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Lawmakers need to use budget surplus to fix housing, education crises

Budget negotiations at the Arizona Legislature are underway as lawmakers bicker amongst themselves, too often leading to spending plans that have failed to meet the needs of Arizonans.

This year, the legislature is expected to have a massive budget surplus of approximately $5.3 billion. In a time of rising housing costs and pandemic-induced declines in student achievement across the states, the Arizona Legislature must utilize this rare budget surplus to address these pressing issues, rather than using it to pass tax cuts that will only benefit their wealthy friends.

Wyatt Appel

Arizona has a monumental affordable housing crisis. For nearly three years, Phoenix has topped the nation in increases for home prices, with inflation only adding to their meteoric rise, while rent has exploded up 80% from 2016 to 2021. Lawmakers must step up, or else many Arizonans will continue to struggle to find safe, secure, affordable housing.

With education, lawmakers have persistently denied our students the resources they deserve, leading to poor student achievement and opportunity. Arizona spends nearly $5,000 less per pupil than the national average, ahead of only Utah and Idaho. Lawmakers are setting students up for failure, both now and for the future. How can we be ok with not giving our students what they need to be successful in life?

School districts across the state face crippling teacher shortages, in large part because Arizona ranks among the bottom for teacher pay in the country, with average teacher salaries in the state nearly $14,000 below that of the national average. How can lawmakers expect schools to attract and retain talent if they are not providing competitive incentives for them compared to other states or other professions? No matter one’s love for or skill at teaching, we have seen how they cannot do so if it poses too great a financial burden.

The Covid pandemic has intensified these issues and widened educational inequality, negatively affecting student achievement and opportunities across the state, especially that of students in poor and rural communities. Simply put, the state of education in Arizona is embarrassing.

As bad as these crises are, they are solvable. Legislators need to commit to using the budget surplus to address these issues and help all Arizonans.

Related to housing, lawmakers can look to provide temporary rent and utility relief to help mitigate the rising costs that all Arizonans are facing. More permanently, lawmakers should look to institute a housing voucher program for the state, which would grant eligible recipients financial assistance for securing affordable housing in the private market. Such housing vouchers have been shown to be effective in reducing homelessness, allowing people to find safe and secure housing, as well as improving the living conditions and long-term outlooks of vulnerable children.

With education, budget surplus funds must be devoted to increasing teachers’ salaries. It is the only way to attract quality teachers and erase the teaching shortage, upping incentives to make teaching a compelling profession.

An investment in educators is just as much an investment in students and families as well. Funds should be allotted to pay for teaching aids and tutors, allowing every child to have access to more individualized instruction. If we provide more classroom support, students will flourish.

Educators are charged with shaping future generations. It is time to pay them in line with the critical job that they do.

Despite the clear need to emphatically respond to these crises, Republican lawmakers last year instead focused on passing a near $2 billion tax cut last year that primarily would benefit the wealthy, rather than funding programs to uplift the Arizonans actually in need. This tax cut plan will not stop most people from being unable to afford housing, from students falling behind to families being denied basic necessities. To shield the already-wealthy, the AZ GOP left everyone else out to dry. They cannot fail again this year.

Arizona is in a critical place. Arizonans are still reeling from the pandemic, now saddled with rising costs in housing and further deteriorating education. The future of Arizona, especially of children here, is at stake. Our legislators cannot squander this opportunity to use the budget surplus to address the crises plaguing the state, transforming Arizona for the better now and in the future. It is their duty as public servants.

Wyatt Appel is a Communications Fellow with Progress Arizona.

 

 

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