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Battle over surplus money looms in 2016

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There’s a twist this year to what has been the perennial big fight at the Capitol over money.

Arizona has too much of it.

And that has lawmakers staking out positions about what needs to be spent and on whom — and how much should be set aside in tax cuts.

The discussion about reducing taxes is virtually certain. In fact, Gov. Doug Ducey said he will fulfill the promise he made during the campaign of proposing a tax cut every year.

But on the heels of years of record cuts to K-12, community college and university funding, proponents — including the governor — are trying to put a different spin on it.

“I would look at it as tax reform,” he said.

“Reform is a word that’s used a lot in public policy,” Ducey explained. “To me, it means improvement.”

But the governor is not hiding what direction his “reform” would take.

“I believe that we should have a lower tax base,” he said.

Democrats are pushing hard to restore much of what’s been cut during the recession, particularly from state aid to public schools.

They acknowledge that voters may approve Proposition 123 at a special election in May, a move that would put an additional $3.5 billion into public schools over the next decade.

They say, however, that’s mainly designed to make up for the failure to provide inflation aid to schools as required by a 2000 voter-approved measure. Anyway, that lasts only through 2025 — and comes down to only about $300 per child per year.

That’s significant because legislative budget reports put state aid per student at $4,657 in 2007 — and $4,242 now, even before accounting for inflation.

Then there are the universities, which took a $99 million hit this year.

The argument for restoring some funding is buttressed by the fact that all the cuts made in last year’s budget actually left Arizona with $325 million in the bank. And even with just five months of data this fiscal year, revenues are running about $200 million ahead of forecast.

But it won’t be just the Democrats looking for more cash.

While state lawmakers have put new dollars into the Department of Child Safety, the agency has so far been unable to wipe out its backlog of “inactive” cases. These are open cases where no social worker or staffer has looked at the file — or looked in on the child — in at least 60 days.

And it is not yet clear whether a healthier economy will mean that enrollment in the state’s Medicaid program will finally stabilize. About a third of the price tag comes from state revenues.

Lawmakers also are being pushed to once again open enrollment into the Kids Care program, a branch of Medicaid which provides health insurance to the children of working poor.

Regular Medicaid covers families up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, $27,724 for a family of three. Kids Care covers the children up to 200 percent, or $40,180.

New enrollment was halted in 2010 as part of the budget crunch. But now the Children’s Action Alliance is urging that be reversed.

Working in their favor is a recent change in federal law where the federal government will pay the entire cost to reinstate coverage at least through 2017. But some lawmakers may still balk, fearing what the state’s fiscal situation might be at that time.

There are two other fights looming over a small aspect of the education system.

Arizona law allows creation of “joint technical education districts.” These essentially are special school districts formed by other districts to offer special programs that may not make sense for any one district to offer.

The idea is to offer career and technical education to provide students who will not be going on to college with skills that could help them get a job on graduation, like cosmetology or welding, often providing them with the necessary certification.

But Senate President Andy Biggs said the programs have blossomed into other areas where there is no career at the end, at least not without further education. One example is law enforcement.

And the state provides additional aid for some programs that may be offered at satellite campuses, even if some of the courses taught, like history, are the same ones offered at regular high schools. Biggs hopes to narrow the focus — and trim what he says are excess and unnecessary state dollars.

JTEDs already are in a defensive position.

State lawmakers approved a $30 million cut last session, set to take effect this coming school year. The net effect according to schools would be to drop state aid to 92.5 percent of current levels.

Efforts to restore JTED funding and prevent other cuts are likely to be led by members of Biggs’ own party who see these programs as a viable alternative to forcing all students to go on to college. And they are likely to be backed by the business community which has been very supportive of having graduates ready to fill the jobs they have.

A separate battle is shaping up over already-approved moves to have schools funded on estimated current year enrollment versus the number of students each had last year. That particularly hurts districts with declining enrollment.

Social issues also could dominate some of the debate. And these usually start with abortion.

Foes have been working to restrict the procedure since the U.S. Supreme Court first declared in 1973 that women have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, at least in the first trimester. Unable to outlaw it outright, the legislation normally takes the form of some new hurdle, ranging from waiting periods and ultrasound requirements to what procedures can be used.

The record has been mixed. Federal judges have upheld some limits. But they have repeatedly struck down those they say impose significant — and therefore illegal — burdens on a woman’s constitutional rights.

This year the fight will play out on another level: a bid by some legislators to eliminate all state dollars going to Planned Parenthood.

Both state and federal law prohibit the use of tax dollars for elective abortions. But Planned Parenthood gets some state dollars through the Medicaid program to provide family planning services.

Abortion foes argue that any money to Planned Parenthood effectively subsidizes its abortion services.

A prior bid to deny family planning funds to the organization was struck down by a federal appeals court which noted that Medicaid regulations allow patients to get their services from any qualified provider. And the judges said there was no evidence Planned Parenthood is not qualified.

Despite that, some Republicans are crafting a new measure, one they contend will withstand legal challenge.

One other fight with a medical angle that likely will provoke debate is an effort by some nurses to get more privileges.

A legislative committee has recommended that state laws be changed to allow “advanced practice nurses” to do some of the things that are now reserved for doctors.

Some of that already is occurring, with nurse practitioners allowed to diagnose conditions and even prescribe medications. The changes would provide additional areas where nurses could work independent of direct doctor supervision, such as administering anesthesia.

The nurses are being backed by Arizona hospitals that see the move as a way of keeping costs down. But the Arizona Medical Association is lobbying heavily against the change, saying even nurses with advanced training lack the same qualifications as someone who has been to medical school.

It wouldn’t be a session of the Arizona Legislature if lawmakers did not debate who can have guns and where they can take them.

Lawmakers already have loosened concealed-carry laws to the point where any person can have a hidden weapon. But those that want can still get a specific permit after undergoing a background check and some training.

One advantage is the ability to take a gun into a place where alcohol is sold, though those who are armed are not supposed to drink. Now there is a move to extend that to faculty and students at public universities and community colleges, places where all weapons are now considered off limits.

A separate measure would amend existing laws which allow the operators of other public buildings to post signs that their facilities are gun-free zones. It would allow people to keep their weapons unless the building also had metal detectors and security guards.

In both cases the argument is that law-abiding citizens have a right to defend themselves against criminals who don’t obey the existing gun bans.

Election related matters also will get legislative attention.

Republicans will make another bid this year to halt what they call “ballot harvesting.”

Current law allows a voter who gets an early ballot to give it to anyone else to return to the polling place. GOP lawmakers contend that opens the door to fraud, claiming that liberal groups with certain agendas can figure out who voted which way and then simply discard the ballots that take a contrary position.

But Democrats see the move as an effort to disenfranchise minority communities — meaning folks who may not vote the way Republicans want — where groups have made an active effort to improve voter participation.

Separately, the Secretary of State’s Office is preparing a series of changes in campaign finance laws, including who has to report and how often. But the plan is likely to be seen as inadequate by some who want new requirements to require “dark money” groups that spend money on elections to disclose their donors.

Other issues likely to provoke debate include:

– Reforming the pension systems for public employees to make the funds more financially sound;

– Allowing those who invest in gold and silver coins to escape capital gains taxes on their profits;

– Removing the ban on nunchaku, sticks or bars connected together that can be used as a weapon, better known as nunchucks;

– Requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets;

– Having the state mine inspector appointed instead of being elected;

– Altering laws on who can use medical marijuana;

– Revising laws on “revenge porn” to come up with a legal way to keep jilted exes from posting naked photos on the Internet without violating the First Amendment;

– Deciding whether police should be required to have body cameras, spell out when they have to be turned on, and determine whether the videos are a public record;

– Determining whether to limit how much of their tax liability corporations can divert in donations to organizations that help children attend private and parochial schools;

– Fixing conflicting laws over whether the Board of Education or the state schools chief controls — and can hire and fire — board employees;

– Allowing parents to exempt their children from standardized tests at schools;

– Repealing requirements for state and local governments to publish certain legal notices in newspapers;

– Imposing new restrictions on where people can operate drones, especially if they are able to take pictures.

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