Gov. Janet Napolitano's proposed 2005 budget allows education and other essential state services to keep up with growth, and expands essential early-childhood programs including full-day kindergarten, all without raising taxes.
There's a catch, of course. It's that the state's “pay-as-you-go” school construction and repair system will have to borrow $350 million. And for some legislators, that will be a deal-breaker.
It shouldn't be, and here's why. When first proposed about a decade ago, a centralized school-construction system was expected to have its own dedicated funding source. Then Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan proposed a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for it. And keep in mind the system it was to replace was based on local school-district borrowing.
But when Students FIRST was finally enacted in the late ’90s, state revenues were rolling in and prospects were good at the time that the general fund could absorb the hit. For a few years, it did.
After two years of recession, though, reality has set in. Building schools without either a dedicated revenue source or some borrowing is unrealistic. Given Napolitano's economically and politically wise decision not to go for a tax increase, a quite reasonable fallback is to borrow to build the schools that are needed today, and let the increased revenue generated by continued population and economic growth retire the debt.
With a tax increase off the table, some lawmakers will demand cuts, and at the very least to kill or postpone Napolitano's early-childhood initiative. But Napolitano has begun improving the efficiency of state agencies, with savings of around $844 million over the next five years. Cutting deeper risks compromising vital services.
Finally, it would be foolishly wrong to delay or kill Napolitano's early-childhood initiative. First, it would shortchange kids who already have several strikes against them, including poverty. Second, there is abundant evidence that providing quality care and educational programs in early childhood can prevent problems later on, such as delinquency, teen pregnancy and dropping out of school, that result in much higher costs to the state.
The governor's budget is fundamentally sound. Legislators who are penny wise but pound foolish must not be allowed to pick it apart.