May 25, 2004
The Arizona Senate voted Monday to send a $7.36 billion budget package to Gov. Janet Napolitano, further raising hopes the Legislature will wrap up its business this week.
But the Senate must first decide whether to confirm the appointment of state prisons director Dora Schriro.
More than two-thirds of the Senate voted for a budget plan that would spend about $28 million more than an earlier version that resulted from bipartisan negotiations. Some Republican senators said they weren’t happy about the additional spending, or that the House approved the plan last week over the objections of its GOP leaders.
But further talks between the Senate and House wouldn’t help, leaders agreed.
"It only gets worse," said Senate President Pro Tem Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale. "Every time we have taken a budget to conference committee, we have added more to the bottom line."
Monday’s swift passage represented an important victory for Napolitano, who avoided direct negotiations with the Legislature but still obtained nearly all of her spending priorities. On Monday, the governor was in Tucson, and a spokeswoman said Napolitano plans to review the bills closely before endorsing them.
"But it’s exciting to see there is progress," said Napolitano spokeswoman Pati Urias.
The budget plan would be the most expensive in state history, exceeding $7 billion in the General Fund for the first time. Overall spending would grow by about 9 percent, and most state employees would receive an annual pay raise of $1,000. The package includes $25 million to fund all-day kindergarten in the state’s poorest schools, with a pledge to extend funding statewide by fall 2009.
Republican conservatives who hold top leadership positions had wanted to scale back Napolitano’s budget requests because permanent spending would exceed tax revenue by an estimated $284 million. But moderate Republicans in both chambers united with Democrats to avoid budget cuts to higher education, child protection and general welfare programs.
The package would balance the budget without raising taxes, in part by using $118 million in vehicle license fees that normally support highway construction and maintenance.
The Arizona Department of Transportation has been holding on to that money as part of a budget agreement reached last year between Napolitano and the Legislature.
With the budget passed, a confirmation vote on Schriro as director of the state Department of Corrections appeared to be the only major remaining obstacle to ending the 2004 regular session.
Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, had been delaying any vote while awaiting the outcome of a grand jury investigation into the January hostage standoff at the Lewis state prison unit near Buckeye. But state officials don’t know if the grand jury’s report will be made public, and Schriro must be confirmed by June 12 to keep her post.
Bennett announced late Monday that the Senate Government Committee will hold a hearing at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. A full Senate vote could take place that day.