State lawmakers late Tuesday adopted a spending plan for the coming year.
This is the first time in years the state actually has more money coming in than the prior year. In fact, the estimate puts additional state revenues in the $300 million range. That led to calls by some -- mostly Democrats -- to restore many of the cuts made in prior years. Rep. Debbie Lesko said the Republican-crafted plan does just that, with the $8.6 billion budget for the coming year increasing baseline funding for current programs by more than $200 million. But Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said using current funding as a gauge is misleading.
"This year, for us to stand up and claim that we are doing such good things for education because of the amount of money we are adding to the budget fails to recognize, specifically in education, the $1.6 billion that we've cut from our schools over the last four years," said Schapira.
The education budget is also not what even Gov. Jan Brewer wanted. She sought $200 million for what is called soft capital -- money that can be used for things like books and computers. The adopted plan has just $15 million in extra general aid to schools. There are some other additional dollars for public schools, notably $40 million earmarked to ensure that third graders are able to read. That goes along with a state law which says those who cannot read at grade level will not be promoted to fourth grade. Sen. David Lujan said the cash should be divided based on how many children in each school are not reading at grade level. But Sen. Rich Crandall said he prefers the across-the-board approach.
"To say really it should only go to those schools who have done a poor job of educating kids in reading, that they're the only ones who should get it, punishes those great administrators, teachers, principals who have done a very good job of teaching kids to read," Senator Crandall said.
One fight was over the decision not to restore funding for the Kids Care program that provides nearly free health care to the children of the working poor. But Schapira noted that the plan does include $50 million the governor demanded over the next two years to build a new maximum security prison.
"And for us to say that we have money to build additional prisons but we don't have money to pay for health care for young people whose parents can't afford it, if we do this, we really should be ashamed of ourselves," the Minority Leader added.
But the governor, speaking at an event detailing how hospitals are going to put up their cash instead to help about 22,000 youngsters, defended the decision to use the tax dollars for prisons.
"Well, you know, public safety is really important to a lot of people," said Governor Brewer. "And we certainly are short of maximum beds, high security. And so I was very pleased we were able to come out of the budget with that in the process."
Part of what annoyed Democrats was that the GOP majority chose to funnel $450 million over a two-year period into a rainy day fund rather than spend it on what they said are immediate priorities. But House Speaker Andy Tobin said that's only prudent. The temporary one-cent sales tax hike approved by voters self-destructs a year from now. Congress also cut back some of its funding for social programs, leaving the state having to backfill the cash. And then, in a slap at the Democrats who were voting against the state budget, he pointed to a big bill coming down the road to the state for Obama Care.
"We had to look out for something else the federal government is putting on us," said Speaker Tobin. "In 2014, it's $40 million more. In 2015, it's $220 million more. All supported by all the members who are red on the board today."
Tobin said it is only prudent that lawmakers put the cash aside now rather than risk having to make massive funding cuts two years down the road.