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Arizona Gov. Hobbs doubling down on plan to stop school vouchers

"This is a petty, partisan power grab that is absolutely retaliation towards my office," Arizona Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs says of the new law.
Ross Franklin
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Gov. Katie Hobbs promised a new effort Thursday to get state lawmakers to curb the growth of universal vouchers.
But the governor may have even less bargaining leverage with GOP lawmakers now to place some limits on the program than she did when she was negotiating the $17.8 billion budget and first asked for limits on the program that allows any Arizona student to get taxpayer money to attend private or parochial schools.
And that effort got her nowhere.
What's changed since she signed the budget last month, said Hobbs, is a report Wednesday by the state Department of Education that the universal voucher plan will cost the state $900 million this coming school year, about 63% more than was projected.
"Obviously, this number wasn't published before the budget,'' she said. "We have a different set of facts that we're dealing with now in terms of actual cost.''
That argument, however, may hold little sway among GOP leaders who refused to negotiate with her before.
Instead, an aide to Senate President Warren Petersen distributed an analysis Thursday by legislative budget staffers of the Department of Education numbers.
That report questioned the assumptions used by education staffers in their projections. And it also said it may be impossible to come up with an accurate cost until November -- long after the new school year has started.
The Gilbert Republican on Thursday refused to comment on the original report, the questions raised by budget staffers or the governor's interest in raising the issue again.
But House Speaker Ben Toma already is questioning the numbers in the report prepared by staffers of state schools chief Tom Horne.
All that leaves what, if anything, Hobbs can do about the vouchers now, with less than a month before the new fiscal year begains.
Hobbs, in her first State of the State speech in January, decried the program that lets any student get a voucher.
She said the program "lacks accountability and will likely bankrupt the state.'' Hobbs put the cost at $1.5 billion over the next 10 years.
Republicans, unmoved, refused to negotiate. So Hobbs gave up.
Now, with the renewed estimate, the governor said that gives her a chance to revisit the issue.
"We're looking at every option available,'' she said.
But her arguments Thursday about curbing the program remain the same as the one that GOP lawmakers refused to consider even when Hobbs had some bargaining power in terms of being able to reject some of their demands.
"We knew going into this that this program was going to be out of control and has the potential to bankrupt our state,'' she said. "And I will put it squarely back on Republican leaders who wouldn't put this on the negotiating table when we were doing the budget.''
That still leaves the question of whose cost estimates are to be believed.
The report prepared by the Department of Education estimates 100,000 students will enroll in voucher programs this coming year. And so far the majority are those who already were attending private and parochial schools, with the cost having been picked up by their parents.
The median cost of a voucher to the state is $10,000.
Legislative budget staffers sniffed at the estimate, saying it doesn't detail the methodology Horne's agency used.
As to that projection of 100,000 students, the legislative report says it always has considered enrollment in universal vouchers "highly speculative.'' And the cost numbers, the report says, will depend on how many students already were in private schools -- on their parent's dime -- versus those who switch from public schools where the state was already providing aid, albeit not at the same level as the cost of a voucher.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia