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Policy: Budgets & Deficits

Arizona governor lays out agenda for lawmakers

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Associated Press,Arizona,Entitlements,Budgets and Deficits

PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers are due to report to the state Capitol on Monday, and their agenda for the 2014 Legislative session includes establishing a spending budget, overhauling a scandal-plagued child welfare agency and considering whether to repeal a sweeping election law.

These debates and others will rage as Republican Gov. Jan Brewer gets what's likely to be her final chance to flex gubernatorial muscles. Barring a successful legal challenge to redefine constitutional term limits — which experts consider a longshot — this year will be the end of her tenure in the state's top office.

"It would be hard for anybody to argue that the governor does not get what she wants," said Republican Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa.

"She has done an incredible job in establishing priorities and having a plan to get them done," he added. "What priority has she had that she hasn't gotten?"

Her political victories include last year's business sales tax collection overhaul and the battle to expand Medicaid against the wishes of her fellow Republicans.

Brewer will speak to lawmakers in her annual State of the State address Monday, bringing together the House and Senate for the first time this year.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Brewer gave a broad outline of her goals, saying she wants to focus on the state budget, economic development, Child Protective Services and education, which she said "has always been a No. 1 priority for me."

The budget discussion will be multifaceted. Lawmakers will face pressure to add money for education, CPS and other state services that were cut during the Great Recession. To make it balance, they'll rely on money socked aside over the past two years, being mindful, however, that experts project a new deficit in two more years.

Here's a detailed look at the issues:

— Education: The governor will be tasked with boosting school and university funding. But a tricky battle will be getting the Legislature to provide funding to implement new Common Core standards. Many lawmakers have reported hearing from constituents who are worried about the education benchmark that the state adopted in 2010.

Common core is a set of new standards that refocuses learning on comprehension and real life examples. They are designed to better prepare students for college and the job market.

The standards have been increasingly attacked by conservative Republican critics who call them a poorly conceived, federally driven effort that usurps states' rights.

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, which were developed by the states, led by governors and education leaders.

Brewer renamed the program Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards in September in a failed effort to defuse the furor.

"Common Core is a strange word to me," Brewer said, explaining the name change.

"The bottom line is," she said, "we want our children to have a college education or a career, ready to get those good jobs and make a living wage. And we can't do that unless they are prepared in our schools."

It's not clear how much money would need to be added to accommodate the program, but the fight might be a chance for her to rebuild the coalition of Democrats and Republicans who approved Medicaid expansion last year.

Brewer will also continue her push for performance funding for schools, trying funding and teacher pay to results.

— Child Protective Services overhaul: A scandal erupted in November when it was revealed that more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports were ignored by CPS.

Brewer appointed an outside team to review the cases and suggest ways to improve. Many are pushing for CPS to be moved out of its huge parent agency, the Department of Economic Security.

Brewer hasn't said what strategy she prefers.

"There's a lot of talk about a lot of suggestions from a lot of people regarding that," she said.

She said she wants to find a solution because in her 30 years in state government, "it's always been an issue over there."

She added: "When it was discovered that we had this number of uninvestigated cases of child abuse, I was outraged and I was angry. And certainly I'm not going to sit still and let that go by uncorrected under my watch."

— Election law: A possible repeal of a sweeping election law that has galvanized voter's rights groups, Democrats and third-party candidates is likely to be a key focus of Republican lawmakers.

The law trims Arizona's permanent early voting list by cutting non-active voters and limiting who may return mail-in ballots.

It also increases the number of signatures third-party candidates must gather to appear on the ballot, a provision that infuriated Libertarians because it would require them to collect as many signatures as major party candidates. It also contains a host of other changes.

The opposition groups collected enough signatures to get the Republican-backed legislation before voters in November.

Republican leaders are mum on the topic, but one key supporter of the bill, Arizona Rep. J.D. Mesnard, said that repealing the law before it gets to voters is a real possibility.

Republicans are worried that if the entire law is repealed by voters none of its provisions could be enacted in future sessions.

— Income taxes: An overhaul plan championed by Mesnard aims to collapse the state's five tax brackets into three while not raising anyone's taxes and maintaining the more than one-third of state revenue that comes from income tax.

Brewer is open to a change, but she expressed doubt.

"I've been through so many flat tax initiatives through the Legislature in my time that I don't know if it's possible," she said. "But I have seen lots of whiz kids down there make lots of attempts. It's a very delicate system we're working under, and so I wish him well if he can make it work."

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