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Brewer committed to small K-12 cuts

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer listens during a bi-partisan meeting of governors hosted by President Barack Obama in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 28, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Gov. Jan Brewer's budget plan includes the continuation of a $245 million K-12 education payment rollover at the end of fiscal year 2012. Senate Republicans want to cut at least $545 million above the cuts outlined in Brewer' plan.. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Some Republican lawmakers are predicting that they’ll have a budget on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk by the time the 2011 session hits the 60-day mark, but first, someone will have to budge on K-12 spending and rollovers.

Sources familiar with budget negotiations in the Legislature say Senate Republicans want to cut at least $545 million more than Brewer’s budget plan calls for in an effort to scrap her calls for budget gimmicks, including a K-12 rollover and borrowing $330 million from First Things First.

Brewer, however, said she’s committed to her budget plan, which holds K-12 schools relatively harmless. Her budget includes several K-12 rollovers, including the continuation of a $245 million rollover and a new $115 million rollover at the end of the fiscal year 2012.

“Currently, we’re going through trying to figure out just exactly together where it is that they do want to make their reductions and how they’re going to do it and how they’re going to implement it,” Brewer told reporters March 9. “But I put my budget out. I feel very strongly about education. And I will try to hold as fast as I am able to do.”

The discrepancy threatens to prolong budget negotiations that legislative leaders had hoped would allow them to end the session in April or sooner.

Senate Majority Whip Steve Pierce said his caucus is committed to deeper K-12 cuts.

“It’s what the caucus wants,” the Prescott Republican said. “People in this caucus were elected to come down here and make cuts to government, and that’s what they think they’re doing.”

Sen. Andy Biggs, the Senate Appropriations chairman, said his caucus is committed to avoiding the gimmicks that have defined the budget for years. He said the expiration of Proposition 100, a temporary one-cent sales tax increase, and increased Medicaid costs from the federal Affordable Care Act in 2014 will leave the budget with a $1.3 billion hole, and Senate Republicans want to avoid adding to that with more rollovers.

“I think my colleagues and I are really concerned about the promises we made to the electorate that we don’t want to have gimmicks in the budget. We don’t want to have borrowing in the budget. We’re more concerned about what happens in 2014,” Biggs said.

Many House Republicans want deeper cuts as well, though they may not be in lockstep to the same degree as their Senate counterparts. Rep. Jack Harper, a Republican from Surprise, said he’d be willing to make whatever cuts are necessary to fully balance the budget without rollovers, including K-12 cuts.

But, he said, the will may not be there among the rest of the caucus.

“When people actually see what it takes to have a budget without rollovers and deferring payments, it’s a pretty hard pill for some of them to swallow,” Harper said.

House Appropriations Chairman Rep. John Kavanagh said he wants deeper cuts than the ones proposed by the governor, but they don’t necessarily have to come from K-12.

“We’re more concerned with the overall size of the reductions. Where they come from is a secondary matter where there’s room to bargain,” said Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills. “There’s a multitude of combinations, and I suspect there’s more than one that’s mutually acceptable to the governor and the House and the Senate.”

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said the governor already proposed $1 billion in cuts for 2012, but is committed to protecting K-12 funding. No one likes the rollovers, he said, but it’s not practical to stop using them at a time when the state is trying to bridge such a large deficit.

“We’ve got rollovers that have been put in place in recent years that everybody would like to have paid off and taken off the books as quickly as possible. The problem is doing that in a time when the state is still in fiscal crisis,” Benson said.

Despite the potential showdown over school funding, Biggs said he expected the Legislature to send a budget to Brewer’s desk soon. Legislative Republicans set a 60-day goal at the start of the session for passing a budget, and Biggs said there’s a strong chance they meet that benchmark by finishing the budget by March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day .

“I wouldn’t bet my house on it,” Biggs said, but, “I believe it’s going to get done by Thursday. I truly do.”

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