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Arizona Legislature Rushing Help For Schools, Workers

By Bret Jaspers, Lauren Gilger
Associated Press
Published: Thursday, March 19, 2020 - 12:27pm
Updated: Thursday, March 19, 2020 - 12:49pm

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The Arizona Capitol building
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
The Arizona Capitol building in Phoenix.

The Arizona Legislature rushed Wednesday to enact a basic state budget along with bills giving flexibility to closed schools and help for workers who lose their jobs as they try to address the impact of the coronavirus before adjourning until the health crisis ebbs.

But Republican lawmakers who control the majority were not interested in a relief package pushed by minority Democrats. They're looking for paid sick leave for workers, added help for food banks, relief for tenants facing evictions or utility shutoffs and food assistance for the poor who lose their jobs.

“I don’t have an appetite right now for pork,” Republican Rep. Travis Grantham said, “And based on what I’ve heard from a lot of the folks on the other side of the aisle, a lot of their emergency measures are just that.”

House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez erupted in fury when told of comments by Grantham and other Republicans. Rep. T.J. Shope said he thought Democrats were trying to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis.

“Are you kidding me? I am shocked beyond belief,” Fernandez said. “This is a crisis that we’ve never seen before. We need to be responsible, and for people to turn their nose up to that ...”

Fernandez said lawmakers should push to do more now so they don't look back in several months and regret that they didn't do enough.

“We want to help with money,” she said, “That is not pork, that is not building a bridge that’s not needed, that’s not paving a street to someone’s house. That’s pork.”

The Senate was working to pass an emergency bill to take advantage of new federal legislation allowing expedited unemployment benefits for people temporarily out of work and extend benefits for a full year.

But Republican Senate President Karen Fann said there's no thought of boosting the state's maximum weekly benefit, which at $240 a week is among the lowest in the nation.

“That is an issue that we can certainly look at in the future but we can only do so much this week.” she said,

Both chambers also introduced a measure that will help schools by relaxing rules requiring a minimum number of school days, mandatory testing and other issues that have arisen since Gov. Doug Ducey on Sunday ordered all K-12 schools closed.

The bills would allow flexibility if schools reopen by March 31. If they remain closed, schools would be required to switch to online-only instruction or other alternatives. They also could have teachers and support staff work remotely. A series of other requirements are waived, as are penalties for not meeting school letter grade requirements. Schools also would be allowed to spend extra money on summer school.

“Really, the emphasis is on making sure they have the flexibility to do whatever they can to educate those students,” said GOP Rep. Michelle Udall, who leads the House education committee.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers said he hopes to have a basic state budget passed by the end of the week and then adjourn until the virus health crisis passes. The budget package appears ready for action in both chambers Thursday.

“It is my plan that after we get done with these bills that we vacate this building,” Bowers said.

The House passed a rule change Tuesday that allows members Bowers chooses to vote remotely, but the Senate has no plans to do so.

Bowers said the basic budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 will keep government running during the crisis. It been stripped of new spending priorities — including full restoration of some previous education cuts — and the tax cuts many Republicans and Ducey were seeking. It spends $11.8 billion, about $500 million less than Ducey's January plan.

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