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Even More Tax Money For Public Schools!

Tax-surplus debate begins in earnest

Senator request that future overflow go to education

by Mary Jo Pitzl - Jul. 14, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

State Sen. Kyrsten Sinema has fired the opening salvo in what is expected to be the next big budget battle: What to do with extra money.

On Wednesday, Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat, walked petitions with more than 1,000 signatures to Gov. Jan Brewer's office, asking the governor to direct any money the state collects above revenue projections to public education.

"What we're asking Gov. Brewer to do is make this (education) her priority," Sinema said of extra cash coming the state's way.

Despite a still-sagging economy (unemployment in Arizona is 9.1 percent), the state has been collecting more tax money than budget officials forecast. General revenue is up $275.1 million over projections for the first 11 months of fiscal 2011, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Final numbers for the last month of the fiscal year, which ended June 30, are due later this month.

At a news conference, Sinema said she gathered the signatures on her Fund Our Schools First petitions through e-mail appeals, but now will rely on social media to expand her reach. She directed supporters to go to "Postcard Petitions," an application available through Facebook that will send paper postcards to Brewer with the same fund-the-schools message.

Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson called the petitions a "gimmick" and said the state had many competing needs for any extra money. Those range from public safety and health to debt reduction and saving money to guard against future downfalls. Brewer will weigh all of them as she works on next year's budget.

"There's not a strict formula, but debt reduction is at the top of the list," Benson said. "Getting the state's fiscal house in order is job one."

However, he emphasized that "education is, and will continue to be, a priority of the governor."

If tax collections continue this trend, expect 90 different ideas from the 90 lawmakers when they convene in January.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said excess collections should be put in a "hurricane lockbox" for the day when the state loses the $1 billion a year in revenue from the temporary sales tax. The 1-cent-per-dollar tax hike expires in May 2013.

State Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, said the state needed to pay down its debt, which has ballooned to nearly $4 billion in recent years.

That was fueled by the sale and leaseback of state buildings - including the Capitol offices - as well as borrowing against state Lottery proceeds, actions lawmakers took in 2010.

Sinema's campaign is poised to make education a flash point. She argues education stands to lose the most when the temporary sales tax lapses, so allocating excess collections to K-12, community colleges and universities will buffer them from a steep fall off what is called the "fiscal cliff."

"We must put all the money we have into education because that is where the cliff will occur," Sinema said.

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