Arizona House OKs school spending cap waiver; Senate delays

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Attorney Andy Gaona presents oral arguments as Arizona Supreme Court Vice Chief Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer listens, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, in Phoenix. The Arizona Supreme Court heard an expedited constitutional challenge to a new voter-approved tax on high-earning Arizonans designed to boost school funding on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The Arizona House voted Tuesday to avert a shutdown of the state’s K-12 public school system by approving a waiver of a constitutional cap on spending that would be exceeded by March 1. But the Senate president says she does not yet have the votes.

The 45-14 vote provided the required two-thirds majority to give schools the ability to spend $1.54 billion lawmakers appropriated last year that would have put them over the constitutional spending limit. All 28 Democrats present voted for the waiver, but 14 of 31 Republican House members voted no.

Republican House Speaker Rusty Bowers said he had vowed to push through the override but that it had become caught in a political struggle over a voter-approved tax on the wealthy.

Republicans were leery of approving the waiver of the aggregate spending limit for fears it could breathe life into Proposition 208, the 2020 voter-approved tax on the wealthy that the state Supreme Court ruled in August was unconstitutional if it put spending over the cap.

A trial court judge is considering whether that would be the case but has delayed issuing what tax opponents say is a certain ruling that the new revenue would exceed the cap. Bowers and Republican Senate President Karen Fann asked the Supreme Court last week to step in and kill Proposition 208 for good. The court could act next week on that request.

“Every year, there’s some issue or the other that is politicized,” Bowers said. “No one ever said that the schools … were doing something wrong. We simply said we want to make sure that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues.”

Traditional district schools are expected to hit the “aggregate expenditure limit” by early next month. Minority Democrats have been railing for weeks that schools could be forced to close because they can’t legally spend the money. Lawmakers can vote to raise the constitutional spending cap year to year under the 1980 constitutional amendment that sets the spending cap.

If the funding is cut off, about 880,000 students would be affected. The spending cap does not affect public charter schools, which educate about 240,000 K-12 students.

Fann said Tuesday that she does not have the votes among her GOP caucus members to pass the measure with the required 20 votes, even with all Democrats backing the bill.

“I have a few members that are okay with it the way it is,” Fann said. “I have some members that would like to get something else as part of the deal with this. And I’ve got some members that went a whole lot, get a whole lot as part of this deal.”

All of the issues are education-related. One is the longtime goal of many Republicans to provide access to private schools for all 1.1 million public school students. Several House Republicans killed that effort last year and are still opposed.

Democrats normally would have 14 votes, leaving Fann to only wrangle six votes out of her 16 GOP caucus members. But Democratic Sen. Juan Mendez has been out on family leave after his wife, Rep. Athena Salmon, gave birth to the couple’s first child in January.

The school spending cap was enacted in 1980 as part of a wave of proposed laws the Legislature asked voters to approve to limit taxes and government spending. It is adjusted each year to take into account inflation and the number of students who are enrolled,

That enrollment figure is based on the previous years’ attendance, and last year enrollment dipped precipitously as parents pulled their kids out of school because of COVID-19. A special sales tax dedicated to schools is also being counted under the cap for the first time because the Legislature extended vote-approved Proposition 301 but for the first time allowed its spending to be counted.

Democratic Rep. Jennifer Pawlik of Chandler said it has been frustrating to see educators and parents grow increasingly anxious as they waited for lawmakers to act on the cap.

“The override is a temporary fix that will allow schools to spend the money they have already been allocated. They have not done anything wrong, and they certainly have not overspent their budgets,” Pawlik said. “I’m grateful that the students’ learning won’t be interrupted due to widespread school closures.”

Bowers got a dig in on Democrats who had been loudly calling for the override vote and unanimously backed the measure, noting none of them voted for the current year’s state budget that included $5.1 billion for K-12 schools.

“It is a need, we have appropriated the money, and it’s wonderful that the Republicans in this audience were the ones who did appropriate the money,” Bowers said., “Only the Republicans.”

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.