Bipartisan budget boosts school funding, state employee pay raises, transportation
Republicans and Democrats joined forces early Thursday morning to pass a $15.8 billion budget that significantly increases K-12 funding and caps off a week of intense negotiations as state lawmakers scrambled to approve a spending plan and avert a state government shutdown on July 1.
After months of trying to craft a budget that could pass with just Republican votes, GOP leaders this week introduced a budget that aimed to peel off a small number of Democrats. But by Wednesday, they were negotiating in earnest with Democrats, and they announced a deal shortly after 11 p.m.
When the dust settled on the budget, it was education funding that persuaded Democrats. The budget has nearly $600 million in new, permanent funding for public schools, up from about $330 million in the original proposal. The added funding includes phasing in funding for low-income students — starting at $50 million in the upcoming fiscal year and growing to $100 million in three years — and special education.
And the budget includes another $200 million for school repairs and another $50 million for school safety initiatives.
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“This was not an easy process but this is what a negotiated budget compromise looks like,” said House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, a Phoenix Democrat.
That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Rick Gray, a Sun City Republican and the Senate’s majority leader, who said this was the first true bipartisan budget he’d been a part of during his legislative career.
“For me it’s encouraging that we have actually come together, and my hope is that the next term … will have that same consensus,” he said, adding that it shows compromise is possible.
In the budget deal, Democrats also were able to change how money given to schools for for capital costs like transportation, technology and textbooks. Instead of one rate for district schools and a higher rate for charter schools, the money will instead be distributed per student at identical rates.
And the minority party convinced Republicans to strip an expansion of the state’s school tuition organization program out of the budget. Republicans had sought to let parents use the scholarships to cover the entirety of a private school’s tuition instead of the 90% limit that has been in place since the program was created in the early 2000s.
The budget also includes nearly $1 billion that is earmarked for transportation projects across the state, particularly in rural Arizona.
And a separate bill spends $335 million to construct a border fence along 17 miles of the state’s border with Mexico.
In the House of Representatives, most of the budget bills garnered at least 40 votes in the 60-member chamber. Across the Capitol complex, most of the bills in the Senate won the approval of at least 18 of the 30 senators.
In moving to court Democratic votes, GOP leaders lost the votes of some Republicans.
Sen. Michell Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, blasted the spending plan as “grotesque” and loaded with pork. Giving taxpayers their money back, especially as inflation soars, is the only truly conservative action, she said — but the Senate rejected two of her amendments to do that.
“Our priorities are so misplaced if we’re saying we are conservative,” she said. “We are overpaying. It’s excessive.”
In the House, fiscal conservatives railed against the new spending, particularly the money dedicated for highway construction projects.
“I believe this is the best Democratic, bloated-full-of-pork budget that our money could have ever paid for,” Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said in the early hours Thursday as he voted against the budget. He added that GOP leaders could have “achieved this pathetic budget about 60 days ago” instead of waiting until late June.
The budget also includes a provision that caps the revenue the state receives from sports betting at 10%, which Kingman Republican Rep. Regina Cobb said it was needed to keep the state competitive with states like Nevada. That view was not shared by some of her Democratic colleagues.
“I don’t think we have a competitiveness problem here in Arizona,” Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, said, citing the $2.8 billion in sports bets made in the state since its implementation and the state’s meager tax collections. Butler and her colleagues worried about capping the state’s collection at 10% when there is “off-the-rails profit” coming from the industry, adding that they are concerned about rising gambling addiction rates.
The budget did include bipartisan measures for criminal justice reform, such as a revived measure that will create a new division within the Department of Public Safety to investigate use-of-force incidents and criminal misconduct by police officers.
“That is one provision I am glad to see in here,” Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, remarked, adding that Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, had been instrumental in getting the measure, which will allow agencies to request DPS to conduct independent investigations, into the criminal justice portion of the state budget.
Despite an eventual agreement on the budget, Democratic members tried but failed to introduce a number of amendments to budget bills to introduce a litany of policy changes such as same-day voter registration, upping penalties for price gouging and extending family and medical leave benefits.