Brewer proposes budget plan of $9.4 billion - East Valley Tribune: Capitol Media Services

Brewer proposes budget plan of $9.4 billion

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Posted: Friday, January 17, 2014 6:15 pm

Saying it's the best that can be done, Gov. Jan Brewer proposed a nearly $9.4 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

Her budget includes about $74 million in new funds for what she hopes will replace Child Protective Services. That includes hiring another 212 caseworkers to investigate complaints and deal with families and children, on top of the current 1,195.

Brewer's budget also requests $40 million for her incentive plan for public schools, money that will be divided up based on whether students show academic improvement. Some schools will get none of that.

There's also $13.5 million to craft a replacement for the now-scrapped Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards achievement tests.

Her plan also adds $70 million to basic state aid, something required after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled last year that it was illegal for her and the Legislature to refuse to fund a voter-mandated inflation formula.

What the governor is giving with one hand she is taking some away with another. John Arnold, her budget director, said the state is assessing schools a total of $15 million to pay for improvements in Internet access.

“It feels like we're robbing Peter to pay Paul,” complained House Minority Leader Chad Campbell. He said it amounts to taking money that just keeps schools even with inflation and using it for something the state itself should fund.

State aid to universities is essentially unchanged.

Brewer is making a final adjustment to funding for Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University to bring their per-student funding up to what has been paid to the University of Arizona. The University of Arizona is getting an extra $15 million, but that money has to be spent by the school to do research with the Translational Genomics Research Institute, a private organization that Arnold conceded cannot be funded directly by the state.

Arnold said his boss is doing what she can with the money available.

He pointed out that the three-year temporary one-cent sales tax Brewer championed and got voters to approve expired last year.

“That's $960 million of revenue that left the state,” he said.

“We're asking for a little more patience from our higher ed community and our K-12 communities, all of our communities, really, until we continue to stabilize,” Arnold continued. “We're not even back to 2007 revenue levels yet.”

But Arnold also insisted that tax breaks Brewer approved in prior years — including another $129 million largely in corporate income tax cuts that kick in this coming year — were not a mistake.

“We've created 170,000-plus new jobs in the state and brought a whole slew of economic development here that I don't know would have happened,” he said. Arnold said the moves were necessary because the state's tax rate “was not competitive.”

As lean as the governor's budget plan is, it may still prove too rich for the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The lawmakers' own budget analysts are more pessimistic in their revenue forecasts, not just for this coming year but on down the road.

Arnold puts the difference for this coming year at about $300 million — and $1.1 billion over three years.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said he thinks he can make the necessary cuts in Brewer's plan to satisfy GOP lawmakers.

One of the largest areas of increase is for child welfare.

Arnold figures it will cost $21.5 million for the additional caseworkers and support staff. That will address the backlog of 10,000 child abuse cases listed as inactive, meaning there has been no action on them in at least two months.

That's on top of the discovery late last year that 6,500 complaints of abuse had never been investigated at all.

Arnold acknowledged the agency has suffered from a high turnover of caseworkers — in the neighborhood of 20 percent a year. He said Brewer believes the additional staff will lower the number of cases that each employee is required to handle, potentially reducing the constant need to hire and train more people.

On top of that, Brewer wants another 8.6 million for the agency's Office of Child Welfare Investigations which is supposed to intercede any time there are allegations of abuse that rise to the level of criminal conduct. Arnold said current funding allows investigations into just 17 percent of the cases in the state's two largest counties.

There also is a $10 million down payment on replacing the agency's aging computer system — and $25 million for what Arnold said could be the cost of separating it from the Department of Economic Security.

One issue likely to provoke a fight is Brewer's refusal to stop diverting cash from the Highway User Revenue Fund to finance operations of the state Department of Public Safety. That account, made up of gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees, is supposed to go to road construction and maintenance.

Both Campbell and House Speaker Andy Tobin had urged Brewer to slowly stop the siphoning of dollars, to the tune of $238 million over the next two years. They pointed out that the state has taken $750 million out of the fund since 2002, much of that which should have gone to local communities for their own projects.

“It's just the position we're in,” Arnold said of Brewer continuing to take HURF dollars. Instead, Arnold said the state will provide $31 million to rural communities to enable them to secure federal transportation grants.

The budget does include $9.2 million as the state's share of building a new nursing home for veterans in Yuma that will house from 60 to 90 residents. Ted Vogt, director of the Arizona Department of Veterans' Services, said that covers 35 percent of the cost, with the Veterans Administration picking up the rest.

Vogt said his agency concluded the need was greater in Yuma than the other two sites that were being considered: Flagstaff and the Kingman-Lake Havasu City area.

Even if lawmakers and the governor agree on a spending plan, there are things out of their control that could blow it up.

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