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House panel approves budget, but education spending disagreements remain

education-funding-620An Arizona House committee in the middle of the night approved a package of budget bills and seemed poised to add millions in spending for K-12 education when the bills reach the House floor to break a stalemate that stalled a budget deal for several days.

The Appropriations Committee began debating a series of bills negotiated between Republican House and Senate leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey at about 9 p.m. Thursday and finished voting on the bills making up the $9.58 billion budget package at about 3:15 a.m. Friday.

The full House is scheduled to debate the bills Friday morning, though it is unclear if that will happen.

Expected amendments to increase funding for public and charter schools were not offered after committee Chairman Justin Olson, R-Mesa, said the amendments weren’t ready. However, House Republican spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said the amendments weren’t added to the bills because the Senate hasn’t yet given its approval to the changes.

“This is what our members are ok with, and that has been the speaker’s priority,” she said.

The budget has been stalled since early in the week after some House Republicans balked at what they believe are funding shortfalls for some school budget items.

Olson announced at the start of the meeting that the areas would get extra money and funding for school construction also would be added. That followed a commitment earlier in the day from Ducey Chief of Staff Kirk Adams to fix the problem and bring school funding up to the previous year’s level.

“We’re working toward a final product with the goal in mind of not a single-dollar reduction in K-12 spending in this year’s budget,” Adams said in an interview.

That direct comment on the negotiations marked a clear commitment to fixing what Republican education backers are balking at in the budget. The House members’ concerns revolve around three issues: extra cash for smaller schools, a delay in cutting funds to district-sponsored charter schools and keeping funding stable for schools with declining enrollment. Also in the mix is an obscure formula on how unused space is counted for funding purposes.

Those issues were triggered by policy decisions enacted by lawmakers in recent years.

Fixing those issues will cost about $50 million in additional spending, and getting to that point without irking fiscal conservatives who want to avoid too much new spending is the sticking spot.

Olson said negotiators identified several areas outside education where spending could be cut to boost the K-12 schools budget. A total amount of new funding wasn’t immediately available.

It remained unclear if that was sufficient for the group of majority Republicans who balked at the original budget deal.

Democratic leaders in the House point out that per-pupil spending under the budget agreement will go down under the current budget deal. They say it’s about $21 million less overall than last year’s spending. And they note that with a big state surplus for the first time in years now is the time to restore cuts made in recent years.

“If not now, when?” Minority Leader Eric Meyer said. “We need to be taking that second step while we have the opportunity.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this article.

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