State Budget Bill Sets Off Scramble To Gauge Impact

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Payson will take a $157,000 hit, state parks will start to shut down sites and thousands of county residents may lose their health care as a result of a compromise state budget.

Rim Country elected officials scrambled this week to get details of the budget plan adopted by the Arizona Legislature that included $1.1 billion in program cuts.

The House ended up essentially splitting the difference between Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal and a budget adopted earlier by the state Senate. Both Brewer and Senate leaders have adopted the compromise plan. The House version cut spending $400 million more than the governor’s plan but $200 million less than the Senate plan.

District Five Senator Sylvia Allen, who represents Rim Country, praised the budget. “There are no gimmicks, no rollovers, and no borrowing.  Senate leadership stood firm on our commitment to not allow accounting tricks in the budget.”

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said House budget staff members said that Payson will lose about $159,000 in revenue it normally collects from vehicle license fees. That’s bad, he said, but not the disaster threatened by the Senate plan, which could have cost Payson $2 million.

Evans said, “I don’t know how you can quantify all these impacts other than as ‘very significant.’ Our concern is that they’re trying to correct several years of mismanagement all in one budget year. I understand the motivation to do that. But it’s a little like a homeowner getting into trouble on the house and deciding not to refinance it — just to let it go.”

However, Sen. Allen sharply criticized the budget critics. “My frustration throughout the budgeting process has been the negativity of the media and the Democrats. The headlines do not reflect the good work that has been done here. The hours and hours of work that went into this budget.  Instead, they dwell upon the consequences of the reductions, which was brought about because of years of overspending. That overspending made the drop in revenue from the recession create a crisis, and it became harder to climb out of the mess.”

“The Senate bill was a death knell for a whole lot of entities, not just the universities,” said Evans. “It would have been the beginning of the end for a lot of critical initiatives.”

Key areas affected by the latest state budget cuts include:

Healthcare

The legislative budget plan includes $510 million in cuts to the state’s $7.5-billion Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which provides care for 30 percent of Gila County residents.

However, the budget didn’t spell out those cuts, leaving Gov. Brewer free to negotiate changes in the program with the Federal government, which provides the bulk of the funding.

Brewer has proposed limiting any new enrollment of childless adults, a group voters extended eligibility to some years ago through the use of tobacco settlement money. Not taking new enrollments in that category should shrink the AHCCCS rolls by 138,000 in the course of the year, say budget analysts.

The House budget included several other changes in the program, including a $50 fee for people who smoke and a $50 fee for people with diabetes or other chronic conditions who don’t lose weight on the recommendation of their doctors.

State parks

The House budget swept an additional $3.5 million from the battered state parks budget, dipping more deeply into the money the parks collect from visitors.

State parks officials said that they will have to start closing some of the parks in the 28-park system. The system has suffered repeated cuts in the past two years, but has negotiated partnerships with towns like Payson to keep the doors open on many parks.

State parks officials on Monday hadn’t yet drawn up a hit list, so the status of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park remains unclear.

The park system several months ago said it hoped to find a private concessionaire to take over management of the world’s largest travertine bridge and cavern and has relied on money and volunteers from Payson to remain in operation for the past year.

Community colleges

Ironically, Gila Community College’s second-class status will cushion the impact of a nearly 70-percent reduction in state support for community college districts included in the House bill. All told, community colleges will lose about $64 million in support.

GCC relies mostly on local property taxes and tuition payments to fund its $6 million budget, since as a provisional community college it collects less than half the per-student support from the state as most of the other community college districts in Arizona.

The deep cuts in state support for community colleges has forced them to raise tuition sharply and cut programs in the face of record enrollments and the doubling of tuition by the universities.

Evans noted that the budget bill apparently cuts off funding for workforce development programs at the community colleges, although the lingering economic troubles have prompted record enrollments in those programs at most colleges.

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