Passing a new state budget in the spring is normally the apex of the Legislature’s annual efforts, allowing members to leave the Capitol. They had more incentive this year, however, with the growing coronavirus concern. Legislators passed a “skinny” budget early last week and departed, with a goal of returning April 13. Whether that happens is unknown now.
When legislators convened in January, the booming economy had created a “problem” of determining what to do with bulging state coffers. That quickly changed with COVID-19, an economy shutting down and the likelihood of a recession. Legislators decided they needed to disperse for safety reasons. Having a slim budget in place left the possibility that it could become final.
One good thing about state government in Arizona, unlike the federal version and some in other state capitals, is the Legislature needs to pass a budget every year based on the revenue it is likely to receive. There is no grand opportunity to get into trouble with borrowing. Of course, some gimmicks are used, as was evidenced during the Great Recession. But bigger spending plans generally must await better times, the same as Arizona citizens do in their own households. Those better times evaporated pretty fast, and we can only hope they return fairly soon.
When the legislators come back, they have the ability to do more financially and otherwise. Whether that is possible is questionable at this point. They had started with a $12.3 billion blueprint from Gov. Doug Ducey that included infrastructure and education initiatives. They instead settled for $11.8 billion, at least for now.
Among the stalled bills in Phoenix are a phased-in doubling of the gasoline tax for road construction, workers compensation help for firefighters who have cancer and banning transgender students from competing in girls sports. With the COVID-19 concerns and interruption, all major legislation is facing a tough climb.
When legislators return they will have a better idea about revenue, but that may well not be a happy situation. Legislators did the right thing with the slim budget, and if Arizona has to live with it, that will have to do for this year.