Education takes big hit in GOP plan to balance state budget
By Daniel Scarpinato
arizona daily star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/276171
PHOENIX — State aid for K-12 education could be cut by about $900 million and Arizona's three universities could lose more than $300 million between now and 2010 under options presented Thursday by Republican lawmakers who will be negotiating the state budget.
In addition to the $50 million hit Arizona's three universities have already endured this year, the budget appropriations chairmen in the House and Senate identified $314 million that could be cut from the universities over the next 18 months, as the state also faces a potential $3 billion deficit next year.
If that amount were actually proposed and passed, it would constitute a roughly 30 percent cut to the university system's state aid — but the actual overall reduction would be smaller since the state's universities receive about $500 million in tuition revenue.
Still, the figures had the University of Arizona's top brass accusing lawmakers of "talking about absolutely devastating cuts to the most powerful economic engine in our state."
There's also $103 million in primary and secondary education money that could be cut this year, according to the proposals, and nearly $800 million could be cut next year. The more than $900 million in cuts would represent a 20 percent reduction from current funding levels for K-12 education.
Also, another roughly $372 million could be cut for both years combined from the state's public health-care system.
The options presented actually provide more money than the state needs to balance the books. And Republican leaders said they were submitting a framework, not actual budget cuts, as they look to trim expenses before the state runs out of money.
Democrats, though, decried the suggestion that the state look to public education. And in a press release, University of Arizona President Robert Shelton called the options "so extreme they would absolutely cripple higher education."
UA spokesman Johnny Cruz said Shelton had no counterproposal.
Gov. Janet Napolitano will present her own plan today, though she is expected to resign after the weekend and will not be in office to defend or negotiate it. Her previous budgets, including one for balancing '09, have steered clear of deep cuts and relied on borrowing.
Republicans pitched their proposals as a way of identifying what out of the state's nearly $10 billion budget is available to sweep, since much of the budget is legally protected from cuts.
The chairmen also took some items off the table, like borrowing, accounting measures aimed at pushing costs into further years, and a tax increase.
"It was purely options," said state Rep. Frank Antenori, a Tucson Republican who sat in on the briefing given Thursday to a joint session of the Legislature. "The reality has come home to roost, and we have to balance this budget."
Antenori said it was important the Legislature explore all options.
In a press conference immediately following the presentations, however, Democrats said if Republicans get what they want, the cuts to education will result on a "generational problem."
"We understand that these are just options, but the options that they have put on the table are the wrong options for Arizona," said state Rep. David Lujan, a Phoenix Democrat and House minority leader. "We must invest in education not only in good times but in bad times, too."
Democrats wouldn't specify where they would prefer to cut other than to say the state should look at "waste and inefficiency." Lujan said Democrats would wait to see Napolitano's budget — though he and others attended a briefing in her office Thursday. And he said House Democrats would likely have their own proposal next week.
"You don't have to just borrow to solve this problem," said Lujan, adding a combination of cuts and "other measures" could get the budget down to where it needs to be.
But while Democrats said cutting areas like education would impair the state for years, one of the Republicans who drafted the options — Sen. Russell Pearce, head of the Senate Appropri-ations Committee — blamed Napolitano's previous proposals for the current situation.
"They pushed things off long enough," said Pearce, R-Mesa.
Contact reporter Daniel Scarpinato at 307-4339 or email@example.com.