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Arizona Republicans support state budget with more money for border than schools

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican legislative leaders are trying to line up the votes for a $15.1 billion spending plan that includes more money for border security than for new unrestricted operating funds for public schools.
And at the same time they want to cut $1.3 billion in taxes in the next three years.
The $544 million in that border security plan includes $355 million for a state-funded fence.
That wasn't a priority of the governor in January when he announced his own spending plan. In fact, he earmarked only $50 million for "physical barriers.''
But the idea has proven much more popular among GOP lawmakers, with the Senate actually voting along party lines this year to put $700 million to "administer and manage the construction of a new border fence.''
Republicans in the House were more reserved, approving just $150 million.
House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said the budget plan does not necessarily require all this be spent on physical barriers. He said it also would permit a "virtual'' fence, monitored with technology.
But Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said doing something remains a priority. And she said an actual wall or fence makes sense, especially along 17 miles of what the federal government planned to build during the Trump administration but were abandoned after Biden took office.
"Most of those materials are still laying around and were already paid for by the federal government,'' she said. And Fann said that border security is among the top issues in Arizona, and for good reason.
"There are young ladies getting raped by these coyotes,'' she said.
"We have unaccompanied children coming across,'' Fann continued. "The atrocities are absolutely horrendous. And that has got to stop.''
The border barrier is only part of that $544 million security plan. It also includes everything from additional dollars to help local sheriffs to financial assistance for prosecutors.
But those priorities are not shared by everyone.
The biggest hurdle for Republicans remains Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale.
He points out the state has a surplus of more than $5 billion. And while some of that is being spent to pay off the debts of state retirement systems, Boyer said there should be more than enough left for what he thinks should be the top priority: public education.
It starts, he said, with the fact that voters approved Proposition 208 in 2020 to tax the wealthiest Arizonans to provide about $900 million more a year in school operating funds. While the Supreme Court ruled the form of the levy to be illegal, Boyer said the state has more than enough to fund that out of existing revenues.
In fact, even with adding $425 million to the state's "rainy day'' fund and cutting property taxes by $350 million a year, the state would still have a $1 billion surplus at the end of three years.
There are some additional education dollars in the GOP proposal, like $49 million to increase basic aid to schools by 2.5%. But Boyer said there's less there than meets the eye.
He pointed out that the plan actually reduces the money schools now get for things like higher salaries for experienced teachers. The result, said Boyer, is some districts will end up with little, if any, new dollars.
"It's a shell game,'' he said. What it also is, said Boyer, is bad policy.
"At a time when Arizona needs teachers desperately to stay, especially experienced ones, you're getting rid of that state program,'' he said.
But gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said Ducey supports the idea of killing what is known as the teacher experience index.
"More affluent schools typically have longer-tenured teachers versus lower-income schools that have higher teacher turnover,'' he said. ``So we see this issue as a matter of equity.''
But Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Association of School Business Officials, said it will hurt rural districts who use the funds to keep experienced teachers.
There is another $100 million in additional dollars for students with special needs. But here, too, Boyer said, the plan fails to fund programs for students in poverty.
And there are other dollars for K-12 education in the plan, like $60 million in relatively unrestricted "additional assistance.''
Only thing is, that is being divided up evenly between traditional public schools and charter schools that are privately run, often for profit, even though there are far more students in traditional schools. Essigs said that translates out to $30 for each public school student -- and $130 for each student in a charter school.
Another $200 million in new education funds is earmarked only for school construction and repair, with none of it available for teacher salaries, a sore point among some who cite reports that show Arizona has among the lowest-paid teachers in the nation.
And while there is $50 million being added for school safety, the dollars are restricted and can be used to hire only police officers.
Aides to the governor defended the restriction, noting that state schools chief Kathy Hoffman gave certain federal pandemic relief dollars to schools, but with the limitation to use the cash solely for counselors. They said there are schools who want actual officers in place for protection.
Fann said if GOP leadership can't line up the votes of all the Republicans -- it takes all of them as they have only a one-vote edge in the House and Senate -- then she will have to look to Democrats.
There are things in the spending plan that appear to have bipartisan support, like $334 million as a down payment on a $1 proposal to obtain new water supplies, possibly through desalination projects.
The state also is increasing its funding for various programs for foster care and other social programs.
Fann said she is particularly proud the state is adding $100 million in what it pays to private entities that provide services for the developmentally disabled.
"When you have folks that are literally having to change adult diapers, having to handle extremely handicapped children and adults, they're making minimum wage,'' she said. "Yet you can go to the nearest burger joint and get hired on at $20 an hour.''
But House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said it's going to take more -- a lot more -- if Republicans are hoping for a bipartisan budget. He said the one being shopped around now is full of "misplaced priorities.''
And it's not just the infusion of dollars for border security. There's also that overriding question of state support for public education.
One element of the proposal would expand an existing program that provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits for individuals who donate money to help Arizona students attend private and parochial schools. In essence, for every dollar they give for those programs they reduce their state income tax liability by an equal amount.
The proposed expansion starts with a small price tag of just $2 million this coming budget year. But it is structured for automatic increases and would cost $27 million over three years, money Bolding said "takes more money out of our public tax system'' that should go into public education.
Lawmakers didn't leave themselves out, either.
Fann said she needs $5 million -- on top of the current $17.8 million budget -- for one-time upgrades. She said much of the furniture in the Senate is "torn and shabby.''
But the House leadership also insisted on getting an identical one-time infusion of its own above its $21.4 million budget.
Other elements of the proposal include:
- 20% pay increases for state police and corrections officers designed to retain and keep workers. All other state employees would get a 10% hike, the first across-the-board increase in close to a decade.
- $46 million in one-time funds for the state's three universities. There also is an additional $12.5 million for "promise scholarships" for low-income students who enroll in a state university, plus $10 million for free in-state tuition for the spouses of active-duty military.
- $50 million for an accelerated program to train more nurses, with aid linked to commitments to remain in Arizona.
- A laundry list of $500 million in road-construction and repair projects that individual legislators want financed even though they are not on the priority list for the Arizona Department of Transportation.
- An additional $30 million deposited into the housing trust fund that can finance new projects and provide more immediate relief to individuals.
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On Twitter: @azcapmedia