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JTED restoration advances, but unexpected snags pop up

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Gov. Doug Ducey has promised to sign a bill restoring funding to Joint Technical Education Districts, if a bill ever reaches his desk.

Even after Senate unanimously approved a $28 million restoration bill on Feb. 11, the measure’s fate was still far from certain. It needs final approval from the House, where lawmakers were waiting for the Senate to approve its own version of the JTED restoration bill to send to the governor’s desk.

But a last-minute amendment was required to ensure that students in their final year at a JTED program won’t be cut off from funding, said Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, the sponsor of the Senate’s legislation, SB1525. Shooter said GOP leadership in the House is threatening not to take up his revised legislation.

House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham called Shooter’s claim “absolutely false.”

Efforts to restore JTED funding have been marred by controversy since the afternoon of Feb. 10, when the Senate was originally scheduled for a vote. But Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, abruptly halted the vote at Ducey’s request. The sudden maneuver by the executive branch stunned senators. Biggs denied that Ducey threatened to veto the bill, as some Democrats claimed.

Biggs also denied claims that Ducey asked for budget concessions in exchange for signing the restoration bill, and said his conversations with the governor were “not transactional” at all.

“I think the executive just wanted to make sure of what was in the bill. They wanted to make sure that we’re on the same page as far as a structurally balanced budget. They wanted to make sure that everything was going to be done just right,” Biggs said. “So when we had a chance to talk it over at length, everybody was on the same page.”

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato also said that the governor had a positive conversation with Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, and that all three are now on the same page on both JTED funding and the state’s next fiscal year spending plan.

Governors are often wary of signing appropriations bills before the budget is passed. Ducey had signaled that he was hesitant to do so. Late in the morning of Feb. 10, Ducey told reporters that he’d like to pass the budget, including JTED funding, as a total package.

“I’m just talking about my preference in terms of dealing with the budget in total. I am open-minded to different things inside the budget. What’s important to me is that we live within our means as a state,” Ducey said at the time.

But the Governor’s Office changed its position after the meeting with legislative leaders.

“We really don’t care if it’s now or if it’s in the total budget,” Scarpinato said late on Feb. 10.  “What’s important is that it’s in the context of a structurally balanced budget. So, there’s agreement on that. There’s agreement on support for JTEDs.”

The deal struck last week between legislative leaders and JTEDs would restore
$28 million of the $30 million in cuts those school districts face. The cuts, if unreversed, would take effect on July 1.

The Legislature approved the cuts last year. JTEDs and the business community argued that if the cuts pushed through as planned, many of the programs will shut down and teachers will get laid off.

In his executive budget proposal, Ducey proposed giving JTEDs a total of $30 million over the course of three years. The money would be doled out in the form of competitive grants. But it quickly became apparent that lawmakers have no appetite for the governor’s idea. Twin proposals to restore nearly all of the funding soon cropped up in the House and Senate.

As in the Senate, the House version was unanimously approved, 58-0, on Feb. 9. The legislation’s level of support gives both chambers more than enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto, if they can agree on which version of the bill to send to the governor.

The passage of the bill couldn’t come soon enough, said Greg Donovan, superintendent of Western Maricopa Education Center. Now is the season when schools begin developing their spending plans for the next fiscal year, and waiting until the budget is passed would have created uncertainty and probably resulted in teachers looking for jobs elsewhere, he said.

Donovan said he appreciates Ducey’s concern about maintaining a balanced budget, but he doesn’t think this will be a budget breaker.

“We’re not trying to find $30 more million, we’re just maintaining what we’re currently doing, which the state is currently affording just fine,” Donovan said.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said Ducey halted the Feb. 10 vote with a phone call, threatening to reject the bill unless the Legislature approved his $9.5 billion spending plan without concessions. Farley said Biggs described the governor’s threat as “extortionate.”

“Biggs is not easily extorted,” Farley said.

But Biggs denied that he characterized Ducey’s call as a threat, and said the governor asked for nothing in exchange for signing the bill. He chalked up the delayed vote to a difficult and somewhat contentious process of negotiations to restore JTEDs.

“I’m not going to say that we were locked and loaded all this time, because there’s been some hitches in the get along all the way with this particular bill,” Biggs said.

The Senate was scheduled to vote on identical legislation sponsored by Shooter, then substitute HB2642 for Shooter’s bill to swiftly send the JTED restoration to the Governor’s Office. But the amendment to Shooter’s SB1525 means that his legislation will be sent to the House, where it had to go through a committee hearing and two rounds of voting on the floor. If the House approves it, SB1525 could then be sent to the governor’s desk.

– The Associated Press and Arizona Capitol Times reporter Gary Grado contributed to this report.

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