Priorities, Priorities 

Gov. Ducey’s first proposed budget hits traditional schools, universities while boosting prisons and charter schools

There have been plenty of hot takes over in days since Gov. Doug Ducey released his proposed budget on Friday, Jan. 16, but it's safe to say that the winners in the new spending plan are private prisons and charter schools, while the losers are traditional public schools, universities, community colleges and programs designed to serve as a social safety net.

Ducey himself said the budget "prioritizes wisely, cutting back on bureaucracy while protecting our core functions—educating our students, supporting child safety and public safety, protecting our taxpayers and modernizing state government."

But others were less enthused. State Rep. Bruce Wheeler, a Tucson Democrat who serves as assistant minority leader in the House of Representatives, said the budget cuts to K-12 education and universities and increases for prisons means that the state is essentially "raising tuition to pay for private prisons."

And state Sen. Steve Farley, a Democrat who represents central Tucson, told the Weekly that the budget is "slashing our schools and community colleges."

But Democratic opposition to Ducey's budget is no surprise. The real question is whether enough Republicans will break ranks to force changes in what Ducey has proposed. Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan both were at Ducey's side as he released the budget last week, suggesting that legislative leadership stands with him on most of his proposals.

Here are some highlights of the budget maneuvers that Ducey proposed:

• Adding $134 million in new K-12 education spending, including $74 million to settle a lawsuit that schools brought against the state because state lawmakers didn't fully fund an inflation formula. That $74 million is much less than the $317 million that the courts have ruled that the state should pay, but attorneys for the Legislature are arguing that because the state had increased funding beyond the inflationary levels in earlier years, it should only owe $74 million now. An open question: What will the courts decide regarding inflationary payments from past years, which could total more than a billion dollars?

• Ducey called for a 5 percent cut in traditional schools' administrative costs and a 3.5 percent cut to charter schools, which comes out to nearly $124 million in cuts to education funding.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, president of the Arizona Education Network, said those cuts might have an impact on programs for children with learning disabilities, since specialized educators for those programs are counted as administrators, as are many other school employees.

"We're talking about nurses, audiologists, counselors, psychologists, bus drivers, monitors, librarians, cafeteria workers," Pedersen said. "The auditor general counts those as administrators because they're not physically in the classroom.

• The Ducey budget sweeps $2.9 million in unspent Department of Education funding and takes $21 million that was dedicated to rewarding high-performing public schools and transfers it to a special fund that is designed to help charter schools improve or expand their buildings.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent H.T. Sanchez blasted the proposed education cuts, calling them "a signal to businesses that Arizona doesn't value education."

He also criticized the plan to shift funds from high-performing schools to charter-school construction.

"Student Success funds in TUSD were used to help pay for teacher raises that were recently approved," Sanchez said. "These raises were the first our teachers have seen in at least three years. It is amazing that the governor would demand cuts to school districts while increasing administrative costs at the state level."

• Universities are cut by $75 million, while the three largest community colleges are seeing their roughly $15 million in state funding cut in half.

• Private prison funding is increased to afford 3,000 new beds for adult male offenders, with a cost of $5.3 million in the upcoming fiscal year. • The Arizona Department of Tourism would lose the $100 million in state funding it now receives.

• Doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers that serve AHCCCS patients would face a 5 percent cut in their reimbursement, for a savings of $24 million a year.

• The Arizona Commerce Authority would be cut by $100 million and the State Department of Tourism would lose all of its $4.5 million in general-fund dollars.

• A new fee would be attached to car registration taxes to provide dedicated funding for the Department of Public Safety.

• Various programs now funded by the state would become the responsibilities of cities, counties and other jurisdictions.

More by Jim Nintzel

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