‘Skinny’ budget with COVID-19 aid passes after weekend delay

By: - March 23, 2020 2:42 pm

Photo by CafeCredit | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The Arizona House of Representatives passed a so-called “skinny budget” that includes a $50 million aid package to assist victims of COVID-19 and others harmed by the pandemic. 

The $50 million can be used for food banks, housing assistance and economic assistance to healthcare providers. 

The legislature had aimed to pass a baseline budget by the end of last week, but the plan stalled in the House on Thursday after clearing the state Senate with bipartisan support. The spending plan is intended to fund state government at current levels before the legislature stops working due to the coronavirus, with the hopes that they will come back at a later date to approve a more robust budget. 

The House adjourned Monday and is set to reconvene April 13. However, lawmakers granted the leaders of each legislative chamber the power to move that date, if needed.

Eighteen members of the House voted by electronic means Monday as Arizona’s cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, has risen from roughly 40 cases when the House finished its work on Thursday to more than 200. Since then, two people have died from COVID-19

“Our votes for the budget, well, they’re here today,” Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said while voting yes on the budget, alluding to party-line votes on budget measures last week after Republicans rejected numerous Democratic amendments, most of which were aimed at addressing COVID-19.  

Last week, Democratic members attempted to add amendments to the budget bills to include spending for coronavirus relief, but Republicans blocked them all. At the start of Monday’s session, House Democrats began to do the same. 

“This is the very antics I was worried about that would cause problems for Arizona,” House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said when floor amendments to the budget began to be proposed, adding that the amendments would “blow up the budget process.” 

“If our proceedings were done here in a more collaborative way, then maybe myself and others here would have a greater sense of trust,” Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said. “But I guess without that precedent, then shenanigans must ensue.”

However, Democrats soon stopped offering amendments, and the measures quickly advanced to final votes. 

“All this could have been done on Thursday,” Fernandez said, vowing to continue to fight for policies outlined in the floor amendments later down the road. “So, let’s move on and let’s vote this budget out.”

The Democratic floor amendments included allowing the attorney general to go after price gouging during the COVID-19 crisis, eviction and foreclosure protection during the pandemic and additional money for unemployment benefits. 

Another amendment also sought funds for researching the connections between cancer and firefighters. 

“This is an emergency response, this is a short-term response,” Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Tucson, said, adding that the federal government is doing more to help and it is more fiscally responsible for Arizona to take incremental approaches to relief. “They’re the ones with the money-printing machine, we are not.”

With the baseline budget now passed, legislators have been asked to return home and “do their part to help flatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic,” House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said. 

By leaving the annual legislative session ongoing, Republican leaders ensured that the hundreds of GOP-backed policy proposals weren’t killed off en masse, as would have happened if the legislature ended its session. Instead when lawmakers return, they can take the proposals up again.

“At this time, it is our hope to reconvene at the Capitol at the appropriate time to resume the legislative session, taking up consideration of additional budget items and pending legislation,” Bowers said. 

The main budget bill with the $50 million in aid passed 59-to-1 with Petersen being the sole no vote. He did not explain his vote.

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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.