Legislative Update

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Ben Giles from the Arizona Capitol Times will give us the latest news from the State Capitol in our weekly political update.

Steve Goldstein: Good morning. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Steve Goldstein. The legislature locked in a deal on the state budget this week. That means a light at the end the tunnel for sine die. Here with more is Ben Giles with the Arizona Capitol Times. Welcome. What's a few million between friends?

Ben Giles: Friends is a strong word when we're talking about our lawmakers at the capitol, but it was roughly $20, $30 million being haggled over throughout the weekend basically. We came back Monday and a deal had come out of nowhere it seemed. $9.23 billion was agreed on and the Senate passed it, the house passed it into the not so wee hours of Monday night, and all indications are it's a budget Governor Brewer is willing to sign and we can start for wrap up the session now.

Steve Goldstein: Where did the compromise begin, who gave and on what?

Ben Giles: The first real olive branch was last Thursday. You had Governor Brewer and House Speaker Andy Tobin come together with a joint proposal, a good indication the governor was ready for the stalemate to end. They presented it to Senate President Andy Biggs, who was hesitant at first to accept it, but after just a little more give and take, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in a $9.2 billion budget, there was finally a deal reached. We're talking K through 12 funding specifically for district charter schools, talking about university funding as well, $4.5 million to split between Northern Arizona University, the Arizona State University and U of A. We're also talking about finagling of money over CPS, but we have a deal.

Steve Goldstein: The district charter schools was a very controversial issue that caught many of us by surprise. Where is the compromise? How much had been allotted for in the past and how much for the next fiscal year?

Ben Giles: It's not so much allotted in the past. What happened was in fiscal 2014 there were roughly schools who for the first time decided to become district charters. In a search for more funding. A lot of superintendents will tell you that Arizona has not done enough lately to fund K through 12 education, so they are looking for any avenue. They found a completely legal one within Arizona's laws to get a little bit of extra funding out of the state. But lawmakers like Andy Biggs saw that and saw the escalating number of schools converting, public schools to charters, saw how much that was going to cost in the future and saw doom and gloom on the horizon if that was going to keep up. It was about $33 million estimated needed for those 59 schools in fiscal 2015. The final agreed upon figure, $24.5 million for them to operate. But the trick is after the upcoming fiscal year they are either going to have to operate as traditional charter schools outside the K through 12 public funding system or go back to being public schools.

Steve Goldstein: Can we look at that as kicking the can down the road to be faced by the next legislature?

Ben Giles: Not so much. The fact that they were able to agree on funding to even allow the schools to operate, maybe not at the full capacity they wanted to, but certainly there were proposals to not kick the can, just kick them in the teeth this year. Provide no funding at all. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's an issue that's revisited next year. The plan in this budget, we only actually budget for one fiscal year, but we do try to take a look, lawmakers at the capitol, at the next three years. There is no plan for funding in the two years following the next one, but it wouldn't surprise me if there is a push for more funding.

Steve Goldstein: You mentioned the Senate president on district charter schools. He's also not the biggest fan of a lot of increased funding for CPS or whatever the next agency is going to be. What's the next step? How likely are we to see a special session to figure out how much should go towards CPS?

Ben Giles: The governor's office has indicated that's needed and certainly she can call a special session whether the lawmakers want her to or not. That happened last year. But even the leadership in the Senate and house agree this is the likeliest scenario for how to deal with the creation of the new CPS, whatever it's called, the name was actually discussed at a CPS reform work group meeting last Friday, April 4th. They are still trying to decide what to call it. They are getting close. They are drafting legislation because you need to from a legal standpoint sever CPS as we know it from the Department of Economic Security and establish it on its own two feet as an independent agency. That's a massive undertaking. What a lot of lawmakers were discussing as a part of the budget negotiations was how much funding is going to be needed to make sure this agency succeeds, not just in becoming independent but going forward, succeeding in ways that CPS hasn't for decades it seems.

Steve Goldstein: Considering how much momentum there was for the governor's State of the State, emergency funding for CPS, should we be surprised it hasn't moved faster or there are a lot of complex issues involved?

Ben Giles: The CPS issue itself? I think it is a pretty complex issue. I think maybe an artificial deadline set to have legislation ready by May 1st was particularly ambitious given that they want to sever the agency July 1st. It's no easy task just to find where is the infrastructure going to be? What building are we going to put these employees in? Who do we need to hire, who do we need to transition. There's payroll needing to be discussed. A lot of technicalities have to be gone over. That's what they have been working on. Then there's also the more philosophical big picture things to consider about CPS. What do we want the agency mission to be? What do we want it to prioritize and certainly I think if you look at some of the missteps of CPS, particularly with the more than 6,500 uninvestigated reports of abuse and neglect, you're going to see a focus in those areas to make sure that those problems continue to be fixed and then don't pop up again.

Steve Goldstein: Ben very briefly, are you in a betting pool as far as when sine die is?

Ben Giles: I didn't put any money down this year. There is a sine die pool, but a lot of lawmakers are gunning for next Wednesday. If they are able to sine die on Wednesday of next week that would be the shortest session since 1969 and as Senate President Biggs said wouldn't that be an accomplishment? More realistically we'll be here through the end of next week. After that it could be sine die until the governor calls us back to fix CPS.

Steve Goldstein: Hallelujah. Thanks for the conversation.

Ben Giles: Thank you.

Ben Giles:Journalist, Arizona Capitol Times;

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