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Voter mandate an issue in Arizona’s budget debate

Cruz Hernandez, of Phoenix, joins about 50 protesters against budget cuts and a host of other issues outside the State Senate Building as senators inside met during budget deliberations at the Senate Appropriations Committee at the Arizona Capitol Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Phoenix.  The Arizona Senate on Wednesday advanced a budget-balancing plan with spending cuts in health care, education and other services that majority Republicans called overdue to fit state spending to state revenue.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the main bill in the 13-bill package on a 9-4 vote with all Republicans voting in favor.  Committee Democrats voted against the bill, saying its cuts go too far. (AP Photo)

Cruz Hernandez, of Phoenix, joins about 50 protesters against budget cuts and a host of other issues outside the State Senate Building as senators inside met during budget deliberations at the Senate Appropriations Committee at the Arizona Capitol Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Phoenix. The Arizona Senate on Wednesday advanced a budget-balancing plan with spending cuts in health care, education and other services that majority Republicans called overdue to fit state spending to state revenue. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the main bill in the 13-bill package on a 9-4 vote with all Republicans voting in favor. Committee Democrats voted against the bill, saying its cuts go too far. (AP Photo) services that majority Republicans called overdue to fit state spending to state revenue. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the main bill in the 13-bill package on a 9-4 vote with all Republicans voting in favor. Committee Democrats voted against the bill, saying its cuts go too far. (AP Photo)

Voters overwhelmingly approved a temporary sales tax increase last May to help balance the state budget, with the sales pitch emphasizing that approval would help protect funding for education and other services.

Now, Republican legislative majorities elected five months later in the Nov. 2 general election are considering GOP budget proposals that have education back on the chopping block to help eliminate a $1.1 billion shortfall.

That’s drawing claims that GOP lawmakers and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer are ignoring what voters intended when they approved the three-year, one-cent tax increase in Proposition 100.

Education officials have warned that a budget-balancing plan drafted by Senate Republicans and approved by that chamber would force layoffs and increase class sizes.

“The cuts currently being discussed pretty much fly in the face of the will of the voters,” Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill said.

Similar criticism came from Democratic legislators and groups such as Arizona Education Network, a Tucson-based advocacy group for public education.

“Arizona voters sent a very, very clear message … that they value investment in public education and are willing to tax themselves more in order to protect it,” said Ann-Eve Pedersen, Arizona Education Network president.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Andy Biggs, the chief architect of the Senate Republicans’ budget plan, did not immediately return a call for comment.

However, House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, said the Nov. 2 general election’s determination of the makeup of the Legislature counts at least as much as the May 18 special election in deciding the state’s budget course.

“About four months ago there was another election where the voters elected two-thirds majorities with many conservative Republicans winning in deeply held Democratic districts on the platform of honestly balancing the budget and not putting the state further in debt,” said.

“It’s nice to talk about one election but you also have to talk about the other,” Adams added.

Adams said House Republicans are largely in sync with the Senate Republican plan, which serving as a starting point by House and Senate Republicans in their ongoing negotiations with Brewer on a possible budget compromise.

For her part, Brewer said repeatedly last year before and after the May 18 vote on Proposition 100 that the sales tax increase would not be a cure-all for the state’s budget woes.

“If the proposed temporary tax increase is passed, it will solve only a portion of the problem, and only for three years,” Brewer said in a pro-Proposition 100 statement before the special election.

That’s still her message.

“Even with that additional money, Arizona is faced with a substantial budget shortfall,” Brewer said in newspaper commentary published Tuesday, adding that proposed spending cuts in her budget plan “preserve core priorities such as K-12 education.”

Brewer used the commentary to say cuts in the Senate Republicans’ plan go too far.

Morrill, the AEA president, said he credits Brewer with proposing shallower cuts to education funding than the Senate plan, but he said even her proposal could be avoided if lawmakers agreed to add state revenue by considering various tax proposals.

“We need a long-term solution to the deficit, and we’re not getting that,” the union leader said.

House Democrats said Monday that Republicans’ flouting of voter intent on education voting must be viewed in combination with a Republican economic-development package that will provide businesses with phased-in tax cuts and breaks.

The package was approved during a February special session.

Proposition 100 “was overwhelmingly supported by the voters of this state and we are turning around less than a year later and giving half that money back to special interests and gutting education,” said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix. “It’s business as usual down here.”

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