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Updated Mar 25, 2014 - 8:52 pm

Arizona House again fails to reach budget deal

PHOENIX -- An effort by the Arizona House of Representatives to reach a budget agreement fell short of a final deal for the second day in a row Tuesday despite hours of closed-door meetings between Republican leaders and a group pushing for more education and child-welfare spending.

The House adjourned Tuesday evening without leaders reporting progress on changes to the $9.2 billion state budget passed by the Senate last week needed to get a handful of Republicans to sign on to the deal.

Republican Speaker Andy Tobin was leading the discussions.

"I think it's safe to say the House members are all communicating. They're all talking," Tobin said during a mid-afternoon break. "There are big differences and big gaps as we all know. But everyone's still at the table -- and I think that's what's important."

The members who blocked the vote were most concerned about two issues: Funding for a new child welfare agency and a provision retroactively stopping school districts from converting schools to charters. Several other issues also were on the table, including additional money for the University of Arizona and for K-12 education.

That group of lawmakers sidetracked a vote Monday night after it became clear they could block passage. After meeting with GOP House leaders Monday night and for hours Tuesday, group meetings with members were set for Wednesday.

"We've wasted two days. Hopefully we'll get something going tomorrow," said Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, the minority leader. "We're not in the room, but I feel confident the changes being discussed will eventually be better for the Democratic outlook then what they were two days ago."

The budget the Senate adopted last week included only part of the $74 million Gov. Jan Brewer wanted to set up a new child welfare agency and hire more than 400 new Child Protective Services workers, investigators and support staff.

The Republicans who broke with Tobin are pushing for funding closer to Brewer's initial request.

"I want to be a Republican that solves that issue," said Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, who noted that not only money but setting up a new agency Brewer wants is a priority. "We made promises to the people of the state of Arizona that we would protect the children, and that's something that we should be doing. It's not a blank check, but things should be reasonably placed so that they can perform their jobs."

Brewer ordered Child Protective Services pulled from its parent agency in January and created a Cabinet-level post to oversee it after more than 6,500 uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were revealed in November. A group of lawmakers and others are working with Brewer's staff to write legislation to make that executive order permanent and expect to release it by May 1, although it could come earlier.

House Appropriations Committee chairman John Kavanagh said Tuesday that Child Protective Services hadn't been left out of the Senate budget.

"It was understood they were getting a lot of money, and we weren't sure they could spend all that money, hire all those people in that time," Kavanagh said Tuesday. "And if after they expended that money they still had additional needs, there was still next year. They had plenty of money to do what they needed to do."

The charter-school conversion issue involved a provision in the Senate-passed version that would have blocked any conversions that happened after 2013. Charter schools get more money per student, but backers of the rollback argue they also can tap voter-approved bond money and overrides and end up with more money.

Senate President Andy Biggs put the provision in the budget. He was pushing an alternative plan in a separate Senate bill Tuesday to discourage charter-school conversion when it appeared likely the House would strip out the provision.

"You're looking at a really disparate funding issue -- that's the first part of it," Biggs said. "No. 2, we simply don't have the funds that would be available."

A developing House proposal would allow school districts to continue to convert schools to charters, but place limits on the number.

Biggs had problems with that proposal as well. ``It doesn't solve the problem,'' he said.

Biggs described the House budget process as out of control.

"It's almost chaotic. There's a lot of interests conflicting with each other over there," Biggs said. "Certainly I understand that there's always going to be issues on a budget. We were told the House needed certain things, and those made it into our budget."

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