Millions at stake for schools in special session stalemate - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Millions at stake for schools in special session stalemate

December 18th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Millions at stake for schools in special session stalemate
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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

Lame duck Gov. Doug Ducey said last week that he won’t call a special legislative session to deal with problems with school funding before his term ends this month until he gets a promise that lawmakers will deal with some issues on his own agenda.

And that could scuttle any chance of giving schools an immediate assurance they won’t have to cut more than a billion dollars from their spending plans by July 1.

Hanging in the balance is tens of millions of dollars that East Valley school districts won’t be able to spend in the last quarter of the current school year even though they have the money – including an estimated $14.4 million for Queen Creek Unified School District.

The governor acknowledged on Dec. 5 that he had agreed to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol to waive the “aggregate expenditure limit’’ if he could be shown that the votes were there. Such a move requires 20 of the 30 senators and 40 of the 60 representatives.

Lawmakers from both parties who support the waiver said last week they have the votes.

But Ducey, whose term is up at the end of the month, said that’s not enough.

“There are things in addition to the AEL that I’d like to see get done,’’ he said. The governor would not elaborate.

But Daniel Ruiz, his chief of staff, said providing even more state funds in vouchers for students to pay for private and parochial schools is “certainly a priority that’s been discussed.’’ So, too, he said, are issues ranging from border security to changes in election laws.

And that could scuttle any chance of quick resolution of the issue.

That would leave other East Valley districts in the lurch come spring, including Higley with $16 million it can’t spend, Gilbert Public Schools with $39.9 million, Chandler Unified with $54.4 million and Mesa Public Schools with $73.8 million in funds they have but can’t touch.

The problem is a constitutional cap, approved by voters in 1980, of how much can be spent each year on K-12 education. Adjusted for inflation and student growth, that limit now is $6.4 billion.

Lawmakers approved a major infusion of new funds for the current school year. Based on that, schools prepared budgets totaling nearly $7.8 billion.

Without a waiver by March 1, schools would have to reduce their annual spending by nearly 18%. More to the point, they would have to make those cuts in just a three-month period, a move that several school officials said would lead to layoffs and school closures.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who chairs the House Education Committee, said lawmakers who voted for the budget were assured that Ducey would support a special session by the end of this year. That would end the uncertainty, especially with a new crop of lawmakers taking office in January who had nothing to do with the approved budget and nothing to do with the bipartisan deal that made it possible.

Ducey, who has repeatedly touted his role in increasing K-12 funding, said Monday that bringing lawmakers to the Capitol between now and the end of the year is not that simple.

“We’re not going to do a special session unless we can get it done,’’ he said. And Ruiz said that means adding things to the agenda that the governor and Republican lawmakers want.

“That’s not the deal,’’ said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, one of the bipartisan group of lawmakers who hammered out the budget deal.

“The deal was we would pass this budget which he signed and celebrated after we passed it and we would get the special session on the AEL,’’ he said.

What changed, Bowie said, is that the November election didn’t turn out the way that Ducey wanted.

“I’m sure he would like to do other things, too, especially since he’s going to have a Democratic successor,’’ he said.

Ducey, constitutionally precluded from seeking a third term, had backed fellow Republican Kari Lake. In fact, he said she was a better choice to continue his priorities like vouchers and tax cuts.

Lake, however, lost to Democrat Katie Hobbs who will have the ability to veto the priorities of the Legislature which remains narrowly in Republican hands. But Bowie said that’s irrelevant to what Ducey offered Democrats last spring.

“The deal was we pass the budget, we provided the votes for the budget that it needed to get across the finish line,’’ Bowie said. Ducey needed those Democratic votes as several GOP lawmakers refused to support the $15.6 billion state spending plan.

At least part of the reason schools are up against the spending cap is that budget immediately added $526 million to base education funding for K-12 schools, an 8.8% increase. And it provides a $50 million infusion in “opportunity’’’ funds, dollars earmarked to help students who come from low-income households.

Complicating matters is the cap is based on prior year enrollment. And that dropped due to COVID.

Ruiz said it’s not just his boss who wants to discuss more than school spending. He said some members of the Republican-controlled Legislature say they want other items added to the agenda if there’s going to be a special session.

It’s not just election and border issues.

There also are lawmakers who want the governor to reconsider his veto earlier this year of a measure which would have allowed Maricopa County residents to decide whether to extend the half-cent sales tax which funds transportation projects. Absent legislative authorization for a vote, the levy ends in 2025.

And then there are vouchers. Formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts,’’ they provide state dollars for private and parochial school tuition and costs.

Originally started more than a decade ago to help students with special needs, GOP lawmakers voted this year to make them available to any of the 1.1 million students in public schools.

Now, however, some supporters say the vouchers, which average around $7,000, are insufficient to entice parents to put their children in private schools because they often don’t cover the cost. So they want to pursue an increase now, one that long-time voucher supporter Ducey likely would sign — but one that could easily meet a different fate under Gov. Hobbs.

Bowie said the push now by GOP lawmakers for something that wasn’t on the table when the deal was cut is no surprise.

“They kind of view it as their last opportunity to get some policy goals of theirs passed that they haven’t been able to,’’ he said. “They intentionally want to hold the AEL hostage in exchange for that.’’