More Arizonans could gain access to health care, drivers might want to save their spare change to pay for toll roads and students could find themselves in class another hour studying more math and science after lawmakers finish the 2007 legislative session.
Health care, education and growth-related issues such as road construction will dominate the state legislative agenda when lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday.
That marks a sharp difference from last year when stemming the flow of illegal immigration was the single issue overshadowing nearly everything else.
Likewise, when the 48th Arizona Legislature opens for business, lawmakers will find less money in state coffers to accomplish the goals it sets.
Although Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Republican-led Legislature brawled over a host of issues last year, a near record $1 billion surplus gave everyone a piece of what they wanted.
For Republicans, it was a $500 million in tax cuts and school vouchers for private schools — the first time in the state’s history the Legislature voted to allow public money for private schools.
For Napolitano and Democrats, it was more money for teacher pay raises and the expansion of voluntary full-day kindergarten programs.
The excess cash also paid for state employee pay raises and about $343 million to jump start roadway construction.
But all that looks to change this year as economic forecasters predict weaker revenue streams. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee is projecting General Fund revenue to grow by 4.8 percent in fi scal year 2007-08, which begins July 1.
That’s markedly less than prior years. General Fund revenue increased by 20 percent in fi scal year 2005-06. During the current fi scal year, it grew by about 10 percent, according to estimates.
“There’s never a year when the tone of the Legislature is not shaped by the budget,” said Stan Barns, a lobbyist and former state lawmaker. “This year is no different. It’s not a year of crises, but it is a year where lawmakers will have to be frugal.”
Less cash often leads to less squabbling. Barns believes there will be more cooperation between the governor and the GOP-led Legislature because there’s less money and because of Napolitano’s commanding election victory in November.
“The governor has the most political capital she’s ever had, and that changes how the Legislature works with her,” Barns said.
By most appearances, that’s what’s happening. Both the Legislature and the governor agree the most pressing issue facing the state this year is the ongoing population explosion. Now, they have to fi gure out how to prepare for it.
Last month, Arizona regained the title of fastest growing state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And much of what lawmakers want to accomplish this year revolves around solving growth problems.
Napolitano made growth the cornerstone of her re-election campaign last fall. She promised to lay the foundation for the state as it is expected to more than double in size over the next two decades.
The governor said she’s considering asking the Legislature to repeal a state law limiting highway construction bonds to 20 years and instead allow them to be extended for 30 years.
That, according to Napolitano’s projections, would free up nearly half a billion dollars that could be reinvested to speedup highway projects.
The push for more road construction has gained momentum as community and business leaders worry freeway congestion is hurting the Arizona economy and state finances.
“If you can’t move employees and goods, you’re going to have a detrimental impact in the economy,” said Tom Dorn, a spokesman for the East Valley Chambers of Commerce Alliance.
Republican lawmakers also are reviewing a number of different measures aimed at kickstarting freeways and road construction.
Sen. Bob Burns, R-Phoenix, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, will ask the Legislature to take $450 million out of the Budget Stabilization Fund — also known as the “Rainy Day Fund” — to pay for projects.
The move is considered controversial by those who believe the account should only be used to weather tough economic times. One of those people is the governor, who has said she will oppose efforts to dip into the Rainy Day Fund.
But Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, wasn’t rejecting the idea. “Right now we’re going to look at all the options. Nothing’s off the table,” he said.
As former head of the Senate Transportation Committee and a representative of a fastgrowing district, Verschoor is sensitive to traffi c needs.
He’ll be pushing his own plan to pump $200 million into the Statewide Transportation Acceleration Needs account. However, he hasn’t specifi ed where the money would come from.
Other options include bringing in private companies to build and maintain roads, which could open the possibility for construction of toll roads.
“I would support toll roads under the right conditions,” said Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler.
Members of the business community, including the Arizona Chamber of Business and Industry, support toll roads.
And Mary Peters, who took over last year as U.S. Transportation Secretary, has warned that states can’t rely on the federal government to build their freeways.
Lawmakers also might grapple over whether to allow photo-radar enforcement on freeways, such as Scottsdale’s program on Loop 101.
Rep. Michele Reagan, RScottsdale, has announced she plans to sponsor a bill that would allow freeway enforcement to continue. But it would not allow Scottsdale or any other city that might implement a similar program to make a profit. The city, which has brought in about $800,000 in General Fund money and $450,000 in court enhancement revenue to date, has not taken a position on that potential bill at this time.
Roadway construction will compete with education interests for funding. Although transportation needs have emerged as a priority, education is a close second.
Lawmakers have proposed everything from additional teacher pay raises to adding an extra hour to the school day to improve the state’s consistently low education rankings nationwide.
Napolitano is expected to push for recommendations made by her P-20 Council, which suggested ways last month to revamp the state’s school system.
Lifting the dropout age from 16 to 18 years old and adding more math and science to the school curriculum were among the top recommendations of the council.
A proposal by a Republican lawmaker might give schools the time they need to teach the additional math and science requirements should they pass.
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, will propose adding an hour of class time to the school day. The move also could help parents of younger children save money on day care. But he was unsure about the fi nancial impact on the state.
Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, plans to borrow $150 million from the Rainy Day Fund for school construction.
“Five percent growth in this state is a rainy day,” Harper said Thursday.
The money would be spent in areas seeing the fastest growth and with the most urgent needs, such as Gilbert and Queen Creek.
Some GOP lawmakers want to build on gains made last year regarding school-voucher programs.
For the first time in Arizona history, the Legislature adopted two bills letting foster children and parents of disabled children use public money to attend private schools.
The measures have been challenged in court because of a provision in the Arizona Constitution barring using state money for private education.
The Legislature also passed a bill expanding the corporation tuition-tax credit — giving tax breaks to corporations that offer scholarships to children from poor families so that they can attend private schools.
“I think that is going to be one of the issues I will focus on this year,” said Senate Majority Whip John Huppenthal, R-Chandler.
Emboldened by victories in the fall elections and a popular governor, Democrats believe they can push through another teacher pay-raise package.
House Minority Leader Phil Lopes, R-Tucson, said teacher raises would be a priority.
Last year, lawmakers set aside $100 million for across-the-board teacher pay raises.
Despite advancements on education, there was one area close to the hearts of Democrats that didn’t get very far: health care.
But Lopes said that could change. He’s reintroducing his universal health care package that failed to garner a hearing last year. And Napolitano is planning to expand health care coverage for children.
The top political and legislative issue from last year, illegal immigration, appears to have taken a back seat. Leaders from both parties say they’re looking for the federal government to act.
However, Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, called that “malfeasance of office,” arguing the Legislature was out of step with voters. Pearce is considered by many to be the leading voice in the state on immigration reform.
As evidence, he pointed to the elections in which voters overwhelmingly approved four immigration issues — two of which were vetoed by the governor.
“It was clear from the last election that the public wants us to do something about this,” Pearce said.
He said he’s ready to introduce about six bills, including one piece of legislation calling for penalties against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
“I’m going to run tough legislation, and if I have to go the initiative route it’ll be even tougher,” he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
334 Number of bills that became law in 2005
58 Number of vetoes in 2005
3 Number of line-item vetoes in 2005
1 Number of legislators who died in office in 2006
1 Number who suffered a heart attack on House floor in 2006
2 Number who resigned in 2006 to run for other offices
1 Number ejected in 2006 for election law violations