Special session unexpectedly extended after Ariz. Senate narrowly rejects bill to cut spending

By Paul Davenport, AP
Friday, November 20, 2009

Arizona Senate disarray extends special session

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature on Thursday unexpectedly extended its special session into a second week after the Senate narrowly rejected a bill to cut funding for schools and social services when majority Republicans came up one vote short.

After a floor session marked by long delays and other signs of disarray among majority Republicans, the Senate adjourned until Monday. The House, which was waiting to vote after the Senate, then also adjourned.

The special session began Tuesday and had been expected to conclude Thursday with passage of Republican bills to trim the state’s projected $2 billion budget shortfall by approximately $452.4 million. That amount includes $292.6 million of cuts of funding for K-12 schools’ equipment purchases and Department of Economic Security social services.

However, Senate Republicans were surprised to learn they had only 15 of the 16 votes they needed to pass the two spending-cut bills. One Republican was away on a cruise and another was expected to vote against the cuts because he considered them a package with another bill’s provisions to let state agencies raise fees.

However, the absence of another senator who also opposed allowing agencies to raise fees caught fellow Republicans off-guard.

Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, later lashed out at the missing senator, Republican Thayer Verschoor of Gilbert, whose absence came a day after the Senate rejected his proposal to drop the fee-increase authorizations.

“This state is in crisis, and it is very disappointing and frankly embarrassing that one member of our caucus did not have the decency to show up,” Burns said in a statement. Verschoor did not respond to a call for comment.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican who also opposes the fee-increase authorizations, said he’d be willing to vote for the spending cuts if the fee authorizations are removed.

The fee authorizations, which are in a bill the Senate approved Thursday, are intended to allow the agencies involved to pay their own way so the cash-short state can redirect dollars now provided for their operations.

Gould and Verschoor contend the authorizations amount to tax increases and skirt the intent of a constitutional requirement that legislative action to increase fees or taxes be by two-thirds votes of each chamber.

“I see that as a de facto tax increase on business,” Gould said.

The Senate’s approval of that bill Thursday means removing the authorizations could pose procedural problems, and Burns and House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, said they didn’t immediately know whether any changes would be made to the bill containing the fee authorizations.

Another option is for the leaders to somehow corral the needed votes for the package as-is.

“It’s extremely important that the entire package get through. It represent nearly 25 percent of a deficit resolution,” Adams said.

Senate Democrats voted for the bill with the fee authorizations, but they opposed the bills to cut spending. They and their House counterparts said reductions are needed but that those cuts should be considered as part of a broader approach.

“Our state’s fiscal crisis is bigger than just cuts,” said House Minority Leader David Lujan, D-Phoenix.

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