Three key members of Arizona’s House and Senate education committees said healthcare, economic recovery and education are their top priorities during a roundtable at a Nov. 8 workshop hosted by three of Arizona’s leading education organizations.
Rep. Eric Meyer (D-28) told 280 members of the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Administrators that his number one priority is to ensure last year’s Medicaid match funding stays in place, otherwise, money that could go toward education would fund healthcare.
“(Last session,) we passed legislation to give over 300,000 Arizonans health insurance coverage,” said Dr. Meyer, ranking member of the House education committee. “Because we worked together, this also was the largest increase in education that we’ve had in six years.”
The Arizona Legislature approved Gov. Jan Brewer’s Medicaid Restoration Plan to collect an assessment on hospitals to fund nonfederal costs incurred for the Prop. 204 expansion of the Medicare eligible population starting Jan. 1, 2014. The assessment supplements money in the Prop. 204 protection account and Arizona tobacco litigation settlement fund.
The assessment will generate $256 million a year eligible for a 10 to 1 federal match, bringing $2 billion into Arizona’s economy and saving $100 million in the general fund from fiscal year 2014-16 for other needs.
“The decision the governor put forth on Medicare was the most fiscally responsible decision we could have done for the State of Arizona,” said Rep. Heather Carter (R-15), House education committee member. “Without this fiscal solution for our general fund problem, we were not going to be in the same position we are in today.”
Though there is a $450 million surplus in the general fund and money in the rainy day fund, requests from state agencies “exceed the money we have to spend,” Meyer said.
Increasing funds for education is Meyer’s second priority.
“I’d like to get more than the inflation factor, because we’re just treading water,” Meyer said.
After that, Meyer would like to re-focus education spending on local neighborhood schools and reduce spending on for-profit online schools.
“We’re losing valuable dollars, in many cases, to corporations who aren’t educating students appropriately,” Meyer said. “Then they (students) come back to our districts, take tests and we’re held accountable for them. It doesn’t seem fair.”
Carter said her top education priorities are to address inequitable school funding, make sure reforms related to Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards stay in place, consider funding the assessment aligned to the standards “so we can still have a robust accountability system” and capital funding issues to maintain school buildings taxpayers already funded.
“Those are going to be the things we are talking about this year that none of us will get out of the session without addressing,” Carter said.
The legislators agreed that more progress toward economic recovery is needed to achieve their education priorities.
“If our state is not on fiscal solid ground, nothing matters,” Carter said. “All things have to be moving in the same direction to make sure we’re setting up Arizona as one of the most prosperous states. I think we’re on that track. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done, but our work is not over.”
Bipartisan support will be necessary to “coming up with some common sense solutions” in the session ahead, Carter said.
Finding innovative ways to create more good jobs and attracting more “companies to bring green industries to our state is another priority,” said Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor (D-27), ranking member of the Senate education committee, noting that education is part of that.
“If our state is going to grow in any kind of way, shape or fashion, we have to have a good education system. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” Landrum Taylor said. “We’re hearing from our core base of companies that sometimes it’s an impediment to coming here, because our educational system is not where it needs to be.”