Arizona Democratic leaders pan budget plan for lack of school voucher cap

May 9, 2023, 3:00 PM | Updated: 4:08 pm

(Facebook Photo/Arizona State Capitol Building)...

(Facebook Photo/Arizona State Capitol Building)

(Facebook Photo/Arizona State Capitol Building)

PHOENIX — Democratic leaders in the Arizona Legislature aren’t satisfied with the budget bills introduced Monday after months of bipartisan negotiations, especially the lack of action to limit the financial impact of last year’s universal school voucher expansion.

Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein and House Minority Leader Andrés Cano released a statement Tuesday saying spiraling Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) costs limit the state’s ability to fund to fund priorities such as education, housing, homelessness and water supply.

Under the ESA expansion passed by Republican lawmakers and signed by then-Gov. Doug Ducey last year, any Arizona family that opts out of the public school system can receive about $6,500 per student to cover private school tuition and other educational expenses.

The original estimated financial impact over the first three years in total was $223.3 million, but Epstein and Cano said projections are already up $600 million just through June 2024.

“Our caucus is committed to three things: (1) Delivering a budget negotiated in good faith that invests in our state’s long-term success in a realistic timeline; (2) Creating a funding structure that protects the ongoing needs of our most dedicated public servants; and (3) Avoiding bankrupting the state with responsible limits on the Republican voucher expansion,” their statement says.

“We continue to work to ensure these priorities cross the finish line and have made tremendous progress over the past several weeks that is reflected in the current bills. But we have also proposed solutions to create a management trigger or at least get a handle on the dangerous exponential growth of ESA vouchers. Those negotiations should continue, not a rushed process and unfinished plan.”

On Monday, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs told reporters the bills were the product of give and take between negotiators on both sides of the aisle.

“We are going to have to give some things up,” she said. “The Republicans are going to have to give some things up, and I think you’ll see that in the bills.”

Hobbs didn’t get into details about what compromises were made, and it’s not clear whether she would sign the current version of the budget if the GOP-led Legislature passes it.

She vetoed a $15.8 million continuation budget sent to her in February, calling it a “partisan exercise.” But the spending bills introduced Monday were the result of months of bipartisan negotiations.

Lawmakers will have until July 1 to pass a budget that Hobbs will sign or face a government shutdown.

Last year, the Legislature didn’t pass a spending plan until June 23. Ducey signed the $18 billion package on June 28.

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Arizona Democratic leaders pan budget plan for lack of school voucher cap