Saying the plan shorts child safety and education, six dissident House Republicans said Wednesday talks have broken down with their own party leaders, leaving a proposed $9.2 billion state budget in limbo.
Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, said he and his colleagues were willing to try to work out a deal with House GOP leaders, and he said they have been involved in closed-door talks since Monday.
“But when they're not negotiating in good faith, then negotiations are over until they come back in good faith,” he said. Dial accused the House leaders of “playing games.”
That contention drew an angry reaction from House Majority Whip Rick Gray, R-Sun City.
“We've spent hours, hours talking with them over several days,” he said.
“They may not like what we've been talking about,” Gray continued. “But to say we haven't been doing it in good faith is unfair.”
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said it's not like he has the power to simply decide to accede to the demands
“I don't have 25 other votes in my pocket to say, ‘OK, we're in,’”' he said. “It just doesn't work that way.”
That may be true, but so is the reverse: Without the six Republican holdouts, Tobin lacks sufficient votes among the 36 House Republicans to get the necessary votes to adopt any sort of spending plan. So, for the moment, there is an impasse until someone gives.
Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said that won't occur on his side, at least not without some key adjustments to the nearly $9.2 billion spending plan already approved by the Republican-controlled Senate. He said that budget ignores key priorities. He said what's been offered so far by House leadership is little better.
“People in Arizona care about children,” he said.
“They want to see them protected, they want to see them educated,” Orr continued. “As Republicans we empathize with that.”
No one among the dissidents who sought out reporters late Wednesday would discuss the dollar size of the gap between their demands and what House leaders were offering. Instead, they said it was a question of priorities.
Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said there has to be more money to ensure that the new Division of Child Safety has the money it needs to fulfill its legal goal of protecting victims of abuse and neglect. She is intimately familiar with the problem, having co-chaired a special task force that looked at the failures of the old Child Protective Services to do its job.
Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said lawmakers need to match their rhetoric about caring about education with some real dollars.
“We want to have an educated workforce,” she said.
“That is the secret to our future of our economy,” Carter continued. “It's the way we transform Arizona.”
Rep. Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, echoed the theme, saying he's always looked a public education as an economic development issue.
“I don't think we should continue to drain funds from public education, as I feel has been done, and any time the state is in a budget shortfall or having a difficult time balancing the budget that we look at K-12 in particular to begin those cuts,” he said. “I'm hoping we can start look at education as an investment rather than an expense.”
Orr said there are other issues, like restoring cuts made years ago in subsidized child care for the working poor.
Senate President Andy Biggs said there was no need for the state to restore the cash because parents can have other non-government options like relatives, churches and social service agencies. But Orr, who heads Linkages, a private organization that helps those with disabilities find work, said government has to play a role, too.
“Those programs help working-class families, whether they're single mother or low-income family, get the leg-up they need to get to work, to provide for their family, and to move on,” he said.
If the GOP leaders cannot cobble together the necessary 31 votes, there is another option: The six Republicans could form a coalition with the 24 Democrats to create a working majority.
There is precedent for that: It happened last year when most Republicans opposed a plan by Gov. Jan Brewer to expand Medicaid coverage and several Republicans, including those in this group, sided with the Democrats to push it through anyway.
Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, said that's not being considered, at least at this point. But he clearly left the door open to working with the other party.
“We understand their issues are probably very similar with respect to children's issues,” he said.
Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, who has sided with his party leadership, sought to minimize the implications of the decision by the six dissidents to not only refuse to support the majority plan but to actually go public. He said these kinds of things happen when trying to craft any sort of a deal.
“I think they're expressing frustration,” Mesnard said.
“We are all frustrated,” he said. “It's a tough process.”