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Fate of emergency state budget plan with virus cash in doubt

Members of the Arizona House recite the Pledge of Allegiance on Thursday in Phoenix before the start of an unusual floor session devoid of members of the public.

PHOENIX — State lawmakers gave final approval to a $11.8 billion contingency budget Monday and went home — at least for a couple of weeks.

The action came after House Republicans caved to demands by senators from both parties to provide up to $50 million for the governor to use, at his discretion, on programs designed to help those economically affected by COVID-19. That ranges from cash to prevent evictions or foreclosures and services for the homeless to cash for food bank operations and economic assistance to health care providers, nonprofit organizations and businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

But House Republicans blocked a proposal to provide additional cash benefits, beyond what is available under current unemployment benefits, to those who have been fired, laid off, furloughed or otherwise cannot go to work because of the virus. And then they used procedural maneuvers to preclude the Democrats from even being able to offer other proposals.

The plan is not expected to be the last word for both spending and tax cuts for the coming fiscal year. Instead, it is designed to have something in place to ensure continued operation of state government beyond June 30 if for some reason the Legislature cannot convene again before then due to the pandemic.

It also includes contingency plans to ensure continued public education in the face of schools that are going to remain closed at least through April 17.

But Republicans rejected demands by Democrats for more.

Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, sought to enact what would be Arizona’s first-ever law against price gouging.

“It is very hard to fathom that people would engage in price gouging, attempting to profit from a crisis by increasing the prices of essential goods and services,’’ she said. “This profiting from other people’s misery is abhorrent.’’

It would have given the attorney general to go after anyone in the supply chain who raises prices by more than 25 percent over pre-emergency levels on “items that are necessary to health, safety and welfare.’’

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, derided her effort to tack that on to the budget, saying it fits into the philosophy that “no crisis should be wasted.’’

Bowers said it’s not necessary, that the system is working the way it should. He praised businesses that have changed the production lines and revamped what their employees are doing to deal with the needs created by the pandemic.

“I think that’s extremely commendable and it shows that they believe that they believe not just in capitalism but in free enterprises,’’ he said.

An aide to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whose office would have gotten the power to investigate complaints under Engel’s plan, said she is legally precluded from providing details or even specific numbers of consumer complaints.

But Katie Conner said there has been a “spike’’ of such complaints related to COVID-19 in the past two weeks. And she said several deal with the price of products even though her office has no jurisdiction over simple price spikes.

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, had no better luck getting a vote on her proposal to suspend all foreclosures, evictions, car repossessions and utility shutoffs during an emergency like the one Gov. Doug Ducey declared.

“People are terrified,’’ she said.

“They cannot go to work through no fault of their own,’’ Engel said, whether because they have been laid off or their health conditions preclude them. “We cannot throw those people out on the street, make them homeless during a health crisis.’’

Bowers, however, said there is no need for state action, citing direction by the Federal Housing Finance Administration directing that the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy up mortgages, forgo evictions for at least 50 days. He also said most utilities have voluntarily agreed not to turn off power or water and that Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said no one will be evicted from city-owned homes.

Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, said that hardly addresses the issue.

“Right now, people have lost their jobs,’’ she said.

“Right now, we have thousands of Arizonans that are living paycheck to paycheck,’’ Blanc continued. “Right now we have Arizonans that are seriously concerned about evictions.’’

She said it is “disingenuous’’ for lawmakers to decide that it will be up to the federal government to figure out what to do about all that. And Blanc said the $50 million set aside for Ducey to use to address those problems “barely scratches the surface,’’ putting the immediate need at double to quadruple that.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, said what’s in the legislation approved Monday is meant only to be a short-term response. And he said there’s a lot Arizona lawmakers do not know about the depth of the problem.

“Yes, we’re seeing statistics,’’ Finchem said. “But we’re seeing early statistics.’’

Rep. Mark Finchem

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, represents much of Pinal County but not the Florence area.

He argued that there is no clear consensus on the infection and mortality rate of the disease. That, said Finchem, makes it appropriate for lawmakers to react prudently until they know more.

And he said there’s nothing wrong with relying on the federal government.

“They’re the ones with the money-printing machine.’’

How quickly lawmakers can react if they need remains unclear.

Both the House and Senate adjourned until April 13. But there is a provision allowing legislators to return earlier than that if there is agreement between Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann.