A bipartisan group of lawmakers and school officials on Thursday said Gov. Doug Ducey would be breaking a promise if he fails to call a special session to allow public schools to spend the money he approved earlier this year.
It’s the latest in a series of pleas to raise the spending cap imposed by the state’s aggregate expenditure limit, which will force a 17% cut in school budgets unless lawmakers act.
“Governor, we need you to show up and keep your promise,” said Mike Wright, former superintendent of the Blue Ridge Unified School District in northeastern Arizona.
Although lawmakers approved, and Ducey signed, a state budget that added an historic $1 billion boost to K-12 funding, the money put the combined school district budgets over a constitutional spending cap. This is the second year in a row when school spending exceeds that limit, leaving schools with two alternatives: cut budgets or muster the votes to waive the cap.
Lawmakers said they had a promise in July from Ducey’s office that he would call a special session late in the year to waive the spending cap.
But with one month left in his term, the issue is at an apparent standstill. Thursday’s news conference was a pointed push to get the governor to act. The governor, in response, said he is working with lawmakers to allow the schools to spend the money they were allocated.
State Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa and chair of the House Education Committee, noted Ducey has been highlighting the promises he has kept since being elected in 2014. Waiving the spending cap is one more promise that needs fulfilling, she said. If not, the consequences could be dire: from staff layoffs to premature ends to the school year, which would further exacerbate learning loss suffered during the pandemic.
Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, played a key role in negotiating a bipartisan budget that ushered in the big hike in school spending. He said Democrats would not have agreed to sign off on the budget without the guarantee he said he got from Katie Ratlief, the governor’s deputy chief of staff, to fix the spending jam in a later special session.
“His legacy will be diminished if he fails to uphold his promise,” Bowie said.
He and Udall said they gave the governor the list of lawmakers who would vote to raise the spending cap in October and have reconfirmed their commitments even after some of them lost in their reelection bids.
Udall acknowledged that some of the lawmakers may want to address other issues in a special session but said all were committed to voting “yes” on waiving the spending cap. She declined to release the list, saying it was compiled for the governor’s use.
A statement from the Governor’s Office said Ducey was discussing the issue with lawmakers, which seemed to undermine Udall and Bowie’s assertion they had the support to lift the cap.
“Governor Ducey’s budget contains significant new investments in K-12 education,” the statement read. “He would like schools to receive those dollars.”
This is the second time in a year that school spending has bumped up against the expenditure limit. Earlier this year, after weeks of prolonged drama, lawmakers mustered the needed two-thirds vote to raise the cap. That allowed schools to avoid a 16% budget cut with only months left in the school year.
Voters approved the spending limit more than 40 years ago, and critics say the cap needs to be removed − something that only can happen if voters approve a change to the state Constitution. Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs has indicated support for such a move.
The limit only applies to school districts. Charter schools, which are also publicly funded, did not exist when the cap was created.