It has been a week since Governor Ducey announced his “20 by 20” plan for Arizona teachers, and suffice to say there are more questions than answers on the long-term financial sustainability of the proposal. According to the latest JLBC estimates, if the Governor’s plan was implemented to increase teacher pay (which likely won’t happen, since local districts determine teacher pay) and fully fund Additional Assistance, Arizona would be running a structural deficit of $200 Million dollars by 2021.

The Governor’s solution to this problem has been to increase the economic revenue projections for the State above the JLBC estimate and bank on continued caseload reductions at AHCCCS (Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.) Governor Ducey could be right, but this is the same exact mistake that was made 10 years ago that led to billion-dollar deficits and a decade of budget turmoil. Additionally, this doesn’t take into account another recession that is likely to occur in the next couple of years.

Rather than rely on a rosy economic outlook, policymakers should evaluate funding alternatives, budget cuts and modifications to the Governor’s education plan that would avoid putting Arizona in another fiscal crisis. Additionally, lawmakers would be remiss to pass on another opportunity to tie education policy reforms with new increases in K-12 funding.

Some possible funding options and reforms include:

  • Eliminate the Arizona Competes Fund (Budget Savings–$11.5 Million)—The Arizona Commerce Authority Currently receives $21.8 Million in total funding from the state general fund, with $11.5 Million earmarked for the Competes Fund. As one of the most unnecessary and useless expenditures in the state budget, the Competes Fund would only be missed by political insiders and special interests that have access to the grants and subsidies handed out by the Commerce Authority. This is a spending cut that most taxpayers would support.
  • Cut University Bonding package by 50% (Budget Savings–$13.5 Million)—Last year the legislature approved a measure to allow Universities to bond for as much as $1 Billion for new capital facilities and other projects. It was always questionable whether our three state Universities needed a billion dollars for new buildings, especially since they have secretly been in the property tax abatement business for several years without notifying lawmakers. Modestly reducing their bonding capacity to $500 Million isn’t unreasonable and wouldn’t impact their current level of operational funding.
  • Reduce Urban Revenue Sharing with Cities by 10 percent (Budget Savings–$120 Million.)—Currently Arizona tax revenue from income and sales is shared with local municipalities, with approximately $1.2 Billion being diverted from the state general fund. It is one of the most generous revenue sharing models in the country, and is questionable policy as it removes accountability at the local level. And as long as cities believe that it makes sense to throw away over $100 Million a year on utterly wasteful projects such as light rail, it is clear that this is a cut that wouldn’t be missed.
  • Reduce the K-12 teacher funding increase to 10 percent by 2019 (Cost Savings–$225 Million)—Though the Governor seems stuck on the 20 by 20 plan, lawmakers would be wise to instead approve a 10 percent increase and wait to see if the revenues materialize to justify a larger amount. A 10 percent increase is doable under the JLBC budget projections and would provide the capacity to substantially increase teacher pay at the local level. According to the Tax Research Association, Arizona is currently 40th in teacher pay in the US when adjusted for cost of living. If school boards decide to use the additional funding to solely pay for teacher pay raises, Arizona would move up to 22nd in the nation. This would be a major step in the right direction while keeping Arizona on a sound fiscal trajectory.
  • Continue moving toward backpack funding and other school finance reforms—If parents and students are to see a more fair and equitable funding structure in Arizona, then reforms are needed to fix Arizona’s broken funding structure and do a better job of tying K-12 funding to students. Though advocates, unions and the media are more than happy to point all the fingers at the legislature and Governor for low teacher pay, local school boards and administrators continue to escape all accountability. It isn’t right that mismanaged and poor performing districts will be equally rewarded as the responsible schools that have done a good job getting money in the classroom. Lawmakers must look at every proposal to increase funding as an opportunity to empower high-performing schools and districts and stop protecting the bad actors in the school finance formula.
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