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What the Devil won't tell you

Time out on cruelty: Ducey's budget takes itsy-bitsy steps in right direction

Spending plan best we can expect from typically Draconian leaders

Uhhh. I need glasses, maybe — big, honking spectacles that resemble the bottom of old Coca-Cola bottles. Maybe, there's something in the water. Maybe, Gov. Doug Ducey has gotten me, perhaps. Who knows.

'Cuz I'm looking at his 2017-18 state budget and not finding anything really to quibble with — insomuch as I understand the author.

Maybe, just maybe, it's the years-long horror show coming out of the Legislature that has me thinking anything short of physical abuse toward public schools, the poor and working class is good news.

But Ducey's spending plan is downright utterly and completely tolerable given political reality.

Now, serious disclaimer, No. 1. Arizona's Republican governor is advocating $170 million in new and sorely needed initiatives on a $9.8 billion budget after a decade of cutting. That's not even a 2 percent increase in state spending in Arizona, which has witnessed tops-in-the-country cuts to public university spending, which ranks 49th in K-12 spending (per-pupil and compared to personal income) and has one of the thinnest social safety nets in the nation.

Legislative Democratic leaders Pete Rios and Katie Hobbs issued this joint statement (apparently speaking in tandem): "In poll after poll, the people of Arizona have been very clear that more resources are needed in order for Arizona kids to be successful. The governor's State of the State address raised hopes about his level of commitment to education, but the devil is in the details."

Serious disclaimer No. 2. The name of the column concerns reality. Poll after poll may say voters love schools but in 2014, voter turnout was 27 percentage points lower than 2016. Liberals simply refuse to show up in mid-terms  Those voters — directly or tacitly — elected Ducey. They just elected this Legislature.

Arizona's dismal K-12 rankings in spending are nothing new. The state has ranked at 48th or 49th for 20 years and citizens always have the option to craft ballot initiatives to fix it. They haven't.

When voters leave the question of school funding and compassionate government to strident conservatives, new revenues and curtailed tax cuts are not on the table. 

Ducey's budget is what good news looks like when voters want a prison-filling drug war, perennial tax cuts, economic development based on low-tax recruitment, a knuckle-dragging Legislature, a right-wing governor and increases in K-12 spending,  WTF did you think is going to happen?

It's good news and I'll tell you why.. The conversation is shifting a bit in the state from "kick 'em to show you care" to giving them some kibble when they are starving.

Ducey's budget does not put us on a path toward a moderate future. Arizona still has a smoldering hole where the empathy goes. For Ducey, this budget is practically a drum circle.

I'll take it, praise the light and implore voters to make more structural changes in how Arizona operates.

Paths not taken

What Ducey isn't doing is just as important as what his budget does.

In the 1990s, the game was to constantly warn of an impending recession or downturn so state conservative leaders could dis the idea of more money being available to keep up with state growth.

Ducey's not screaming for a “Rainy Day Fund.” These dubious bulwarks against future economic calamity tended to evaporate like the Iraqi Army before ISIS c. 2014. They were, however, great political talking points. Governors liked to boast they had giant surpluses as if the state were turning a profit. That's not the state's job.

He's not talking schools and budgeting just for charter schools. Charter schools get no additional special treatment in this budget.

He's not giving scads of dollars back to business and the wealthy. Converting surpluses into tax cuts helped wreck the state's finances when the recession did come. He includes a tax cut but it's an understandable tax cut. Ducey's plan is to notch up the personal deductions to match inflation. Campaign against that, lefties. You can't.

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That particular tax cut helps the working class more than the rich. It's cutting the taxes by a flat amount as opposed to a flat percentage. Yes, it's progressive.

To quote Penny from Big Bang: “Oh, holy crap on a cracker!” Doug Ducey: Class warrior!

Money and context

I'll break down some highlights here:

K-12 and the universities will get $453 million more than they received last year but of that, $318 million comes from the revenues generated by Prop 123. Ducey gets credit for that because transferring cash out of the state land trust was his imperfect idea – an imperfect idea highly contested iby the left and right alike. I'll take it. More needs to be done.

There's $19 million recommended for teacher-signing bonuses, provided the teacher takes a job in low income schools. I'll take it. More needs to be done.

Then there's the $13.6 million for a five-year (heheheh) phase-in of a 2 percent raise for Arizona teachers. Some are bitching about this working out to a $15 per month raise but could be used to give teachers on the lower end of the scale the first raises and then back-fill the rest in later years. I'll take it. More needs to be done.

These increases take Arizona from more or less $7,500 per pupil to roughly $7,800 per student. That gets us close to catching Oklahoma's 2014 spending, which ranked 48th during the last U.S. Census survey. Arizona is still Mississippi where Mississippi was at No. 47.

I'll take it. More needs to be done.

Ducey's budget also includes a $400 per pupil bump for poor schools that score in the top 10 percent of statewide testing. The increase amounts to $225 per student for similar scoring schools in other school districts. School districts truly starved for cash and suffering because of it get overlooked by reward-the-successful strategies. That's another column.

The universities will get $30.6 million they pay in sales taxes back and $6.5 million back in the sales tax funds the state collects and returns to universities (and everyone else) for leverage sake. The money would be earmarked for $1 billion in bonds to help the universities research and development.

So he's taking the cash out of the hides of cities, counties and towns — hardly preferable. Yet the universities have suffered mightily in years passed and continue to suffer today. Elect a conservative ideologue and this is what we get.

Ducey's budget includes a $2.7 million increase to give welfare recipients the year of benefits the Legislature revoked in 2015. Arizonans receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families today get just a single year in their lifetimes. In 1996, the feds put a five-year limit on welfare (and renamed it TANF) as part of welfare reform. That it would come down to one year is nuts for families bouncing in and out of poverty because they live in a market economy and poverty is the price we pay for wealth and a strong(ish) middle class.

Heroic? Absolutely not. He's reversing the trend on cruelty.

Lagging indicator

Then there are teeny, tiny headline talking point pennies seeded throughout the budget. He proposes $1 million for a grandma stipend to help extended family members provide child care (1,000 grandmas get $80 per month).

Let's look at just one.

A great example of how much stress Arizona communities are under and how little Ducey's budget is doing to make up the gap is in rural health care.

The governor's budget document itself claims rural Arizona is short more than 1,000 health care professionals and 2.8 million residents who suffer the consequences. The state's initiative to fill the gap involves paying off student loans of health care officials who work in rural Arizona.

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Ducey's budget includes $350,000 needed to get another $1 million in federal funds for the purpose of loan forgiveness. Should he secure the money, the program would work for 51 health care professionals. Only 950 to go. Whoo! Hoo!

Look, Arizona ranks 5th in the country in tax burden, according to Kiplingers. I think we could rank 8th and still be enticing and give the schools a bigger shot in the arm.

Political upside

The details are all in here. It's 22 pages of new spending and just 3 paragraphs of tax cuts. For that alone, Ducey deserves props.

So of course, the Arizona Legislature will hate it. “Fifty-one new health care workers in rural Arizona! Why not just reconstitute the KGB?”

Ducey's budget, therefor, is smart politics. He gets to fight for the working man in dribs and drabs but it moderates his image heading into the 2018 campaign.

Economically, site selectors get a one-year reprieve from headlines reading “Arizona cuts ...”, “Arizona slashes ...” and “Arizona sets fire to ...” familiar to a nation that includes states not mainlining Rush Limbaugh.

Finally, it's worth pointing out how all the bitching, lobbying and public outcries against severity and austerity may be paying off. Keep it up. Reality will show how far Arizona has to go after this budget season. The left will still have that to work with and I guarantee no one will remember the 2017 budget come Election '18.

I've railed on Ducey and railed on Ducey and railed on Ducey and I will continue to do so. I'm not going to bitch about him just to bitch. With this budget, Ducey deserves some credit for releasing a plan that won't force newsroom copy editors to remind journalists the adjective “Draconian” in "Draconian cuts," is capitalized.

And if you want a revolution, make one.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Gov. Doug Ducey speaking at the 2016 Arizona CEO Summit hosted by Greater Phoenix Leadership, September 2016.


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