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Borrow for Tomorrow! 

Napolitano's budget boosts spending on education and health care while going into debt for highway construction

Here's Gov. Janet Napolitano's financial trick: She's savvy enough to know she's not going to get everything she wants from the Arizona Legislature, so she typically throws a Hail Mary when she presents her budget at the start of the legislative session.

Hey, why not? That way, she has something to give in negotiations with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

And in the four years of her first term, sometimes through hard-nosed negotiation and sometimes through good luck, she's managed to convince reluctant lawmakers to go along with parts of her agenda, such as the expansion of all-day kindergarten statewide.

When she released her budget last week, Napolitano proposed an ambitious $10.4 billion spending plan for the '08 fiscal year that starts July 1. That includes boosting education spending by more than $73 million to raise teacher salaries and improve their training, and increasing health-care spending by $6 million to expand insurance coverage for kids younger than 19 years old.

But Napolitano's base budget doesn't include an additional $400 million in highway construction that she hopes to generate by persuading the Legislature to change state law to allow Arizona to refinance debt from 20 years to 30 years.

It's that kind of financial maneuver that Republican lawmakers view as fiscally irresponsible. They're also not wild about carrying forward nearly $422 million from this year's budget. Since that kind of balance may not be available in future years--for example, Napolitano estimates that only $62 million will be left over at the end of the '08 budget--GOP leaders worry that using surplus money to expand ongoing programs could put the state back into a fiscal bind.

Conservative GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Bob Burns, R-Peoria, are more inclined to raid the state's rainy-day fund--which now totals about $600 million--to pay for highway construction. Not only does using those dollars avoid putting the state into debt; it makes it harder to justify expanding programs, because the state will have little to fall back on during lean times in the future.

Even moderate Republicans, such as Rep. Jennifer Burns of Southern Arizona, are skeptical of some of Napolitano's proposals, such as the plan to spend an additional $6 million next year to provide health insurance to children younger than 19 in households earning up to $60,000 a year, or three times the federal poverty limit.

"We do need to be providing health care to people who can't afford it," says Rep. Burns. "Whether someone earning $60,000 a year can afford it or not is a question."

Burns says she does support Napolitano's proposal to change state law to eliminate a so-called "gag rule" that prevents school officials from informing parents about the availability of health insurance for children through KidsCare, a program that gets 75 percent of its funding from the federal government.

"We do have a significant number of kids in Arizona who don't have health care," Burns says. "Let's focus on the ones on the lower end who don't have it, and expand it to them."

Other elements of the governor's proposed budget increases:

· $50 million to ensure a starting salary of at least $33,000 for Arizona schoolteachers, as well as raises for experienced teachers who are making that much already.

· $15.5 million to boost pay, incentives and programs for math and science teachers.

· $8 million for programs that help teachers get more training.

· More than $78 million for state universities, including $6.3 million for financial aid, $29.8 million for student and faculty retention, $17 million for enrollment growth and $25 million expansion of biomedical research.

· $43 million for additional prison beds, and $16.3 million to cover increased costs of using private prisons.

· Nearly $22 million for rehabbing state buildings.

· $5 million for border-security programs with the Department of Public Safety.

· $2.7 million for vaccines for children and underinsured adults, and $2.9 million to provide the human papillomavirus vaccine to AHCCCS-eligible women between the ages of 21 and 26.

· $3 million to fund residency slots in Arizona hospitals for doctors in training.

· $2 million for dental services, and $1 million for food baskets for low-income seniors.

· $3.3 million for domestic-violence shelters.

· $1.5 million for Community Health Centers to subsidize a sliding-scale fee for low-income adults.

· Raises for state employees, with an emphasis on state troopers and corrections officers.

· $15 million for cleanup of groundwater contamination.

· $4 million for maintenance and operations of state parks.

· $2.5 million for meth addiction treatment.

More by Jim Nintzel

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