- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 13 (UPI) — The governors of Arizona and Washington vowed Monday to defend school funding as their respective state legislatures began to tackle wobbly budgets, the sluggish economy and ever-growing populations.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said in her first State of the State speech that education would be a top priority for her fledgling administration while Washington's Gov. Gary Locke told lawmakers that he wanted to prevent education cuts by delaying voter-mandated increases in teacher salaries and class-size reductions.

"We had to make difficult decisions and painful cuts to balance the $2.4 billion budget deficit, but we are still moving forward with education improvements," Locke said. "I am proposing more than $10 billion be spent on public education during the next two years. That is more than we spent in the current biennium."

Locke, who must decide this year if he will seek a third term, used his address convening the Legislature to hammer home the point that while Washington is struggling with its largest budget deficit in years and a still-sluggish economy, he would not seek to balance the books by reneging on voter propositions that increase both per-pupil spending and salaries for educators.

"I want to emphasize that my budget proposal temporarily suspends — not cancels — both voter-approved initiatives," Locke said in a separate open letter to Washington teachers, parents and students. "It does not repeal these initiatives; it delays the next steps of their implementation."

One of the initiatives, I-732, promises cost-of-living raises for school employees. Locke said that suspending I-732 would not scuttle all pay increases, and the cost-of-living adjustments would resume in 2005.

"I hear your voices in protest of education cuts in this budget cycle and hope you can appreciate the difficult decisions we had to make," Locke lamented. "I am confident we will emerge from these tough economic times as an even stronger state."

In Phoenix, Napolitano said a "crucial" task at hand was covering the state's $1.4 billion revenue shortfall without sacrificing education or other services for children.

"Currently, Arizona has the worst high-school dropout rate in the country; we spend fewer dollars per pupil than nearly any state in the country; our schools are overcrowded and enrollment continues to grow," the freshman governor pointed out. "We cannot ask our educators, students and parents to bear any more of the burden for balancing our budgets. They have gone without adequate funding for too long, and the effects are evident."

Napolitano did not offer any specifics on either budget cuts or revenue enhancements in her speech. She instead pledged to offer new support for the high-tech industry that she saw as holding the promise of revitalizing the state's economy.

A major first step, she said, would be an amendment to the state's constitution to allow Arizona universities to take equity positions in commercial ventures, a handicap they have had, she said, that "slows down their efforts to convert research innovations into viable commercial applications."

"Competing states do not have this prohibition, and they enjoy greater success in luring tech start-ups," Napolitano said.

(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)

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