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THE NEW ARIZONA: LEAN AND MEAN

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer released her vision for the state budget last Friday, Jan. 13, showing the people of Arizona just how lean and mean a government can be.

Despite all of her Tea Party talk, the size of the state budget would actually grow under the governor's proposal—from $8.3 billion this year, to nearly $9 billion for the fiscal year 2013, which starts July 1. But the budget is still at 2007 levels, and if you're looking for massive backfills to compensate for the deep cuts of recent years, that's not happening.

Brewer's budget calls on the state university system to double the number of degrees they award by 2020. To that end, she proposed a $15 million bump in funding for the three state universities—which isn't exactly doubling their budgets.

However, most of that money is directed toward Northern Arizona University and Arizona State University; in fact, the University of Arizona will have to absorb another blow if Brewer's plan to redraft the formula for funding the state universities catches on: The new formula would cut some funds from the UA—which is currently receiving the highest per-student state funding of the three state universities—and redistribute them to the other two schools.

Brewer is offering a bit of help for community-college students who work full time and are in need of tuition help. The budget package includes $10 million in need-based scholarships of up to $2,000 per year, which students can receive for up to two years.

In K-12 funding, the budget calls for a one-time allocation of $100 million, as well as backfilling $100 million in soft capital within the school system. That money pays for all sorts of school needs, like textbooks and computers, which have not been fully funded since 2008.

The budget calls for $50 million to be spent on getting kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students up to speed regarding the "Move on When Reading" third-grade reading test, which students will need to pass to move on to the fourth-grade beginning in 2013.

All-day kindergarten, a key accomplishment of the Janet Napolitano administration that was cut from the budget in 2010, will not be restored. Brewer has said any spending would need to be closely examined, and funding for a program will not be restored simply because funding was provided in the past.

The governor also wants changes in how the state funds school construction—meaning, of course, that she wants the state to be less of a part of it.

Brewer proposed giving state employees a 5 percent raise—the first in many years—but that deal comes with a catch: Most workers who are currently covered under personnel laws can only receive the pay raise if they agree to work at-will, which would make them easier to fire.

The counties would get a reprieve of sorts under the proposed budget, which eliminates a plan to make counties take on their own prisoners serving less than a year, or pay the state to do it.

The governor called for lawmakers to pass a bill by statehood day (Feb. 14) to buy back the Capitol buildings they mortgaged off, a plan she says would save about $47 million in interest—though they still couldn't retire the debt until 2019.

It was the first time in years that lawmakers haven't started the budget process already in the hole, and the proposed budget contains about $600 million in surplus, which state lawmakers have said they want to put aside for the financial cliff the state will be facing after the one-cent sales tax expires in 2013.

As tight as this budget is, it probably represents the best that Arizonans can hope for, since the Republicans who control the Legislature will be looking to find ways to trim spending even more.


HAIL TO THE WOULD-BE CHIEFS!

Republican Jon Huntsman has dropped out of the presidential race, endorsing Mitt Romney just a week after warning ABC News that "the American people, the voters, are going to have a hard time finding, I think, a gut-level trust when it comes to someone who has been on so many sides of major issues."

Somehow, Huntsman—just like Arizona Sen. John McCain—has found a way to trust Mitt. Or maybe he's just making the smart play that a primary loser makes when he wants a future in politics.

Pundits are offering plenty of reasons why Huntsman dropped out the race: He didn't catch fire with voters; he doesn't have enough money to stay in; he's just too sane for today's Republican Party.

We'd like to suggest another: He failed to qualify for the Republican primary in Arizona, and his staff realized that without the Grand Canyon State, there was simply no path to the nomination.

OK, so that's probably a stretch, especially since a Rocky Mountain Poll released last week showed that Huntsman wasn't exactly setting the state on fire.

The survey of 553 registered voters—with a margin of error of plus or minus 7.1 percent—showed that 41 percent of Arizona Republicans are supporting the man who appears to be the inevitable nominee: Mitt Romney.

Coming in second: undecided, at 25 percent.

From there, the news isn't good for challengers: 14 percent are supporting Rick Santorum; 9 percent are supporting Newt Gingrich; 5 percent are supporting Rick Perry; 4 percent are supporting Ron Paul; and 2 percent are supporting Huntsman. (The poll was taken Jan. 5-9, before Huntsman dropped out.)

The survey also showed that 43 percent of voters are supporting Romney in a general-election matchup, while just 37 percent were supporting President Barack Obama.

Obama, interestingly enough, was beating the other potential GOP nominees, which says a lot about how the general public views most of the GOP field.

But back to the primary: We look at that undecided number, and we think to ourselves: There's a real opportunity here for one of the Project White House 2012 candidates to catch on!

Project White House 2012, for those of you who haven't been following along, is a Reality Journalism competition that allows contenders on the GOP and Green Party presidential ballots to compete in a variety of challenges in hopes of winning the Tucson Weekly endorsement.

So far, Project White House candidates are showing some ability to grab the attention of the media: Republican Al "Dick" Perry has been featured on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, and has garnered mentions on the websites of Talking Points Memo, Texas Monthly and the Cronkite News Service. Republican Charles Skelley was in Tucson's own morning daily, telling Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services that he "drew up a platform where I solved most of the major problems the country faces." And Green Party candidate Gary Swing landed an interview with Phoenix radio station KJZZ.

We'll introduce you to many of our Project White House candidates in next week's print edition, but if you want to meet them now, you can find biographies and more at the Project's webpage..

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