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Budget package moves through AZ House

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- State lawmakers approved a $17.8 billion spending plan Wednesday after Republican lawmakers beat back efforts by Democrats to curb ever-expanding universal vouchers because it wasn't part of the deal GOP leaders negotiated with Gov. Katie Hobbs.

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, sought to impose an immediate pause in enrolling more students in the program until lawmakers could get a better handle on costs. She pointed out that the price tag just this school year that allows students to get tax dollars to attend private or parochial schools at taxpayer expenses, regardless of financial need, already has more than doubled the original $200 million estimate.

And that doesn't include another $176 million that finances the original program started in 2011 to serve students with special needs.

Even Hobbs in her own budget released in January predicted that universal vouchers, unless repealed, would consume $1 billion in state funds a year within a decade.

That proposal, however, went down to defeat on a party-line vote as Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that Hobbs agreed to the continued expansion.

Gutierrez, a public school teacher, had no more luck with her effort to cap enrollment in the expanded program at 69,000, about 25% more than already have signed up since universal vouchers first became available last year.

But despite the party-line support for limits, several Democrats agreed to support the budget anyway.

Backers said that ensured the package contained other priorities they wanted, like adding $300 million to K-12 schools.

That didn't impress Rep. Athena Salman.

The Tempe Democrat pointed out that is just a one-time infusion. And she said that the exploding costs of universal vouchers, formally known as ``empowerment scholarship accounts,'' will make it more difficult in future years for public schools to get additional cash.

And Rep. Leeza Sun, D-Phoenix, said if the state really has an extra $1 billion it would be better spent on K-12 schools. She said that amount of money would fund $10,000 pay raises for about 35,000 teachers.

For the record, the state Department of Education reports there are more than 100,000 people with some kind of teaching certificate, though the agency cannot say how many of these people actually are in classrooms.

In an effort to sweeten the deal, House Speaker Ben Toma agreed with Minority Leader Andres Cano -- who voted for the final package -- to create a special study committee ``to provide clarity and ensure that the governance and administration of empowerment scholarship accounts is appropriately designed to manage a growing and complex problem.''

But there is nothing that ensures changes will be made to the program or limits will be imposed after the report is issued at the end of the year.

Still, there was enough in the package to add the votes of 16 of the 28 Democrats to all 31 Republicans.

That, coupled with divided support from Senate Democrats earlier in the day, was enough to send budget to Hobbs who is expected to sign all of its parts.

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