Ariz. Legislature to consider spending reductions

AP News
Posted: Dec 17, 2009 10:46 AM

Arizona lawmakers' special session on the state's budget crisis will be narrowed Thursday to only consider spending reductions.

Lawmakers would not act on two ballot measures _ a proposed temporary sales tax increase and a temporary constitutional change to loosen voter-approved spending mandates, Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday.

The reasons cited were a belatedly recognized mistake about how long it takes to get a referral on a special election ballot and not enough support in the House for Gov. Jan Brewer's proposal for a one-cent, three-year sales tax increase.

"They're gone," Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, said of the possibility of action on Thursday on the ballot measures.

The current fiscal year's shortfall is estimated at $1.6 billion after $452 million of spending cuts and other changes made during a November special session. A $3 billion shortfall is projected for the next budget.

Legislative leaders were assembling a package of up to $200 million in spending cuts and fund transfers for consideration during the special session. But even consideration of that issue was in doubt Wednesday because it was unclear whether lawmakers would agree to suspend the rules to permit action in just one day.

House Minority Leader David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said Democrats hadn't seen the proposed cuts yet and hadn't decided whether to agree to rule suspensions. Arizona law normally requires three days to pass legislation.

Senate Republicans insisted they had enough votes to approve the sales tax referral, and Senate President Bob Burns initially attributed the change in plans for Thursday to the mix up on scheduling a planned March 9 special election. However, Burns and House Speaker Kirk Adams both later also cited the lack of House votes for the tax proposal.

Burns and Adams, R-Mesa, said both ballot measures could be resurrected in January during the 2010 regular session or a concurrent special session for placement on a May 18 special election ballot.

Brewer called the special legislative session, and the plan was for lawmakers to consider the proposed ballot measures as well as approximately $200 million of spending cuts and fund transfers. The cuts included a 7.5 percent lump-sum reduction for most state agencies.

Brewer's chief spokesman did not immediately respond to a call for comment on the leaders' change in plans, but Brewer issued a prepared statement that seemed to criticize lawmakers.

"Reality about the depth of this deficit and fiscal crisis must set in," she said. "We who have taken an oath to steer this Arizona ship cannot now refuse to take the helm."

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Secretary of State Ken Bennett confirmed that it was too late to hold a statewide special election on March 9. The state needed at least 86 days for preparations that included printing ballots and producing a pamphlet for voters. Also, 90 days were needed to have the special-session bill authorizing the special election take effect before the vote, he said.

Those intervals passed early this week and last week, Bennett said.

It would have been possible to shorten the authorization period if two-thirds of the Legislature approved an emergency, but there was no indication that enough lawmakers were willing.

Indeed, House passage of the tax increase referral by a bare majority was considered iffy at best, leaders said.

March 9 is one of four dates that Arizona authorizes for state or local elections. The next authorized election date is May 18.

Bennett said he told Brewer and legislative leaders of the 90-day authorization requirement last August when a fall special election was under consideration.