Ariz Senate to move budget as Medicaid fight looms

Arizona Senate to move state budget to a vote but Medicaid fight looms, House support unclear

Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) -- A long-awaited state budget that funds operations for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was introduced Tuesday in the Arizona Senate and could come up for a vote later this week, clearing the way for a debate on Gov. Jan Brewer's Medicaid expansion.

Senate President Andy Biggs said the 10 bills will move through the Appropriations Committee and should reach the Senate floor on Thursday.

The bills don't include Medicaid expansion, which is expected to be tacked on as a floor amendment. That would result in a debate on Medicaid expansion in the Senate, a long-awaited move on the Republican governor's top priority for 2013.

The moves set the stage for what will be a high-stakes political battle in the coming weeks that will test Brewer's political clout. She's backed by a strange coalition that includes a handful of moderate Republicans and many Democrats who have long feuded with the state's GOP leadership. On the other side are conservatives who oppose her Medicaid plan, and it still isn't clear if she can get it through the Legislature.

Brewer surprised the political world when she announced that she wanted to expand Medicaid coverage, despite being one of the nation's most vocal opponents of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Brewer believes the expansion will give more of Arizona's poor medical insurance, flood the state with $1.6 billion a year in new federal money and rescue hospitals saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars in uncompensated care.

"Let's see if they can get it on," said Biggs, an opponent of the plan to add 300,000 poor Arizonans to the state's Medicaid program. "I expect there to be a contentious floor debate."

Brewer's proposed expansion has created a stalemate as lawmakers have yet to take up Medicaid, Brewer's sales tax overhaul or the budget despite being more than four months into the session.

"To be perfectly honest, I am just grateful that we have things on the table and that we have something to discuss, something to debate," Brewer said. "This is the beginning of the end."

The Senate budget proposal includes a plan backed by Biggs that would maintain coverage for more than 60,000 childless adults now covered by the state's Medicaid plan using the state's rainy-day fund, but not embrace expanding it under provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Brewer opposes that outright.

"I think the rainy-day fund should probably be maintained for a rainy day," Brewer said.

House Speaker Andy Tobin unveiled a competing proposal Tuesday that could refer the Medicaid expansion question to the voters.

"I'm not a supporter of sending it to the ballot," Brewer said. "I believe that we are all elected by the voters of Arizona to make these tough decisions, and I've got a proposal out there that I think we can explain. I think the polls say overwhelmingly that they support us enacting the restoration of Medicaid and that they should go forward and do so."

Some Republicans are strongly opposed to Brewer's plan to expand the state's Medicaid program, calling it a huge government growth that runs counter to their core conservative values.

It's broadly supported by minority Democrats, but one bill that also was introduced Tuesday infuriated them and possibly threatened their support.

That bill is a mishmash of election-change proposals that have been held up in the House and Senate, all firmly opposed by Democrats who say they are an attack on voter rights.

Sen. Steve Gallardo said the election bill is so worrisome that Democrats may choose not to support Medicaid.

"The only leverage we have is Medicaid expansion and if they think that they are going to use Medicaid expansion to get bad policy and a bad budget they are sadly mistaken," he said.

The fate of Medicaid expansion, if it survives the Senate, appears uncertain. House Speaker Andy Tobin could serve as a major roadblock to the legislation.

Tobin said he met with Biggs last week and there was some question about whether they could get the budget out this week with Medicaid expansion. He said Brewer has twice rejected proposals that excluded the expansion.

He was unaware that the budget bills had been introduced and would go to the floor Thursday.

"I have not seen this budget. I don't know what's in it, but I assume it looks a lot like what we prepared together," he said.

Tobin said there aren't enough votes in the House to pass Brewer's Medicaid plan, but Brewer disagreed.

"The long and the short of it, it doesn't matter what happens, the governor is going to get what she wants." said Sen. Steve Pierce, one of a handful of GOP senators who support the Medicaid plan. "She is a strong-willed person and she's usually on the right side of the issues."

The budget Biggs unveiled Tuesday includes almost as much spending as Brewer asked for, and included money for more Child Protective Service workers, a boost in K-12 school spending to account for inflation and a small amount of money for a school-performance plan Brewer supports. Brewer wants $36 million this year for performance funding, but Biggs said his budget gives $2.4 million with a pledge to fully fund it next year.

The Senate spending plan is about $8.8 billion for the 2014 fiscal year, Biggs said. The spending plan Brewer released in January was slightly higher, at $8.9 billion.

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Associated Press writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

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