Ariz. Senate OKs cuts, raids to reduce budget gap

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2009 10:39 AM

A bill to use spending cuts and raids on special funds to reduce Arizona's big budget deficit advanced in the Legislature on Thursday, with predicted effects, including pay cuts for state employees and the closure of potentially all state parks.

On a 16-11 party-line vote, the Senate endorsed majority Republicans' bill to cut general-fund spending by $74 million and sweep an additional $120 million from special-purpose funds.

"These are some tough times," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.

The House planned to consider the bill Friday and Saturday in what could end up being a three-day special session.

The bill would permit agencies to reduce employees' pay by up to 5 percent to find savings forced by the 7.5 percent budget cuts imposed on most state agencies.

Agency officials said other impacts would include delaying licensing of new businesses to 250 days and possibly closing by the end of the fiscal year all 27 state parks that are still open. Officials already have closed several parks due to budget cuts.

"The important thing is that you realize that these decisions will result in park closures, if not a system closure," said state parks Executive Director Renee Bahl.

The budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, has a $1.6 billion revenue shortfall. That's after $452 million of spending cuts and other changes made during a November special session.

The special session began Thursday with House Democrats blocking rule suspensions that would allow action on budget cuts in one day instead of the minimum three days normally required.

House Minority Leader David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said lawmakers and the public needed time to review the Republicans' package.

House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, said Democrats were using "procedural tactics" without joining Republicans in cutting state spending.

"We ask our Democratic members to stop the stall tactics and get into the game." Adams said.

Lawmakers expressed frustration that they weren't doing more.

"There's been a lot of finger-pointing ... but we have to get going," said Rep. Lucy Mason, R-Prescott. "If not now, when are we going to get this done."

Democrats faulted Republicans for only cutting spending.

"We really believe that the budget needs to be looked at in a whole and comprehensive fashion and not in a piecemeal way," said Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's call for the special session included the spending cuts but also two measures that could have been placed on a March 9 special election ballot.

Those proposals, if approved by voters, would have temporarily raised the state sales tax by a penny for three years and temporarily loosened constitutional protections for voter-approved spending mandates.

Without revenue from the sales tax, "the tidal wave is coming," said Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale. "The schools will be hit the hardest in the next round ... because we do not have the revenue coming in."

Republican leaders said Wednesday that they had set aside the ballot measures because of misunderstanding on time needed to schedule a special election and because there wasn't enough support in the House to approve the sales tax referral.

The special session is the fourth this year devoted to the state's budget crisis.