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Going all-in: Brewer’s big gamble

During her first 13 months on the Ninth Floor, Gov. Jan Brewer said repeatedly that it would be devastating to balance the budget by shortchanging the public school system, and she has opposed – and even vetoed – legislation that would have led to massive reductions in education funding.

But she put her reputation and political future on the line last week by negotiating a backup budget plan that would cut hundreds of millions from public schools if voters reject a 1-cent sales tax increase that will be on the ballot May 18.

The governor’s camp is betting voters will approve the tax increase rather than allow schools to lose another $428 million, on top of the roughly $800 million that has been cut from the state’s education budget during the past two fiscal years.

And it’s a big gamble; education would take the biggest hit of all state programs, and the cuts would take place almost immediately because lawmakers enacted two parallel budgets – Plan A if the tax increase passes, and a Plan B if it doesn’t.

Failure, though, would be devastating for Brewer, if not for the schools as well. Laying off teachers and packing more students into classrooms in the months leading up to the primary and general elections later this year would create a public relations nightmare for her campaign, according to several political experts interviewed by the Arizona Capitol Times.

“If it doesn’t pass, her primary opponents are quite likely to say it was a lack of leadership,” said Jim Haynes, a pollster with the Behavior Research Center. “I think that’s the bottom line issue in terms of her political future.”

As for the schools themselves, the state’s largest teachers union paints a grisly picture that, no doubt, will be advertised to voters during the next two months.

If Proposition 100 fails and those cuts go into effect, parents are going to notice the impact, said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association. Most school districts would have no choice but to lay off dozens of teachers and support staff, which would result in much larger class sizes.

“Class sizes are already ballooning, and this is going to cause them to explode,” Wright said. “It is unusual to see a primary or elementary school classroom with fewer than 30 students in it now, and it is not uncommon to see a high school classroom with 40 or more. That’s not what parents expect for their children.”

The sales tax increase, and the education spending that depends on it, has been Brewer’s signature issue since succeeding to the office in January 2009.

The contingency plan was drafted primarily by the Governor’s Office and legislative leadership. Nearly half of the $918 million in cuts it calls for are in K-12, which makes up almost 50 percent of Arizona’s general fund budget.

Public safety, another popular item with voters, takes its share of hits in the contingency plan. The plan cuts about $63 million from the Department of Corrections, primarily by transferring inmates with less than a year left on their sentences to county facilities. It also cuts about $5 million from the Department of Public Safety and nearly $2 million from the Department of Fire, Building and Life Safety.

John Arnold, Brewer’s budget chief, said the Governor’s Office wanted the K-12 cuts to be about $20 million higher to reflect the amount of money that Prop. 100 earmarks for education. The ballot language stipulates that two-thirds of the tax revenue would go toward education. Lawmakers, however, were looking for across-the-board cuts of about 10 percent, and Arnold said the $428 million reduction in school funding was the compromise they reached.

Some insiders said putting the state’s schools on the line was an unnecessary risk that was politically motivated. Rep. David Lujan, the House minority leader, said he believes the size of the cut was intended to scare voters into supporting the ballot measure in the May 18 special election. The Phoenix Democrat said the cuts could have been offset through the elimination of tax credits and loopholes.

“I think it’s set up intentionally to say either vote for this sales tax or you’re going to have to see significant cuts in education and other areas that you care about,” he said.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, echoed those sentiments, though he wants the cuts to come from major reductions in other state agencies. If Prop. 100 fails, he said, Brewer may want to reconsider the cuts that will be automatically triggered.

“That’s the governor’s will. Essentially what she’s trying to do is manipulate the ballot,” Gould said. “If her tax hike fails, I don’t think she’s going to want to carry that out.”

Using issues like education and public safety is a tried and true method to convince voters to support tax increases, said pollster Bruce Merrill, who runs the Cronkite/Eight poll.

“If you can touch them emotionally, it’s a much more powerful thing to do. Fear, of course, is the strongest emotion that people have,” Merrill said.

Lawmakers from both parties said there were ways the governor could have shielded the education budget from the massive cuts that will be automatically triggered if Prop. 100 fails. Some, primarily Republicans, said there are other places the cuts could come from.

Meanwhile, many Democrats said there are billions of dollars in tax exemptions and loopholes that could be closed to bridge the budget shortfall.

Sen. Thayer Verschoor, a Gilbert Republican who is leading a campaign committee against Prop. 100, said he believes there is plenty of money to be found if lawmakers and Brewer are willing to closely examine each state agency’s budget and look at consolidating some agencies, eliminating others and finding efficiencies in the rest.

“I think you can spread it out a little bit, make it a little more broad based than what it is, hitting the education and the public safety so heavily,” he said. “I think you can look at some other reductions from that angle.”

Democrats say revenue could be generated by eliminating tax exemptions on things like country club memberships and spa treatments, closing corporate tax loopholes and giving the Department of Revenue the resources to collect about $400 million in uncollected taxes.

“There’s hundreds of millions of dollars on the table out there. It’s just a matter of political courage and political will,” said House Minority Whip Rep. Chad Campbell of Phoenix.

Prop. 100 supporters, on the other hand, said the contingency budget was intended as a way to fully disclose to voters what programs would be cut if the sales tax fails.

“We’re telling the public we’re going to spend this money two-thirds on education,” Arnold said. “A contingency budget should reflect that.”

Brewer and her allies argue that Prop. 100 is a way to prevent cuts that would have happened regardless of whether the ballot measure went before voters. Education has already sustained deep cuts, they say, and Prop. 100 is the only way to keep them from becoming deeper.

“The voters say ‘no’ and that means they want government cut another billion dollars. That would be almost $3 billion cut out of our budget within a year and a half,” said Brewer, who repeatedly urged lawmakers to muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass the tax increase outright, without sending it to the ballot.

Whether it passes, and whether voters blame Brewer for the education cuts that follow if it doesn’t, will likely determine the governor’s future. Haynes of the firm Behavior Research Center said Prop. 100 may be a referendum on the governor and will likely dictate whether voters give her a full term this year.

Brewer said she doesn’t think voters will blame her for the cuts that have been made to state government, and they will understand that she inherited a fiscal mess when she took office. But voters aren’t always consistent in their actions or opinions, Haynes said, and if they don’t make that distinction, it could be a bad omen for her election chances.

“People are motivated by whatever blows their own skirt,” Haynes said. “They’ll say ‘No (on Prop. 100), and it’s your fault.’ They’ll say, ‘Yes, but I was holding my nose and I still dislike everyone that’s working at 1700 W. Washington.’”

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