State lawmakers could save more than $1 billion this fiscal year if they would cut funding for universities, limit enrollment in the Kids Care health insurance program, reduce funding to public schools and take money earmarked for road construction and instead use it to pay the salaries of Department of Public Safety officers.
These options and more were unveiled late Friday by the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
The brainstorming came in response to financial projections that the state budget is running at least $600 million in the red as tax collections lag behind the projections made when lawmakers adopted the $10.6 billion spending plan earlier this year.
Legislative leaders sought the list to find ways to meet their constitutional mandate to bring the budget into balance by the end of the fiscal year June 30. But much of what is on that 256-page list may be dead even as the ink dries. Even Senate President Tim Bee said “many, if not most, are not politically realistic.”
Instead, he said the list solely represents what is legally possible — meaning the funding is not constitutionally protected or the cash is not already legally encumbered.
“They’re certainly not recommendations coming from anyone in my (Senate Republican) caucus or the Democratic caucus,” Bee said. “It’s staff that assembled this for us to look at.”
For example, he said one political nonstarter is a proposal to reduce eligibility for Kids Care. This program provides virtually free health care for children whose parents earn less than $41,300 for a family of four.
Richard Stavneak, the committee’s staff director, said making the cutoff $36,137 for a family of four would eliminate 18,626 children from eligibility.
The plan also suggests eliminating $30 million that lawmakers provided to the state’s three universities to help them retain students. That’s on top of $56 million more that Stavneak said could be taken from other university programs.
Another proposal suggests taking back $23 million that lawmakers gave for K-12 public education above what they are required to provide.
Legislative Democrats have signaled that any funding cuts for education are unacceptable. And while they are in the minority, they have the ultimate backstop: Gov. Janet Napolitano has declared such cuts off the table.
The list of options does include something Napolitano and most Democrats would find acceptable: Borrow money for school construction rather than pay more than $300 million in cash. But Republican leaders have said borrowing, and having to repay over time with interest, is unacceptable.
Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, said the 258-page report does serve a purpose, even if legislators conclude they are unwilling to touch many of the items.
“It’s the start of a process,” he said.