In the face of a nearly billion-dollar budget surplus, spending on Arizona students would return to 2001 levels in the coming year under the budget proposal that Gov. Doug Ducey released Friday, with projections to exceed the high-water mark of 2008 next year, when inflation is taken into account.
Money for public schools represents nearly half of Ducey’s new spending initiatives, which total $776 million.
Even though the proposed spending level represents what students received two decades ago, a top gubernatorial aide said the per-student funding has continued to rise since 2015, when Ducey took office. The state now spends nearly $1,300 more per student, when adjusted for inflation, and student spending is on track to increase for each of the next three years.
“We do think you can’t deny the real investment that’s been made,” said Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s chief of staff. “We’re moving the needle.”
In all, Ducey proposes increasing K-12 spending by more than $600 million in the fiscal year 2021, though only $288 million of that represents spending that isn’t already part of the state’s budget plan.
In all, Ducey calls on spending $12.3 billion in 2021. That would be the largest budget in state history, and would represent a nearly 6% increase in spending over the current $11.8 billion spending plan.
In addition to public education, the governor is calling for increased spending on public safety, government operations, natural resources and health and welfare programs.
The governor’s plan would leave $164 million of the budget surplus unspent, in addition to the more than $1 billion that is in the state’s rainy day fund.
Ducey’s budget includes the final $175 million installment of the 20×2020 teacher pay raise plan that he championed in 2018 after tens of thousands of teachers walked out of classrooms and descended on the state Capitol to advocate for better pay.
It also includes $145 million to account for inflation and enrollment growth in Arizona schools.
The bulk of the new spending is an acceleration of a planned restoration of budget cuts made a decade ago, as the state grappled with billions of dollars in budget deficits. Many of those cuts came from what is known as “district additional assistance,” which schools can use for a variety of things, including textbooks and computers.
Previous budgets had already called for that pot of money to be restored by 2023, and the state was expected to spend $236 million this year. Ducey wants to fully fund the additional assistance, to the tune of $136 million in new spending in 2021.
Another $44 million would go to create what Ducey’s administration is calling “Project Rocket.” The initiative would allow all of the state’s failing schools, and many of its underperforming schools, to receive grant funding. Schools that participate would receive an additional $150 per student.
The governor’s office estimates that 554 of the state’s roughly 2,000 district and charter schools would be eligible for Project Rocket. The $44 million would allow for the increased funding for about 293,000 students in Arizona. Many of the schools that would qualify for Project Rocket are in impoverished areas and predominantly serve non-white students.
Another $35 million would go to schools that are performing well. Awards under the results-based funding range from $225 to $400 per student.
Scarpinato said additional funding is important for the schools that qualify for Project Rocket, but he stressed that leadership is an essential piece of the puzzle in turning school performance around.
“More resources with the right school leaders who are committed to results can have a huge impact,” he said.
Ducey’s office did not explain why students at struggling or failing schools should receive less new funding than students at schools that are already excelling. Patrick Ptak, the governor’s spokesman, said the Project Rocket schools will get only $150 because that is “consistent with levels provided to schools that participated in the pilot program and produced successful results.”
Beginning in 2015, three West Valley school districts received extra funding from Ducey’s office to pioneer the program.
Ptak said the goal is that failing schools use the lower supplemental from Project Rocket as a springboard to be able to earn larger bonuses under the results-based scheme.
“This funding puts these schools on a path toward receiving results-based funding, helping produce positive results and outcomes for the long-term,” he said.
Other new K-12 spending would provide safety grants to schools for counselors or police officers on campus. Ducey also proposes spending more money on school maintenance and building new schools.
Correctional officers got a 10% pay raise last year, and Ducey wants to increase their salaries by another 5% this year to combat a staffing crisis in Arizona prisons. The governor is also proposing creating a new rank for correctional officers – corporal – that will serve as an intermediary step between rank-and-file officers and supervisors.
Prisons would also receive $75 million for maintenance issues under Ducey’s proposal. Nearly two-thirds of that, about $48 million, would go toward urgent and critical needs, including replacing faulty locks at Lewis Prison and replacing air conditioning systems that have failed.
Ducey also wants to spend $8 million from the state’s medical marijuana fund to provide services to prisoners with substance abuse problems. Even though 78% of inmates enter Arizona prisons with a history of substance abuse, less than 4% receive treatment.
The governor is calling for $5 million to expand substance abuse counseling in prisons and $1 million to hire “employment specialists” to help those convicted of drug possession find work when they are released. And another $2 million would go to create a loan repayment program to entice substance abuse counselors to work in the prison system.
One thing Ducey’s budget proposal doesn’t consider is reforms to Arizona’s sentencing laws. Scarpinato said that the governor’s focus continues to be on reducing recidivism – which decreases the number of people imprisoned – and not on giving judges more discretion over who gets sent to prison and for how long.
But Scarpinato left the door open for Ducey to consider other changes.
“It doesn’t mean we can’t also have a discussion … about other reforms,” he said.
Substance abuse treatment
The governor also wants to tap into the medical marijuana fund to spend $6 million to fund substance abuse treatment for uninsured Arizonans. Lawmakers in 2018 spent $10 million from the state’s general fund for treatment as part of the Opioid Epidemic Act, but that money will run out this year.
Ducey’s office said that 18,000 Arizonans would receive treatment under the $6 million proposal.
The marijuana fund, which was created by voters in 2010 when they approved medical marijuana use in the state, houses money paid by marijuana cardholders and is used to pay for the government to regulate and police the industry.
However, the annual fees from marijuana users have far outpaced the regulatory costs, and the fund has swelled to roughly $80 million.
Money in the fund can’t be spent easily by the legislature because of the state constitution’s Voter Protection Act, which requires that changes to voter-approved measures both further the intent of the voters and receive three-fourths supermajority support in the state House of Representatives and Senate.
In 2018, Attorney General Mark Brnovich issued a formal opinion that lawmakers could divert excess money in the marijuana fund to programs to help people with drug addictions.
The governor’s budget includes $488 million for the Department of Public Safety, including the purchase of 1,267 body worn cameras for troopers in the state.
Up to 20 additional people will need to be hired to maintain the equipment and manage the video that the cameras record. It will cost an estimated $1.6 million to place body-worn cameras on every trooper.
However, cameras are not the only equipment troopers are expecting to get.
The budget calls for new helicopters over the course of the next five years to replace the agencies aging helicopter fleet.
DPS has five helicopters. Its oldest helicopter is 20 years old and has more than 8,200 flight hours. The industry standard for helicopter replacement is 10 years or 10,000 flight hours, whichever occurs first.
The budget appropriates funds to purchase one helicopter outright and lease-purchase a second helicopter for a period of two years at a 3% annual interest rate of $5.5 million a year.
The one-time cost for this year’s budget for the aircraft will be $10.5 million, and Ducey’s office plans to replace the rest of the fleet by 2026.
DPS has other aircraft, as well, such as fixed wing assets used for surveillance and transport, but the helicopters are mostly used for search and rescue missions and aiding law enforcement in rural areas.
Troopers’ vehicles will also be getting replaced under the new budget, with funds for 402 new vehicles for the agency.
Ducey’s budget also calls for DPS to get “active shooter” equipment that would provide the agency with “rifle-resistant” helmets and vests.
Ducey is further aiming to tackle drunk driving in the state by hiring six more troopers to patrol Maricopa County between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. as part of a “Night Watch” team that would be specially trained in recognizing intoxicated drivers. The new positions will cost $1.6 million.
The budget additionally creates a DUI task force, which would require nine full-time positions that would “develop and implement best practices and recommendations regarding wrong-way driving prevention as it relates to liquor-licensed establishments.”