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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Arizona lawmakers approve $18 billion bipartisan budget

PHOENIX ( Associated Press) — The Arizona legislature approved an $18 billion bipartisan spending plan early Thursday that will focus on significant investment in public schools, building new highways and paying off long-term debt.

Legislators in the House and Senate broke out of a months-long stalemate by working all night to pass the budget just before sunrise. Only a handful of dissenters from each party voted against the package of bills, and it was expected to be approved by Republican Governor Doug Ducey.

“This is what our state, where voters are almost evenly divided by party affiliation, has long been asking us to work together,” said Rep. Reginald Balding of Lavin, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives.

The incredible bipartisanship was made possible by an unprecedented surplus of more than $5 billion, enabling a wide range of new spending and savings.

This includes $544 million for border security, about half of it for the wall, and $1 billion for highway construction, including the expansion of Interstate 10 north of the Casa Grande. Civil servants will be promoted, many for the first time in a decade. Hundreds of millions have been earmarked for water infrastructure as the state faces an extended drought.

The budget is also making a $1.1 billion deposit into a pension fund for public safety and corrections officers to pay off the state’s unfunded obligations for future retirement benefits. And another $425 million for a rainy day fund to help the state weather a possible recession.

It also eliminates the state equalization tax, the education property tax, and replaces it with $330 million from the general fund.

The package of budget bills was passed with overwhelming support, which is highly unusual in the modern era.

Republican leaders spent months trying to come up with a spending plan that could find unanimous support in scattered GOP caucuses without relying on Democrats. A tiny majority in both houses meant that opposition from one Republican legislator was enough to sink the budget if the Democrats united in opposition.

Ironically, it was the most conservative legislators in the Legislative Assembly who forced the hands of GOP leaders when they backed down on initial proposals for less spending. Losing support from the right, House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann had to look elsewhere for votes, and they found them across the aisle.

GOP leaders “decided to just take the easy way, the path of least resistance, give up and just spend,” said Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Scottsdale Republican who voted against the budget.

“The budget is not reasonable and does not reflect my conservative values,” Ugenti-Rita said.

Nobody likes a budget after all compromises are made, said Senate Majority Leader Rick Gray, R-Sun City.

“Every budget is bad,” Gray said. “But I’m reassured that we’ve really come together.”

The plan includes some small, targeted tax cuts on farm equipment and private jets, but no massive cuts. Republicans cut their income tax by $1.7 billion last year.

GOP and Democratic Party leaders have agreed to add $526 million in new permanent funding to K-12 schools., a significant increase from the original GOP proposal. Their agreement adds $80 million in combined additional funding to Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, bringing their funding up in line with the extra money already allocated to the University of Arizona.

They also agreed to make technical changes to the formula for distributing money to schools and $4 million each for school testing and expenses for the 2022 election. A proposed extension of the tax credit to subsidize private school education was removed from the mandatory budget, likely dooming it.

Sen. Martin Quesada, a Democrat from Glendale, opposed plans to spend $335 million to build a wall on the southern border, which he says is useless in preventing people from crossing the border.

“It’s really just a joke, smearing immigrants and creating a political point of view,” Quesada said.

But for the Democrats, this may have been the last chance to make an imprint in the state budget for the foreseeable future. Republicans are expected to increase their majority in the 2022 election thanks to new district lines that appear to favor the Republican Party.

World Nation News Desk
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