Lawmakers: Ducey is breaking his promise to protect Arizona school funding
Arizona lawmakers are demanding Gov. Doug Ducey call a special session to allow the legislature to waive a spending cap that threatens to cut $1.4 billion in public school funding across the state, accusing him of dragging his feet despite clear lawmaker support and his own promises.
“Governor Ducey, all we’re asking you is to do your job and keep your promise — not only to those of us standing here, but to the over one million Arizona students in our K-12 public schools who’ll be impacted,” said state Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix.
Bowie joined a handful of lawmakers from both parties on Thursday morning at the state Capitol to urge Ducey to call a special session before the newly elected legislature arrives next month. This is the second call for action this week: on Tuesday, school board members sounded the alarm over what drastic budget cuts would do to the schools they oversee.
Outgoing lawmakers hope to enact at least a temporary fix to the looming spending cap before they are forced to leave office and the new body takes up the issue — which must be decided by March 1 if schools are to avoid massive layoffs and even closures.
That cap was added to the state constitution in 1980, after Arizonans voted to pass an “aggregate expenditure limit,” which places a ceiling on how much public schools can spend in an academic year. It’s based on attendance and inflation rates but fails to account for the increase in costs since then, such as technology and other modern student supports. A record budget allocation for the state’s public schools approved by lawmakers in the summer puts them over that limit and will force them to make drastic cuts if the legislature doesn’t take action.
Mesa Unified District faces more than $83 million in budget cuts and Tucson Unified more than $65 million. Rural districts must contend with less shocking numbers, but, in many ways, the cuts will be worse. Chino Valley School District Superintendent John Scholl joined lawmakers on Thursday, urging Ducey to let legislators offer him and his employees a reprieve. The district in Yavapai County is made up of just four schools, but would face a $3 million dollar cut in the middle of the school year if the spending limit isn’t raised.
“The only way to manage that would be to lay people off,” he warned. “That $3 million (cut) in our community would be devastating.”
He implored the legislature to waive the cap before next year, because procrastinating like they did this year — when it was raised with just days to go before the March 1 deadline — is disruptive for students. Schools don’t have the ability to wait for a solution, he said: They must start crafting plans to make the cuts well ahead of time and teachers are left to worry over job security instead of focusing on their classes. They may even consider leaving the district.
Mike Wright, superintendent of Blue Ridge Unified School District in the small Eastern Arizona town of Lakeside, would be saddled with nearly $2.5 million to cut. That’s a concern for rural school districts like Blue Ridge, which are often the only service providers in their communities.
“We provide supervision, we provide free and reduced(-price) meals, and supports that people otherwise would not get,” he said.
To raise the spending cap, a two-thirds majority vote for both legislative chambers to raise the limit is needed. Ducey has repeatedly stated he will not call lawmakers back to work if those votes aren’t assured, but Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who currently chairs the House Education Committee, said she sent him a list of legislators who promised to vote to lift the cap as early as October.
“We have the votes,” she said. “All we need is for Governor Ducey to follow through on the promise he made. To be a man of his word and the leader he was elected to be.”
That alleged promise was secured back in the summer, when the legislature was grappling with the passage of the state budget. While the Republican Party had counted on their slim majority to craft a budget without the help of Democratic lawmakers, who were advocating for greater spending than Republicans were willing to give, a few rogue conservative votes forced a bipartisan solution. As the legislative session threatened to go long, lawmakers say, Ducey committed to calling a special session to resolve the AEL if Democrats helped pass the budget.
“We demanded three things: additional K-12 funding, additional funding for our state universities and a fix for the AEL,” Bowie said.
The Governor’s Office, Bowie said, told him a legislative fix during that session would be untenable without first making sure Proposition 208, a voter approved education tax Republicans were vehemently opposed to, was killed in court and not revived by supporters.
Only after that, Ducey Deputy Chief of Staff Katy Ratlief said, would a special session be called to address the spending limit, Bowie said. Udall was also promised a fix, she said, after voicing concern that the money the legislature appropriated to support schools would end up frozen in their accounts. The caveat she was that it would only happen if the needed votes were there, so she worked to recruit them before the midterm election and confirm them after it.
Despite Udall’s assurance, confidence in that proof from Ducey and legislative leaders is mixed.
CJ Karamargin, Ducey’s spokesman, said the governor is continuing his talks with legislative leaders to make certain the votes are there. Speaker Rusty Bowers has stated that he supports calling a special session and said he has his share of the votes in the House ready to go. Senate President Karen Fann has so far maintained that her votes are less certain.
“President Fann personally supports the idea of a special session to address the AEL,” Senate spokeswoman Kim Quintero said in an emailed statement. “However, our members would need to know what the exact language in a bill on the issue would look like before taking a vote count to know whether or not it would pass. We have some members who would like education accountability attached to the bill, while others would like some election integrity legislation included if the Governor does call a special session.”
At Thursday’s news conference, Udall said that the lawmakers she spoke to were in favor of lifting the spending limit without adding other issues to the bill. She also noted she had asked Ducey if any of the lawmakers on her list had retracted their support, but received no response.
The legislature has the power to call itself into session with the same two-thirds majority needed to override the spending limit, but that solution would result in a session without a set topic, which could result in lawmakers fighting over what pet issues they want addressed.
“Many that are willing to vote yes in a special session (called by Ducey) for the AEL are not willing to call ourselves into a special session where who knows how off the rails things could get,” Udall said.
Waiting for next year’s lawmakers would not only require the vote-gathering to start from scratch, but the makeup of the new legislative body might prove to be more resistant. Several Republican legislators who have advocated for public school funding, including Udall and Rep. Joel John, will not be returning to the Capitol in January.
Besides, Udall added, it’s the current legislature’s responsibility to address, not that of incoming freshman politicians.
“This is the legislature that appropriated the money, this is the legislature that should make sure (public schools) get to spend it,” she said.
In a tweet, Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, who won reelection, railed against allowing schools to spend what they were given in the state budget — which she voted against — because it exceeds the spending limit.
“Eliminating and/or lifting the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL) is a betrayal of our duty to every taxpayer in the state,” she wrote. “Lifting taxpayer protections so government schools can spend endlessly without transparency is unacceptable.”
This is the second consecutive school year that schools have stared down massive budget cuts if legislators failed to lift the spending cap. Earlier this year, lawmakers lifted the limit to avoid $1.2 billion in mid-year cuts for schools.
Education advocates want both the cap lifted for this year and a permanent solution that avoids the yearly need for legislative action simply so schools can spend the money they’ve been given. That would require sending voters a constitutional amendment to change how the limit functions — or remove it entirely.
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, who is returning to the legislature in January, said that drafts are already underway to do just that, but a temporary fix is what’s on the agenda for now. Ensuring that public schools across the state can rely on their funding to get them through the year is the priority for a special session.
“Let’s give our schools the stability they need to finish the school year successfully,” she said.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.