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Tim Steller's opinion: Lawmakers prioritize wealthy over problem-solving
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Tim Steller's opinion: Lawmakers prioritize wealthy over problem-solving

Tim Steller

Tim Steller

Arizona must have all its problems figured out.

How else can we explain the Legislature appropriating $5 million for horse-racing purses and track maintenance?

That’s the priority of a state with everything going right, right?

Actually, no. In the session winding to a close, members of the House and Senate had the opportunity to address or even solve problems that have been plaguing Arizona for decades. The state has a projected ongoing budget surplus of up to $2 billion per year, if we don’t do any major revenue cuts.

This is a dream scenario compared to the many rough years during and after the Great Recession, when we cut funding for pretty much everything and borrowed money to boot.

So we used our flush years to address our big problems, right?

Wrong.

With two budget bills left to go, it appears the state will have about the same problems we had when the session began, but rich people will be a bit richer.

“I see this as a huge, huge missed opportunity,” said David Lujan, head of the Children’s Action Alliance and a former four-term legislator. “To give basically that entire surplus away in the form of tax cuts for the rich is devastating to Arizona and a huge missed opportunity.”

Our crumbling schools are getting some additional funding, finally. That’s good. But it pales in comparison to the amount that the schools have been shorted since the Students First system was established in 1998.

Anyone who has been to Arizona public schools, except in the wealthiest districts, has seen the depressing physical conditions that tell students: You don’t matter.

Students First was supposed to resolve our egregiously unequal funding for repairs and new schools, but the Legislature simply gave it up years ago. The cumulative shortfall since then is $2.5 billion to $3 billion, said Daniel Adelman of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Adelman is leading a lawsuit against the state for its failure to live up to the requirement of a “general and uniform” educational system.

He noted the School Facilities Board, which is required to inspect schools every five years, simply stopped doing that years ago due to inadequate funding.

“One thing they should absolutely be doing this year is giving funding to meet that mandatory requirement to inspect all schools,” he said.

“They’ve got the money to do this. They could put a certain amount of the surplus in an account to bring schools up to standard. If the state is right there really aren’t facilities problems, that money could revert to the general fund.”

Sounds sensible. But we would rather short the schools and pay for the purses.

Or for crisis pregnancy centers. For three years, opponents of abortion rights have tried to get the state to fund the centers that try to convince pregnant women not to get abortions. This year, they finally got an appropriation: $1.5 million for each of the next two years.

That’s expected to go to a ministry called The Human Coalition. The group uses geo-targeting to send ads for the crisis centers to women who make internet search on phrases like “I missed my period,” said Bre Thomas of the Arizona Family Health Partnership.

While the GOP majority included that spending, they rejected Democratic efforts to expand the eligibility requirements for KidsCare, the federal health insurance for children.

As it stands, children in families making up to twice the federal poverty level are eligible for KidsCare in Arizona, and 89% of eligible children are enrolled. The Democrats tried to increase that to 250% of the poverty level, which would provide coverage to another 16,000 or more kids and bringing us closer to competitiveness with states like Alabama, which has a 300% threshold.

It would have cost $7 million to $14 million, but the chairs of the health committees said no. There was plenty of money, obviously, but no will, even though Arizona ranks as one of the worst states for kids without health insurance.

Now, there is plenty of will for other culture-war initiatives, such as dictating to schools how to teach kids and how not to teach them.

For example, GOP legislators want to fine Arizona teachers or schools if they veer into whatever the Legislature considers Critical Race Theory. The members, of course, have no idea what they’re talking about, but have jumped on the social-panic spread in conservative media about this ideology supposedly insinuating itself in our schools.

They also want to mandate teaching about the evils of communism and totalitarianism in public schools.

In other words, they want to mandate that the way other people politicize education is bad, but the way they do it is good.

Still, they don’t want to deal with real-life problems — like housing. Rep. Andrés Cano, of Tucson, proposed a budget amendment that would have added $15 million to the $20 million in the state’shousing trust fund; put $10 million toward rental or mortgage assistance; and put $10 million toward avoiding evictions. Obviously, housing is a massive issue as prices spiral out of reach for many Arizonans of normal means.

Nope, didn’t pass.

But the GOP finally did succeed at wrangling enough votes to pass a massive reduction in income tax rates that will primarily benefit the wealthy. People making less than $100,000 a year might get $100 a year out of it if they’re lucky. People making $500,000 a year or more will make in the tens of thousands more.

Rep. David Cook, the Globe Republican whom I wrote a column about a couple of weeks ago, held out against the cuts until he saw three main changes: Triggers so that the biggest tax cuts only take place when the revenue is available, paying off the state’s debts and holding the cities and towns harmless.

Yeah, those changes made the tax cuts somewhat more responsible, if that’s what you like. But they did not change the priorities.

“They could have done so many things and still have money left over to do a tax cut,” Lujan lamented.

Redistributing money back to the wealthy was the priority. Solving Arizona’s problems was not.

The Arizona Daily Star Opinion team chat with Tony Davis, Star reporter about water conservation, the environment and more.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 520-807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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