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Battle over bragging rights keeps JTED funding in limbo

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Legislative leaders are engaged in what amounts to a staring contest over what happens this coming week with legislation to restore funding for career and technical education programs.

And at this point, with political bragging rights at stake, no one is willing to blink.

Hanging in the balance is $28 million that Joint Technical Education Districts say they need to keep their doors open this coming school year.

There is pretty much unanimous support for the expenditure. Even Gov. Doug Ducey, who had proffered a much smaller financial package — and one with conditions — said he’s willing to accept this plan.

In fact, both the House and Senate have given unanimous approval.

The House acted first, sending the plan to the Senate on Tuesday. And House Speaker David Gowan said he fully expected the Senate to simply ratify that and send it on to Ducey.

Senators, however, got around to voting its version on Thursday.

But Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who has led the charge for JTED funding all session, made a last-minute change before the roll-call vote, a change he said is necessary to ensure that some currently enrolled students get to finish out the semester.

That version then was sent to the House. And Senate President Andy Biggs told Capitol Media Services that’s the version that the House should act on and send to the governor.

More to the point, Biggs said he has no intent on bringing up the House version for discussion.

“It’s kind of up to them, really,” he said.

Gowan, however, said there was no reason for the change — and no reason for the Senate not to simply accede to the House version and send that one to Ducey.

At this point, neither Biggs nor Gowan has scheduled a hearing for the other chamber’s version, leaving the issue in legislative limbo.

The lack of action has left Ducey, leaving for the National Governors Association next Thursday, a bit anxious.

“Let’s put our kids first and get it done,” said press aide Daniel Scarpinato.

“There’s urgency,” Scarpinato continued, with the JTEDs all waiting for legislative action to craft their budgets for the coming year. “He wants to get moving here.”

Tina Norton, assistant superintendent of Pima County JTED, underlined the need for action — and soon.

“It allows districts to go on and plan for next year, enroll kids and have teachers not feeling they have to go find other jobs,” she said. Norton said JTED teachers are “uniquely hard to find, hire and retain because they come out of industry.”

Quick action, however, seems unlikely, especially with emotions running high.

On Thursday, lobbyist Gretchen Jacobs approached House Majority Whip David Livingston to inform him of changes to the package made by the Senate. The result was a confrontation, which occurred in front of several witnesses, with Livingston refusing to back down.

Norton, who witnessed the incident, described Livingston’s demeanor as “heated.”

Livingston did not return calls seeking comment. But Gowan said he has heard no argument why the House version would not work.

Norton, however, noted the original proposal crafted by Shooter was to restore the entire $30 million cut set to take effect this coming school year. To get that down to $28 million, the measure removes state funding that now exists for adult students who already have graduated from high school who need job training.

Norton said if the House bill becomes law it would result in immediate loss of state dollars for those students. The change inserted by Shooter and approved by the Senate makes the state will pay through the end of the semester.

“That’s why it was very important to clear it up so there weren’t thousands of kids who would be defunded,” she said.

But there’s also politics at play.

It was Shooter who first put together a coalition of more than 70 legislators demanding restoration of the JTED funds, challenging the governor’s $10 million plan. And it was Shooter who announced the $28 million deal.

All that comes with bragging rights in an election year.

The House bill was crafted so the first name on that is Rep. Chris Ackerley, R-Sahuarita.

House GOP spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said all 60 members signed on as sponsors, saying Ackerley was listed first solely because his name comes first alphabetically.

But it was Ackerley, as prime sponsor, who addressed the committee hearing the measure.

Ackerley also needs bragging rights, being a first-term Republican who comes from a legislative district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 14,000.

Norton said there’s some “anxiety” around the current stalemate given that there have been setbacks to get this far, including what had initially been the governor’s opposition. She said that leads to fears that, despite the broad support in the Legislature “this won’t get fixed at all.”

Biggs said he’s presuming it won’t come to that.

“Hopefully we can just put this thing to bed,” he said, though he still believes it is Shooter’s version that should get signed into law.

But Jacobs, who lobbies for JTEDs, suggested the whole spat — and question of those bragging rights — is silly.

“Who gets the credit for signing on (the bill) I really think is irrelevant at this point because it has become clear that the entire Legislature wants this,” she said.

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