The Daily Agenda: Legislative pork could make a budget
Everyone gets at least $20 million ... Free the tamales and hot dogs ... And we need Keanu.
One hundred days into the legislative session, an unfamiliar mood has taken hold at the Capitol: optimism.
In recent weeks, Gov. Katie Hobbs has been meeting regularly with House Speaker Ben Toma and Senate President Warren Petersen, either alone or with a skeleton staff, to hammer out the broad strokes of a budget agreement. That’s highly unusual. Generally, the budget is a staff-driven process, and the governor and legislative leaders only meet personally near the end. (Democratic legislative leaders are not in the room for those negotiations, but have their own standing weekly meeting with the governor.)
At the same time, the executive and legislative leaders have settled on a novel framework for earning support among lawmakers: Give anyone who will vote for the budget their own pot of money to spend. For senators, that pot would be around $30 million, and for representatives around $20 million. Lawmakers can pool their money for larger priorities, or they can spend it on their own personal priorities.
This year, Arizona policymakers have between $1.8 billion and $2.2 billion of one-time money to spend. Under the “DIY budgeting” plan, legislative Republicans would get to spend roughly $1 billion, while the other roughly $1 billion would be split between the executive and legislative Democrats for their priorities.
The operating principle is that each side gets to spend the money how they want — assuming it isn’t for abortion services, school vouchers or any other hot-button issue that will cause a revolt on the other side. Even the most conservative Republicans in the Legislature have infrastructure needs in their districts, and those that don’t have big projects are talking about pooling their money to offer a direct rebate for taxpayers since a tax cut isn’t allowed with one-time spending.
The idea appears, at least preliminarily, to be working. Both Hobbs and GOP legislative leaders in recent weeks have signaled that they’re getting closer to an agreement, though what, exactly, that agreement entails has been kept secret from the rank-and-file. No budget documents are floating around the Capitol yet. Clearly, there’s still a lot of work to do.
While DIY budgeting may be a good way to pass a budget, some longtime lobbyists worry that it’s a horrible way to craft a budget. A $20 million chunk of money sounds huge to the average Arizonan, one lobbyist said, but the state has huge infrastructure needs, a water crisis, a housing crisis and hundreds of millions of dollars in debt for recession-era gimmicks like K-12 rollovers.
“How are any big projects that benefit the whole state supposed to move forward if everyone is focused on their own little pet projects?” one longtime lobbyist questioned. “Who’s going to pool their money to pay off a rollover?”
Lawmakers started the year with some big priorities. Besides bills to pay off huge chunks of state debt, Republican lawmakers wanted to widen Interstate 10, provide huge tax cuts and significantly hike teacher pay, to name a few priorities. But finding dozens of lawmakers willing to pool their entire $20-$30 million to achieve any one of those huge goals may prove elusive.
Republican Sen. T.J. Shope, who’s championing the $360 million I-10 expansion project, said he’s hoping the trio of negotiators are thinking bigger and putting those kinds of projects into the budget before considering lawmakers’ individual asks. But even Shope, the president pro tempore of the Senate, said he has no idea what’s going on in that negotiating room.
Another longtime lobbyist agreed that someone at the negotiating table needs to ensure the whole budget doesn’t amount to a bunch of random pet projects. They hoped that’s what House and Senate leaders are fighting about with the governor now, but said the small circle of negotiators has kept the details of their deliberations especially secret this year.
“If they have all gotten together in small groups and coalesced where you get some one-offs and some big priorities, and it's got some coherence to it, then maybe it's okay,” the lobbyist said. “But not if you end up getting a whole bunch of piddly-ass one-time projects that looks like congressional pork.”
Wonder who the supervisors will pick: Legislative District 13 Republicans picked three names to send to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to replace ousted Rep. Liz Harris including … Liz Harris. The meeting was, as you’d expect, chaos. Republicans voted to kick reporters out of the room, despite AZGOP Chair Jeff DeWit’s protestations. Harris’ fanatical supporters swarmed the building and police stepped in. And although Harris was the top vote-getter among her precinct committeemen, the supervisors, who have spent two years fighting the kind of election conspiracies she’s been spreading, will almost certainly not pick her or fellow election denying nominee for the gig, Steve Steele. Instead, Julie Willoughby, a business-backed Republican who lost her bid for the seat last year, is the safe bet to become the district’s new lawmaker. Meanwhile, Democrats in LD26 had no drama at their meeting to nominate three choices for the supervisors to fill Sen. Raquel Terán’s seat as she runs for Congress. The district’s two representatives, Cesar Aguilar and Flavio Bravo, made the cut, as did party activist Quant’a Crews, the Capitol Times’ Camryn Sanchez writes.
Our unending housing crisis: Thousands of affordable housing units in Arizona and other states that were built using a federal low-income housing tax credit have increased rents to market rates thanks to a loophole in federal law called the “qualified contract” provision that allows developers to exit the program early if they can’t find a buyer willing to keep the apartments affordable, the Republic’s Juliette Rihl reports. Meanwhile, evictions in the Valley are on the rise again. The Republic’s Kunle Falayi and Catherine Reagor tell the stories of three people who were evicted after unexpected expenses left them unable to pay rent.
Act now or forever regret it: One-time Interior secretary and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt writes in the New York Times that the federal government needs to play a stronger role in bringing the Colorado River states together to negotiate water cuts instead of wasting critical time while the states engage in “futile discussions.” Otherwise, Arizona and California will continue to clash, making a compromise near-impossible, and potentially end up in a lengthy court battle while the West’s water supply dwindles, Babbitt writes.
Listen to the kids: A student club is hosting a drag show at Tucson High Magnet School later this month, and some people told the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board they’re mad about that, the Arizona Daily Star’s Genesis Lara reports. Meanwhile, hundreds of students at Valley schools walked out on Friday to protest anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and a lack of support for the LBGTQ+ community. And Stephanie Innes reports for the Republic on how students in the East Valley took action to get more help from their schools to respond to and prevent suicides.
We momentarily forgot about Scaramucci: U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego has the fundraising lead on U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as the Democratic representative seeks to unseat the newly independent senator. Gallego brought in $3.74 million in the first quarter this year to Sinema’s $2.1 million. Among Sinema’s donors, now that she’s left the Dems: employees of private investment and equity firms, former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci and the No Labels Problem Solvers PAC (No Labels recently gained ballot status in Arizona), Politico reports.
Re-fund elections: Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes is on the campaign trail, this time to lawmakers and the business community to make the case that this year’s budget should include more money to fund his office, particularly to fund elections better, the Republic’s Mary Jo Pitzl reports. While Gov. Katie Hobbs’ budget includes more for the SOS, Fontes said even that won’t be enough to battle the exodus of elections officials in the counties that the secretary’s office will need money to rectify.
Sue, sue again: Failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake wants the Arizona Supreme Court to reconsider one of her lawsuit’s claims about ballot chain-of-custody after the court dismissed nearly all of her election-loss lawsuit, the Arizona Mirror’s Caitlin Sievers reports. Hobbs and Fontes, the defendants in the case, want the court to make Lake pay sanctions for her repeated false claims in her lawsuit.
“Because Lake’s claim of election tampering has no justification, let alone ‘substantial justification,’ and her continued pursuit of this argument — now including a procedurally improper request for reconsideration of her petition — ‘unreasonably expands or delays the proceeding,’ an award of attorneys’ fees is mandatory,” Hobbs wrote in her filing.
Public vs. private: Republican Rep. Matt Gress wants the Arizona Teachers Academy, which incentivizes students to become teachers in Arizona through paying their tuition at Arizona’s public universities and community colleges, to expand to cover prospective teachers at private colleges like Grand Canyon University and Arizona Christian University, Capitol Media Services’ Howie Fischer reports. Democrats oppose the bill because there’s already more demand than funding for the public program.
Legalize tamales: Fischer also reports on a bill awaiting action from Hobbs that gained bipartisan support in the Legislature to allow the sale of “cottage foods” to the public. That includes the foods like tamales and hot dogs sold on street corners, which are currently technically illegal, unlike baked goods, which were made legal in 2010. These items are commonly sold and laws against them are rarely enforced here.
That’s never stopped a sports arena before: A new study by local think tank Grand Canyon Institute showed that the potential Arizona Coyotes arena and surrounding district in Tempe would be a “net drain” on the city, the Republic’s Sam Kmack reports.
New jail, same problems: Pima County could build a new jail, an idea the county is exploring to account for an anticipated increase in the jail population, the Arizona Luminaria’s John Washington reports. But a new jail likely wouldn’t affect the high number of deaths in the county’s jail, none of which were connected to poor jail infrastructure. A commission is tasked with studying the idea of a new jail for the next six months.
The wrath of Tom: After Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne wrote an op-ed about how critical race theory exists in schools and he just knows it, activist Yvonne So writes that her kids in Arizona schools are getting sanitized versions of lessons on historic events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 for fear of Horne’s wrath.
Since Arizona legalized recreational marijuana in 2020, the state’s medical marijuana program has faltered. The program now has about 125,000 patients, compared to a high point of more than 350,000.
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