Arizona Legislature passes budget, but Dems blast Hobbs over negotiations with GOP
The Arizona Legislature passed an almost $18 billion budget Wednesday, one that Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs negotiated with Republican leaders in the House and Senate. But its passage has damaged her relationship with legislative Democrats, with one saying Hobbs botched the negotiations so badly that Arizona might as well have a Republican in the governor’s office.
Most of the budget bills passed the state House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote with more than 45 of the chamber’s 60 lawmakers in favor, though the numbers varied from bill to bill. Democrats accounted for most of the opposing votes. In an expedited process, the bills previously made their way through the Senate in the early morning hours of Wednesday, as Democrats begrudgingly voted in favor of the bills.
“Many of us Democrats helped Hobbs get elected,” Democratic Rep. Cesar Aguilar, of Phoenix said on the House floor Wednesday. “But we seem to be in the same boat as if a Republican were in charge.”
Democrats in the House of Representatives on Wednesday excoriated Hobbs for her failure to better negotiate and for not bringing legislative Democrats into the budget talks earlier.
And it was only once that happened, less than two weeks ago, that provisions important to Democrats were added to the spending plan, according to House Minority Leader Andrés Cano, a Tucson lawmaker.
He and Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, both said the budget that Hobbs originally negotiated had no additional funding for Arizona schools, no waiver of the school spending cap in 2024 and no money for the state’s Housing Trust Fund.
“This budget is far from perfect, but I assure you, it looked radically different two weeks ago,” Cano said. “We could have had more votes if the Governor’s Office would have brought us in four months ago instead of asking us to rubber stamp the budget two weeks ago.”
It was only after Cano and Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein were brought into the negotiations that funds dedicated to results-based school funding were repurposed to go toward a 2.9% increase in base funding for K-12 schools, that the waiver of the K-12 school spending cap that Democrats have been advocating for months was included in the budget and that $150 million was allocated to the Housing Trust Fund.
The Housing Trust Fund provides things like housing vouchers, temporary shelter assistance and increased affordable housing options to the unhoused and those who struggle to find affordable housing.
Even as many legislators within her party were clearly angry with Hobbs’ capitulations in the budget negotiations, she framed its passage as a win.
“I’m glad the House passed the bipartisan budget and I look forward to signing it into law,” Hobbs said in a statement. “Not everybody got what they wanted, but I’m thankful legislative leaders were able to set aside their differences, compromise, and support a bipartisan deal that makes historic investments in affordable housing, builds roads, bridges, and public transit, expands access to health insurance for Arizona’s children and creates critical new ESA accountability measures.”
Failure to cap enrollment in Arizona’s rapidly expanding universal school voucher program, known officially as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, was a sticking point for many Democrats, who said the vouchers threatened to bankrupt the state.
The expanded vouched program has already far exceeded what it was predicted to cost when it was signed into law last year. A legislative analysis last year estimated it would cost the state an additional $33 million, but that has in reality been more than $300 million just this year, and students continue to apply to the program that allows parents to use taxpayer money to fund things like private school tuition or homeschooling.
Next year, the estimated cost is more than $500 million, and Democrats say the program will soon cost the state $1 billion each year.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans celebrated continued funding for the voucher program.
Republican Rep. Justin Heap, of Mesa, pointed out that vouchers currently account for only 2% of public funding for K-12 education in Arizona.
“Why are public schools receiving 98% of the funding when they can’t get a third of students to proficiency in reading and math?” Heap asked. “Our public schools are so broken and inefficient that parents are leaping at the opportunity to get them into other schools.”
Democratic Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, of Tucson, countered that the majority of students — around 80% — who have applied for the universal vouchers never attended public schools and that private schools don’t have the same accountability measures and obligations as public schools.
She and several other Democrats added that parents of students in the original voucher program that served only students with disabilities have reached out to their representatives to complain that they’re having a hard time getting their payments with new enrollees clogging up the system.
But Democrats claimed a small win in the form of increased accountability for the voucher program and the formation of a bipartisan committee to examine the administration of the program.
While Democrats accused Republicans of funding private school vouchers to the detriment of public schools, Republicans like Rep. Matt Gress of Phoenix congratulated themselves on passing a budget that makes a historic investment in K-12 education, including $300 million in one-time spending, $341.9 million for school facilities and $88.6 million in new, ongoing funding.
The budget also includes more than $650 million in allocations for roads, bridges, broadband infrastructure and public transit, along with $126.1 million that will go to projects benefiting the state’s Native American tribes.
While the budget includes a provision to increase eligibility to Arizona’s Medicaid program for children to expand health insurance to 9,500 kids next year and more than 12,000 the following year, Salman said that she knows the legislature could have done better.
She pointed out that, because of the way the budget came together this year, there were millions of dollars devoted to legislators’ individual pet projects.
Some of those include $15 million for Prescott Rodeo Days, $500,000 for the Arizona State University women’s wrestling team and numerous pet transportation projects.
“No, I’m sorry, this budget just was not good enough,” Salman said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.