The Arizona Legislature is expected to work late into Thursday night on a $8.1 billion budget that dramatically increases spending, but a dispute has erupted over the state's environmental protection agency.
A confrontation between the state's environmental protection agency and key industries it regulates could give Napolitano a new reason to veto the entire proposal.
Key Republicans are seeking to remove $89.6 million in funding for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to protest a more aggressive stance by director Steve Owens against some industries. The move came after Owens told the Tribune last week that some lawmakers seemed to be trying to appease those industries by delaying a public hearing on the agency's budget and by proposing a permanent $1 million reduction.
"He implied that I and other lawmakers are siding with polluters," said Sen. Bob Burns, R-Peoria, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "That is a bold-face lie. The director, in my opinion, has stepped over the line and gone from being a professional ... and is using his position to play political games."
For more than two months, Burns has led an inquiry into agency activities while demanding regulators keep meeting with business leaders to resolve growing complaints about a higher number of civil fines and new barriers to obtaining operating permits.
Burns said the agency appears to have adopted a political agenda instead of balancing protection of the environmental with appropriate business growth.
"This is an agency that can issue fines of up to $25,000 a day," Burns said. "That's a tremendous amount of power in the hands of an agency director. If you have a political mindset ... there's all of kind of mischief that can take place."
The move to withhold more than half of the agency's budget was backed business lobbying groups such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber spokesman Farrell Quinlain says the agency has been adding to its bureaucratic red tape and levying more burdensome fines since Napolitano was elected in 2002.
Owens was out of town Thursday and couldn't be reached immediately for comment.
Senate Democrats denounced the move, but admitted they don't have the votes to block the Republicans if they unite behind sending a message to Napolitano.
"They don't care about the environment?" said Sen. Linda Aguirre of Phoenix, the top-ranking Senate Democrat. "That is just beyond words."
But Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, he wouldn't mind if the Legislature significantly reduced the environmental agency's operations, saying most of its functions would be picked up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Nothing would change if ADEQ didn't exist," Pearce said. "I don't think anyone in Arizona would even notice."