District 26 Reps. Nancy Young Wright and Vic Williams listened to the concerns of parents and educators, and offered opinions and assurances about state budget shortfalls and education funding at a Thursday night forum.
Young Wright, a Democrat and former school board member, and Williams, a Republican, each vowed to work toward bipartisan resolution of Arizona’s budget shortfall, pegged by Williams near $3 billion for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
“Democrats are trying to come up with ideas to work with Republicans,” Young Wright said at the forum, arranged by the Concerned Arizona Residents for Education. “We may not agree with their ideas, but I don’t question their motives.”
“We’re going to have to agree in a bipartisan measure,” said Williams, particularly if tax increases requiring a two-thirds majority vote are part of a solution.
“As Republicans, we’re willing to take a look at tax hikes, but we need the Democrats” to look at budget cuts, he said.
In asking for a $1 billion tax increase last week, newly appointed Republican Gov. Jan Brewer is asking Republicans to do “things that are not within our normal sphere of political ideology,” Williams said. If Republicans are going to increase taxes, “we would look to Nancy’s party to continue to reduce spending,” he continued. “We’re going to have to compromise.”
A sales tax increase “is not something I would personally support,” Young Wright said. “We already have very high sales taxes. It hits the working poor at a much higher rate, more so than the property equalization tax. That’s not that big an impact for homeowners, but it is a big increase for large businesses.”
The statewide county education equalization property tax, suspended by the Legislature three years ago, would generate an estimated $250 million a year if it is allowed to resume. Young Wright called on tax-paying opponents of the equalization tax to “step forward and stop pushing” against its reinstatement. The Wilson School crowd applauded.
Williams believes the state’s property tax structure is “anti-business.” Still, he said, “we want to look at in a package.”
“I’m not a big fan of sales tax,” Williams said later. “I will keep an open mind, I will be flexible, and I will compromise. I’m a proponent of anything that’s going to move us forward as a state.”
Several people in the crowd spoke about information distributed to parents in a Feb. 17 letter by Amphitheater School District Superintendent Dr. Vicki Balentine, who wrote that suggested cuts of 20 percent for the fiscal year beginning July 1 would result “in the loss of at least 200 jobs in our district.
“I do not exaggerate to tell you that this would be catastrophic for our schools and community,” Balentine wrote.
Amphitheater schools employ about 2,000 people, according to spokesman Todd Jaeger.
“There is no intent of forcing school districts to lay off 200 employees,” Williams assured the audience. “That will not happen, that will not happen. There is no budget proposal out, in the House or Senate, that would cut education spending by those numbers.”
“That’s all that’s come out,” said teacher Rhonda Ball. “We haven’t seen anything different. The districts have to start working with something.”
“A lot of this information has been a moving target,” Williams said. “It’s changing day to day.”
Young Wright was disappointed that current year cuts were voted upon at 2 a.m. before the Super Bowl. She said Democrats attempted to push amendments from the floor, among them keeping the equalization property tax, using federal stimulus money to balance the budget, short-term borrowing, and giving state employees the opportunity to pay more toward their retirement and health insurance benefits. All failed.
“We had to fix a budget that was seven months in place, a budget … that was going in debt since the day it was passed,” Williams said. “The things Nancy talked about were very last-minute, very scripted.”
Young Wright criticized school tax credits, saying they take away $90 million “that could have gone to public education. I support private education, but public education is supposed to be there” for everyone.
She in particular urged people not to allow the Legislature access to “voter-protected funds,” monies directed to specific uses by voter initiative.
“It’s very dangerous to allow us to have access to those funds,” Young Wright said. “I’m sorry to say this, but do not trust us for those funds. Do not trust us. It’s your money.”
Williams said it would be “2-3 months to craft this budget,” with “a lot of negotiations” ahead. “We’re all going to have to make sacrifices,” he said. “I’m here to look towards reasonable solutions.”
“Something has to give,” Young Wright said. “We all agree something has to give.”