Blending Compassion, Responsibility

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We always heave a deep sigh when the Legislature wraps up a session — half in relief, half in disappointment.

Certainly, this year’s session proved less overtly traumatic than last year, when lawmakers approved crippling cuts in programs to contend with a multi-billion-dollar deficit.

By contrast, this year lawmakers stashed a projected $700 million surplus in assorted budgetary cubbyholes.

We applaud the painful effort lawmakers made to return the state to a sound financial footing and sympathize with the dispiriting choices that effort forced.

But we’re not so sure lawmakers made the right choices, especially when it came to balancing the short-term needs of our children with the longer-term need to restore fiscal responsibility.

Specifically, we think lawmakers gave too little heed to the urgent need to restore the crippling cuts in spending on the state’s schools. Reductions in the past two years have reduced per-student spending to 2006 levels, forcing wrenching cuts on the Payson Unified School District and virtually every other district in the state.

Furthermore, the cuts of the past two years have largely shredded the safety net for the most vulnerable among us — particularly for the children in working poor families who lack medical insurance. Many now cannot obtain coverage through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which covers an alarming 30 percent of Gila County residents.

We think Gov. Jan Brewer’s originally proposed budget made more sense than the compromise forced on her by lawmakers from her own party. We could have done with a smaller cushion against the eventual expiration of the temporary one-cent sales tax. We would also have made adequate school funding a higher priority than corporate tax cuts. Those business-oriented tax cuts in the past two years have amounted to nearly 20 percent of what the state spends on schools.

Certainly, the state Legislature must strike a difficult, shifting balance between the legitimate needs of residents and a tax structure that will encourage sustainable growth in private industry. We don’t envy lawmakers that task, so fraught with no-win choices.

However, we fear that this Legislature has stinted on vital public services to free up money for corporate tax cuts. We believe good schools will do more to lure new business to Arizona than lower corporate tax rates.

The downturn punished Arizona savagely partly because deep cuts in income tax rates had produced a lopsided state revenue system that relied too heavily on volatile sales tax rates. The Morrison Institute estimates that some $3 billion worth of cuts in fees and income taxes in the years leading up to the Great Recession help account for the disastrous drop in state revenues once the downturn took hold.

So we applaud the Legislature’s determination to produce a genuinely balanced budget, without the gimmicks so often used in the past. We hope, as the economy improves, lawmakers are able to balance fiscal responsibility with the needs of our children.

Dreams on display

Gila Community College graduated a record crop of dreams this week. Some 300 people showed up to cheer this semester’s 34 graduates, the most in the plucky college’s history.

Many of them want to serve their fellow citizens as nurses.

Many more earned degrees that will lead to jobs as firefighters and paramedics.

Others just sought to sharpen their minds and broaden their horizons.

The class of 2012 includes eager youngsters and irrepressible great-grandmothers. And in its determination and diversity, underscores the qualities that have made this nation such a miracle of creativity, production and adaptability.

This nation remains almost unique in its long devotion to the notion that people willing to work hard to create new opportunities ought to have a way to get an education. Other countries limit those opportunities to a select few. But in large measure through our community college system, we have left the doors to change and opportunity open.

GCC’s graduation ceremony on Wednesday bore glad witness to the result.

So we salute the graduates — and we salute the taxpayers who have made it possible by supporting our community college system, which remains the open door to the American Dream.

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