that there are families and charitable institutions and churches that step into the breach," Biggs said.

Democrats and Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, also wanted more money for the University of Arizona, but that was rejected. Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, wanted an extra $1.5 million for subsidies for adults caring for their grandchildren. That effort also was thwarted.

Brewer is seeking $9.36 billion in spending, and Biggs' revised plan remains about $175 million less than that. But it does restore some funding for county and city road-building that was cut during a budget crisis five years ago, a key issue for many rural House members. They wanted $120 million a year, but they 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 the Common Core.

Democrats said the plan shortchanged children and education.

"We all knew that coming into the session the two critical issues were CPS and education," said Sen. Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson, the minority leader. "And those two issues have not been addressed in this budget."

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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