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Gov. Ducey unveils state budget proposal for upcoming fiscal year

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool, File)

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey on Friday unveiled his state budget proposal for the upcoming year with a heavy focus on tax cuts and education as Arizona continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

The $12.6 billion proposal for the budget year that starts July 1 includes $200 million in cuts to the state income tax that would rise to $600 million in the third year — the year he leaves office.

“Arizona is resilient, and we continue to move forward in the face of hardship, loss and disruption,” Ducey said in a press release. “Our budget will keep us moving in the right direction, and it makes strategic investments in our greatest areas of need — K-12 education, forestry management, public health and much more.”

The cuts would shave nearly 4% off of state income tax revenues in the first year, which are projected to be in excess of $5.4 billion this year. At that rate, the tax cut exceeds 10% of revenues by the time it is fully phased in.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego in an email statement criticized Ducey’s proposed tax cut, saying the $600 million yearly tax cut translates to a potential $25 million reduction to the city.

“The governor’s budget proposal is shortsighted and does tremendous damage to Arizona cities like Phoenix,” she said. “That kind of reduction will be felt first and most profoundly by our police and fire departments.”

Ducey Chief of Staff Daniel Scarpinato said exactly how the tax cut the Republican governor is proposing will be structured is subject to negotiations with the Legislature. Still, he wants it to affect all Arizona taxpayers.

“What we’re looking at is how to bring the rates down, how to make it more simple, how to make sure that as many — if not all — taxpayers see a reduction in their income tax,” Scarpinato said in a budget briefing with reporters.

The governor’s budget plan will funnel $389 million saved from lower school enrollment into summer school, one-on-one tutoring and other programs designed to get mainly younger and poorer students back on track. The programs he is proposing include funding to send about half the state’s students to summer school for 50 hours and a smaller number of students in grades K-3, 8 and 11 to 80 hours of class.

Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state Kathy Hoffman appreciated the governor’s investments targeted at increasing early literacy, internet access, adult education programs and Arizona’s teacher’s academy but thought he missed the mark on one of the state’s largest public education problems.

Hoffman said public schools in Arizona are lacking sustained investment from the state and Ducey’s budget should provide stability for schools by committing to increased and sustainable investments in the public education system.

“What our students need most are fully funded public schools equipped to meet their unique needs,” Hoffman said in the statement.

“Public schools need sustainable, predictable operational funding to recruit and retain highly qualified educators and staff, support their students’ mental health and bridge the opportunity gap for every student in our state.”

Arizona traditional public K-12 schools have lost an estimated 48,000 students since the pandemic hit, while charter schools, many that remained open to in-person learning, have gained more than 14,000 kids, according to the Department of Education.

Ducey’s budget proposal contains a raft of other budget priorities, including a new $10 million program to help charter schools pay for new transportation options and advertising designed to entice parents from their neighborhood traditional public schools to charter schools.

Ducey’s proposed tax cut follows the approval by voters in November of an income tax increase for the state’s top earners, which is expected to generate about $900 million a year for schools. The measure arose from a revolt by teachers over Ducey and the GOP-controlled Legislature prioritizing tax cuts over school funding.

“We do have record revenue, and so the dollars are going to be spent somehow,” Scarpinato said. “If not for tax reform, they would go towards other initiatives. The governor believes that people deserve to keep their money.”

Ducey ran twice on a pledge to cut taxes every year he’s in office and to try to push income tax rates as close to zero as possible.

Arizona’s finances have weathered the pandemic relatively unscathed, leaving the governor and lawmakers with a surplus that Ducey pegs at more than $1 billion. The state’s rainy day budget reserve fund has nearly $1 billion.

His proposed $12.6 billion budget is up from the roughly $12.3 billion that was proposed for the current year, which was stripped down to $11.8 billion when the pandemic hit.

Ducey’s plan would also spend $54 million to help catch up state prison repairs that have been delayed for years, and $18 million to transfer 2,700 inmates to private prisons. That would allow the closure of a state-run facility in Florence and significantly increase the nearly 8,600 private prison beds the state has on contract.

The governor’s spending plan also includes money for forest thinning to prevent wildfires, state police body cameras and radio towers, and expanded broadband internet to rural areas.

The budget proposal serves as a starting point for negotiations with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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