Legislature to pass a bare bones budget and adjourn sine die?


Republican leaders announced Monday the Arizona legislature plans to pass a basic spending plan and a series of “noncontroversial”  bills before they may recess or adjourn sine die as a way to mitigate the effects of the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

Does this mean they will jettison the controversial package of election bills and tax cut bills? And what about passing an emergency bill for all-mail elections this November as a contingency for the coronavirus pandemic?

The Arizona Capitol Times reports, Legislature to pass bare-bones budget this week:

Both House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, announced on their respective floors that lawmakers will try to pass a baseline budget this week. The decision comes despite calls from Democrats to stay in session a short while longer in order to pass an emergency package of social reforms that they say are necessary to help workers and the vulnerable.

“We’re taking this one day at a time because we don’t know what this holds,” Fann said. “We’re hoping this week we can get the base budget done so if everything blows up next week, we’re prepared.”

Fann said she and Bowers, R-Mesa, also want to pass 28 “noncontroversial” bills, including agency continuations and an annual measure conforming the state’s tax code to the federal code.

The abbreviated timeframe and barebones budget is meant to ensure agencies stay open and the state doesn’t overspend as revenues — which have been higher than expected for most of the fiscal year — are expected to decrease in the wake of the outbreak.

“What we want to do is get everything in line by the end of this week so if worst comes to worst and we’re not able to get a quorum by next week, we’ll be OK,” Fann said.

The announcement comes after days of diminished activity at the Capitol. Earlier Monday, Bowers canceled the week’s committee hearings, many of which had already been closed to the public. And a small handful of lawmakers had already committed to not returning to the capitol during the duration of the outbreak.

Nonetheless, the Senate proceeded with normal business on Monday afternoon in the lead-up to the announcement, with a spirited floor debate over bills on foster care.

The Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses met behind closed doors Monday afternoon to discuss options on the table, including adjourning sine die early or recessing for a few weeks after passing a short budget.

Sens. Heather Carter and Paul Boyer, who are practicing social distancing, were not able to participate in Monday’s closed caucus meeting because the remaining Republicans decided not to allow calls into the meeting, citing “privacy matters.”

Carter, R-Cave Creek, and Boyer, R-Glendale, are among four lawmakers who do not plan to return to the Legislature during the outbreak.

Democratic Reps. Amish Shah of Phoenix and Gerae Peten of Goodyear are also staying away from the Capitol: Shah because he works as an emergency room physician and the 72-year-old Peten because doctors advised older Americans to stay home.

The Legislature seems primed to recess without considering any of the policies that Democrats say are necessary to help mitigate the economic impact of the virus. On Monday morning, Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix, joined a group of activists and labor organizers to call on Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature to pass emergency measures that will protect Arizonans from evictions and utility shutoffs.

Expanded sick time, meals for school children and a relaxation of work requirements for food stamps and other benefits were also among the group’s priorities.

“Inaction is not a solution,” said Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, earlier Monday.

For most people, COVID-19 causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Bowers said he would consider changing House rules — which now require representatives to be present on the House floor to vote — to permit older representatives and those with pre-existing medical conditions to vote from their offices, which may be necessary when the baseline budget comes to a vote.

Boyer said he will return to vote for a budget, provided it contains adequate funding for education, health care and public safety needs in the wake of the outbreak. The Legislature must provide adequate funding to ensure state employees, including school staff paid on an hourly basis, continue to receive their paychecks and health insurance throughout the crisis, he said.

“If the state is saying you need to stay home, you should continue to get paid,” he said. “It’s a good thing we have such a strong rainy day fund because in my opinion, it’s raining.”

Carter recommended that the Legislature instead abruptly adjourn sine die, effectively killing all outstanding legislation, then immediately reconvene in a special session solely to pass the budget and policy bills related to the outbreak.

“I think all our efforts must be related to ensuring the state deploys the necessary resources and provides statutory authority to address the pandemic,” Carter said in a text message. “There isn’t a single bill more important than ensuring our state is prepared, which is why we need to sine die, go into special session and FOCUS!”

The AP adds Arizona Legislature nears plan for basic budget:

Fann spoke in early evening and said she believed the Legislature could pass a basic budget, a series of agency-related bills and several other emergency items by the end of the week.

Those emergency items include fixes to unemployment insurance so the state can offer it to workers who are temporarily out of a job because of the crisis and solving problems to education caused by the school shutdown, such as potential waivers to mandatory testing and minimum school days.

The basic budget would not include tax cuts many Republicans want or new spending that is always a part of budget negotiations. Instead, it would fund basic state costs with an annual inflation boost.

Fann said Republicans and Democrats were working together to address the issues. She didn’t mention adjourning until the coronavirus crisis ebbs like Bowers did, but did say there may not be enough members to do substantive work next week.

“This is a time for Rs and Ds to pull together,” Fann said. “We don’t know if Monday or the following week whether we’ll have enough people that will even be here to be able to do a quorum, much less pass a vote. So we have to have something that we can get on board with that makes sure government stays open, people still get their paychecks.”

It will likely take at least until May for the revenue damage done to the state’s coffers to start to emerge. Dozens of major events, including the final week of Spring training and all major league sports, have been cancelled. Arizona’s tourist season is at its peak and the hit to hotels, car rental agencies and other service providers will likely be large. New federal guidance that could close restaurants and bars was just announced Monday, and Gov. Doug Ducey is considering how to deal with that directive.

School closures and other major disruptions will also surely affect the state’s economy.

Forcing the hand of leaders was the decision by two Republican senators not to return to the Capitol this week to avoid potential virus exposure. A Democratic House member, Dr. Amish Shah, announced he would not return because of his potential exposure as an emergency room physician. He said he hopes to participate by phone or video when possible. And others were absent Monday.

House and Senate leaders have banned the public from all legislative proceedings. Democracy dies in darkness.

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