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Arizona Senate trying new process for budget work

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PHOENIX (AP) — State senators are going to try a new system to balance the budget, one that lawmakers say could help forge a consensus but also poses political risks.

Majority Republican and minority Democrats got separate briefings Tuesday on a process that Senate President Bob Burns wants each caucus to use to develop budget proposals for possible blending by the Appropriations Committee.

Under the new system, legislative budget analysts next week will present lawmakers with lists of budget-balancing options culled from various sources, including Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget proposal to be released Friday.

The idea is for each caucus to pick and choose among the options, with a wall projection of a spreadsheet showing the impact of each decision on the developing budget’s bottom line.

“I would hope that we could blend some of the components … and come up with something that will get us 16 votes,” Burns said, referring to a majority of the 30-member chamber.

The new system will require Republicans and Democrats to both participate in a process that will be open to the public. In the past, majority Republicans typically have hammered out GOP-only budget proposals behind closed doors, presenting them to the public only when they are deemed ready for formal action.

The state faces a projected shortfall of $1.5 billion in the current budget and more than $3 billion in the next one.

“It behooves all of us to get this job done as soon as possible,” Burns told fellow Republican senators. “It’s not going to be pretty.”

He told reporters the new process should help produce a wider range of ideas and provide more transparency.

However, that requires wary lawmakers being forthright during the caucus meetings about what options they favor or oppose, he acknowledged.

Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia, D-Tucson, said it could be to Republicans’ partisan advantage in the current election year to have Democrats to stake out politically risky positions on budget issues such as tax increases.

“I know that some of our members and some of our staff are concerned with the political downside of putting something out, but I said we need to take responsibility … to right the ship as well,” Garcia said.