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Thu, Feb. 27

Arizona Senate seeking end to impasse after House OKs budget

Senate President Karen Fann vowed to forge ahead with parts of the $11.8 billion budget package that she said are “non-controversial.”  (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Senate President Karen Fann vowed to forge ahead with parts of the $11.8 billion budget package that she said are “non-controversial.” (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

PHOENIX – The Arizona Senate returned to work late Saturday morning with no sign that an impasse that has held up the budget for days is close to a resolution.

Still, Senate President Karen Fann vowed to forge ahead with parts of the $11.8 billion budget package that she said are "non-controversial."

The House approved the budget overnight, putting pressure on the deadlocked Senate. At least three majority Republicans in the Senate remain opposed to the package for various reasons, and all said late in the morning that they're standing firm. With a 17-13 GOP majority and no Democratic support, Fann needs to flip at least two of those GOP senators.

Fann vowed to do what work was possible while she works to break the impasse. "Let's try and get something done today," she said.

The holdouts are Sens. Heather Carter, Paul Boyer and J.D. Mesnard. The House-passed budget added cash for several Carter priorities, but she said she's still backing Boyer's push to increase the length of time victims of childhood sexual abuse can sue.

Fann was firm in holding out against a major part of that plan, a "window" that can open decades later that opponents of Boyer's proposal say removes due process protections from innocent people who may be sued.

Mesnard wants changes to the $325 million income tax cut that is part of the package, seeking to have more of that cash go to people paying higher taxes because of the 2017 federal tax overhaul.

"I have offered alternatives, I've been trying to kind of brainstorm, I want to get to a resolution as well," Mesnard said. "I just don't know if there's as much interest from some other people."

House Republicans approved the budget package in party-line votes during a marathon session that ended shortly before 5 a.m. Saturday. They also added last-minute provisions that angered Democrats, including a new requirement for the attorney general to forward to the governor and legislative leaders any complaints about alleged political influence in schools.

"This just seems like a way to threaten, harass teachers," said Democratic Rep. Kelli Butler, who said she worries teachers will face complaints just for wearing red following last year's "red for ed" protests for better wages and more school funding.

The attorney general is already charged with investigating complaints about the misuse of school resources for politics. Butler says automatically forwarding those complaints to the Legislature and governor is worrisome.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs said on Twitter that the overnight changes would decimate her election services budget, "which is crucial for ensuring we have the infrastructure in place to keep our elections secure and fair." The budget directs her to use those dollars to administer next year's presidential primary.

Hobbs is a Democrat elected last year after decades of Republican control of the office.

Fann said she remains optimistic for a breakthrough on the budget despite the GOP infighting that showed no signs of easing Friday night.

The most contentious part of the budget is a plan to cut $325 million in taxes to offset higher revenue the state anticipates from changes in federal law and from collecting more taxes on online sales.

Democrats said the GOP plan sets up a fiscal cliff in the mid-2020s when the federal tax changes expire, but the corresponding state tax cuts do not. Around the same time, Proposition 123 – a 10-year year school-funding plan approved by voters – expires.

"We are setting ourselves up for a fiscally irresponsible, fiscally dangerous situation," Democratic Rep. Randy Friese said.

Republicans objected to calling the changes a tax cut, saying taxes would increase without the changes they advocate. Their plan would lower tax rates, eliminate a tax bracket and raise the standard deduction to lower all voters' taxable income.

"No matter how many times it's said that this is a tax cut, doesn't make it so," said Rep. Ben Toma, a Republican who helped craft the plan. "This is an offset of what would otherwise be a tax increase."

Democrats tried repeatedly to get their priorities added to the budget but were rebuffed in party-line votes. Their proposals included boosting the pot of money school districts use for things like textbooks and desks; boosted school salaries; funded full-day kindergarten programs; provided paid leave to state employees who have a child or adopt one and increased child-care assistance.

The Senate intends to work Saturday and then take Sunday off. Both chambers plan to work Memorial Day.

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