- Associated Press - Friday, May 5, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - A marathon day at Arizona Legislature ended just hours before sunrise Friday with the approval of a $9.8 billion state budget that includes a massive program to allow universities to borrow up to $1 billion for new research facilities and building maintenance.

The budget also includes money to give $1,000 raises to K-12 school teachers, expand all-day kindergarten and early literacy programs in schools in low-income areas and give bonuses to high-performing schools.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey claimed victory, saying the spending plan he hammered out with Republican legislative leaders prioritizes education funding and includes tax cuts.

“Arizona has passed a budget that prioritizes education, boosts teacher pay, and invests in our universities - all without raising taxes on hardworking Arizonans,” Ducey said in a statement issued after the House passed the final budget bill just before 4 a.m.

But Democrats said the governor fell short, buying off conservative opponents of his university bonding program with tax cuts and other sweeteners to avoid giving them anything.

“It’s amazing that he was willing to give away the store just to get conservatives on board and he wasn’t even willing to have a word with Democrats about two things that were his stated priorities,” Democratic Sen. Steve Farley said. “Partisanship is what ultimately drives him, not doing what’s best for the people of Arizona.”

Democrats were seeking a bigger teacher raise than the budget provides - 4 percent instead of the 2 percent over two years that the budget includes. The governor’s plan will add about $1,000 to the average teacher’s paycheck, not enough to significantly raise teacher pay, which is among the lowest in the nation and has contributed to a major teacher shortage.

The teacher raise will cost $34 million in the budget year beginning July 1 and twice that in the next budget year. Ducey will give $37 million in extra cash to the top-performing schools to boost their capacity to give teachers bonuses. And he’ll spend $8 million on new kindergarten or early literacy programs, plus $64 million to build six schools.

The budget deal negotiated between Ducey’s office and majority Republican leaders was in trouble for most of the week because of the bonding plan. Even Thursday morning, enough Senate Republicans had been opposed that Senate President Steve Yarbrough thought he’d need Democrats to win passage.

Yarbrough eventually got all but one of the 17 Senate Republicans to back the bonding - one more than needed for passage.

Asked how he managed to turn a deficit into a win, Yarbrough was typically folksy.

“We worked our fannies off, OK?” he said. “I wanted to light my hair on fire multiple times the last two days.”

He acknowledged that what he and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard added to get the Republican bonding opponents on board was tiny.

House leaders also worked hard to gain Republican backing, persuading all but two of their caucus to back the bonding measure with no Democratic support. That was enough, by two votes.

Democrats said the state’s K-12 schools needed the money more than the universities.

“They actually have to justify $1 billion in bonding for universities when we’re being sued for not ensuring that K-12 schools aren’t falling apart,” House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios said. “Teacher pay is 50th in the nation. In terms of priorities, university bonding falls well below No. 1 and 2, and that’s teacher pay and ensuring that the classrooms our kids are in aren’t falling apart.”

House leaders worked throughout Wednesday to overcome opposition from members to the bonding proposal, even adding an $11 million per year income tax cut to sweeten the deal.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said three new provisions were added to the budget deal Thursday to help ease the way without minority Democratic support.

They include $1 million each in new money for “freedom school” programs at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona that have received millions in funding from the conservative Charles Koch Foundation. The programs got $5 million in ongoing spending in last year’s budget and the new cash would be on top of that.

Republicans also got a ban on universities hiring contract lobbyists. A requirement that cities place tax-raising measures only on even-year general election ballots failed in a late-night Senate vote.

Democrats offered up a slew of amendments during debate, including the bigger teacher raise, welfare restoration and cuts to corporate tax credits that are funneled to private schools. None were approved.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide