GOP-led Arizona House rejects $50 million Senate virus plan

State Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, wearing a mask, looks at documents on her computer as fellow Democratic Rep. Jennifer Longdon, left, looks at her phone before the start of an unusual floor session at the Arizona House in Phoenix, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. The Legislature could work long into the night to enact a basic state budget and fixes for schools and workers before adjourning to allow the coronavirus crisis to ebb. (AP Photo/Bob Christie)

Republicans who lead the Arizona House late Thursday rejected a bipartisan Arizona Senate budget package that included tens of millions of dollars of extra spending to prevent foreclosures and evictions and help small businesses weather the coronavirus crisis.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers instead adjourned his chamber until Monday over howls of protest from minority Democrats.

The action crippled plans to swiftly put cash into the hands of laid-off workers that was included in an emergency unemployment bill. It also prevented the governor from accessing the emergency cash to prevent evictions and help small businesses survive the storm.

And it puts at risk the ability of the Legislature to act at all: If one member falls ill, all could be quarantined because they’ve been working together.

Bowers flatly rejected the agreement hammered out earlier in the day by Republican Senate President Karen Fann and Democratic Minority Leader David Bradley. It passed the Senate with only token opposition.

Some House Republicans had earlier called a relief package pushed by Democrats “pork.”

Bowers said House Democrats were pushing for locked-in funding that would have quickly run out for housing and unemployment. But the Senate version gave the governor the ability to direct the extra cash, a “flexibility” Bowers said he didn’t see in what Democrats in his chamber had proposed.

He said lawmakers would return Monday and try to hammer out differences with the Senate-passed package.

“In a conference committee you can make a lot of changes,” Bowers said. “I’m heading for conference.”

Democratic Rep. Randall Friese said it was clear Bowers didn’t have the votes of his Republican caucus. And he wasn’t prepared to say House Democrats would have voted for the Senate plan.

“We have to decide, is this enough to get our support,” Friese said. “Are we really feeling like we’re doing enough for the citizens of Arizona for this crisis to vote yes on this deal.”

The Senate deal added to the “baseline” budget that the House has been advancing. Both chambers had hoped to pass a basic budget that has been stripped of extra spending or tax cuts planned before the scope of the crisis became clear.

The Senate deal provided $50 million in new spending to help prevent evictions and foreclosures, provide services for the homeless, assist small businesses and pay for food bank operations. It also included longer welfare payments and a waiver from work requirements.

It adds to $55 million in emergency cash approved last week to fund virus response efforts.

The senate passed an entire budget package, but the House approved only a handful of the needed bills before adjourning.

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez called for boosted aid for welfare and food stamp recipients, and for other help for those affected by the economic fallout.

“We’ve got to make sure that people are taken care of – we just can’t cut and run,” Fernandez said.

Democrats warned that the trimmed-down K-12 schools package eliminated $68 million promised to schools to restore earlier cuts.

That $68 million for all schools is gone, but a similar amount of cash that goes to schools with high test scores drew the greatest ire from Democrats. They said most of that cash goes to schools in wealthier areas.

“The fact this budget for our K-12 schools preserves this program instead of allowing flexibility is the exact opposite of what we should be doing today,” Rep. Kelli Butler said.

Republican Rep. Regina Cobb said passing a slimmed-down school budget now, even with the changes, is the way to go.

“At least this gives them a baseline to go with,” Cobb said. “This give them assurance.”

Bowers has said the basic budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will keep government running during the crisis. It’s been stripped of new spending priorities and the tax cuts many Republicans and Ducey were seeking. It spends $11.8 billion, about $500 million less than Ducey’s January plan.

Both the Senate and House had hoped to send a stripped-down budget package to Gov. Doug Ducey by the end of the day. They planned to adjourn until the virus crisis passes.

Both chambers unanimously passed a major proposal that would give schools that were ordered closed by Ducey to move to online or other alternative classes and free them from rules requiring testing and a minimum number of classroom days, among other provisions designed to give K-12 public schools flexibility.

Democratic Rep. Kirsten Engel said she had concerns it contained no funding to help schools but said she supported the bill anyway.

“It seems like it does cover many emergency situations we’re facing as a result of this unprecedented health crisis,” Engel said.

The Senate passed and the House failed to vote on a second emergency measure that will ease rules for workers who are sick or out of a job.

Republished with the Permission of the Associated Press.