Threat of government shutdown looms as AZ Republicans fail to pass a spending plan

By Ben Giles
Published: Thursday, May 26, 2022 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, May 26, 2022 - 12:41pm

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For the second consecutive year, June looms yet Arizona lawmakers have yet to pass a spending plan.

June is quickly followed by July, and the threat of a government shutdown on the first of the month. Despite spending 137 days so far at the Capitol, and despite a budget surplus exceeding $5 billion, lawmakers still don’t appear close to adopting a budget.

Hear Ben Giles discuss the budget with host Lauren Gilger on The Show

Rep. Regina Cobb
Howard Fischer/Capital Media Services
Regina Cobb

“The only constitutional job we have is getting a budget done,” lamented Regina Cobb, a House Republican and chair of her chamber’s Appropriations Committee — the proving ground for any spending plan.

“That seems to always be that last priority for some members,” she said. 

You’d think the inverse would be true when, as Democratic Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios noted, “we are literally flooded in money. Flooded in money!”

But 2022 is shaping up to be a repeat of 2021, when Republicans — who hold slim, one-vote majorities, enough to control both chambers — fought amongst themselves all the way to that June 30 deadline, all while staring down the barrel of a government shutdown.

“I think we’re gonna sit here until June 30 again this year,” Rios said.

That’s got Arizonans like David Lujan, the executive director of Children’s Action Alliance, worried the government might actually shut down this year. 

“A state government shutdown will impact all Arizonans,” Lujan said. “I mean, state government always operates sort of behind the scenes, but once those services go away, I think people would notice it pretty quickly.”

Republicans only managed to pass an eleventh-hour budget last year by buying off GOP votes — stuffing policies unrelated to state spending into a state spending plan in exchange for votes. A legal challenge, which Lujan was party to, resulted in Arizona Supreme Court justices ruling that the practice, known as “log-rolling,” was unconstitutional. 

To date, some Republicans have shown no willingness to bend on their budget priorities. And now the one tool GOP leaders had to appease them is no more.

Rebecca Rios
Arizona Senate Democrats
Rebecca Rios

For example, Cobb’s committee held a doomed vote on a so-called “skinny” budget in April. It’s a baseline spending plan that doesn’t increase funding in any way except when required by law, typically to adjust for inflation or student enrollment in Arizona’s public schools.

Several Republicans voted against the spending plan in committee, but for vastly different reasons. Some said even the skinny budget was too costly. Other Republicans said it was inexcusable to leave $5 billion in surplus revenues unspent when it could be invested in water or border security measures.

Despite the failure, Cobb is striking an optimistic tone — last week, she said a budget could happen in early June.

“I think I got a good indication of where everybody was at, and how stuck in those positions they really were,” Cobb said.

By all accounts, the vote showed that Republicans might not be able to pass a budget by themselves. But so far, Rios said GOP leaders haven’t made meaningful overtures across the aisle — in the name of an elusive bipartisan spending plan.

“The Republicans have never been secretive about the fact that they want only Republicans on this budget,” Rios said. “The governor wants Republicans on this budget. So that is always going to be their first goal.”

That’s par for the course at the Arizona Legislature, which Republicans have controlled for years. Lobbyist Stan Barnes said it might look bad to some Republican voters if GOP lawmakers compromise with Democrats.

And for some far-right, ideologically-bound Republicans, compromising with fellow Republicans is no better.

“We get the government we deserve,” Barnes said. “And this is what the base of the Republican Party wants. I might add, it’s also what the Democratic side does — they’re just not the majority at the moment.”

Stan Barnes
Tiara Vian/KJZZ
Stan Barnes

Barnes is familiar with sessions that last into the summer. As a Republican representative in the late-1980s and early '90s, Barnes was part of a wave of newly elected lawmakers who wanted to cut taxes — a position in contrast with the Republican majority at the time, he said. Their disagreements caused some sessions to drag on well into June. But eventually, Barnes said, differences were settled amicably.

“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was still a modicum of camaraderie and institutional awareness,” he said.

For Barnes, that meant reading the room – realizing that most of his GOP colleagues would vote to raise taxes.

“In the name of getting us out, in the name of going home, making a compromise among Republicans, I voted for a tax increase at the time to shut it all down,” Barnes said. 

Lujan said it’s a shame compromise has become a dirty word at the Capitol.

“It should really be disappointing to all Arizona voters that this Legislature is not able to get their job done and pass a budget,” he said.

But even Barnes' experience decades ago serves as a cautionary tale. Years later, while running for Congress, Barnes’ compromise vote for a tax increase was used against him on the campaign trail.

It’s a race Barnes ultimately lost.

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