Gov. Janet Napolitano presented an optimistic State of the State speech Monday that minimized a $1 billion budget deficit and generated a lot of Democratic applauds and an equal amount of Republican skepticism.
“We must remember that Arizonans years from now won’t ask how we balanced the budget,” Napolitano said. “Instead, they’ll ask how we improved education, ensured their safety, built a prosperous economy and planned for explosive growth.”
Rep. Pete Rios (D-Hayden) liked the speech, calling it a good Democratic speech. But like his Republican colleagues, he wasn’t sure how some of her proposals would fly with the GOP majority in the Legislature.
Rios said the governor’s main themes, that the state must move forward and not get bogged down in budget issues, was a good one.
“Budget deficits and budget surpluses are cyclical,” said Rios, who represents the city of Maricopa. “When she said it’s not the end of the world, she’s right.”
Napolitano did give a nod to the looming budget deficit and tepid economy when she told lawmakers, “Given our budget constraints we cannot do as much – immediately – as we would like. But we can look to the future.”
She outlined two new education initiatives, including the elimination of the yearly tuition increases at Arizona’s three universities by guaranteeing that freshmen will pay the same tuition every year while in college.
And Napolitano proposed that today’s eighth-graders receive free tuition when they graduate in 2012, Arizona’s Centennial year, if they maintain a B average and stay out of trouble.
Rios liked the idea, but wasn’t sure how it would be paid for.
Napolitano told lawmakers that commuters need relief from the “time tax,” the time people spend stuck in their vehicles commuting to and from work.
She proposed a statewide plan for new transportation corridors that serve the growing areas like Maricopa and that tribal governments have to be included in the planning because “all roads in Arizona – almost literally – go through Indian country.”
“That’s probably the piece I like best,” Rios said. “But at the end of the day, if we’re going to solve the transportation problem, we need a dedicated revenue source.”
Napolitano challenged lawmakers to put on the ballot a transportation plan that provides for future growth in the state.
Other proposals made by the governor included doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by state universities and increasing the number of science and math teachers by establishing a loan forgiveness program, scholarships and incentives.
She also proposed raising the dropout age from 16 to 18.
“It’s also time to end the fiction that a high school diploma is the final goal of education or that a student should be allowed to drop out at age 16,” Napolitano said, stressing the need for international trade and investing in research and development, which she said has resulted in $9 in federal funding for every $1 invested.
Many of her proposals didn’t come with a price tag, which made some lawmakers nervous. Currently legislators expect a $1 billion budget shortfall this year and another $800 million deficit in the budget that starts July 1.
But Napolitano stressed that the Arizona economy is cyclical and that the budget shortfall wasn’t permanent.
“It is not a sign that Arizona’s growth will stall or that this wonderful place we call home will become undesirable,” she said of the deficit. “More important, it is not an excuse to stop working toward what we all believe in.”