Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson) faced a surprisingly tough series of questions about her support for K-12 education at a meeting of the Payson Tea Party last week.
Barton mostly sidestepped questions about whether she would support restoring sharply reduced funding for schools, restore all-day kindergarten and respond to a state Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature illegally withheld a voter-mandated increase for inflation.
Many of her opening remarks focused on Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal to respond to reports Child Protective Services had dismissed as “not investigated” 6,500 reports of abuse and neglect by taking CPS out of the Department of Economic Security and making it a separate agency reporting directly to the governor.
Barton supported that proposal. She also strongly supported suggestions that the state go to the voters to seek permission to divert money from the voter-established First Things First, which funds early childhood education and support.
However, she faced skeptical questions about that idea and persistent questions about support for K-12 education funding, both from the audience and two Payson School Board members who attended. The Legislature made among the deepest cuts in K-12 spending in the nation during the recession. Even before those cuts took effect, Arizona had close to the lowest per-student spending rates in the country, especially when considering just the state share.
Fresh from the first day of the legislative session, Barton laid out her legislative agenda before about 60 intent and supportive local residents.
The bills she said she intended to introduce or co-sponsor in this legislative session included:
• A bill on animal cruelty supported by the Arizona Cattle Grower’s Association.
• A bill to add Arizona to a list of states entering into a compact seeking a federal constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, but barring tax increases to achieve that balance. She said this approach would take time, but wouldn’t bear all the risks of a new, constitutional convention that could wind up making sweeping changes.
• A bill that would allow cities and counties to undertake forest thinning projects on state-owned land to reduce the risk of wildfire. She said she would push to include $25 million to fund such projects. The Yarnell Fire that killed 19 firefighters and destroyed most of the community started on state lands in brush that hadn’t been burned or thinned in 50 years.
• Support for any initiative to return gas tax money the counties and towns used to receive that the Legislature diverted to reduce the budget deficit when the recession caused state revenues to drop by nearly a third. The so-called Highway Users Revenue Fund (HURF) normally pays for road maintenance and construction. Both Payson and Gila County have all but eliminated new road construction and anything beyond basic maintenance for the past several years.
• A bill that would let people in unincorporated areas vote on the land use plans of neighboring cities and towns, if that unincorporated area is within an area earmarked for eventual annexation by the town. Residents must approve annexations, but towns often have a land use plan that includes areas they hope to one day incorporate into the town limits.
• A water bill that provides $30 million in seed money while giving towns and cities broader authority to regulate water use. The bill represents her response to an attempt last year to establish a series of regional water authority agencies that would gain power to prevent the diversion of water into other areas, build subdivisions without an adequate long-term supply of water and raise money and seek grants for water projects that could affect several cities. She said her legislation would make it easier for towns to come up with their own water plans and seek federal grants from agencies like the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority (WIFA). “It would allow cities and counties to use their existing authority through intergovernmental agreements if they need facilities to bring their plans to WIFA.”
However, most of the questions following her speech focused on education — and challenged the notion of taking money away from preschool programs to pay for additional CPS workers.
“I really like First Things First,” said Payson Unified School Board member Barbara Underwood. “The state took away the money for all-day kindergarten,” she added. “What is the thought about putting that money back?”
Barton replied, “I understand what you’re saying. We did have all-day kindergarten for years and years. Then we came to a place where we had to make some cuts. First Things First is there. We did look at that.”
Her remarks apparently referred to an earlier effort by the state Legislature to shift the bulk of the tobacco tax money voters had earmarked for First Things First into the K-12 school budget, to offset some of the deep cuts in K-12 spending the Legislature wanted to make. The state Supreme Court later ruled that maneuver illegal. The judges ruled that since the voters had established the program, the voters had to approve its reduction.
Another audience member asked, “Is there ever going to be a time when the education budget is increased again?”
Barton replied, “We have a lot of parental choice in Arizona. Our charter schools program is one of the best. Charter schools are funded with tax dollars. First Things First received a steady funding source (from tobacco taxes). It’s not something we have control of. Right now the education budget is more than it was before. As the state economy recovers, we are putting more money into education.”
The state Supreme Court recently ruled that the state Legislature acted illegally when it with held an inflation adjustment in the K-12 budget previously mandated by the voters. Anticipating the court ruling, the Legislature added an $80 million inflation payment to the K-12 budget in the current fiscal year. The state is contesting the court ruling and resisting making up the amount withheld during the previous four years, which amounted to between $300 million and $1.2 billion.
In a subsequent question, one audience member said he’d read that children who attend preschool don’t remember what they’ve learned and gains they make aren’t lasting.
Rep. Barton agreed. “By third grade, there’s no appreciable difference. There’s just not that big a difference (between children who attend preschool programs and children who don’t). They’re not soaring. If you want to repeal it (First Things First) you have to go to a voter initiative.”
Another member of the audience asked what percentage of the state budget goes to education, but Rep. Barton said she wasn’t sure. “Education and health care, those are the big ones, but I can’t tell you the numbers right now.”
The state’s 2013-14 general fund budget devotes about $3.8 billion to K-12 education, about 43 percent of the total — the single largest spending category. Universities account for another 9 percent and community colleges for 8 percent.
The budget for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment budget accounts for about 15 percent and the state share would actually decline under Gov. Brewer’s proposal for next year, thanks to the increased subsidies from the federal government included in the Affordable Healthcare Act.
Another listener asked about the state Supreme Court decision barring the state from withholding the voter-approved inflation adjustment. “What is the realistic expectation that would be resolved in our favor?”
“Who is ‘our’?” asked Barton.
“The school system,” said the listener.
“I really don’t know,” said Barton.