Everyday Arizonans know exactly what our state needs to prioritize in the budget. Anybody who travels I-10 between Phoenix and Casa Grande knows that it needs a lot of road work. From potholes to public education, we took our cues from you. There are many lesser-known items in this year’s budget, including $89 million to keep that I-10 construction on track, money for potholes in northern Arizona, and even an investment in establishing an Amtrak route between Tucson and Phoenix.
As House and Senate minority leaders, Andrés Cano and I convened our caucuses to develop our shared priorities for the budget, with perspectives from across the state. Housing and schools have topped our list consistently this year. Working with Gov. Katie Hobbs, we made historic investments in housing with $150 million to the Housing Trust Fund plus another $60 million to a new Homelessness Fund.
For K-12 education, we made it our top priority to fund the actual inflation gap – something that is historically neglected in our state budgets. It took persistence and creativity, and we got it done to provide an infusion of $300 million, but those dollars will not be available next year. The bottom line is that this year schools will get about a 7% increase, even with the inflation rate. While we are celebrating this infusion, this simply allows schools to be able to buy the same number of books this year as last year.
The results of last year’s budget showed that teachers received an average increase in pay of about 5%. The inflation rate was 9%, leaving K-12 schools still struggling.
Others who will continue to struggle with less than worthy wages, include caregivers for the elderly and disabled – they received no increase this year. They are symbolic of the Arizona workers who have been left behind by years of tax cuts for billionaires and big corporations, which have been the priority of the Republican majority in the state Legislature. Paired with the lack of investment in our frontline workers, the aftermath of the pandemic is a compounding burden for so many that lost wages and family.
Within this framework of limited revenue, we made good decisions to make impactful investments.
One great example is the new funding to provide free feminine hygiene products in public school bathrooms. Over the past several years, wonderful advocates for school achievement and equity have explained that too many girls miss school days because they do not have these products in the school bathroom when they need them. We provide free toilet paper in bathrooms because that is sensible. The same is true for feminine hygiene products. Many girls have said this will be life-changing!
Two more good-news stories for school children are programs to provide for trees and community gardens on campus. We put aside $400,000 for schools to plant community gardens for the most engaging kind of nutrition lessons, and trees for shade. Trees also help fight climate change by removing ground-level ozone and carbon dioxide from the air and releasing oxygen, effectively producing cleaner air. Childhood exposure to high levels of ozone can lead to long-term health complications, so providing children with cleaner air in school yards is important for their health.
A few rural fire districts will benefit from the $5 million in the new Fire District Grants fund. Since a new fire truck can cost $800,000, it’s nowhere near the $150 million requested, but it’s a start. Our rural firefighters often help people from all over the state as visitors come here for the natural beauty of state parks and other tourism destinations.
Going forward, we must do better for our state to meet our responsibilities to public safety and public education. With careful attention to statewide needs and fiscal corrections to make our taxes fairer for you, our results will be better preparedness for fires and all aspects of safety, as well as a thriving economy with a great quality of life.
Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, is the Senate minority leader in the Arizona Senate.