A HUNDRED MILLION HERE, A HUNDRED MILLION THERE ...
Arizona got one step closer to a budget last week, when the House Appropriations Committee approved a Republican spending proposal on a party-line vote.
Some of the Republicans who supported the budget—we're looking your way, Rep. Vic Williams—say they want to see significant changes before a final vote, and that they let this turd out of committee to get the budget ball rolling.
We've talked about some of the problems with the budget in recent weeks. There's the grab of $210 million in impact fees that have been collected by the cities, which is a legal challenge waiting to happen, because the fees were collected for a specific purpose: building infrastructure for new development. We don't understand how you bait-and-switch your way out of that commitment.
There's the grab of $255 million from school districts, which may or may not be available. Republican leaders seem to think the money is there for the taking; school-district leaders and legislative Democrats say lawmakers don't understand accounting procedures and how districts use that money.
And there's a $55 million grab from counties, which is probably legal, but it just means that counties will have to raise local taxes to make up for it.
Even more problems are on the horizon. Last week, lawmakers got a letter from the staff of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System warning that the health-care program has grown by 11 percent in the last year and added 49,000 new clients in the last two months alone. Thomas Betlach of AHCCCS estimates that the program will need an extra $250 million to cover increasing costs next year.
And the most recent estimate for the current fiscal year—the one that ends on June 30—suggests that the state is looking at a shortfall of $300 million, even after that brutal budget fix they passed in January.
So we've got about $465 million in questionable financial maneuvers and $550 million in unpaid bills, which would add up to another billion-dollar shortfall.
We hear that even if this leaky budget can pass the House (and that remains to be seen), it may face even more trouble in the Senate, because the conservatives in that chamber—Russell Pearce, Ron Gould, Jack Harper, et al—want to see even deeper cuts.
Meanwhile, nobody seems to know what Gov. Jan Brewer wants, beyond the vague five-point plan she unveiled earlier that included a temporary billion-dollar tax hike.
Our spies tell us that Brewer has finally begun serious talks with House and Senate leaders and has told them that she has a secret budget that she's considering unveiling. WTF? If she has a spending plan, why doesn't she share it with anyone? Is she just hoping that lawmakers will somehow get lucky and guess what she wants? Is this some kind of crazy game show?
Brewer stepped off message briefly last week and told Capitol Media Services' Howie Fischer that she might be willing to sign a budget that didn't include a tax increase.
The next day, Brewer was all: Takebacks! She dropped a prepared statement insisting that she was still standing behind all five points of her five-point plan.
"Now, more than ever, dramatic steps are necessary to protect our education system, sustain our critical public safety needs and protect our state's most vulnerable," Brewer press-released. "Now, more than ever, all five points of my plan are necessary to get the job done, and to return the state of Arizona back to a path of prosperity."
Unfortunately for Brewer, Republicans are still refusing to even consider a tax increase, which puts them at loggerheads. GOP leaders hope they can put together enough gimmicks to get a budget passed, while Brewer hopes to cobble together enough lawmakers to pass a tax hike.
Who blinks first? Our money is on a government shutdown on July 1. And with Republicans in control of the Legislature and the governor's office, the GOP will have to take all the blame.
As we've noted before, Senate President Bob Burns has put a halt to consideration of other legislation until the lawmakers sort out the budget.
But the House of Representatives did move one bill closer to passage last week: House Bill 2474, which would forbid property owners from banning people from keeping guns in their cars while parked outside of their businesses, got the support of the GOP caucus on a voice vote.
The bill is opposed by the Phoenix Police Department, a bunch of chambers of commerce around the state and other organizations, but it's supported by the National Rifle Association.
Democrats pounced on a statement by the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Kavanagh, who compared guns to African Americans, saying: "The owner of a private business can't say, 'I don't like blacks; therefore, the Civil Rights Act does not apply in my business; no blacks can come in."
BIG FAT ZERO
It doesn't seem to matter whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama is in the White House: When they look for savings, they always seem to target the SCAAP program, which provides federal dollars to cover the cost of housing foreign nationals in our prisons.
It's bad enough that the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program has never provided enough funding to cover the cost of arresting and jailing criminal aliens. But last week, Obama's proposed budget zeroed out SCAAP funding, which would be a big hit to both the state of Arizona and Pima County.
Back when she was governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano sent regular bills to the Bush administration asking for hundreds of millions of dollars to cover prison costs. Wonder if she'll put in a good word for us now that she's heading up homeland security.
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords dusted off her annual complaint that the White House is wrong to zero out the funds.
"As Arizonans, we know the tremendous financial toll illegal immigration is taking on our state and local law-enforcement agencies," Giffords press-released. "As long as sheriff's offices in Pima, Cochise and other Arizona counties are doing the federal government's job of securing our border, they must get compensated for it. That is the fair thing to do."
Obama's budget also zeroes out funding for more border-wall construction, which makes sense to us. Walls in urban areas make sense, but along most of the border, it's just a symbolic waste of money that's designed to make Americans think the government is doing something to secure the border.
However, the feds are moving forward with Virtual Wall 2.0, with The Associated Press reporting that federal officials are estimating that the towers, sensors and technology will cost about $6.7 billion. Given that the first version of the virtual wall was a bust, we sure hope this one works a little better.
Want to meet the new police chief? Roberto Villaseñor will be joining Tucson City Councilman Rodney Glassman at Woody's for a big, gay karaoke party.
Glassman first discovered Woody's karaoke night during an evening out with state lawmaker Matt Heinz. He says he thought having Villaseñor at the event would help build trust between the cops and the LGBT community, especially since Woody's has had recent trouble getting hassled by The Man.
The party starts at 9 p.m., Monday, May 18, at Woody's, 3710 N. Oracle Road. Glassman promises a swinging cover of "Copacabana."