Senate ‘skinny’ budget with coronavirus relief stalls in House

By: and - March 19, 2020 9:57 pm

Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

The Arizona Senate passed a so-called “skinny budget” that includes a $50 million aid package to assist victims of the coronavirus and others harmed by the pandemic, but the House ended its work for the week before voting on a handful of the bills, leaving a bipartisan Senate budget deal in limbo. 

The legislature had aimed to pass a baseline budget by the end of the week. The spending plan was intended to fund state government at current levels before the legislature stopped working due to the coronavirus, with the hopes that they would come back at a later date to approve a more robust budget. 

Lawmakers will reconvene next week even as public health officials advise against gatherings of over 10 people to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. 

Senate President Karen Fann thanked members for putting aside their proposals they had worked to get through the finish line and instead working together on a “skinny budget.”

“That’s what the Senate does. We are going to show leadership, we are going to show that this is what our elected officials do: We step up to the plate, we get done what needs to get done,” Fann said. 

She said she expects lawmakers to take a hiatus after passing legislation to keep state agencies nimble through the response to COVID-19.

“Our hopes and our prayers are that we can get over this crisis very, very quickly and we can come back and figure out exactly where we are at, where our finances are at,” Fann said. “I’m really hoping we can come back, and do a supplemental budget and we can start finding all those things that we were not able to do with this skinny budget, because quite honestly this thing was addressing just the emergencies.”

Fann praised the Democratic caucus that mostly rallied behind 14 out of 15 budget bills approved by the Senate on Thursday. 

“Rs and Ds alike, you guys were amazing, this was probably a first at least for a lot of decades,” she said.

Things were not as productive in the House. 

House Democrats attempted to amend the budget bills to include spending for coronavirus relief, but Republicans blocked them all. 

At one point, Republicans errantly supported an amendment by Democratic Rep. Arlando Teller to add $40 million to the Housing Trust Fund for eviction protection and rental assistance, but Republicans subsequently stripped it out of the bill. 

“We had 20 beautiful, blissful minutes of us working together,” Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Paradise Valley, quipped. “Sad to see us return to our partisan ways.” 

Members of the House GOP said they were opposed to the amendment as the Department of Housing already is getting $11.8 million in federal funds for eviction assistance and has rental assistance programs. 

“I think it’s responsible to keep our resources,” Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa, said, adding that those dollars could be used for medical assistance later down the road. 

Other changes proposed by Democratic lawmakers included an amendment that would have specified that schools are not required to extend the number of school days to meet school finance calculations. It would have also prevented schools from requiring employees from using sick or vacation time during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Another rejected amendment would have given the Arizona Department of Economic Security $5 million for hunger prevention services and another $5 million for food bank storage and distribution costs during the COVID19 crisis. 

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said the amendment “pales in comparison to what the federal government is already doing.” 

“That’s what we do when it’s raining, we go into our state coffers and say, we can take care of you,” the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Andres Cano, D-Tucson, told his colleagues, urging them to vote yes. 

Republicans also voted down an additional $474,200 for the Department of Veteran’s services to hire more counselors for homeless veterans. 

“The things that have been going on in our state and our nation are certainly things we want to address,” Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear, said, adding that lawmakers had already given $55 million to the Arizona Department of Health Services to respond to the coronavirus. 

She also pointed to the state’s $1 billion rainy day fund as proof that Arizona is ready to respond in the future. 

“Every single amendment that was rejected today would’ve brought immediate relief to Arizona,” Lieberman contested. “The cases in Arizona have nearly doubled while we have been in this chamber debating a budget that starts in July.”

After voting on one of the Senate budget bills, the House abruptly voted to adjourn and reconvene Monday morning. 

Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, wrote on Twitter that the House adjourned early because House Democrats were “giving long winded partisan speeches, asking each other pointless questions and attempting to amend budget bills with unrealistic proposals!” 

What happens after the budget is resolved remains to be seen. While some, mostly Democrats, have said the legislature should end its annual session and go into a special session to address the coronavirus crisis, many Republicans have objected to the idea of adjourning the session because it would mean all other bills would be dead.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.