PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers trotted out their zero-growth plan for the state budget on Monday, setting the stage for a fight with Gov. Jan Brewer.
The $8.65 billion spending plan for the new fiscal year is about $200 million less than the governor wants. And the biggest loser at this point appears to be K-12 education.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson called the plan "short-sighted and reckless.''
But the GOP plan also does not include additional money the governor wants for mental health or to provide more cash for doctors and others that care for patients in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. And the state's three universities would have to live on what they are getting now.
"Our revenue estimates aren't as optimistic as the governor's,'' explained Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.
On the other side of the equation, Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, said Republicans are less optimistic about the future than is Brewer.
Shooter, who is Kavanagh's Senate counterpart, acknowledged that revenues for both the current budget year and the one that starts July 1 are anticipated to be greater than expenses. But he said it would be wrong to look at the state's financial situation as healthy.
He pointed out that Arizona borrowed more than $3 billion to balance prior budgets, money that has to be paid back eventually.
The bigger problem, said Shooter, are "three other large cliffs'' the state will face.
"The first is that the one-cent sales tax goes away,'' he said. That increase approved in 2010 self-destructs on May 31, 2013 -- along with the nearly $1 billion a year it generates that has been used to balance the budget.
An initiative plan to replace that with a new tax is speculative at best, as it would require voter approval in November.
Second, he said, is "Obamacare,'' with no one able to say what will be the state's additional obligations on Jan. 1, 2014 when the federal law requires states to provide broader health care coverage for the poor. And finally there is the possibility of a double-dip recession that could again cut state revenues.
To prepare for some of that, the legislative plan sets aside $250 million into the "rainy-day fund,'' leaving it untouched until needed; the governor's budget has no such savings plan.
"All of us understand that it's a very austere budget, with not many bells and whistles,'' Shooter said. "We're asking people if you've made it last year (at current funding), try to make it one more year and let's see what the good Lord brings.''
The plan drew an angry reaction from the governor's office.
"The legislative budget proposal neglects our state's most critical needs in public safety, education and health care,'' said press aide Matthew Benson.
"The governor understands the need to budget conservatively, and she has,'' he continued. "But refusing to fund critical education needs during a time of budget surplus isn't conservative, it's short-sighted.''
That $250 million in the bank aside, one of the big differences in available cash is the assumption of how good -- or bad -- the economy will be.
Brewer's budget assumes that ongoing state revenues -- collections without any changes -- will be $8.53 billion for the coming year. The Republican budget is premised on $8.49 billion.
"It's been my experience when you're estimating those kinds of things, it's always better to be more conservative,'' Shooter said. "It's better to be a hero than a goat.''
Shooter acknowledged that Brewer's revenue forecasts a year ago proved more accurate than those of legislative budget analysts. "But all that's happened as a result of that is we have a little bit more money to work with.''
Benson said there are some critical things missing from the legislative plan, especially in education.
For example, Brewer wants to restore $100 million for "soft capital'' spending, everything from computers to books, money that schools were denied for the past few years. And her budget has another $100 million for repairs, an item also neglected for several years.
Also not in the legislative plan is $15 million Brewer wants for growth at the universities and another $2.2 million to account for a higher number of students in community colleges.
Shooter said there is some room to negotiate with the governor over her spending priorities. And he said that, being married to a teacher, he is particularly sensitive to the needs of public schools.
But he said Brewer should not count on massive funding increases she wants.
"If we restore, it will be with a thimble, not a bucket,'' he said.
Benson, for his part, wants the public to focus on what lawmakers will not fund.
For example, he said that without additional funding for the Department of Public Safety it will be forced to cut 73 officers.
Benson said that's because the agency's budget is being increasingly eaten up with fixed pension costs. Her budget includes $9.2 million during the next two years to compensate for that; the legislative plan does not, which Benson said means there won't be enough to meet payroll costs, forcing the staffing cuts.
He also said that the legislative funding for prisons would mean having to house maximum security inmates in facilities designed for medium security.
"It isn't conservative,'' Benson said. "It's reckless.''
Benson also complained that the legislative budget plan not only ignores Brewer's request to increase state funding for tourism promotion but actually abolishes the Arizona Office of Tourism entirely.