BORDER BILLS ON THE LINE
The Obama administration and Congress have plenty to work out on the fiscal front, even if GOP House members seem to be moving away from weaponizing the debt limit (for at least a few months). And the subject of gun regulation is taking center stage in Washington.
But right behind those two issues is the sticky question of immigration reform. Democrats want to hang onto Latino voters after more than seven out of 10 voted for Obama in the presidential election, while Republicans recognize that cheering on bills like SB 1070 might be great for stirring up support from the party's base, but it's a recipe for disaster in national elections.
Congressman Raul Grijalva tells The Skinny that he wants to see immigration legislation that is "comprehensive and not piecemeal," reflecting concerns that Republicans might want to tackle the issue with a series of bills and leave out one key component: Resolving the status of the millions of people who are now in the country without legal status.
"The debate, like gun control, is going to be fierce and intense," Grijalva said.
Grijalva is encouraged that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is working on a plan that includes a "path to legalization," but he's concerned that "many Republican members of the House of Representatives can't seem to utter those words."
Congressman Ron Barber, a Democrat who has the longest stretch of border with Mexico in his District 2, takes a similar position. Barber says he wants to create "a visa program that allows people to come to this country safely and legally to do the jobs we need them to do because there aren't people in this country who want those jobs, and then they can go home to their families."
He'd also like to see more H-1B visas so people who come from other counties to get an education in high-tech fields can remain in the United States rather than return to their home countries to find work.
Barber supports the DREAM Act and wants to a new program that would allow people now in the country illegally to remain here, as long as they paid fines and back taxes and did not have criminal records.
"I want to see a sensible, no-amnesty approach to dealing with those people," Barber says.
With all that said, Barber is still leaning hard on the secure-the-border rhetoric, telling The Skinny that he intends to "continue to work to ensure that the people I represent are safe in their homes."
Barber added that during a recent conference call with Cochise county ranchers, he was told "they still feel unsafe on their land. The drug cartels are still crossing through their land."
Barber, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, recently shined attention on a General Accountability Office report that examined what kind of job the U.S. Border Patrol has been doing in recent years.
The GAO report asserts that fewer people were trying to cross over into the United States—partially because the U.S. has put more Border Patrol agents (assisted by the National Guard) into the field and partially because the U.S. economy's slowdown since 2008 has meant that there are fewer job opportunities here for border crossers.
But the GAO also concluded (and the Department of Homeland Security agreed) that the Border Patrol does not have a very good system in place to determine the best use of the additional agents that have been put on the ground—or, in government-speak, the Border Patrol "has not identified milestones and time frames for developing and implementing performance goals and measures in accordance with standard practices in program management."
Barber has scheduled a meeting here in Tucson on the GAO report on Border Patrol operations on Tuesday, Jan. 29, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Pima Community College East Campus, 8181 E. Irvington Road.
"I'm going to be focused on making sure that the money that we've given to the Homeland Security Department is spent in the right way to begin to reduce the impact on Southern Arizona from the cartels," said Barber.
THE BUDGET FIGHT
Gov. Jan Brewer's proposed 2014 budget, released last week, has a wish-list of new spending.
Brewer's big ticket items: She wants to boost education spending by roughly $110 million this year for teacher training, school-resources officers and bonuses for schools that improve their test scores, as well as $122 million to pay for new technology and other infrastructure improvements. She wants an additional $65 million for the state's strapped Child Protective Services Program. She wants $25 million to boost state employee pay and $40 million to pay off some of the state's debt.
"My budget plan for fiscal year 2014 includes a strong focus on our core functions: educating our citizens, protecting our children, caring for our most vulnerable and modernizing state business," Brewer said in a prepared statement. "Fulfilling these priorities will strengthen Arizona's position as a global competitor, and make Arizona a better place in which to work, live and raise our families."
Brewer's budget triggered a cautious response from Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin, who released a joint statement saying they'd had a "productive" meeting with Brewer and her budget staff.
The statement noted that Republicans have shrunk state government spending and built up a "rainy-day" fund for unexpected financial bumps.
"Our hope is that the final enacted budget will replicate the success we have implemented thus far," the statement continued. "There is clear evidence that the conservative approach to state funding is the proper way to bring our state back to full economic recovery. The members of our two bodies look forward to working with the governor in order to resume the continued success these measures have had for the people of our great state."
A POTENTIAL BUDGET SNAG
The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled last week that GOP lawmakers violated the Voter Protection Act when they failed to increase school funding to account for inflation in recent years.
"Without question, the Legislature faces substantial challenges in preparing the state budget, particularly during difficult economic circumstances," Judge Michael J. Brown wrote in the ruling. "But our constitution does not permit the legislature to chance the meaning of voter-approved statutes by shifting funds to meet other budgeting priorities."
The decision overturns a Maricopa County Superior Court decision that concluded the Legislature did not have to increase funding to keep pace with inflation.
The inflation funding was included as part of a proposition that created a .6-cent per dollar sales tax to support education. Voters passed Prop 301 in 2000.
Attorney Tim Hogan, who led the lawsuit against the state, called the ruling "a terrific decision."
"The court upheld the will of the voters, who approved this required inflationary funding," said Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. "Giving some vitality to the Voter Protection Act is important. And this is a significant amount of money, too."
Hogan said the decision to not increase funding to keep up with inflation cost the schools more than $80 million this year. But he added that, from his reading of the appeal, the state would not be obligated to provide that funding in this fiscal year; instead, if the decision is upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court, the Legislature will have to provide the inflation-related funding in future years.
Attorney General Tom Horne is expected to appeal the decision, but if it holds up, lawmakers will have to dig into that surplus to provide the funding.