School cuts may cost state US funds
Capitol Media Services
Feb. 10, 2009

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Stimulus bill ties aid to education support in '05-06

By Howard Fischer

Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/education/279540Quantcast

PHOENIX Whether Arizona gets any stimulus money could depend on how much more state lawmakers cut in education funds.

A provision in the federal legislation being worked out in Washington ties much of the aid to whether each state is spending at least as much on education now as it did in the 2005-2006 school year the year before the economy went into a tailspin.

But the language, at least at this point, is tied not only to additional education funding. The legislation also apparently makes whether states get a separate and larger chunk of discretionary money contingent on whether they have slashed their own education funding.

Central to the question of Arizona's eligibility is the desire by Congress to have any new federal money actually enhance education funding rather than simply replace what already was being paid by state taxpayers.

Basic state aid to education, on a per-student basis, is increased in Arizona every year because of a voter-imposed requirement. And the number of students has increased, though the rate of growth has recently slowed.

But in the 2006 budget year, the state paid $250 million for new school construction. This year, with the state strapped for money, lawmakers approved $235 million in borrowing authority money not paid this year but in future years.

The amount allocated for building renewal and maintenance went from $70 million in 2006 to $6.5 million now.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said those cuts now put Arizona within $150 million of being disqualified.

Sinema said while that might seem like a big cushion, she pointed out lawmakers just cut $133 million in K-12 funding to balance this year's budget. And the anticipated deficit for the coming fiscal year is even larger.

Senate Majority Whip Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, said her staff is studying both the version approved by the U.S. House and the one awaiting final Senate action.

But Gorman said, at least at this point, "we're nowhere near" being in danger of disqualifying Arizona from federal funding.

And she's convinced that, if nothing else, the sharp drop in capital funding won't be considered.

But Sinema said legislative budget staffers told her Arizona's method of paying for new schools from the state general fund means that the cuts for construction will count toward the question of whether the state is maintaining funding at 2006 levels.

She said that in other states, where local districts pay for school construction, the figure is irrelevant.

House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, said he is taking a wait-and-see approach. He said the Legislature will not adopt any further cuts in education for the coming year until it is clear what effect they would have on the stimulus package.

U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said he's sympathetic with the concerns of state lawmakers who have had to deal with their own budget problems.

"I sure wouldn't provide that, in order for states to get help if they really need it that they have to expand their programs to make them more expensive as a precondition to getting the money," said Kyl, the Senate minority whip.

The K-12 funding may be only part of Arizona's problem.

Sinema said there's a separate requirement to keep university funding at 2006 levels to get federal stimulus money.

She said her read of the proposal shows Arizona is now within $50 million of failing to qualify because of cuts already made to university funding. That comes after more than $140 million was taken from the state's three universities to balance this year's budget and before any cuts for next year.

And even if Arizona remains legally eligible for the federal funds, some Republican lawmakers are questioning whether the state should take it without at least asking some questions first.

"There seems to be more strings attached to this money, more and more each day," Gorman said. "And the more that's attached to it, the more difficult it is for us to plan."