The decision of two state senators to skip the rest of the legislative session amid coronavirus fears puts the GOP majority – and their proposed tax cuts – in jeopardy.
PHOENIX (AP) — Widespread disruptions caused by the coronavirus are forcing Republicans who lead the Arizona Legislature to consider drastic steps that could include shutting down the 2020 session early.
House and Senate leaders plan to meet Monday to sort through a variety of options. They include a temporary shutdown, passing a basic “baseline” budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and adjourning until later in the year, or pushing through the current plan that includes new spending priorities and big tax cuts with the option of revising it later. That will be difficult, since two GOP members plan to skip this week’s sessions.
House GOP Majority Leader Warren Peterson told The Associated Press on Saturday that those options and more are possible.
“I think we’ll talk about all of those things,” Peterson said. “One path forward is you just pass basically a baseline budget. A baseline budget would allow you to get the budget out, make sure that the state runs as it should and then we can see how really what I would say the panic of the coronavirus has affected the economy.
“And once we’re able to assess that we can come back,” he said.
Forcing the hand of leaders was the decision by two Republican senators not to return to the Capitol this week to avoid potential virus exposure. The GOP holds a 17-13 majority in the Senate, so it needs at least one of them to pass bills that lack Democratic support. Any budget that includes tax cuts fits that bill. In the House, the GOP holds a 31-29 majority, so one missing Republican puts the brakes on legislation with no Democratic backing.
Republican Sens. Heather Carter and Paul Boyer said they believe the Capitol needs to shut down to stop any virus spread. Although Senate and Republican leaders have closed the Capitol to visitors, there’s still 90 lawmakers, large numbers of staff and a big cadre of lobbyists.
“I think it’s really important for us to exercise extreme caution and put social distancing in place,” Carter said Friday. “And I’d rather err on the side of being over-careful than pretending like it’s business as usual, and next thing you know in two weeks we’re seeing the same health outcomes that Italy saw.”
All of Italy has been shut down as the country deals with a major outbreak of the disease that has killed more than 1.400, and Spain instituted a nationwide quarantine Saturday.
Carter cares for her elderly mother, and Boyer has an infant son, so both are concerned about bringing the infection home.
For most people, the new 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. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
Arizona had tallied 13 confirmed cases of the new virus as of Sunday morning, but no deaths. A large number of metro Phoenix school districts have announced closures to prevent disease spread, but the state Health Services Director says schools don’t need to close because community spread of the virus is minimal and school closures can cause major disruptions.
Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday declared a public health emergency but stopped short of ordering large events to be cancelled as some other governors have done. Still, numerous major events have been cancelled, including Major League Baseball calling off remaining spring training games.
That means the state’s rosy tax revenue projections will need to be reassessed, Senate President Karen Fann said Friday.
“Because we’re seeing more and more things like flights being cancelled and sports being cancelled, then yes, revenue is now going to be a question,” she said.
The state had been projecting a nearly $1 billion surplus, and lawmakers were eyeing major infrastructure spending and big tax cuts. Ducey had proposed a $12.3 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1.
Fann said the absence of two of her Republican members definitely forced the hand of GOP leaders.
“That’s why we need to look at all the options – do we do a full budget, a partial budget, do we wait a couple weeks until they come back?” she said.