By Terri Jo Neff
In its longest workday of the session, some legislators debated various budget bills late into the evening after 11 bills cleared the Appropriation Committee in each chamber earlier in the day.
At stake is how to divvy up Arizona’s forecasted budget surplus of $1.5 to $2 billion while transitioning the state to a flat rate income tax and fine-tuning a $12.8 billion budget spending plan released Monday without tweaking it too much.
Many House Representatives believe the budget will be voted on no later than Friday afternoon, allowing lawmakers to leave for the long Memorial Day weekend. But as of Tuesday night, the 16 Republican Senators appeared nowhere near being on the same page, which is critical as all their votes are needed to pass the budget unless a few Democrats can be enticed to cross the aisle.
Masks in public schools turned out to be a divisive issue for many legislators after it was revealed that wording in the Education budget bill would allow schools to have the final say on wearing of masks. That led to a pushback from Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita as well as a sharply worded rebuke from Rep. Joseph Chaplik on Twitter.
“This is completely unacceptable and will not get my vote. In fact, I will not agree to any budget that doesn’t strip the power for mask mandates from school districts. Enough is enough,” Chaplik tweeted.
After much debate it appears as of press time that the mask language will be dropped.
Another highly debated issue involved what role the legislature should have in regulating vaccine passports, which some lawmakers refer to as “show me your medical records.” There has been a split among legislators on where, when, and why the vaccine passports could be allowed.
Currently Gov. Doug Ducey has an executive order in place which prohibits proof of COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition to enter state and local government buildings or to receive public benefits. His order also bans private businesses which conduct services on behalf of state and local governments from implementing a vaccine passport policy.
However, the question of whether universities, retail businesses, transportation companies, and large social venues can set some threshold of vaccination documentation remains unsettled. As is whether the legislature should weigh in on private employers demanding employees to be vaccinated to keep their jobs.
Other debated spending in the budget bill includes unemployment tax payments, low-income housing credits, and an increase in impounded vehicle fees, all of which would impact lower- and middle-income Arizonans the most.
Meanwhile, other legislators are concerned about the state’s long-term fiscal health and want to see Arizona’s debt addressed with some of the existing budget surplus, along with increasing the Rainy Day Fund and upping funding for the state’s universities. And rural lawmakers continue to push for increases in legislative per diems, which have not been adjusted in years.
One large ticket item already in the bill is $50 million toward the cost of widening a dangerous section of Interstate 10 between Casa Grande and Chandler. That funding was necessary to ensure an “aye” vote from Sen. TJ Shope.
Rep. Jake Hoffman said Tuesday he supports the budget’s flat tax proposal, but was still a no vote until much “unnecessary” spending was dumped. And while the idea of a flat tax is popular with Republicans, there still is not much consensus on the details.
There were also talk of Sen. Kelly Townsend seeing her long-sought election bills accounted for in some manner within the budget, in order to guarantee her vote. Instead, a multi-item amendment has been introduced to Townsend’s SB1241, meaning the bill will be address separate of the budget.
Republicans have only a two-vote majority in each chamber, giving each of the caucus’s 16 Senators and 31 Representatives an above average amount of leverage in budget negotiations. It is unclear whether sufficient Democrat-friendly priorities have been included in the budget bills to attract a few votes from the blue side in the event Republicans like Hoffman and Chaplik don’t come onboard.