The Farley Report from Phoenix #250: 4-27-16

Happy 250th Farley Report!!! Thanks for your loyalty and your perseverance in slogging through all these wordy tomes over the last ten sessions!


It’s time for everyone’s least favorite show of the legislative season, the Budget Follies! Today was the Big Reveal, where the public finally saw all those secret numbers crafted in closed-door budget talks among select members of the legislative majority over the previous few weeks. We picked it apart in Senate Appropriations in a 4.75-hour meeting that stretched into the early evening.

I’ll show you some pieces of the ugly picture after the Farley Report pledge break…

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—> Here are some proposed budget lowlights. If you want to see all the budget analysis straight form the source, go straight to JLBC. Note that this is called the “Senate Budget” because there is no buy-in from the House as yet, for good reason.

> Right up front, education funding is a disaster. See below for details.

> There is $600k for two new Supreme Court Justices for Gov. Ducey’s court-packing scheme. And new probation personnel needed by the courts are only included if they agree to the court-packing. 

> The Koch Brothers’ Economic Freedom Schools get $5 million a year in ongoing funding at UofA and ASU even though the universities did not ask for it. It is singularly ironic that the conservative majority is seeking to give public money to a public university to fund a private program dedicated to eliminating public education. 

The Governor’s Border Strike Force (which law enforcement doesn’t want) gets $42.6 million over the next three years.

There are $26 million in new tax cuts, all of which are corporate breaks and loopholes, such as a “Fine Art” exemption that ensures one-percenters from out of state who buy art at Scottsdale art galleries can avoid paying Arizona sales taxes, while the in-state artists who create the art once again get zero for our Arts Commission. There are also sales tax loopholes for crop-dusters, agricultural feed, propane, and billboards, adding to the heap already in statute that removes more than $12 billion from our state’s revenues annually. We should be paring the current loopholes down, not growing more of these parasitic giveaways.

> More than a half-billion dollars remain in surplus by FY19, but there is no restoration of KidsCare healthcare for 30,000 Arizona kids, even though that costs the state no money. 

The budget was negotiated in secret without even most members of the current majority being informed. Democrats were not informed until after the bills were first read on the floor, so for a couple of days we were reduced to squinting at blurry spy-camera images of spreadsheets. 

—>  This budget is so bad, even Governor Ducey is publicly disowning portions that he personally negotiated! 

Yep, yesterday afternoon the Governor actually told the Arizona Republic that he now supports more money to ease the $31 million hurt that school districts will suffer from the move to Current Year Funding (see below).  This is the cut he enshrined in his own budget that was agreed upon late last week by Ducey, Biggs, and Gowan. 

Gov. Ducey’s spokesperson now says it is a “big priority for the governor that the budget that’s passed include individual schools seeing their budgets go up.” Which is a funny thing to say, considering that the budget he helped write actually CUTS K-12 public schools by $21 million in FY17. 

If Prop 123 passes, schools will receive another $50 million in FY17 from the state general fund, plus another $170 million from the State Land Trust Fund, but if it fails, his budget leaves them with $21 million less than last year. 

Which reinforces our course of action after Prop 123 — regardless of whether it wins or loses, we must unseat the current legislative majority in November, and the current Governor in 2018. We cannot move forward as a state until we jettison leaders who do not commit to investing in public education as their first priority. 

—> What is current-year funding, you may be asking? It is a scheme developed over the last few years by the current majority and the state Department of Education to replace the current method of funding schools based on the number of students enrolled in the previous year and with a new method of funding based on the number of students currently enrolled. 

At first blush, this may seem reasonable. Why not pay for the students actually enrolled? Because budgets are set the previous spring, and budgets cannot be set if a district has no idea how much money will be allotted to them until the following October. For districts with declining enrollment (mostly rural and urban districts) this represents a large financial hit of $31 million, on top of all the cuts they have already absorbed at the hands of this majority over the past eight years. In FY17, TUSD would lose $4.5 million, Amphi would lose $1.5 million, Catalina Foothills would lose $700k, and Flowing Wells would lose just over $1 million.

Additionally, the computer system that will calculate the current-year enrollment and how much funding goes to schools is not ready for prime time  and have not yet been proven to work. This must be eliminated or at least delayed, not included as part of the budget. 

However, the majority’s agreed-upon budget plows on ahead, and in partial recognition of the harm to schools, it provides $15.5 million to the Classroom Site Fund. The problem with this solution is, a) this is half the money needed to hold schools harmless, 2) the classroom site fund is distributed by a prearranged formula that would send that money to all schools, not just the ones losing money, and 3) the computer system is still not ready to work and could create disastrous unforeseen outcomes. 

—> Other education problems include these:

> the underfunding of the District Sponsored Charter Schools, as a way of phasing them out. Last year, the current charter-school-fan majority in the Legislature decided that they didn’t like one particular form of charter school — those that are created and run by public school districts. So they decided to phase them out. But there are lots of dedicated parents at these charter schools, most notably a great group in Vail, who are not going quietly. This budget provides only $600,000 to keep them hanging on, while their full funding should be $2.4 million. 

> Gov. Ducey’s “Achievement Districts”, mentioned in last year’s State of the State as a way to spend state money for buildings at private charter schools, and given $24 million in as yet unspent money to this dubious endeavor, is now rechristened “Public School Credit Enhancement Plan” and given around $100 million in state credit to back up their financing to build new private buildings that would belong to the private charter school company owner if the enterprise goes out of business. How this doesn’t violate the constitutional provision against extending the state’s credit to private companies is hard to grasp, and will surely lead to more lawsuits.  

—> All these education issues (and the strong advocacy on the part of the education community) are actually causing a large group of around 20 House Republicans to refuse to go along with the budget their leadership negotiated. They’ve been run out of too many town halls by angry parents for the cuts they voted for last year. They don’t want to go through that again.

So for now the Senate is plowing ahead with its own version, while the House is stuck in disarray with its majority caucus split down the middle. The Senate budget bills were first read yesterday and second read today and heard in Senate Apropos, but there is no certainty about where the no-longer-agreed-upon budget agreement will go. The House introduced different budget bills tonight. There could be a breakthrough this week, or it could go to next week or beyond. 

Beyond budget, there are hundreds of other bills awaiting final votes — bills that were frozen in place a few weeks ago when Gov. Ducey said he wanted no further bills sent to him before a budget agreement.  Adjournment Sine Die could be a few days away, or weeks. Tune in next week to see what happens! 

—> Finally tonight, I need to wax philosophical for a moment. I want to share with you quotes from a disturbing article I discovered in the most recent Tucson Metro Chamber magazine. Authored by Gov. Ducey, and entitled “Educational Excellence”, it shares what he believes should be the next step to improving education after approving Prop 123: fixing “a woeful disconnect between education and business.” 

Here are a few revealing quotes from the article [emphasis added]: 

“Our universities have some of the finest programs in the country and they are tremendous assets to our state and to their student bodies. However, they’re also not for everyone and that is the key. 

“We can ensure more young people are prepared for the careers they want and were trained for, rather than swimming in student loans with a degree that’s not leading to a job. 

“By shifting our school system’s culture to one that focuses on career guidance, we will … prepare them with the skills to lead successful lives.”

Maybe it’s just me, but the specter of the elimination of liberal arts, creative and passionate academic pursuits, and learning for its own sake — and their replacement with career guidance as a hallmark of a “successful life” — endangers the very foundations of what made the American economy the strongest in the world. Flexibility, creativity, passion, unbounded thinking, and learning how to learn are the most valuable skills we need to acquire in a century that promises to bring the greatest challenges and greatest opportunities the world has ever seen. 

Narrowing the curriculum to career guidance leaves a student vulnerable to the loss of that career to future technological change. I used to work as a typesetter. It’s a darned good thing my education was broad and flexible enough to transition to something else when typesetting disappeared. We may well see fleets of driverless Ubers roaming the streets at our beck and call 15 years from now, but if we don’t figure out how to offer lives of value for those who formerly worked as drivers, our society will be in trouble. Solving that problem — and others like it — is going to take deep creativity from many people.

If we eliminate from our schools the arts, music, sports, social sciences, literature, philosophy, history, and so much more, we eliminate our entrepreneurial edge and our cultural legacy. 

Education is a many-splendored thing, resplendent in its shimmering diversity of possible directions to suit each person who enters. For the sake of ourselves and our society, let’s not strip those colors to shades of grey. 

Thanks for your continuing faith in me as your Senator. 

Steve

Steve Farley

Senator, District 9, Tucson

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