Governor pledges new approach to improved education funding

Governor Doug Ducey

Governor Doug Ducey

PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey this week promised to present a "better, more thoughtful' plan to put more money into public schools than the one he proposed in June.

Ducey acknowledged he has not gotten legislators to sign off on his proposal to dig into the principal of the state land trust fund for the next decade to raise about $2.2 billion. Both Republican and Democrat legislative leaders each have come back with different alternatives.

What all that means, the governor said, is what he presents to lawmakers when they return to the Capitol will be different.

"We're listening to the concerns around this,' Ducey said. "And I think we'll actually have a better, more thoughtful package going forward.'

The governor even indicated he might divert into new education funding some of the more than $700 million the state has in the bank.

Ducey has run into some opposition -- some of it from his own party -- for his proposal to take more money out of the trust fund for the next decade than the current approximately $100 million a year. The dollars there consist of the earnings from the sale and lease of 10 million acres Arizona got from the federal government when it became a state; about 9.2 million acres remain.

On paper, taking out additional $2.2 billion leaves the trust balance at about $6 billion, slightly larger in 2026 than it is now.

But state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, a Republican like Ducey, said that really is a loss.

By 2026 there will be more children in school. And DeWit said those dollars will be worth less, having been devalued by inflation.

Sticking with the current formula, the trust would grow to more than $9 billion over the same period.

GOP legislative leaders are pushing a modified plan using some current cash, smaller trust withdrawals and convincing voters to divert money from a program for early childhood development, something they have refused to do twice before.

Democrats, by contrast, say there is enough money around to give schools the more than $330 million in additional inflation aid a trial judge has ruled they are owed. The point to the $325 million left over at the end of the last budget year plus another $460 million in the state's "rainy day' fund.

But there are some GOP lawmakers who have questioned the wisdom of more state aid, suggesting schools should not get more state dollars without some way of proving the additional funds will improve the quality of education.

Ducey said he is listening to those concerns. But he disagrees that the current state funding level -- the lowest in the nation -- is sufficient.

"I think there's broad agreement we need more resources and we need reform in K-12 education,' the governor said. "There's no reason we can't do both.'

He said those changes may not be simultaneous, with funding coming first. But Ducey said legislators should vote for the additional funding and trust that he will follow through.

"I think anybody that's looked at my record in public service knows that I'll be about financial responsibility and accountability in addition to more resources,' Ducey said.

The governor's comments on Wednesday are the first real indication that Ducey now knows he can't get the program he wants, at least not as he laid it out.

"We feel confident we're going to be able to do something good,' he said.

"It's just that we'd like to improve it,' the governor said. "So we're having those discussions.'

Ducey declined to detail what modifications he is making in his plan.

"When we're ready, you'll be the first to know,' he said.

He sidestepped questions about how much of the more than $700 million the state has in the bank he's willing to use to boost funding.

"The discussions are part of the total package,' the governor said. But he said the fact the state has money now does not mean it will have extra dollars in the future to sustain the additional state aid.

"What we want to do is make sure we're being responsible and not spending money that won't be there year after year,' Ducey said.

Nor would he say how much of that banked money he was willing to earmark.

"I'm not going to negotiate in the press,' he responded.

"We're talking with legislative leadership, we're talking with educational leaders and champions,' the governor said. "I think we'll have more news for you in a short time.'

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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