School districts nervously eye state cap on spending

GOP lawmakers tell schools to be patient, don’t worry about cuts

By Mary Jo Pitzl || Arizona Republic 

Republicans in the Arizona Legislature have two messages about a controversial spending cap on schools that could lead to big budget cuts in a few months.

First, they say they will get it done. Second, they are not in a hurry.

“Hear us now: Schools will not lose out on the money we have allocated for them,” House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, said in a videotaped statement Monday, with his Senate counterpart, Sonny Borrelli, nodding in agreement. “We will address this. But we will not rush the process.”

For a second year, Arizona’s district schools are watching nervously as a March 1 deadline looms. The combined spending plans of Arizona’s school districts exceed a constitutional limit that was set more than 40 years ago, and March 1 is D-Day: Schools will have to cut their budgets by 17% in the final two months of the school year unless a bipartisan supermajority of lawmakers waives the limit.

That vote came at the 11th hour last year as Republicans hemmed and hawed, while Democrats pressed for quick action. Both parties will have to provide votes for the measure to pass.

This year, despite the GOP leaders’ early statement of support, there is skepticism that Republicans might want to tie their vote for the waiver to other bills that Democrats would find hard to support.

There’s good reason for lawmakers to raise the limit: They voted in overwhelming numbers last summer to boost school spending, including the addition of $1.2 billion to the formula that provides basic school aid. But that boost pushed the schools past the limit, to the tune of $1.3 billion.

Former Gov. Doug Ducey told lawmakers he would call a special session in late 2022 to raise what is formally called the Aggregate Expenditure Limit. But that plan collapsed as lawmakers and Ducey piled on other requirements for the session.

So school districts find themselves in basically the same situation as a year ago: a will-they-or-won’t-they game of waiting for lawmakers to act.

House Speaker Ben Toma, when asked last week about the prospects of raising the limit, characterized it as inevitable.

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January 2023