Legislature OKs English learning bill
Associated Press
Jan. 23, 2006
08:05 PM

PHOENIX - The Arizona Legislature on Monday approved new school-choice tax breaks - including one without dollar limits - as part of legislation to revamp programs for students learning the English language and meet a court deadline to avoid costly fines against the state.

The Republican-led Legislature's passage of the bill (SB1198) sent it to an uncertain fate on Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's desk. The Senate approved the bill, 16-14, and the House followed with a 35-23 vote.

The Legislature is under a federal court order to improve the public schools' English Language Learning programs within 15 days of the Jan. 9 start of the current regular session. A 2000 court order said current programs violated federal laws for equal opportunities in education.

Napolitano and Republicans have been at odds for months over how to address the ELL issue. Republican legislators ignored her call last summer for increasing the state's per-student funding and instead resurrected their vetoed 2005 legislation to provide extra dollars to districts depending on what state-approved programs they use and what other dollars they have available.

"We should act and act now," said Rep. Tom Boone, a Peoria Republican who helped author the bill.

Missing the deadline would mean facing daily fines that would start at $500,000 and rise gradually to $2 million by the end of the session.

A new dollar-for-dollar corporate income tax credit for businesses'
contributions for tuition grants for English Language Learning students would have no limit on each contribution or the total contributions. A separate individual income tax credit would be limited to $500 per individual and $1,000 per married couple.

Napolitano last spring vetoed a version of the English learning bill without the newly added tax credits and she has vetoed several bills to create a new corporate tuition tax credit. However, she hasn't tipped her hand on what she'll do with the new version.

If the bill is formally transmitted to her Tuesday, she'd have until next Monday to act.

Democratic legislators are divided, some urging Napolitano to veto the bill and others saying she should let it become law without her signature in hopes that a federal would reject the bill as inadequate and prod the Legislature into doing more.

"The children of this state who are English language learners ... are being neglected, rebuffed and abused by this Legislature," said Rep. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson.

Senate Majority Leader Tim Bee said including the tax breaks provided "a different model" on resolving the ELL issue in a way that would increase parents' options for educating their children.

"Our members desired that in the bill," said House Majority Leader Steve Tully, R-Phoenix. "We're not doing this to thumb our nose at the governor."

Sen. Minority Leader Linda Aguirre, D-Phoenix, said the Republicans approach wouldn't do enough to help the students but that she personally could accept Napolitano letting the measure become law without her signature. Doing that would put the issue before the federal judge, who likely would reject it as inadequate, she said.

"I want to get this thing resolved," said Aguirre, adding that she viewed the possible inclusion of tax credits in the bill as a way for GOP leaders to get fellow Republicans to support the overall bill.

Tim Hogan, a lawyer for the lawsuit plaintiffs, said he still wants Napolitano to veto the bill. Inclusion of tax credits "is a side issue" that doesn't have anything to do with improving public schools, Hogan said.

"Nobody can say that with a straight face," Hogan said. "That's somebody else's agenda."

Two Republican senators voted against the bill, citing the uncapped corporate tax credit.

Sen. Toni Hellon, R-Tucson, cited a 2000 tax break for alternative-fuel vehicle subsidies which cost the state more than $125 million.

"I think this bill is going to cost us more than that bill ever did," Hellon said.

Sen. John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, said that criticism was a "red herring"
because donors have to contribute the same amount of money as they would have paid in taxes. "When you contribute to these funds you get absolutely no personal benefit," he said.

Sydney Hay, a lobbyist for school-choice advocates, said she welcomed inclusion of the tax credits.

"At some point the governor is going to have to do what she promised to do,"
Hay said. "It seems like a wonderful compromise to me."

Napolitano last spring promised to sign a corporate tuition tax credit bill as part of a budget deal with Republicans but ultimately vetoed the bill, saying that Republicans didn't keep other parts of the agreement. They denied that.

The Legislature on Jan. 11 passed a new version of the corporate tuition tax credit bill as Republicans said they were giving Napolitano a chance to redeem herself. She vetoed that version, saying any new attempt to create the proposed new credit would have to be considered as part of a comprehensive agreement on the next state budget.

The state already has an individual income tax credit for tuition donations but the draft amendment would create a new tax credit to benefit ELL students.

Lawyers involved in the court case over adequacy of programs for approximately 150,000 ELL students interpreted the deadline as Tuesday - 15 days after the session's start - and Napolitano's office said that means lawmakers had until midnight Tuesday. However, legislative staff lawyers said when the fines could start remained unclear because the Legislature counts Monday as the session's 15th day.

U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins has said the 15-day deadline didn't include the five days that the governor gets under the Arizona Constitution to act on legislation.


On the Net:

Arizona Legislature: http://www.azleg.gov