Lawmakers mosey back to the state capitol Jan. 11 for the regular legislative session, but no one expects anything to be regular about it.

“Budget, budget and more budget: agonizing, inch by inch working our way out of this mess,” was how Sen. John Huppenthal (R-Chandler) described the big issue facing lawmakers.

The best guess is that Arizona is $1.4 billion in the hole for this budget year, which ends June 30, and could be as much as $3.3 billion in the red for next year.

Officials say that if all services and programs that aren’t mandated by the federal government were cut, from state parks to courts to the departments of Public Safety and Environmental Quality, there would still be a deficit and the need for more reductions in state spending.

“We are not going to be able to cut our way out of this dilemma. We need to find some creative ways for additional revenues,” said Rep. John McComish (R-Ahwatukee Foothills).

But even if the Legislature and voters pass Gov. Jan Brewer’s temporary half-cent sales hike, additional cuts to state services will continue because the drop in sales tax and other revenues has been so steep or the state will go bankrupt.

And that could result in the state issuing IOU’s instead of checks, even to legislators.

“Lawmakers are state employees, too,” said Rep. Rae Waters (D-Ahwatukee Foothills).

Compounding one of the worst budget crisis in the nation is the political reality that 2010 is an election year, so some lawmakers will feel forced to pander to their political base of support, even at the state’s expense.

“We have to stop worrying about elections and start to worry about the future of the state,” said Waters, the lone Democrat in Legislative District 20, which includes Ahwatukee Foothills, west Chandler and a slice of south Tempe. “Leave the extremes of both parties behind and move forward.”

But to do that, said Waters, Democrats should be included in budget discussions instead of just asked to support GOP proposals.

“The only way we are going to fix this problem is for all of us to sit down together from the opening call until we accomplish this thing,” Waters said.

Even with a giant budget deficit hanging over lawmakers’ heads, McComish said there will be at least some time and attention paid to other topics, including:

• Jobs stimulus package to create additional employment.

• Energy parks using solar, wind and maybe even nuclear to provide energy via a number of sources.

• Sentencing reform so that the state only incarcerates the dangerous and uses probation for the rest, as a way to save money.

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