Arizona lawmakers will begin this year’s regular session Monday with a crowded agenda that’s expected to touch on nearly every aspect of living in Arizona.
The Legislature, which met for an exhausting 213 days last year and had to deal with a billion-dollar budget shortfall and the worst fiscal crisis in state history, will start the session with a brighter outlook. The economy turned around in the second half of 2003, and tax revenue is climbing again.
"We were down in the bottom of the pit as far as the economy was concerned," said Sen. Marilyn Jarrett of Mesa, the third-highest ranking Senate Republican. "I think we probably will have a lot of debate (this year), but we won’t feel like there’s a noose around our neck every time we move a dollar because the economy is picking up."
Many lawmakers also are feeling good about working with Gov. Janet Napolitano. The state’s top Democrat spent much of the year jousting with Republican leaders who feared her spending policies would force new tax hikes.
But attitudes on both sides appear to have improved after Napolitano and lawmakers hammered out deals on Child Protective Services and prison overcrowding at the end of a 55-day special session last month. Leaders and rank-and-file members said they hope that success will lead to greater cooperation this year.
"I think the Republicans, the hard core, are going to have deal with the fact that Janet Napolitano is a Democrat governor, she is on the ninth floor (of the Executive Tower) and we have to deal with her," said Senate President Pro Tem Carolyn Allen, R-Scottsdale, who was publicly angered last year when Napolitano vetoed the senator’s bill to raise weekly unemployment payments.
Less budget tension and better relations with Napolitano mean other issues are more likely to get serious attention in 2004, even as lawmakers try to stay closer to the traditional 100-day session because it’s also an election year. Vigorous debate already has been promised on Valley transportation, education policy, a statewide smoking ban proposal and sentencing reform.
Still, budget matters are likely to dominate much of the session, as experts are still predicting revenue shortfalls of at least $400 million for the 2004-05 fiscal year.
"I’m optimistic, but I take caution," said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "Things are looking better but let’s not get silly with it. We are so far into debt. We’ve spent so much money and so much of the budget is on automatic pilot, we need to be cautious."
Napolitano is expected to open the session Monday by proposing new initiatives on early childhood education and quality day care in the governor’s annual State of the State address.
"These people who say that until you have no deficit, you shouldn’t do anything, I think that is not the right way to look at it," Napolitano said. "They are some things you have to pay for, and there are certain things we can pay for, and ought to, if we believe in the long run they will pay off in greater multiples."
Other lawmakers said they believe the situation has improved enough to revive budget issues previously placed on hold. Sen. Jay Tibshraeny, R-Chandler, is leading a group of lawmakers who want to start raising state employee wages over the next five years so that every position is within 5 percent of the market average.
They would start this year with roughly a 3 percent increase, costing $50 million.
"It’s a issue that’s been bubbling up since the Gov. (Jane) Hull administration when people were promised (a) 10 percent raise over two years and they ended up with $1,400," Tibshraeny said. "We losing a lot of people to both the public and the private sector. It’s costing us a lot money in training and losses in efficiency."
But the first challenge for lawmakers will be the proposed Maricopa County election on renewing a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects. The Maricopa Association of Governments, the county and an aggressive business coalition have put together a $17 billion spending plan for the next 20 years they want to take to voters on May 18.
The Legislature must present a bill supported by two-thirds of lawmakers to Napolitano before Feb. 3 to meet election deadlines. That will be a tough challenge for the lead sponsor, Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa, because of influential critics from the East Valley who want the election held in November instead and would like voters to consider funding planned lightrail projects separately from the rest of the plan.
2004 legislative session
The Arizona Legislature will face a crowded agenda in the 2004 session that starts Jan. 12 with the annual State of the State speech from Gov. Janet Napolitano. Some of the issues will include:
Tax revenue is growing again, but not enough to cover projected state spending for the 2004-05 budget. Napolitano and lawmakers are expected to clash on how to make up the difference, although no tax increases are expected.
Scheduling a Maricopa County election on renewing a transportation half-cent sales tax will be the top priority in January. But disagreements on how much money should go toward light rail could delay action, which would push the election from May until November.
Anti-smoking advocates want to replace a patchwork of city-by-city laws with a statewide ban similar to Tempe’s strict ordinance. However, the proposal has received only limited support from health-related associations.
Napolitano will unveil new initiatives directed at early childhood education and at better funding for school districts. Republican lawmakers want to know how the governor would pay for her plans.
The state’s three universities and its community colleges are pushing for more money because of on-going enrollment growth. ASU president Michael Crow says the only alternative is to turn away some prospective students to limit costs.
Lawmakers will debate a series of sentencing reforms intended to reduce the number of inmates filling the state’s prison system. But in an election year, proponents will have to deal with questions about making life easier for criminals.
Recruiting tech companies
A Napolitano task force has recommended several new policies, including creation of $100 million fund to loan money to start-up companies.
Requests for public assistance in 2003 rose faster in Arizona than in much of the rest of the country, adding to the state’s budget problems. Meanwhile, thousands of parents are waiting for limited day care subsidies that could allow them to work and move out of poverty.
Napolitano will ask lawmakers for at least $1.5 million to protect military bases from encroaching development.
Some Republicans are suggesting business tax breaks for long-term economic development. But they have to deal with Napolitano, who has said her own proposals for restructuring the tax system won’t be available in time to consider this year.
Homeowner rights will be under close scrutiny again this year as there will be new attempts to restrict the powers of HOAs and to further limit the ability of cities to condemn property for development.