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Senate waives spending cap for Arizona K-12 schools days before deadline

State senators voted Monday afternoon to let Arizona public schools spend the money they've already been allocated for this budget year.

The 23-6 vote comes just days before a voter-mandated constitutional provision would have forced schools to collectively cut more than $1.1 billion between now and the end of June. That would equal about 16 percent of the budget of each district.

That 1980 measure caps total K-12 education expenses at then-current levels, adjusted annually for inflation and student growth. But it also allows lawmakers to temporarily waive the cap with a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, something they have done twice before.

Monday's action comes after Senate President Karen Fann (R-Prescott) lined up the last few of the votes from her 16-member GOP caucus.

All 14 Democrats had long since said they were in support. But several Republicans offered various reasons why they were balking.

Some said they feared how waiving the cap this year might affect pending litigation over the future of a 3.5% surcharge on the wealthy to provide more K-12 funding. There were also demands for lawmakers to first approve other issues, like universal vouchers of public funds to let parents send their children to private and parochial schools.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers (R-Mesa) managed to line up 45 of the 60 members of his chamber a week ago. But it took Fann until Monday to have the Senate follow suit.

Fann said Monday that it was never a question that the votes would be there when the time finally came.

"We want kids in school," she said, an acknowledgment that several districts have said the failure to get permission to spend their already budgeted funds would have led to layoffs, consolidation of classes and even some school closures. "They've lost enough education already."

Sen. Vince Leach (R-Tucson) said he can't support raising the expenditure limit, even for just one year, without the approval of not just expanded vouchers but what he called "backpack funding” — having state aid follow students to whatever school a parent chooses.

"We're capitulating to educational extremists who are holding our kids hostage," complained Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale). "The educational institution has hijacked the profession," she continued, saying that parents effectively are locked out of any role in what happens with their children.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City), complained that the education community does not give Republicans the credit for the things the Legislature has done. The result, he said, is that education funding makes up half the state budget, saying that is lost in "the lie from the educational-industrial complex and the shame-stream media." Borrelli cited the 20% pay raise for teachers approved by the GOP majority in 2018.

But Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix), said this wasn't anything Republicans wanted to do. 

In fact, she pointed out, Gov. Doug Ducey's own budget had proposed just a 1% pay hike. It was only after educators descended on the Capitol, Rios said, that lawmakers and the governor relented.

Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R-Chandler) agreed to go along after he said he was assured that this one-time waiver would not breathe new legal life into Proposition 208, then 2020 voter-approved 3.5% surcharge on the taxable income of individuals above $250,000.

And Sen. David Livingston (R-Peoria) pointed out that all Monday's vote does is allow schools to spend money the Legislature already allocated.

Rios chided Republicans who control the Legislature for waiting until days before the March 1 deadline.

"This was a crisis we unnecessarily created," she said. And Rios said lawmakers should act not just to waive the cap this year but eliminate the entire "antiquated, arbitrary, outdated limit."

For more on what happened in the Senate, Howie Fischer of Capitol Media Services joined The Show.

Beth Lewis is a third grade teacher in Tempe and executive director of the advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona. The Show spoke with her about what the Legislature’s move means for those on the ground floor.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.