State Sen. Sylvia Allen speaks quickly, her voice tinged with frustration as she tallies the list of agencies begging for refuge from massive budget cuts.
“How do we fund the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality when we have education coming and rural hospitals coming and counties and cities saying don’t cut our shared revenue,” she said.
The freshman state senator from Snowflake arrived in Payson Wednesday to tell her side of epic budget negotiations needed to solve a projected $2 billion deficit.
About seven people attended the town hall. Allen said the quiet turnout disappointed her after more well attended meetings in Globe, Eagar and Pima, but speculated that Thanksgiving’s proximity affected attendance.
Allen says she’s focused on reforming rules like the federal law that prohibits Arizona from charging co-payments to residents on its low-income health care program.
Social welfare programs and education swallow nearly 80 percent of the state’s budget. Government accounts for 16 percent, law enforcement takes 4 percent, and 2 percent funds transportation.
People worry about the state’s finances, but don’t fully understand the problem’s severity, said Allen. News reports have focused on the effects of potentially devastating cuts.
“They don’t ever report clearly and frankly to the people of Arizona, we are in a very serious problem,” said Allen.
Some legislature-watchers have grown frustrated with the closed-door negotiations that have defined this legislative season. Allen said the secret meetings are nothing new.
“Quite frankly, the majority of the legislature does not want to be down there weekends, nights, hour after hour,” she said. Instead, select lawmakers devise plans for later debate.
Local agencies attempting to budget this year have found it difficult as lawmakers repeatedly return and make incremental cuts.
Critics have grumbled that they lack gumption. Allen said, “It’s not just this problem you can walk in and solve.”
She said the state’s spending has doubled between 2004 and today, and the corresponding growth in government programs, each with their own protectors, makes cuts difficult.
Instead of eliminating programs, Allen proposes having users pay more. She talked about using the private sector to fulfill government obligations. For instance, it costs the auditor general about $135,000 to audit a school district. A private auditor could complete the same work for maybe $20,000, Allen guessed.
She couldn’t say why the same job costs so much more for a government agency to do it, but pointed to the cost savings as one way to begin decreasing the shortfall.
Another change Allen proposed is limiting annual budget increases to a formula based on population growth and inflation. Next would come rebuilding a rainy day fund lawmakers spent several years ago to mask the impending recession, and eventually stabilizing the state’s finances.
Most critical to change is welfare programs. “I can’t stress that enough. If we do not figure out how to cut costs in our welfare programs, that is just going to consume the state,” Allen said. “People are saying just go out and raise taxes. Where are we going to stop on all of this?”
She continued, “I spent a lot of time going through these programs, looking for ways we can possibly change them and bring in money, and not eliminate them if at all possible.”
The governor has called a special session for December, and lawmakers are expected to resume talks on fixing the budget.
At some point, lawmakers must decide on the inevitable cuts. Allen said she’s looking for ideas and support from constituents.
The 1-cent sales tax the governor proposed has not yet died, and Allen said she at one point backed a compromise package that included it, along with subsequent tax breaks.
The clock is ticking.