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Brewer urges lawmakers to compensate schools for inflation

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

State lawmakers should stop fighting public schools in court and come up with the money they are due to compensate them for inflation, Gov. Jan Brewer said Wednesday.

Brewer said she supports efforts by the schools to reset state aid to where it would have been had the state properly funded the voter-mandated inflation formula. That figure, according to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper, would pump about $317 million immediately into public schools.

And Brewer told Capitol Media Services there’s another reason lawmakers should end the legal battles: A settlement now avoids the possibility a court could rule that schools are owed a lot more, notably the $1.3 billion they say they did not get – and are due – for the prior years lawmakers did not properly fund the inflation formula.

Brewer’s suggestion is likely to fall on deaf ears at the Legislature.

Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, likely in line to be the next speaker of the House, said he considers any move to end now the 4-year-old lawsuit to be premature.

He acknowledged the financial risk that a final court judgment could be much larger. But Gowan said “we’re letting the process play out.”

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, was equally uninterested in simply agreeing that the state owes another $317 million to schools this year, with that higher base carrying forward from now on.

Biggs said he is open to a deal. But if there is one, he thinks it should be closer to $80 million.

A 2000 voter-approved measure boosted the state’s 5 percent sales tax by six-tenths of a cent through June 30, 2021. It also requires the Legislature to forever increase funding for schools by 2 percent or the change in the gross domestic price deflator, whichever is less.

Brewer acknowledged her own role in shorting the schools. Beginning in 2010 she signed a series of state budgets which were “balanced” by a decision not to fully fund the inflation formula.

“During difficult times we had to do some difficult choices,” she said.

“But the bottom line is, we need to fund our education system,” Brewer continued. “And they need to figure out some way in order to do that.”

The “they” does not include her, as her term is up at the end of the year.

That puts the problem in the hands of either Democrat Fred DuVal or Republican Doug Ducey, competing to succeed her.

Both have said there’s enough in the state’s “rainy day fund” to take care of the first year’s cost. But neither has outlined a specific program for the more than $320 million in unexpected expenses the year after that, and each year beyond.

“As governor and as lawmakers, that’s your responsibility to figure out how you’re going to do it,” Brewer said.

She offered no specific advice. But Brewer said that, in her own bid to keep education funding from being cut even further, she convinced voters in 2010 to approve a temporary one-cent hike in state sales taxes.

“I had to do some things that I thought maybe I couldn’t do,” the governor said.

“But I realized it wasn’t about Jan Brewer,” she said. “It’s about our state. It’s about our education system.”

Biggs said voters did have a chance to make that one-cent levy permanent two years ago, with a plan to divide up the money among K-12 education, community colleges, universities and road construction. But he pointed out that was soundly rejected, with even Brewer in opposition, and the levy expired last year.

And Biggs said that even if he supported a settlement — and even if he backed a tax to fund it — he doubts it would pass.

“The economy is really slammed,” he said. “The economy hasn’t fully recovered.”

In the meantime, Biggs said lawmakers have an obligation to pursue an appeal of Cooper’s computations.

She is involved following last year’s Arizona Supreme Court ruling that lawmakers illegally ignored the 2000 ballot measure. But the justices said Cooper has to determine the exact amount owed.

Biggs figures it’s a lot less than $317 million. That’s based on the fact that there were some years since 2000 where lawmakers actually boosted state aid above the minimum required.

He contends lawmakers should get credit for that excess, a figure he puts in the $240 million range. And that would mean it would take just about $80 million to reset the base where it should be.

And that, in turn, would cut the amount of back funds due in a one-time payment to districts from $1.3 billion to less than $350 million.

Cooper rejected that argument, saying the plain wording of what voters approved requires lawmakers to make an inflation adjustment on each year’s funding, no matter how much that was above the minimum.

Brewer, for her part, said all the legal wrangling about having to make inflation adjustments ignores one key point.

“It was the will of the voters,” she said.

Biggs said what’s lost in all this is how much is already spent on education in Arizona, a figure he pegged at more than $10 billion a year. But that includes not only state aid but also federal dollars as well as what voters in local school districts taxed themselves, sometimes to keep alive programs that were in danger of being cut because state aid had not kept pace.

Even with that, Biggs said, basic state aid has increased, from $3.11 billion in the 2012-13 school year to about $3.25 billion last year and $3.33 billion now.

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