Poorest, best schools a focus in proposed Arizona budget

PHOENIX (AP) — Gov. Doug Ducey proposed a $12.3 billion spending plan Friday that would send more money to Arizona's best-performing and poorest schools while boosting the budget for repairing schools and building new ones.

Ducey's budget would raise state spending by about 6% over the budget enacted last year, an increase of $727 million.

Education funding has been under a microscope since Arizona teachers walked out of the classroom in 2018 to protest their low pay, deteriorating buildings and years of stagnant education funding despite an improving economy.

His proposed per-pupil education spending, $6,156 from the state, is the same that schools got in 2001 when adjusted for inflation, according to numbers released by Ducey's office.

“What we tried to do in designing our education investments is where can we get the biggest bang for our buck, and how can we have the biggest impact on kids and teachers and on schools," said Daniel Scarpinato, chief of staff for Ducey.

The Republican governor's proposal fully restores, two years ahead of schedule, the money schools get for textbooks, school buses, technology and other needs, which was cut during the economic downturn.

Ducey's proposal includes a plan to give $150 extra per student to schools with at least 60% of the students living in poverty, and those with a “D” or “F” rating. The money, $44 million per year for three years spread among 554 district and charter schools, would have to be spent on “proven turnaround strategies.”

Ducey also would increase funding for the best-rated schools by even more — $225 to $400 per student, at a cost of $35 million a year.

He'd also spend $38 million for schools to hire counselors, social workers and police officers to boost a grant program created last year, which proved popular with schools. That's enough to fund positions at about 495 schools.

The School Facilities Board, the state agency that funds construction and major repairs, would get an extra $35 million this year, a 44% increase.

Altogether, Ducey's proposed budget would increase K-12 education funding by $600 million, but most of that is automatic increases for inflation or spending approved in prior years, including $175 million for the last piece of a three-year plan to boost teacher salaries by 20%.

The governor, however, leaves in place a big budget gimmick that was put in place after the Great Recession depleted state finances. He plans to a $930 million payment to schools that was pushed off to the next budget year and has been consistently delayed for about a decade.

The governor's budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is his opening bid in negotiations with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The governor pegged Arizona's budget surplus at $965 million, with about a third of it available for programs that carry an ongoing cost without throwing future budgets out of balance.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature responded positively to the increases in education funding and other aspects of Ducey's proposal. They said the final spending plan should avoid tax cuts and noted Ducey's proposal lacks money to combat homelessness and climate change.

“Investment in our schools is moving in the right direction, but we expect more to make our teacher salaries competitive and pull our overall funding out of the national basement,” Rep. Charlene Fernandez of Yuma, the House Democratic leader, said in a statement.

Here's a look at the governor's other spending proposals:

PRISONS

Ducey’s budget plan includes $33 million to transfer more than 3,800 inmates currently housed in the Florence prison to private and county facilities. The closure of the more-than-a-century-old prison will save money in the long run because it needs between $150 million and $400 million in repairs. The move also will boost staffing at the nearby Eyman prison. Those prisons have a more than 30% vacancy rate among prison guards. The plan also allocated $48 million to fix broken cell door locks at the Lewis and Yuma prisons. The state’s former prison director, Charles Ryan, retired last year after the lock issue came to light. Raises for guards (see below) will cost $42 million.

STATE POLICE

The Department of Public Safety will get two new helicopters for $15 million and begin a $20 million lease-purchase plan for its patrol vehicles designed to replace all vehicles by 2026. Ducey wants $16 million to upgrade the state police radio network that many county sheriffs also use. And he’ll seek $5 million to equip all sworn DPS officers with body cameras. Another $421 million in investments will be spread over several other projects, including new bullet-proof vests and helmets, computer replacements and crime lab testing.

SALARIES

Corrections officers, state firefighters and child safety workers will get raises as part of an ongoing effort to bring their salaries up. Child safety workers, for instance, will see a 10% boost, and corrections a 5% raise on top of a 10% increase last year.

Scarpinato said between the two budgets, half of all state workers saw their salaries increase. The last across-the-board pay increase for state workers came during the administration of former Gov. Jan Brewer, who granted a 5% raise — if workers gave up their civil service protections. An across-the-board, no-strings 3% pay increase was last granted in 2008, but in 2011 a nearly 2% cut was imposed because of the recession. A state workforce report issued last year shows state worker pay is nearly 22% below what they could earn in the private sector – up from 9.5% in 2010.

Scarpinato said average worker pay has increased by 5% since Ducey came into office in 2015, and some agencies have been able to increase pay within their existing budgets.

“We’ve made targeted investments,” he said. “Last year, half of state employees were part of a targeted investment we made in our pay package."

FREEWAYS

The budget includes $28 million in state cash for a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Gila River, creating capacity for up to eight lanes. The total cost is $78 million. That's a missing link in an ongoing project to widen the heavily traveled freeway linking Phoenix and Tucson to three lanes in each direction, up from two.

The governor also wants to lay broadband conduit alongside 514 miles (827 kilometers) of Interstates 40, 17 and 19 at a cost of $60 million. That would let the state install variable speed limit signs, overhead message boards, traffic cameras, weather information and wrong-way driver detectors. It also would help internet providers build their networks in rural areas.

Lawmakers have much bigger infrastructure plans. Earlier this week, a Senate committee advanced more than $46 million to repair 10 bridges along rural highways, not including a hoped-for $20 million for a bridge over Tonto Creek in Gila County where three children drowned last year when their family tried to ford the swollen creek. Ducey hopes the federal government will pay for the bridge.

TAX CUT

Ducey wants to eliminate state income taxes on pensions for military veterans, reducing revenue by $45 million in the first year and giving veterans an average savings of $840 per year.

RAINY DAY FUND

After making a massive $542 million deposit last year that brought the state's emergency savings account above $1 billion, Ducey proposed topping it off with another $25 million this year. That would leave the state with enough in savings to cover about 9% of current general fund spending if revenues drop.