Efforts to quickly enact an $11.8 billion “baseline’’ contingency budget for the coming fiscal year hit a snag Wednesday as some Republicans questioned what is — and is not — in the spending plan and Democrats are holding out for some priorities.
The decision by the House to postpone floor debate came as some Democrats accused GOP colleagues of failing to take seriously the threat of COVID-19.
They questioned why House Speaker Rusty Bowers chose to have a vote on a resolution supporting the government of Taiwan if there is a rush to adopt a spending plan and send lawmakers and staff home to get them out of situations where there are large groups and the possibility of contamination.
“My objection is not to Taiwan,’’ said Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-Chandler. “It is to bringing this bill forward today.’’
She said the focus should be on what is happening with the Arizona economy -- and the failure of the Republican-controlled Legislature to adopt any measures to help out small businesses and the people who work for them.
“Many of our small business owners only have one month’s cushion,’’ Jermaine said.
“Many of our workers have only two weeks’ of savings,’’ she continued. “People are coming up on that first missed paycheck and people are going to become homeless and businesses are shutting.’’
Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, was unapologetic about pushing ahead with SCR 1025 which already had been approved by the Senate. He said Taiwan has been an important trade partner with Arizona and represents the will of 30 million of its citizens to remain free of China.
Not all Democrats opposed approval of the resolution. Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon of Tucson supported the measure, noting it comes as Tucson International Airport is negotiating with the government of Taiwan to promote trade.
But the question of how seriously some are taking the threat of COVID-19 came into sharp focus amid comments by Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert.
“I’ve been shot at,’’ he told colleagues “I’ve been given anthrax vaccinations, exposed to chemical weapons areas.’’
And then there is the question of numbers and risk.
“Not to discount anybody’s opinion or concern about what’s going on in our country, 0.00000365 percent of the Arizona population is carrying a virus that to many young healthy individuals is no different than a common cold but is dangerous to some of our population,’’ Grantham said. “And those people should be taken care of and should exercise caution.
Those comments drew a slap from Rep. Randy Friese, D-Tucson, who is a physician.
“Mr. Grantham’s comments, I think we need to be very aware of the epidemiology of a viral illness,’’ he said, and the fact that the current low rate of infection is not an indication of the lack of a hazard.
“The slope of that curve may be quite low right now,’’ Friese said. “But that slope will be changing rapidly and creating an exponential of mathematical curve.’’
There also was a tweet posted by Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, of himself and three other Republicans out Tuesday, March 17, at a restaurant poking fun at the order issued earlier that day by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego closing down bars and restaurants to prevent the spread of the disease.
“It’s 8:15 p.m. Do you know where Phoenix Mayor @KateWGallego is?’’ the tweet read, complete with hashtags of #resist and #freedomofassembly.
Kern later took the tweet down.
Questions of the virility of the virus aside, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez blasted Republican leadership for wanting to simply adopt a baseline budget and go home. She said lawmakers have an obligation to deal with the real effects of the outbreak -- and the fallout from shuttered businesses, reduced tourism and general weakening of the economy.
For example, she noted that the Republican-controlled Legislature added a requirement several years ago that adults receiving food stamps must go out and look for work and take any available job.
Fernandez said there are no jobs available.
“And do we want people who may be ill to be out there looking for work?’’ she asked.
A similar requirement exists for those getting unemployment insurance.
Fernandez also wants some protections for what happens as people cannot pay their rent, both to keep them in their homes and apartments and provide financial relief for landlords who will not be able to collect monthly payments.
Bowers defended the push to simply enact a baseline budget and shut down the Legislature for some period of time.
“All these functions of government are preserved going forward,’’ he said. Anything else, Bowers said, can wait until lawmakers return.
The question remains of whether there are the votes to simply adopt a baseline budget and leave.
On the House side, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, questioned the delay in approving $20 million to construct a bridge across Tonto Creek where three children were swept away last year.
Across the courtyard, Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, finds she does not currently have a working majority among Republicans, with two of her members staying away to avoid possible contamination. And, unlike the House, the Senate is not planning to allow remote voting.
That means Fann needs the cooperation of Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, to approve a new budget. And Bradley and the Democrats are likely to insist on some relief for those affected by the virus.
While the plan is billed as simply current funding plus inflation and population growth, there is some new money in there.
It includes $67.8 million in additional “district additional assistance,’’ restoring funds that were cut from schools during the recession.
There also is $30 million spread over this fiscal year and next for new locks at some state prisons as well as a plan to convert some of the facilities from swamp coolers. But the issue there is not inmate comfort but the fact that the coolers keep the air damp and promote rust in the locks.