Legislature approves balanced budget with deep cuts to education, health care - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Legislature approves balanced budget with deep cuts to education, health care

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Posted: Friday, April 1, 2011 5:28 pm | Updated: 8:09 pm, Fri Apr 1, 2011.

State lawmakers late Friday gave final approval to what will be the first truly balanced budget in half a decade.

The party-line approval of the package of spending and policy bills came over the often heated objections of Democrats. Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, argued the budget will ``decimate'' public education, make universities unaffordable and leave many needy Arizonans without health care.

But Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said the sharp cuts now are necessary because lawmakers -- including some members of his own party -- were unwilling to start making cuts in 2007 when the economy tanked and tax collections began to fall. Had they done that, Antenori said, everyone would have had a chance to adjust.

Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, was more blunt about it.

``Today's the day of reckoning,'' said Gould, who said he voted against every prior budget plan since being elected in 2004.

``I told you this day would come,'' he told his colleagues. ``Here it is. Vote it. Sit down, Shut up and deal with it.''

One of the biggest hits in the $8.3 billion spending plan will be to the university system which will see state aid cut by $198 million. Arizona Board of Regents chairwoman Anne Mariucci said that means state funding is now just half of what it was in 2008.

``Continuing to balance the budget on the backs of students and working families who are in pursuit of creating a better life for themselves and making positive contributions to our state's economy will only diminish opportunities for innovation and economic growth,'' she said in a prepared statement.

Schapira said the result is that tuition at the three state universities could top $10,000 a year.

But many Republicans said that argument rings hollow. They cited figures from the Arizona Board of Regents which said that 30 percent of undergraduate students pay absolutely nothing at all in tuition and fees.

And the figure is even higher at Arizona State University, where officials said 48 percent of state residents attending her school last year paid nothing.

Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said it is that fact which is driving up tuition for others.

``Something's wrong with the system and needs to be fixed,'' he said.

Some of that does come from the universities taking some of what students pay and redistributing that in financial aid. But ASU spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said three quarters of the scholarships are from federal sources, saying ASU is the second largest disburser of Pell Grants in the country, ``indicative of the financial need of our students.''

Schapira also decried the cut in state aid to public schools.

Legislative budget analysts put the reduction at $183 million. But gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said the real loss is closer to $134 million, with at least part of the difference due to federal aid.

And Schapira had particularly harsh words for Gov. Jan Brewer, saying she promised to protect education but agreed to a deal that cuts $50 million more from K-12 than she had proposed.

``If she was working to protect education, she failed,'' he said.

``It's $50 million she didn't want to cut,'' responded Benson. But he said it was a ``negotiated process,'' with the Senate wanting an even bigger slice.

And Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, said the size of the cuts needs to be put into perspective. He said it comes out to only about $200 per child out of an average of $9,000 a year that schools get in combined local, state and federal dollars.

Melvin also said that this budget does do what the Democrats say they want: protect children.

``What we have in this budget is a protection from generational theft,'' he said. ``We are not stealing or taking from generations that are yet to be born to pay for expenses now.''

Antenori said the budgets of the last few years have been built on gimmicks like moving expenses from one fiscal year into another and some short-term borrowing. The state even sold off some of its buildings -- including the House and Senate -- for some up-front cash and now is paying off what amounts to a mortgage.

``But instead of ripping the Band-Aid off and getting it over with and letting the wound heal ... we've tugged and tugged and tugged and delayed this pain for far too long,'' he said.

Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said this balanced budget puts the state on sound financial footing for what will happen on June 1, 2013. That's when the temporary one-cent sales tax boost approved by voters last year expires. And that will reduce state revenues by about $1 billion a year.

What worried Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, is what happens in the interim. ``Classroom sizes will increase,'' he said. ``University tuitions will go up again. Our most vulnerable family members will be left to fend for themselves, often alone, in many cases out on the street.''

And he argued that the Republicans who crafted the budget aren't even being intellectually honest in claiming it is balanced. He pointed out that one of the ways they cut state expenses was to force some new financial burdens onto counties.

But all the complaints by Democrats brought a sharp response from House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa.

``Not one time in this, the ninth major budget bill in the last three years, in the worst fiscal crisis in the state history, not a single Democratic vote for a single dollar in deficit reduction,'' he said ``Not one. That is a disconnect from the reality of the economic situation.''

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said what Democrats provided were alternatives. Among those which the minority party floated was closing what they argue are ``loopholes'' in the law which exempt certain purchases from the state sales tax.

The biggest spending cut is the decision to let pursue a plan to phase out Medicaid coverage for childless adults and some parents as well as impose co-pay requirements and even annual charges for those with unhealthy lifestyles like smoking and obesity who do not comply with regimens proposed by their doctors.

While Brewer does not need federal approval to trim eligibility, she does a waiver of federal requirements for some of the cost-saving measures. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said she doubts the governor will get that, meaning the budget is not really balanced.

Brewer said one trade-off of her proposal is that some of the savings would be used to restore money for transplants for those who qualify for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System which lawmakers voted last year to stop funding. But lawmakers disagreed as to whether the legislation approved Friday actually does that.

Sinema pointed out the budget does not actually repeal the ban on funding the transplants. But gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson argued that a provision in the package frees AHCCCS administration to start funding the transplants again, immediately, regardless of the funding ban that remains in place.

Other objections came to smaller elements in the spending plan.

Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford complained about a provision tucked into one bill that gives out money from the Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission fund. It provides $1.6 million to Maricopa County, another $500 million for Pinal County -- and a specific preclusion against any of the cash going to Pima County even though, unlike the other two, it actually goes down to the border.

Pearce admitted he inserted the provision because of comments made by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after approval last year of new legislation designed to give police more power to arrest illegal immigrants for violating state laws. Dupnik said he would instead continue to have his deputies turn these people over to federal immigration officials.

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