Photo by Jim Small | Arizona Mirror
Just three weeks shy of a deadline to allow more school spending, lawmakers in one of Arizona’s legislative chambers have succeeded in pushing through a fix — despite withering criticism from some GOP members — but the solution’s ultimate fate remains in limbo as support in the other chamber remains unclear.
Schools are facing a rapidly approaching fiscal cliff if the legislature fails to lift a spending cap, called the aggregate expenditure limit, by March 1. That limit was placed in the state’s constitution by voters in 1980 and requires a two-thirds majority vote in both legislative chambers to override it.
If the limit isn’t raised, schools would be forced to cut nearly $1.4 billion in the last few months of the academic year. School administrators and the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Republican Tom Horne, have warned that doing so would lead to mass furloughs and school closures.
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The cap has been successfully lifted three times in the past, in 2002, 2008 and 2022. But, in a Republican-majority legislature with a significantly more conservative bent this year, that’s become a more fractious process.
On Tuesday, 14 GOP lawmakers in the Arizona House of Representatives refused to support House Concurrent Resolution 2001, a measure to lift the cap, voicing concerns over how the money is being spent.
Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson, a new legislator, said she had spent many sleepless nights debating whether to support a budget allocation passed by a legislature she wasn’t a part of.
“I wanted some stipulations with this,” she said. “I wanted to know that there would be accountability for school funding.”
Jones shared that she spoke with Marana school board members in her district, and while she is confident Marana Unified has been using the money responsibly to pay teachers and support students, she doesn’t believe other school districts in the state are doing so.
Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, pointed to declining test scores to explain his opposition — a common refrain from conservative lawmakers, despite the fact that Arizona students performed at or near the national average for both math and reading in 2022.
“We can’t continue to simply throw taxpayer money at a system that is failing our children by every metric,” Heap said. “Our schools do not have a funding problem — they have a spending problem.”
Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, applauded the effort to let schools spend the money they were given, but promised to continue working on transparency measures.
“This effort is aimed at making sure that schools stay open and that students are prioritized. We believe that kids need to be in the classroom, not locked out of it,” Gress said. “I look forward to seeing more work around transparency and accountability. Those bills will come, make no doubt about it.”
That’s not an argument that Democratic lawmakers agreed with. The minority party was united in its support for lifting the cap and was sharply critical of Republican calls for accountability.
“If you have a concern that your school district is not auditing your money correctly, go talk to the Attorney General’s Office and investigate your school district. And if you have a question, go talk to your school board members, talk to your superintendents,” rebutted Rep. Cesar Aguilar, D-Phoenix.
Schools, he added, are subject to oversight from the Arizona auditor general. They are also obligated to fill out multiple federal and state spending reports and hold several school board meetings to discuss which topics and materials are included in lessons.
For Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, resolving the impending fiscal cliff is simply wrapping up the previous legislature’s business. Last year, lawmakers approved a bipartisan budget which included a record allocation for Arizona schools, which is part of why the spending cap is a problem now.
“Whether we were here to vote or not, this body promised money to our public district schools,” Schwiebert, a former teacher, said.
In the end, 46 House members voted to approve the resolution, six votes more than what was needed for the measure to pass. It goes next to the Senate, which has delayed a vote on a resolution of its own twice in as many days.
With fewer lawmakers in the upper chamber, wrangling the necessary votes may prove more difficult, especially with the vehement opposition of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus, an offshoot of the congressional one created in response to what it perceived as insufficiently conservative Republican policies. The Arizona Freedom Caucus issued a stinging rebuke of efforts to lift the cap in late January, promising to vote in opposition unless they were accompanied by transparency measures.
That reticence is concerning for schools, which face the prospect of mass layoffs and even closures if the cap isn’t lifted. Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, called on lawmakers to remember the real harm the spending limit presents.
“Our state legislature needs to waive the education funding cap now. If they don’t, schools across the state will be forced to close, and communities, families and businesses will be plunged into chaos, with rural Arizona hit especially hard,” Garcia warned, in an emailed statement.
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