Arizona Legislature avoids potential shutdown, passes new budget with education and infrastructure investments

Jeremy Beren

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The Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix.Gage Skidmore/Flickr

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Phoenix) — As the sun rose over the Valley on Thursday morning, lawmakers at the Arizona State Capitol were putting the finishing touches on a new budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

With scores of Arizonans fast asleep, legislators ironed out a bipartisan spending plan to cap a marathon session where voting on a number of smaller bills served to piece together the larger budget. The budget's passage early Thursday ensures there will be no government shutdown, a scenario that seemed more and more likely before state lawmakers hunkered down and reached a deal.

June 30 was the deadline to strike a new budget agreement.

"With the FY23 budget, we're ... investing in priorities that Republicans and Democrats alike can agree on," Arizona governor Doug Ducey tweeted in a Thursday morning thread. "It's no wonder this budget passed the Legislature with large bipartisan support."

Initially, Republican legislators in the state Senate and House of Representatives planned to pass a budget without any Democratic votes, and they harbored hopes of doing so as late as last week. Democrats had been warning their GOP colleagues since January not to cut them out of budget negotiations, which did not begin in earnest until Monday morning and gathered steam throughout the day Wednesday.

The sides announced an agreement roughly 45 minutes before midnight on a package exceeding $15 billion.

The budget has been regarded as a compromise, as Republicans lost far-right votes and top Democrats were unable to convince some left-wing lawmakers to approve the spending plan. But the Democratic caucus leadership is pleased its top priority was met.

Arizona's K-12 public schools have been neglected for years — underfunded and overlooked through a stream of policy choices. But the new budget includes substantial permanent funding, to the tune of $526 million, for K-12 schools. An earlier budget proposal allocated around $330 million for this purpose.

An additional $100 million will be directed toward boosting K-12 special education, and the budget includes an initial $50 million in targeted funding for Arizona's low-income students. Another $80 million will be granted to Arizona's universities.

"Our number one priority from the beginning has been public education," House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding said via statement. "We have a rare and historic opportunity to truly make the investments that our public-school students need and deserve ... there are no more excuses to do the right thing for our kids."

Senate Democratic Leader Rebecca Rios told NewsBreak that these negotiations were the first time, since she has been in office, that her party was actively involved in crafting a state budget. She is proud to have helped secure ongoing funding for Arizona's students, seeing as public education has been a party priority for two decades.

"To be able to have negotiated additional permanent funding into the K-12 base was a huge win," Sen. Rios said via phone. "Quite honestly, I was surprised ... we had talked with education groups, we had our bottom line number, and we were actually able to go above and beyond what we thought we would get."

For weeks, lawmakers had been waffling on how best to incorporate the state's gaudy $5 billion surplus into the new budget. While Democrats are happy with the significant resources that will be devoted to education, the budget negotiations also saw the Republicans notch a win at the southern border — a reported $335 million will be committed to building a fence along a 17-mile stretch of Arizona's border with Mexico.

Democratic senator Martín Quezada criticized the fence initiative, telling the Associated Press it is "vilifying immigrants and creating a political point." Rios has issues with the GOP's emphasis on the border, as well, and there is displeasure about the Republicans' unpopular plan to expand private school vouchers.

"At the end of the day, (border security) is a federal issue," she said. "We feel like it is an absurd waste of money to spend state taxpayer dollars to build pieces of a wall that are never going to connect. We would have taken those dollars and invested them more directly into Arizonans' lives."

Elsewhere, the budget devotes $1 billion to transportation improvements, particularly on Arizona's highways and especially in rural areas of the state. These include construction that will widen Interstate 10 passing through Casa Grande, as well as a $19 million project to widen State Route 347 through the city of Maricopa in Pinal County. There is another provision dedicating $15 million toward a possible north-south corridor that would connect Apache Junction with the city of Eloy.

Pinal homeowners also stand to benefit from a property tax elimination, with that money instead coming from the general fund. Another billion dollars will be set aside to address the drought in the area, which is disrupting farmers and ranchers' livelihoods.

"Pinal County has taken Tier 1 water cuts," Rios said. "They're feeling the pinch."

State Senator T.J. Shope, whose Legislative District encompasses much of Pinal County, said prior to the budget's passage that "there's never been a better time to be an Arizonan," highlighting water and roads specifically as key investments.

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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