PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Senate began a final sprint to adjournment Wednesday as a committee debated 10 bills that provide $8.8 billion to fund education, health and welfare, and every other state function for the coming budget year.
In just four hours the Appropriations Committee gave initial approval to budget bills introduced the day before. Most passed on 6-3 party-line votes. They now go to the full Senate, where they will be debated again Thursday and multiple changes are expected.
One huge change is an expected amendment authorizing the expansion of Medicaid to an additional 300,000 poor Arizonans.
That issue has divided the Legislature for months and led to a stalemate that was finally broken this week when Senate President Andy Biggs allowed the budget bills to proceed. The session will adjourn once a budget is passed.
Senate Majority Leader John McComish said he'll sponsor the Medicaid amendment, breaking with Biggs, who strongly opposes Gov. Jan Brewer's No. 1 priority for the session. All three are Republicans.
"We have a difference of opinion," McComish said. "He opposes the Medicaid expansion, and I support it."
McComish said he believes the amendment will pass the Senate, then face a more difficult challenge in the House.
"I think there are the votes in the House to pass it," he said. "We'll see how is it handled in the House. It has to go through House Appropriations, so there's a lot of steps and therefore a lot of pitfalls along the way."
Medicaid expansion is a top priority for the Democratic caucus, said Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, the minority leader.
"That has to be done this session," she said. "Right now it's kind of 'hold your breath.' But the direction the arrow is pointing in is that it will be done."
The budget crafted by Biggs in consultation with Brewer and House leaders also will change on the Senate floor, where amendments to add or delete items will be offered. By and large, Democrats were pleased with the overall spending plan.
"I think it's a much better budget than a lot of us had expected," said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who is not an appropriations committee member. "There are a lot of good things about it, (and) it's not that far from the governor's. There's some things that need to be cleaned up in order to gain support on a broader level."
Minority Democrats are pushing for more money for Child Protective Services. The Republican-written budget includes less than half the extra money Brewer wanted for emergency child housing. It also freezes a health care insurance plan for children whose parents earn between 133 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Sen. Anna Tovar, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is troubled by those provisions. She also objected to a provision in the health and welfare bill that stops funding for some organ transplants.
"Those transplants do work, and they do save lives," Tovar said.
Other areas of debate Wednesday revolved around school funding. Democrats and some Republicans want more, arguing cuts in recent tight budget years have left schools short as lawmakers demand more accountability.
"The funding hasn't been real for the last five years. At some point, we have to say the emperor doesn't have any clothes," said Republican Sen. Don Shooter of Yuma.
The proposal would increase per-pupil spending by nearly 2 percent, from $3,268 to $3,326. The increase reflects a mandatory inflation adjustment that was approved by voters and that has been ignored by lawmakers in recent years. It likely won't result in an increase in funding, however, because the bill also reduces other revenue streams after years of education budget cuts, said Stacey Morley, director of policy development and government affairs with the state Department of Education.
"Obviously, the schools are pretty concerned with the permanent loss of funding," she said.
The legislation also calls for a three-year pilot program on online English instruction for students who speak another language. Critics say the state's English education programs are insufficient.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Yuma, said overall education funding has remained in the range of $9,000 per student for years, when state, local and federal funds are combined.
"We've always done our level best to get to that figure," he said.
Higher education spending is slated to increase by $11 million. Health and welfare spending will decrease by $43 million, with a projected $110 million increase in 2015 and a $231 million increase in 2016.
Democrats also complained about a special $1.6 million appropriation for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office from a gang and immigration enforcement fund, saying the office should apply for the money like other counties must. Mike Williams, a lobbyist for the Arizona Police Association, said he requested the money in the budget because deputies need new equipment.
The Senate spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1 is about $100 million less than initially requested by Brewer.