The Range


SHOP, CITIZENS! SHOP! Gloomy new numbers on the state budget: Arizona's February tax collections were 17.5 percent below last year's take, according to the latest report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Big declines include a 12 percent drop in retail sales taxes and a 10 percent drop in contracting sales taxes.

The gloomy numbers have the JLBC projecting a $1.2 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that ends June 30. State lawmakers and Gov. Janet Napolitano are continuing budget negotiations.


BARRIER BLUES: Homeland Security boss Michael Chertoff announces that he is suspending more than 30 environmental laws over roughly 470 miles in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. Chertoff tells the media: "Criminal activity at the border does not stop for endless debate or protracted litigation."

Congressman Raúl Grijalva says the waivers are "an attempt to wreck more than a century of protections for our resources and the health of our communities by an administration on its way out of town"; Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who complains that she was not consulted, calls the decision "outrageous" and "unacceptable."

FULL-COURT PRESS: Lute Olson's first press conference following his return from a season-long leave of absence is a real hootenanny! While details remain sketchy, Olson assures the press that he's hale, hearty and ready to coach. Additional highlights:

Lute fires Kevin O'Neill, once the heir apparent of the program: "When he said he's coming back or that he's going to fulfill the terms of his contract, he won't be on the staff. But ... if he doesn't land a job, then the university will be responsible for the second year of his contract." O'Neill makes $375,000 annually as an assistant coach.

• Lute accuses Citizen reporter Renee Schafer Horton of reporting that Lute was out for the season because he was in rehab: "I didn't see the article, but I know that you wrote an article that indicated either rumors or an unnamed source indicated that I had been at a rehab center?" After Horton denied writing such a story, Lute replied: "Frankly, I don't read your articles; I apologize. But that's going beyond."

• Lute dismisses Arizona Daily Star reporter Bruce Pascoe as "Columbo" and informs Star columnist Greg Hansen that he is now being shunned.


WAY-NEW MATH: Tucson Unified School District officials get a revised audit from MGT of America that shows that closing six elementary schools, one middle school, one high school and two alternative high schools will save as much as $4.7 million to $6.67 million annually. The audit had previously estimated the annual savings of closing four elementary schools at $260,000, while TUSD forecasts had ranged between $1.8 million and $4 million.


A MORE PERFECT UNION: An effort by Christian groups to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage suffered a setback at the Arizona Legislature when opponents of the measure managed to tack on an amendment guaranteeing certain rights for domestic partners. House Speaker Jim Weiers says he won't bring the new package up for a vote by the full House. Across the courtyard, Sen. Tim Bee says there's no reason to hear a similar measure in the Senate if it can't get enough votes to pass the House. The constitutional ban on gay marriage, which is already illegal in Arizona, would have required voter approval in November.

PLAY BALL! The Tucson Sidewinders open what's likely to be their final season in Tucson with a 12-10 win over the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. More than 11,000 fans turn out at Tucson Electric Park, creating gigantic traffic jams and long lines at the beer stands. On the mound: Randy Johnson, who gives up five runs and eight hits while striking out one batter over four innings.

HIYA, NIYA: The UA Athletic Department has something besides Lute Olson to talk about when athletic director Jim Livengood announces that he has hired Niya Butts as the new coach of women's basketball team. Butts, who played for the University of Tennessee between 1996 and 2000, was an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky. She replaces Joan Bonvicini, who had coached the Wildcats for 17 years before getting canned in a St. Patrick's Day massacre.


TERMINATED: Gov. Janet Napolitano breaks out the veto stamp to reject two abortion bills. House Bill 2769 would have amended a law on the books restricting partial-birth abortion that was declared unconstitutional, but Napolitano said the new bill could stiffen penalties against doctors while reducing their legal defenses. HB 2263 would have set guidelines for judges to determine whether a minor is mature enough to seek an abortion without parental consent.


BAYLESS BAILS: UA freshman Jerryd Bayless announces that he is leaving college to enter the NBA draft. Bayless, who averaged 19.7 points per game and made 83.9 percent of his free throws, set a UA freshman record by scoring 592 points last season.


GO DOWN, MOSES: Arizona Sen. John McCain releases a statement honoring the passing of screen legend Charlton Heston: "In taking on epic and commanding roles, he showed himself to be one of our nation's most gifted actors, and his legacy will forever be a part of our cinema. Off the screen, Charlton Heston was also a real-life leader. He served his country and proudly gave his voice in support of some of our most basic rights. He was devoted to the cause of freedom for all Americans from the battle for civil rights in the 1960s to protecting Second Amendment rights in the 1990s. At this time of grief, let us honor a life that has truly touched millions." We'd just like to add we loved him in Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man.
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