GOP-controlled committees approve no-growth budget for Arizona - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

GOP-controlled committees approve no-growth budget for Arizona

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Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 1:23 pm | Updated: 4:36 pm, Thu Jan 17, 2013.

Less than 24 hours after making the plan public, Republican-controlled committees voted Tuesday to approve a no-growth budget for the state.

But there already are cracks developing in what is supposed to be a unified GOP front, with several legislators saying they want changes before the package of bills gets to the full House and Senate, possibly this coming week.

Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said the final budget has to include some additional funds for public schools. He said the state cannot implement last year's law requiring third-graders to prove they can read before they can be promoted without providing the necessary resources.

Several legislators have questions about why the plan crafted by their leaders makes no effort to equalize per-student funding among the state's three universities. And the lack of new funding comes even as the number of students increases.

And Rep. Vic Williams, R-Tucson, vowed to vote against any plan that does not require the state to at least start accounting for the money being shifted from the highway fund to instead keep government operating.

At hearings Tuesday, representatives of various groups that provide or advocate for public services made their pitch to lawmakers to ease their squeeze on spending.

Dana Naimark, president of the Children's Action Alliance, said the no-growth plan advanced by Republican lawmakers will cause harm. She particularly singled out the refusal of lawmakers to support the request by Gov. Jan Brewer to provide $25.8 million to replace lost federal aid that now is being used for the Department of Economic Security.

"Children will be less safe, they will be less protected, they will wait longer before they are adopted," she said.

Naimark struck somewhat more fertile ground when she pointed out that Brewer proposed $50 million in additional aid to schools for that third grade reading requirement; the legislative budget has no such allocation.

Crandall said that makes no sense.

He pointed out that lawmakers gave schools more money when they imposed a requirement that students pass all three sections of Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards in order to graduate. Crandall said the same thing needs to happen if the state is threatening to hold back third-graders because of lack of reading skills.

"The states I've looked at, of all those that have passed a third-grade retention requirement, we're the only ones that have so far not put any resources toward that," he said.

But he is getting a fight from many of his Republican colleagues.

"I think my grandparents learned to read by that time, and they didn't have some of the resources that we have given to the educational community," said Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma. "I'm not sure that money, money, money is always the answer."

And Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, said schools won't need more money for more effective reading programs if they scrap the ones that do not work.

The bigger obstacle for more funding for education - and for virtually any other program - is that several GOP legislators have a different concept of what children need.

"What we're doing here is all about children to ensure that we don't put them and future generations in debt," said Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson. Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, agreed, saying the federal debt is now approaching $17 trillion.

"If anything is going to hurt our children, it's going to be the debt this country is carrying," she said.

And Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said while a third-grade reading requirement is "a noble goal," lawmakers have to look at the big picture. And that, he said, means recognizing that the state is in danger of going back sharply into the red two years from now when the 1-cent temporary sales tax expires and the state is going to have new financial obligations under the federal health care plan.

Also missing from the legislative budget is Brewer's plan to start equalizing funding among the three universities.

Joseph Grossman, president of the downtown campus of Arizona State University, said a study performed by the Board of Regents found that the University of Arizona received $6,598 for each student, compared with $5,702 at ASU and $5,840 at Northern Arizona University. Brewer, in her budget proposal, moves to start equalizing that with $15 million "performance funding."

Crandall said the problem of higher education funding goes beyond that.

He noted the Republican leadership is promoting the budget on the basis that while funds are not being increased, no state agency is taking a cut. But Crandall said that, strictly speaking, that's not true.

"Last year we had 4,400 net new students at the universities," he said. "When you say you must teach 4,000 to 5,000 new students with no new money, that is, in essence, a cut."

Williams, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, had his own concerns.

GOP leaders have boasted that the proposed budget is balanced without some of the financial gimmicks used in previous years, including raiding special funds. He pointed out, though, that the plan continues the practice of taking money earmarked for road construction and maintenance and instead funding both the Motor Vehicle Division as well as some highway patrol officers.

He put the figure since the beginning of the century at $1.5 billion; this year's shift adds another $172 million to that.

Williams said he recognizes that he will not be able to strip that provision from the budget. So what he wants instead is for the state to begin accounting for those shifts as debt, with the idea that, at some point in the future, lawmakers will begin to repay those raids.

Objections to the budget came from other fronts.

Charles Ryan, director of the Department of Corrections, said the state needs the 500 new maximum security beds Brewer requested.

He acknowledged that prison growth has currently leveled off but anticipates a new upsurge beginning in 2013. More to the point, Ryan predicted a large number of the new inmates will require maximum security housing, including the ability to separate them, as well as adequate staffing.

Brewer's budget seeks 306 new corrections officers over the next two years, restoring levels to what they were in 2006. Ryan said the result of that shorting has been a sharp increase in assaults by inmates against staffers.

"The answer, in all due respect, is boots on the ground," he said.

Robert Halliday, director of the state Department of Public Safety, complained that the legislative budget lacks $9.2 million he needs - and Brewer wants - to cover higher retirement costs for his agency. Without that, Halliday said he will have to eliminate 72 positions.

He also wants money to start replacing aging patrol vehicles. Halliday said without the budget help he will be scaling back operations, diverting officers into critical areas.

Allen, however, said she sees DPS officers all over the road any time she drives. "I don't know where your shortage is," she said.

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