House Budget Rebuff

Legislature whittles away at Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal

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A revolt by moderate Republicans last week produced a House budget higher than the Senate version, but lower than Gov. Jan Brewer had requested.

The moderates gave way on a long list of demands centered mostly on child welfare, but did win a roughly $54 million increase from the original $9.18 billion proposal that closely mirrored the Senate’s version.

Gov. Brewer has proposed a $9.36 billion general fund budget — about 2 percent higher than the House.

However, Senate President Andy Biggs this week expressed doubts about the extra spending included in the House plan to win the votes of the moderate block, according to an interview with Capitol Media Services. Biggs criticized the House decision to restore $33 million in funding for district-operated charter schools and the House version’s promise to revisit the issues of Child Protective Services funding. The House gave Gov. Brewer only $3 million of the $36 million she asked to hire more investigators and caseworkers.

All three Republican budgets feature increases in state spending, after several years of cutbacks. The general fund budget adopted in May 2012 was $8.57 billion. None of the budgets, however, do much to restore the $3 billion stripped from universities and K-12 education in the past few years.

Gov. Brewer’s budget for fiscal 2014-15 included a roughly 1.4 percent inflation adjustment in K-12 school spending, ensuring the lowest per-student spending rate in the country. Gov. Brewer also proposed some increases in school spending to help schools implement tests based on new federal standards, most of which got cut in both the House and Senate budgets. She also wanted added money for K-12 schools to reward districts whose student test scores rise.

Money for district charters

The bulk of the money put back in to buy the votes of the six moderate House Republicans would go to charter schools run by school districts if the Senate ultimately accepts the House plan. The $33 million would avert cuts that could have forced many districts — including Payson — to shut down district-run charter schools. The charter schools get an extra $1,000 per student and don’t have to abide by many of the regulations that constrict regular public schools, including credentialing for teachers. Studies suggest that charter school students on average don’t do any better on standardized tests than public school students, according to an analysis of studies posted on the Albert Shanker Institute website (shankerblog.org /wp-content/uploads/2011/12/CharterReview.pdf).

Legislative critics of district-run charter schools like Payson Center for Success said districts that run charters shouldn’t get the higher per-student payment because they have so many other financial advantages over privately run charter schools.

The Legislature is also still considering HB 2291 and SB 1236 which would increase the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program, which last year gave $10.2 million in public funds to 761 students in private schools. The expansion would increase the cost of the program to an estimated $370 million for 28,000 students. The program would provide up to $8,000 annually per student. State Superintendent of Instruction John Huppenthal spurred an issue in his race for re-election when he made recorded calls to 15,000 homes urging people to take advantage of the program, saying they might be able to send their children to private schools for free.

Governor’s position unclear

Gov. Brewer’s office hasn’t taken a position on whether she would sign the House budget if the Senate concurs in joint a House-Senate committee this week. Last year, Gov. Brewer relied on the votes of Democrats to adopt a bipartisan budget that included expansion of AHCCCS with federal money. This year, legislative Democrats have been entirely excluded from the budget negotiations. They proposed their own alternative budget, which included higher spending for schools and child welfare — including supporting the CPS reforms and boosting K-12 funding.

Democratic spending plan

The Democratic budget also included an increase for the State Department of Forestry to bolster fire fighting resources and brush thinning to protect vulnerable communities. The House version dropped many of those increases, apparently including the $2 million remnant of a $25 million increase for thinning projects on state lands pushed by Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson).

The Democratic budget proposal included an extra $103 million for K-12, $93 million for the colleges and universities, $193 million for child and family safety and $400 million over five years in gas tax money returned to the cities and counties. The summary of the Democratic plan didn’t detail where the extra revenue would come from.

The hot-button issue of Child Protective Services may cause Gov. Brewer to balk at the House Republican spending plan.

The House-adopted budget deferred funding the overhaul of Child Protective Services, which drew headlines last year when whistleblowers pointed out the agency had simply classified as “not investigated” some 6,000 cases for lack of caseworkers and investigators. The number of investigators has lagged far behind the rise in cases. In the meantime, the caseloads for caseworkers who safeguard endangered children have risen far beyond the national standard. Gov. Brewer split the child abuse prevention agency off from the Department of Economic Services (DES) and asked for a $36 million increase to hire investigators and caseworkers. The House budget includes just $3 million, but House leaders said they would consider adding more money to the budget later in the year when the details of the governor’s planned overhaul become clear.

Senate President balks

Senate President Andy Biggs termed that promise “ridiculous” in his interview with Capitol Media Services. The Senate budget didn’t include the CPS money Gov. Brewer requested.

The House budget did include an extra $900,000 for private prisons, although the Department of Corrections estimates that private prisons cost about $1,600 more per inmate annually, although they don’t accept inmates with serious medical issues or the highest-risk criminals.

On the other hand, the House budget rejected efforts to provide child care subsidies for low-income working adults as well as much of the new funding for child abuse prevention.

The House beat back some 50 amendments, including every amendment proposed by a Democrat.

Tale of Four Budgets

Gov. Jan Brewer: $9.36 billion

Includes CPS reforms, district charters. Assumes $216 million more revenue than Senate version.

House Republicans: $9.23 billion

Slights CPS reforms but funds district charters. Less for schools, universities.

Senate Republicans: $9.18 billion

Doesn’t include district charters, other programs. Less for local road projects.

Democratic Budget: $9.4 billion

Closer to Brewer’s budget than House version, but includes more money for community colleges, K-12 schools, local road projects, universities and child care subsidies mostly financed with fewer tax cuts and credits.

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