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3:51 AM Tue, Dec. 18th

Legislators eye traffic woes

Transportation issues will be key in 2007 regular session that opens today

PHOENIX - Road work ahead.

Arizona legislators report today for their 2007 regular session, and it's already apparent there's widespread support for pumping a major infusion of cash into the state's road-building program.

That particularly applies in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas, where clogged freeways are a rush-hour norm, but also to other parts of the state.

Aside from that priority, seen as both a pressing need for the state and one popular with many voters, lawmakers are likely to again tackle the difficult and divisive issue of illegal immigration and border security and a variety of proposals on education and crime.

Looming over the session is the possibility that a federal judge once again will order lawmakers to act to improve public school programs for approximately 160,000 students learning the English language.

Republicans retain control of both the House and the Senate, although with reduced majorities as a result of Democratic gains on Nov. 7.

Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, herself a big re-election winner, will unveil her legislative wish-list today during her annual State of the State address. It's her fifth since becoming governor in 2003. She previously said she wants lawmakers to act on transportation, water, growth planning, math and science education, university financial aid and health care.

While Napolitano's address will describe her desires in broad stripes, more details will be included in the 2007-2008 budget proposal she releases Friday.

The compromise budget negotiated by lawmakers and Napolitano last spring for the current fiscal year included $345 million to accelerate highway programs, but squeezing that kind of spending out of the next $10 billion state budget will be a tough nut to crack because revenue growth has slowed significantly in the last two fiscal years.

A leading lawmaker, Senate Appropriations Chairman Bob Burns, has prefiled a bill to transfer $450 million from the state's Budget Stabilization Fund, a rainy day reserve kept for economic hard times, to use for highway construction. "Today it is raining people and cars, and this is a wise use of taxpayer's dollars," Burns said.

Other suggestions for paying for transportation improvements include refinancing existing debt to allow more borrowing and building toll roads. While many Republican lawmakers appear centered on highway construction, Napolitano told Arizona mayors on Dec. 12 that she wants improvements in both highway construction and mass transit. "We need to give ourselves transportation options," she said. "To me sitting in traffic is a time tax."

The state's leading business lobby, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, hasn't taken a position on any particular financing option but welcomes the developing consensus and the fact that serious money is being discussed, said spokesman Farrell Quinlan. "Arizona freeway systems, especially in Maricopa and Pima counties, are choked, and it's hard for economic development organizations to go out and sell Arizona as a place to bring new jobs and to put big investment here, because they're concerned about our inability to move their workers from home to work," Quinlan said. "We always seem to be behind the curve when it comes to growth, and hopefully, we can get ahead of it."

Illegal immigration and border security were major sources of debate among lawmakers during the 2006 session and likely will receive serious attention in 2007, lawmakers said.

Napolitano vetoed several Republican-sponsored immigration measures in 2006 and has said she and other governors will urge the new Democratic-led Congress to approve a comprehensive federal package this year. However, Republicans said Arizona voters' approval of four immigration-related ballot measures in November indicate that Napolitano shouldn't try to block similar efforts by the Legislature in 2007.

"Yes, it is a federal responsibility, but that doesn't negate the state's responsibility to do what it can, and this governor is part of the state and I think that she should probably be more conciliatory towards those kinds of issues," said Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa.

New or returning proposals could surface to impose sanctions against employers and landlords who hire or house illegal immigrants, make illegal immigrants' presence in Arizona a state crime and punish cities that refuse to have their police help enforce immigration laws.

Senate President-elect Tim Bee, R-Tucson, said the most discussion so far has centered on employer sanctions.

But he said he wants his Senate colleagues to have more information on the effects of steps taken so far and likely federal action before a legislative course is set.

Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said he and fellow lawmakers have to keep an eye on Tucson, where a federal judge is considering whether to order the state to do more to improve English Language Learning programs.