The Arizona Legislature approved an $8.6 billion budget for fiscal 2012-13 on Tuesday, eliciting a mix of reactions.
The budget passed on the strength of large Republican majorities in both houses after nearly four months of negotiations with GOP Gov. Jan Brewer. Democrats were critical, saying the budget unnecessarily saves a big state surplus at the expense of education and other needs.
"We're going to not allow people to get the educational opportunities they need," said Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix. " ... That is not good planning. That's the biggest problem with this budget, lack of planning."
The chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents had a quite different reaction, praising the Legislature for what he called its steps "to reinvest in higher education."
"For the first time in five fiscal years, the Arizona University System will receive new state general fund dollars in support of critical educational programs," Regents chair Rick Myers said in a statement. "Gov. Brewer has been a persistent advocate for higher education throughout the fiscal year 2013 budget negotiations, and the Arizona Board of Regents thanks her for her leadership and support."
The budget includes $15 million to equalize funding among the three universities; the University of Arizona has traditionally received more per student than Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. The UA College of Medicine in Phoenix gets $6 million in the new budget.
Those dollar amounts notwithstanding, Brewer didn't get anywhere near what she sought for increased educational spending. Her compromise with the Legislature put an estimated $76 million more into funding for schools at all levels, compared with the more than $270 million she wanted.
Educational funding has been cut by nearly $1 billion in the last five years in Arizona, including cuts totaling more than $400 million just last year. Still in the new budget it totals $4.8 billion for K-12, community colleges and universities, 56 percent of total state spending.
Brewer had argued that with the state experiencing its first surplus in several years, restoration of some cuts was needed to education, welfare and social programs and prisons.
Republican legislators countered that the state still faces the potential for rough fiscal times ahead, especially with 2013 expiration of the 1-cent education sales tax and the possible implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act. Additionally, they argued, the economy is still sluggish, and revenues could come in lower than current projections.
The Legislature insisted on putting $450 million of the surplus into the state's rainy day fund.
"Thankfully, Arizona's economy is in fact coming back," Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said. "Unfortunately it's not coming back fast enough. ... in '13, we're not cutting; we're increasing spending, but only by a half-percent."
Kavanagh said spending will increase in the following two years for the areas that were cut the most in previous years.
Democrats opposed the big chunk allocaed to the rainy day fund, saying more should be restored to programs from which major cuts have been made over the last four years.
"We haven't even begun to pay our bills yet," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "We are sticking money away without even taking care of the needs of the people of Arizona. ... We have a whole list of items that should be funded. Yet, we decide to put $450 million in a savings account and ignore the needs of the people of Arizona. It's raining in the state of Arizona, folks."
Attempts by Gallardo and fellow Democrats to modify the spending package with a string of amendments were turned back every time by the majority Republicans.