- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 7, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - The board overseeing Arizona’s early childhood development program came out Wednesday in opposition to a plan from Republican legislative leaders to take some of its funding to support K-12 education.

The First Things First board said it opposes the plan from Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan to ask voters to approve taking $200 million the program has in the bank next year and $75 million each year going forward to fund schools.

“Taken together, the ideas in the plan represent the elimination of everything Arizona voters achieved when they created the organization in the first place - local control, a focus on early childhood, and fiscal responsibility,” board chair Janice Decker said in a statement.

The group uses money from a voter-approved tobacco tax to fund early childhood education and health programs. It spent about $165 million in the past 12 months on programs and administrative expenses but it has a $236 million surplus. The board relies on about $128 million a year in tobacco tax revenue to fund programs around the state.

Gowan said the proposal is part of a larger plan to boost K-12 school funding. The plan from GOP leaders uses state trust land funds, general fund money and the First Things First proposal to add about $500 million a year in new funding. GOP leaders also want to limit the amount of mandatory inflation boosts given to schools.

“There are dollars in there that are sitting there, and we have a need for our kids in the classroom,” Gowan said. “I think we ought to be able to use those for that, because that’s what it’s for.”

Nadine Mathis Basha, a board member who championed the 2006 initiative establishing the early childhood development fund, said the board maintains the reserves so its ongoing programs are assured of funding as tobacco tax revenues decline.

“The reason we don’t spend it down immediately is we need it for sustainability of the programs which we’ve already funded,” Basha said. “It’s so children and families have stability in terms of the programs that we are supporting and funding. It just seems like the prudent thing to do.

Basha also pushed back at Gowan’s statement that the Legislature needs to tap the board’s reserves to fund schools, noting that the state is sitting on more than $750 million in surplus and rainy day funds today.

The 2006 initiative creating a new 80 cent per pack tobacco tax was approved by 57 percent of voters. A legislative proposal to take the money to plug general fund shortfalls and fund the Department of Economic Security was rejected by 70 percent of voters in 2010.

“This stream of money didn’t exist until the voters passed it,” Basha said. “So this source of revenue wasn’t even in existence, nor would probably the Legislature have done that since they’re very anti-tax.”

“So the voters said ‘no, fine, we’ll go ahead with this tax and we support using it for children zero to 5,’” she said. “And they’ve said it twice now, pretty resoundingly, that this is where they want this revenue to go.”

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