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Republicans in the Arizona House of Representatives moved forward on the budget without their Senate colleagues, working into the early morning hours of Friday in the hope of spurring the legislature’s upper chamber into action.
The House recessed shortly after 2 a.m. after four hours of work, which saw lawmakers pass three budget bills and several other pieces of legislation. The House and Senate are both expected to reconvene at 10 a.m. Friday.
But while the House may forge ahead with the remaining seven bills for the proposed $11.9 billion budget agreement reached by GOP legislative leadership and Gov. Doug Ducey, the Senate seems unlikely to follow suit.
Three Senate Republicans were still withholding their votes on the budget as of Thursday evening, and nothing suggested that they’d changed positions.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, has refused to vote for the budget until he gets a vote on legislation to expand the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers and organizations that allowed the abuse to continue. Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, has stood with Boyer in demanding the vote.
And Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, has refused to vote for the budget until a provision conforming Arizona’s income tax code to the 2017 federal tax overhaul is amended. He wants the tax brackets in the current plan changed to minimize the increase that wealthier filers will incur due to the elimination of several itemized deductions.
On Thursday, Senate President Karen Fann warned senators and staffers that she was hopeful the chamber could finish the budget on Friday. But if that isn’t the case, Fann said they should be prepared to work on Saturday and Monday, despite the Memorial Day holiday.
House Speaker Pro Tem T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, described his chamber’s decision to move forward as “gentle encouragement” to the Senate. He noted that all three budgets bills passed on a 31-29 vote, which means they had the support of every Republican in the chamber, despite concerns that some House Republicans would hold out.
“I think that, in and of itself, sends a message that we are a unified caucus on this issue, and we hope that the Senate can go ahead and unify themselves and join us on this road to shutting this thing down,” Shope said.
Shope said the House “made a good dent” in the budget bills. But given the amount of work left to do – he estimated that the main spending bill and K-12 education bill would take up five to six hours of time – it seemed like a good place to stop after passing three bills from the budget.
Republicans hold a 17-13 advantage in the Senate, and can only afford to lose a single vote on the budget. Shope expressed optimism that Senate Republicans would muster the votes they need to pass the budget on Friday, but acknowledged that Boyer, Carter and Mesnard’s issues hadn’t yet been resolved.
Boyer and Shope have reached a tentative plan for compromise legislation to expand the statute of limitations to sue over childhood sexual abuse. But Shope said there was still no “grand bargain kind of deal” on the issue, and it is not clear if the compromise bill be brought before the full House for a vote.
And there has been no agreement to modify the tax conformity plan that Mesnard opposes, Shope said. He said he hopes to win Mesnard’s support for the current plan.
“I think what we have come up with is a very good plan and it’s something that I feel like he could vote for,” he said.
Thursday evening, two House Republicans were overheard threatening retaliation against Boyer and Carter while they accidentally spoke into a hot microphone during a caucus meeting. Reps. Ben Toma and Kelly Townsend discussed blocking Boyer and Carter’s bills in committee next year as reprisal for their budget ultimatums.
There could still be hiccups in the House, as well. Rep. Kelly Townsend, a Mesa Republican, said earlier in the week that she wouldn’t vote for the K-12 education portion of the budget unless lawmakers passed a stalled proposal of hers to fine school districts for teachers’ politicking in the classroom.
The House stopped debating budget bills early Friday morning before it got to that K-12 bill.
Another Senate holdout, Scottsdale Republican Michelle Ugenti-Rita, agreed to support the budget deal crafted by GOP legislative leadership and Gov. Doug Ducey after she secured an agreement to eliminate a $32 vehicle license fee imposed by the Arizona Department of Transportation. The original budget deal called for it to be phased out over five years, but it will now end after two.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said the fee, which was initially estimated to be $18 per vehicle, was “poorly received by the public,” and lauded the two-year phase-out.
Rep. Noel Campbell, who was one of the few Republican lawmakers to support the imposition of the fee last year, said there was a good reason for the fee, and expressed regret that it’s being eliminated.
“Be that as it may… I do support the bill. But I just wanted to raise my – I wouldn’t say objection, but I would say concern,” said Campbell, a Prescott Republican.
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